Endangered Species: The Crusading Press

By Brian Montopoli

In July of 1963, Newsweek became the first major newsmagazine to put the face of an unknown black American on its cover. The issue, which featured the tagline “The Negro in America,” amounted to an “unspoken editorial,” according to then editor-in-chief Osborn Elliott, and it was filled with coverage “very sympathetic” to the civil rights movement. Four years later, in November of 1967, the magazine ran another civil rights editorial. This one was more explicit: The cover featured a picture of two African-American hands, one open beseechingly and the other closed defiantly, and the tagline “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done.” It was, says Elliott, “the first exercise in openly advocative journalism by Newsweek, or any other major magazine for that matter.” The next year, following the Tet Offensive, the magazine did another advocacy piece, this time on the Vietnam War, calling for de-escalation and eventual withdrawal.

Newsweek’s cover gambles were audacious, and they sparked much discussion and debate in the cautious world of 1960s mainstream journalism. By going beyond just-the-facts-ma’am reporting and venturing into advocacy journalism with a passion, the magazine rode the wave of a civil rights revolution that was to change America. It also caught Newsweek’s competition — Time and U.S. News & World Report, plus the handful of newspapers with a national reach — off-guard, and left them uncertain for years as to how to respond.

It’s hard to imagine a news outlet imbedded in the mainstream doing today what Newsweek did 40 years ago. Aggressive, crusading pieces have all but disappeared from the mainstream press. The press has grown to distrust or to disdain the type of pieces Newsweek ran in the ’60s, with editors, reporters and pundits reticent to risk arguing from outside the bounds of conventional wisdom. Today, in elite circles at least, passion is passé. The raised eyebrow has replaced the racing pulse.

It was not always thus. Before the age of objectivity, the American press was a hotbed of passionate pamphleteers, ranging from Thomas Paine in late eighteenth century right up to Wilbur Storey, the editor of the Chicago Times, who in 1861 bluntly declared that “a newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell.” Nineteenth-century wit Finley Peter Dunne, writing in the voice of a fictional Irishman named Mr. Dooley, reflected the times when he declared that newspapers exist to “comfort th’ afflicted and afflict th’ comfortable.” (What Mr. Dooley might think of journalism that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable is not known.)

We’ve come a long way since then. But the question arises: has it been a long way in the wrong direction?

Liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias, of The American Prospect, provided an insight into the prevailing ethos in April. Writing on his website, he lamented his early take on the war, which he characterized as “Bush is right to say we should invade Iraq, but he’s going about it the wrong way, here is my nuanced wonderfulness.” That take, he said, sounded more intelligent to him at the time than the fervid over-the-top rhetoric coming from antiwar protesters — but in retrospect, it’s painfully clear that it missed the point. Yglesias’ position now is similar to that of many other ostensible liberals, who have launched a veritable orgy of breast-beating over why they supported the war in the first place.

So why did they, exactly? When the administration effectively shifted the parameters of debate in the months before the war, why did mainstream journalists docilely adopt positions that would have been anathema to them a year earlier and have become anathema since? Was a mass self-hypnotism at work? Yglesias blames simple vanity — his desire to seem more enlightened then the protesters — and he’s right, to a degree. But there’s a perhaps more illuminating explanation, and it has something to do with the dominant culture among elites, a culture that deems it flat-out distasteful for people to passionately consider ideas. Elliott says much of what drove Newsweek’s foray into the kind of journalism that broke with traditional practice had something to do with “the consuming passions of the time.” By contrast, “in the past twenty-five years,” writes Jedediah Purdy in his book For Common Things, “politics has gone dead to the imagination. It has ceased being the site of moral and historical drama. It has come to seem petty, tedious, and parochial.”

Some pundits and editors still write with real passion, of course. But few are willing to hold fast to convictions that fall somewhere outside accepted norms. They’re afraid of being marginalized.

And in an ironic age, there isn’t much in the way of social pressure to make them think that marginalization in pursuit of the truth is worthwhile. To elites such as those who dominate the media, writes Purdy, “To speak earnestly about public issues seems perverse: not only naïve, but wrongly or confusedly motivated.” As such, there’s an undercurrent of wariness underlying most opinion journalism, a reticence to get out in front of an issue the way Newsweek did in the 1960s or muckrakers like Ida Tarbell did in the 1930s. Strong opinions on serious issues have become unfashionable; as blogger Atrios pointed out, in the Bush/Gore campaign coverage in 2000, “there was outward hostility not only to the notion that candidates would gain supporters by talking policy seriously … but outward hostility to the notion that policy mattered at all.”

That hostility has meant that crusading outsiders have to pay the price for flaunting the establishment. The endlessly replayed speech by Howard Dean after the Iowa caucuses — which culminated in the now-famous “Dean scream” that helped bring down the candidate — exhibited a passion and excitement that elites have come to consider, in this cynical age, to be a disqualification for high office. Members of the press telegraphed their incredulousness at Dean’s performance on TV screens across America, passing along their disdain for outsized emotions to the American people. When the press’ anti-passion bias collides with a candidate who actually seem excited about his core beliefs, a strange discontinuity ensues — stories begin to appear asking the implicit question, What kind of nut is this guy, anyway — and oh, yeah, isn’t his wife a little weird too, don’t you think?

Dale Maharidge, a visiting professor of journalism at Columbia and former Sacramento Bee reporter, is the Pulitzer prize winning author of Homeland. He says the distaste for passion grows out of an innate risk-aversion on the part of editors and reporters — and it drives him nuts. “My whole career I’ve been fighting this,” he says. “Journalists are terrified of passion, because if you’re passionate you’re accused of having an agenda.”

Plenty of passionate reporters have succeeded, however, by burying accusations of bias in an avalanche of evidence. After their searing series, “America: What Went Wrong?” ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992 and was reprinted in scores of newspapers across the country, Pulitzer prize winners Don Barlett and Jim Steele were attacked by defenders of the economic status quo and accused of “junk journalism” by Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson. Samuelson complained that their work exploring how and why tens of millions of lower-middle-class citizens had been left behind in America “does not seek a balanced picture of the economy — strengths as well as shortcomings.” But critics couldn’t take issue with the hard facts in their work, the statistical evidence that backed up their powerful anecdotes.

The pair has never apologized for being passionate about their work. Indeed, Barlett and Steele have made an entire career — two Pulitzer prizes, two National Magazine Awards, six books — by taking a piece of newly-enacted legislation, or a public policy issue such as tax reform proposal, and asking, “Who gets the short end of the stick here?” It’s not a popular question in the press, and to simply ask and answer it — not with invective, not with supposition, but with meticulous reporting, replete with real-life examples — is to make a big splash.

“For every journalist, there should be some reaction if you see some inequality — if people are being misled,” says Steele, who is working with Barlett on a new book about the business of health care. “A lot of journalists get caught up in the same thing that politicians do — they worry that if they become too outspoken, they become a concern.” But journalists shouldn’t shy away from reporting the truth, he says, even if it exposes them to charges of having an agenda. “There are some things that are debatable and some that aren’t. You can debate whether a [tax] cut can stimulate an economy, but as to what the cut goes to, you can’t debate that.”

Too often, says Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, newspapers tell you what you already know — not what you don’t. “You can get ten daily stories in a row and miss the truth,” he says. “There’s a great value in stepping back and getting some perspective, getting your head out of the daily blur.” Lopez got so sick of his peers’ pack mentality when he was covering the presidential campaign for Time magazine that he got off the press bus and rented a car to follow the action from a distance. “You just have to get through all the bullshit and all the PR and get to the unadulterated truth,” he says.

Most journalists, however, are subject to the human impulse to conform, whether to their peers or to the vacillations of conventional wisdom. That’s not always a bad thing: We wouldn’t want an army of Ann Coulters or Michael Moores dominating the fourth estate. But there are tangible benefits to having journalists show a greater willingness to practice honest, prescriptive journalism, armed with both fervor and solid reporting. Crusades should not automatically be considered anathema to editors.

There is, after all, a limited range of ideas that fall within the parameters of mainstream thought. Those parameters are always shifting, and, sometimes, when they do, legitimate ideas fall outside of them. What if, instead of modifying their positions so that they fall inside the accepted range, journalists — when they feel it necessary — were to stake out marginalized positions? What if they decided not to be held hostage by whatever system of belief happens to prevail at a particular historical moment?

Of course, there’s also the matter of the bottom line. When Newsweek did a “major exploration” of Edwin Walker and the John Birch Society in 1961 that tilted negative, the publisher had to personally assuage angry advertisers threatening to pull their ads. More recently, the specter of lost advertising revenue has surely made media outlets more reluctant to get out in front of issues ranging from war to gay rights. Media consolidation and increasing pressure for outsized profits have meant that fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take risks. After all, when a newspaper is chalking up a 25 percent profit margin and its publisher wants 30 percent, it takes some nerve for a lonely editor to assign, say, three reporters to spend five months and tens of thousands of dollars getting to the bottom of a local injustice. And without supportive editors, reporters are dead in the water. “A lot of editors don’t want the aggravation that controversy produces,” says Steele. “It’s something they feel they don’t need.”

So the bland lead the bland, stopping only to congregate at industry conventions once a year or so, where they munch on canapés and wonder idly why circulation of their publications has fallen steadily for 20 years running — or more.

There are outlets that resist the trend away from passion — including the Los Angeles Times, which has a crusading editor, passionate columnists like Lopez, and reporters producing stories like this one, which points out that, his enormous popularity notwithstanding, new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t much different in his policies than his predecessor. The Times won five Pulitzers last year, and editor John Carroll is about as apolitical as they come — even Carroll’s friends and associates confess they haven’t a clue as to his political leanings. But he’s passionate about sniffing out where the system has gone wrong and assigning reporters to find out why.

Carroll seems to be the exception that proves the rule in an age of editor-slash-executive vice presidents, who seem more interested in their corporate role than in rolling up their sleeves and assigning provocative journalism. Between journalists’ reluctance to seem passionate instead of disengaged and publishers’ nervousness about scaring away advertisers with provocative editorial content, the deck is stacked against most writers and editors who want to push the envelope.

That doesn’t mean, however, that young reporters can’t resist the prevailing cynicism of their culture. “If I ever get to address a group of editors,” says Maharidge, “I’ll tell them its OK to be passionate. I’ll tell them to nurture passion. Don’t beat it down.”

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.