Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

Page 6 of 6

The Role of the Press

How good a job does the press do in covering foreign policy? They obviously are a key element in this puzzle of the images that the American people acquire about the world.

I think we don't do a terribly good job. I should clarify that because I think there is available to the American people a great deal of information, and particularly since development of the satellites, we now can see the poor fellows that have been maimed and killed in Beirut, we can see all that within hours of it having happened. So in that sense there's more information available today than ever before. The New York Times has fewer correspondents abroad than it once did, but I think that's really a function of increased communications. We can move a correspondent from Bonn to the Middle East now so quickly that there's not really that much point in keeping one in the Middle East. I'm speaking generally. So, I think there is a great deal of information available and correspondents, by and large, are good, they're educated in these subjects, they've had experience abroad.

But I think ultimately the press, and I include the broadcast press, is limited in two particular ways. The first of which, and I don't think anything can be done about it, and that is what I call the dailiness of things. I mean, Beirut: we haven't even sorted Beirut before we've got Granada. And if it's not that, it's two other things. There's just a multiplicity of things coming in all the time. We get several million words at The New York Times every day that we might publish in tomorrow's paper. Somebody has to pick and chose among those. We don't publish all that much. But almost before that paper is rolling off the press and on the streets, another million words is rolling in. So the press really is a carrier of bulletins. At best, it's a carrier of information. The next bulletin is coming before the last one is delivered. So we're really very handicapped that way, and yet I don't think anyone would want us to say, "Lets not run anything about Granada until we've fully informed everyone about Beirut, then we'll get to Granada." I don't think anybody would want that, in fact they wouldn't tolerate it. So, it's almost a built-in handicap, dailiness.

The other thing -- I won't say it's worse but I sometimes see the consequences of it as worse -- is that good correspondents, honorable persons, with a pretty good background of their own, still tend to reflect, by and large, what they are told by the people who are involved in the events that they're covering. What you read from our State Department correspondents is basically what they hear from the State Department. Now, we have a great deal more latitude in the press today, to the dismay of some people, but we do have a great deal more latitude for correspondents to bring their own judgments and background experience to these stories. And any good correspondent goes from one to two to three to four sources to try to balance things out as best he can. Or he might call someone in Congress known to be opposed to it. But again, you tend to be reflecting what people with interests in a story want you to think. I think we fall down -- and this is where the smaller, less-widely circulated, more periodical publications do a better job -- in seeking information and ideas and background from people who are not involved in the events. That is, our State Department correspondent, filing on the latest news from Beirut, doesn't really have time to call up Stanley Hoffman at Harvard, or someone comparable here at the University of California, or to seek out any number of other people who may know something about foreign policy in the Middle East. He just doesn't have time to do that. Therefore, we get too much of an infusion into our information of what the government wants us to think on the one hand, and what people who think exactly the opposite want us to think on the other. And not enough of the nuances and gray areas which are extremely important in trying to come to a mature judgment on something.

Let's take a very recent example to tie these threads together of the Cold War, the press, and presidential leadership: the case of the Korean flight [KAL 007]. Are you satisfied with the way the press and your paper handled that event as it unfolded?

No, I'm not. I was getting ready to write an article to that effect, which I was not exactly [able to do] at the time. I would have done it very shortly after the Beirut explosion, then Beirut and Granada sort of overtook that and I haven't got to it yet, but perhaps I will. No, I thought the thing that can be said best about President Reagan on that is that he did not take some extraordinary, irrevocable steps that [would have] made things all that much worse. I thought his rhetoric was pretty bad and got worse as the week went along. And some of the other officials of the government, Mrs. Kirkpatrick notably, were even worse than that.

Now it comes out, we had a story in our paper that was pretty persuasive, to which the government has not reacted at all, in any way, shape, or form. Our intelligence sources, who are not soft on communism, now say that the Soviet pilot didn't know that was a commercial airliner; that as near as they can tell, he was flying below and behind it and didn't see the hump that's characteristic of a 747. Well that makes an enormous difference. All of a sudden, those words like, "murder" and "atrocity," don't apply, if that's the case. It's still a very terrible thing, I don't mean to imply that it's not because he knew there were some people aboard that plane whatever it was, and it's pretty horrendous to think of a modern nation who, having its airspace violated, simply shoots down the violator rather than acting in some other fashion. So I'm not trying to say that the Soviet Union is blameless here, I'm just simply saying that those words like "murder," and "atrocity" don't apply anymore.

Secondly, I don't think it's ever been fully explained exactly what that Korean plane was doing out there. I don't want to make rash charges that I can't prove, and don't even really suspect, of an intelligence mission or something, but to me, I'm just not satisfied with what I've been able to learn from government sources and elsewhere. I'm not satisfied as to the explanation of why that plane was there, and why it was there for so long, and why, apparently, no particular effort was made to get it out. Now maybe there could have been, I don't know. But I think all of that has not been satisfactory. And I think that our government seized on that incident too readily as proof of the "evil empire" and that our position is right, with the consequence, once again, that relations between ourselves and the Soviet Union have been considerable worsened.

Now, I want to be very clear here because otherwise I'll get 10,000 letters, that I'm not saying that the United States is at fault and the Soviet Union is blameless. I'm not saying that. The Soviet Union did the first unpardonable, I think, horrendous deed, which is in shooting down the plane, no question. But I think with all that our own government has made clear ever since, it would have made some sense if the United States had retreated somewhat from the really strong position it took in the weeks following the airliner's crash. But, there again, we come back to that feeling that I discussed earlier, you can't retreat from a position once taken, and if you do, in that view, then people will think you're weak or you've changed your mind, or you won't stand behind your allies, or some such thing.

President Reagan really took no action in response; he was very moderate and so on?

Much to his credit, because that cost him a lot of support in his right-wing base.

But what about the problem of the impact of the images that he conveyed in the way the whole crisis was handled and then reported? By that I mean, that the Soviet Union is a leadership group, if not a people, of sub-human quality. Whereas, in fact, there were obviously other elements involved -- not only what they knew, but apparently the incompetence of their defense systems. If the press didn't help bring out certain elements of the equation, that would give us a different image. The impact of the [Reagan] image played a large role in continuing the Cold War image of the Soviet Union.

Well, I think that's overall true. I would quibble with you a little bit on the press, and not because I'm a defender of the press; I'm not. On the whole, I'm a critic. I think such information that has tended to cast doubt on the original assumption that the Soviets wantonly shot down a civilian aircraft without concern for the lives aboard has come about because the press has assiduously kept pounding away at the intelligence sources and we've published some of that information. In fact we've published quite a comprehensive story in The New York Times. What is interesting is how little that was picked up around the country as far as I know. I can't answer for how many newspapers ran it, but it didn't become a big exposure like the original story. And here again, it's the government. Even as the government told us things off record -- background sources and all that -- the administration and Ronald Reagan have made no effort to correct the original impression. Now, I wish it were true but it's obviously not, people don't always read The New York Times, not everybody does, so they don't necessarily know that. There's been very little about it on television, to my knowledge.

If there were some will to try to get the record as straight as possible and have the public believe the truth, rather than to have the public believe what may be advantageous to someone, what really was required was for President Reagan, or Mrs. Kirkpatrick, or someone who would have made headlines, to speak and say, "Well, our original conception of this is somewhat wrong. It still is pretty bad but not as bad as we thought." And that would have gotten across. The United States has not made any effort to do that, and I think that's a straight example of Cold War reasoning, and an effort to take advantage of that situation, political advantage in the world, rather than make an effort to tell the American people the truth.

To what extent is the press subject to pressures in today's environment that it wasn't, say, twenty years ago when you were covering the Kennedy administration? I'm referring specifically to foreign policy and I think of, for example, the war in Lebanon and the pressures about the fairness of coverage with regard to the Lebanon war when Israel invaded. One also thinks in the context of the Korean Airline flight of the problem of patriotism. So it would seem that the environment is more politicized than it was in that respect. How does the press deal with those pressures?

I think we are certainly under more scrutiny today than we were, and under more criticism, and that's all to the good. I think, however, if I may say so, that that's probably a function of the fact that the press is today taken somewhat more seriously than it was 25 years ago. And I think that's all to the good too, because I think the press is better today. We have more trained reporters, reporters with more independent knowledge of circumstances, as in the Middle East. And they have greater latitude, as I said earlier, to bring their own judgment and their own knowledge into play on these stories. So I think the press is better today, and that's aside from the advances in communications. I think the press is better today, but the very fact that it's better, the very fact that people take it more seriously, means that they are more critical, which they should be, and they scrutinize the press with a more skeptical eye than they did before. I welcome those pressures because that can only make us better in the long run.

As for being more politicized than we were, I have been quietly thinking about doing an article and collecting some material. I'd love to do an article in one of the journalism reviews on the nationalism of the American press, which I think is one of its gravest weaknesses. But, having said that, if you want to see nationalism in the American press, go back to the 1950s, and look at what transpired then in a very different press, a press that was nowhere near as skeptical and as challenging as it is today, a press that did not have, in my judgment, as many qualified men and women at work in it, a press that had nothing like the leeway, in those days of "iron-clad objective journalism" to question authorities, to question sources, to go behind government handouts. I mean, the nationalism that prevailed then was infinitely greater than it is today. And today, and not just because the press was barred from going in there, something like Granada immediately comes under a lot of press questioning right away. How much more that would be the case if something were done against Nicaragua; look at how much introspection and criticism there was about Beirut and what are the marines doing there. I think all of that is much stronger than it would have been 25 years ago. And the innate nationalism of the press, which is still quite distressing, the Korean Airliner incident illustrates it very well, is much less than it was.

Mr. Wicker, thank you very much for joining us today. I'm afraid our time is up, but we certainly appreciate your sharing your reflections on these very important issues.

Thank you.

And thank YOU very much for joining us on this conversation on foreign policy.

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