Running the New York Times Metro section kept A.M. Rosenthal, the man who would eventually become the paper’s executive editor, in the office—and his byline out of its pages. But in April 1968, for the first time in more than two years, Rosenthal saw a story that he felt compelled to report on himself: Student activists had shut down Columbia University.
Their takeover of the grounds came amid a national wave of campus protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. And Rosenthal, who often policed what he saw as liberal bias in the Times’ news pages, was on-site as the New York Police Department forcibly removed demonstrators in a violent melee that ended with mass arrests. Rosenthal opened his dispatch from the Columbia president’s ransacked office, immediately making clear whose side he was on.
“My God,” the school administrator cried as he surveyed the damage, according to Rosenthal, “how could human beings do a thing like this.”
The front-page article rankled many at the Times, particularly younger staffers who identified with the students’ aims. It was of a piece with the broader tension in the newsroom as the Times navigated a landscape that feels eerily familiar in 2018: a divided and skeptical public; a new generation of journalists challenging industry norms; and a two-pronged White House campaign to both deceive and discredit the press. Rosenthal’s story on the campus protests pushed the Times—the most prominent newspaper in the country—into the center of the political and social upheaval. Many progressives saw it as a forced attempt to prove the paper’s down-the-middle bona fides.
A similar anxiety percolated within many newspapers as they grappled with how to cover the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate amid rapid changes in how Americans received and consumed the news. As Matthew Pressman details in his new book On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, the competing pressures forced journalists to fundamentally recalibrate their work, reconsidering in turn core values like objectivity. Taken together, Pressman argues, it was a once-in-a-century sea change that both ushered in journalism as it’s understood today and foreshadowed the press corps’ current predicament. “The values that define contemporary American journalism are not timeless,” he notes.
An assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall, Pressman largely traces this evolution through a thumbnail history of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times between 1960 and 1980. Before that period, newspapers largely recounted events in the public square without interpreting their meaning or scrutinizing their own sources of information. It was this hands-off approach—transmitting officialdom’s pronouncements to the masses—that Senator Joe McCarthy co-opted in alleging that communist agents had infiltrated the federal government in the 1950s. Newspapers largely reproduced McCarthy’s accusations verbatim, despite reporters privately doubting their veracity.
“The spectacle of journalists abetting the rise of a man whom most of them considered a demagogue convinced many in the press that American reporting practices were badly broken,” Pressman writes. “But it was the competitive threat from television that prompted newspapers to actively encourage interpretation and analysis instead of just paying it lip service.”
Television could vividly capture events in a way that the written word could not, pushing newspapers to integrate more context and analysis in their work. This was no small change for journalists accustomed to a more stenographic role. Los Angeles Times editor Bill Thomas later reflected on this evolution in a 1973 memo to his publisher: “No longer could a bevy of editors pencil a reporter’s story into an acceptable product, when such a product now requires interpretation, background, and often considerable literary skill.”
The interpretative style called for a new breed of reporters—Seymour Hersh and J. Anthony Lukas among them—who could provide a unique take on events. They also brought with them a skepticism toward power and a desire to elevate the voices of political dissidents, African Americans, and other marginalized groups—to the occasional dismay of lily-white mastheads. As Pressman details, this approach created friction between veteran journalists, whose “idealism manifested itself in a commitment to the lofty goal of objectivity,” and the younger generation, for whom “objectivity seemed like an obstacle to higher ideals, such as truth, justice, and social change.” The latter raised questions of right and wrong and felt increasingly comfortable making moral judgments.
That tension spilled into public view over the course of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, as increasingly adversarial journalists published sometimes shocking revelations of corruption and deception in Washington. President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and other officials responded with a multipronged grievance campaign against media outlets, energizing reactionary white Republicans with arguments that journalists had overstepped their role as neutral observers. At the same time, Pressman writes, progressive activists and media critics became more vocal in calling out the notion of objectivity as its own form of bias—one that favored the establishment.
“Somehow, the attacks from the right do not bother me—they never liked the paper or what it was trying to do,” Rosenthal, by then the Times’ managing editor, wrote in the first entry of a journal he began keeping in 1971. “But the past few years [of] antagonism of the far left—which also never bothered me very much—has spread rightward into the center.”
More to the point, it had spread into his own newsroom. A group of staffers had begun informally meeting the previous year to voice concerns with Rosenthal’s editing—specifically, as his assistant later put it, “whether the Times was doing enough in its role of adversary to the government.” Rosenthal, Pressman writes, viewed these discussions as a rebellion that had to be quelled. Editors and executives at other news outlets, while embracing a more adversarial approach, also called for their journalists to occasionally tap the brakes for fear of losing credibility. Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler went so far as to publicly admonish the press for having “gone bananas following Watergate.”
“We seem to have lost our sense of balance, our sense of proportion,” Chandler said in 1975. “We seem to each day delight in jumping all over any new possible participant in some alleged illegal or unethical or unpopular act.”
Eventually, Pressman notes, this push and pull ushered the press into a long period of stasis as the specters of Vietnam and Watergate began to fade. Debates over objectivity within newsrooms ebbed alongside the political tensions outside of them. What’s more, expansions in suburban coverage and new consumer-focused sections cemented the advertising windfall of newspapers for decades. The eventual financial strength of CNN and USA Today, launched in 1980 and 1982, respectively, further entrenched centrism as a profitable formula.
“With money rolling in,” Pressman writes, “there was no convincing justification for making fundamental changes.”
This complacency left most newspapers playing catch-up to the Internet, a far more consequential technological change than television had been decades earlier. Journalists could instantly reach new audiences around the nation and the world, and those audiences could instantly respond in kind, more often than not drowning out the professionals. The digital revolution has reduced news outlets to a small part of a much more dynamic and confusing media world, not to mention upending the economic model that long supported them. The way journalists did or didn’t respond to this paradigm shift falls mostly outside the purview of Pressman’s book. But he does lay out how today’s media, facing endless charges of bias and waning public trust, now grapples with some of the same questions they faced 50 years ago.
Like its forebears in the days of Vietnam and Watergate, today’s press corps reports on the White House far more aggressively than it did just a few years ago. But look no further than the endless hand-wringing over whether to call out President Trump’s “lies” to see its broader inertia up close. Trump, playing the role of assignment editor through his Twitter feed and campaign rallies, still manically directed the coverage of Central American migrants in the month before the midterm elections. And just a week before Election Day, in a video interview, Axios reporter Jonathan Swan asked Trump about a potential executive order banning birthright citizenship without sufficiently pushing back on its constitutionality or the truthfulness of the president’s arguments. The ensuing public criticism was fierce, and the leaked response from within Axios—one of the most influential outlets in driving conversation among journalists in Washington—was overwhelmingly defensive. “They hate ya cause they ain’t ya,” one staffer wrote to Swan on Slack. Axios co-founder Mike Allen similarly simplified and dismissed the criticism in a bullet-point memo to staffers that mimicked the outlet’s typical fare.
CNN’s recent lawsuit to restore correspondent Jim Acosta’s press credentials may be even more instructive of the emerging posture. The news organization has every reason to sue Trump and his top aides for singling out its reporter; and a federal judge’s order to restore Acosta’s security pass handed CNN a tactical victory. But the broader takeaways are more complex. The president will have yet another reason to lead “CNN sucks” chants at rallies until at least 2020; and Acosta—who, like CNN, portrays himself as the hero in his own story—will presumably be further elevated in the network’s endless Trump content. The access and performative aggressiveness are key to an uneasy symbiosis between the two.
The question we’re all left with—the question that Pressman and the media establishment have failed to answer convincingly—is whether the current political moment calls for more fundamental changes. “News organizations that cede the moral high ground of impartiality make it easier for politicians to depict the press as ‘they,’” Pressman concludes, adding that the ’60s-era news media challenged power while trying to remain apolitical. “That approach served the press remarkably well at the time, and it can provide a model still.”
As Washington Post editor Marty Baron famously said, “We’re not at war; we’re at work.” The sentiment harks back to the wishy-washiness of news executives 50 years ago. Their debates over objectivity in some ways obscured the broader question of whether journalism—be it finding evidence of US Army massacres, government duplicity toward the public, or White House corruption—can be an apolitical act. The lack of a firm answer back then no doubt contributed to the press’s sluggishness today, even when elements of the political system that makes journalism possible are under threat. The added wrinkle is that tech firms like Facebook and Google are now hoovering up the advertising revenue that once enabled journalists to occupy the “moral high ground of impartiality” for the better part of a century. Trump, perhaps the only subject divisive and prolific enough to satisfy the perverse economic incentives of this new media world, has provided a momentary—if uncomfortable—semblance of stability. Once he leaves office, however, the news will remain dire.