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 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    

From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Nicer, Sure, But Not Too Much Nicer   

Journalists should lose the cynicism but not revert to the cozy ways of the past.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

"You are as close to me as two is to three."

– the Cardinals,
"The Door is Still Open"



It's asserted so often these ûays that it's become a cliché: Journalists have become too adversarial toward politicians, too quick to attack, too prone to suspect misbehavior and chicanery and hypocrisy and just plain lying. They've left their appropriate residence in the land of skepticism and crossed the border into the nasty terrain of cynicism.

As a result, goes the argument, a growing number of honorable, well-qualified people are opting out of public life, unwilling to subject themselves to the media brutality they must endure there.

£here's no doubt some truth in this. There are occasions when the news media bear an uncomfortable resemblance to prosecuting attorneys, not to mention pit bulls.

So, yes, by all means let's push that pendulum back in the other direction.

But not too far back.

Because this us vs. them attitude didn't come from nowhere. It stems from the epic mendacity of the U.S. government over Vietnam, the Nixon Administration's stonewalling over Watergate.

You want truly cynical, put on your headset and listen to the Nixon tapes. They make the most hard-bitten reporter seem like Mother Teresa.

And as unfortunate as some of today's media excesses are, they pale when compared to behavior that took place back when the pendulum was in a far different place than it is now.

ü was reminded forcefully of this not long ago by a Media Notes column by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post. The piece focused on a number of incidents that have come to light in which journalists functioned as sycophants or advisers or both to presidents of the United States.

Marshall McNeil of Scripps Howard sent a love note to Lyndon B. Johnson proclaiming that the president was "just cuter than a pig" when he appeared on television discussing a postponed railroad strike. "I get prouder of you – damn your ornery hide – day by dYy," wrote McNeil, according to the book "Taking Charge" by historian Michael Beschloss.

òn his much discussed book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," Seymour Hersh writes of columnist Charles Bartlett firing off memos to President John F. Kennedy warning that corruption involving administration members might tarnish Kennedy's legacy.

Such coziness to power is pure poison. Independence and hard-edged, clear-eyed reporting are critical if the press is going to do its job on behalf of the citizenry it is supposed to serve.

The lessons of Vietnam are particularly instructive
in this regard, as William Prochnau's wonderful book, "Once Upon a Distant War," makes clear.

­he Kennedy and Johnson administrations worked overtime to mislead the American people, and de- ceive themselves, about what was really taking place.

ünd what happened when a group of young reporters – David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett – began uncovering the truth? Not only were they attacked and belittled by the government, they also were sniped at by pro-war journalists who blindly hewed to the government line.

That was not a thousand years ago. The truly independent, truly skeptical mindset, the commitment not to be manipulated and used, to tell the truth however unpleasant, was hard won. It should not be taken for granted.

ölash forward to today. While partisan efforts to liken the never-ending Clinton Scandals to Watergate are hopelessly overblown, there are few better examples of the need for an unfettered and way skeptical press than the Clinton Administration.

ühe president is a mas- ter counterpuncher (his vice president isn't too bad, either). When confronted with allegations, as he is so often, Clinton's pattern is to deny all (or as much as is humanly possible) and aim heavy artillery at his accusers. Then, inexorably, drop by drop, the full picture emerges.

It's often not pretty.

Œuch an administration requires a press corps that will not take things on faith, that will dig beneath the surface and sort out the truth.

So by all means contemporary journalism should correct its worst tendencies: the attack dog mode, the presumption of guilt, the smug (yes) cynicism.

But let's not go any further. Let's make sure we don't do anything to jeopardize the vigorous pursuit of truth,
the unwillingness to accept things on faith and the posture of complete independence from the people and institutions we cover.

We don't need to be cynical. But we don't want to be writing any damn love letters to people we cover either.


HE'LL BE MISSED

Kelly Richmond was one of those rare people: both a superb professional and a superb human being.

Richmond started out at the New Mexican in Santa Fe where he triggered congressional hearings with his reporting on safety and environmental problems at Los Alamos.

­ater, while with the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, he coauthored a major series on the state's deregulation and pro-business policies that won several national awards.

But those who knew him respected Richmond as much for who he was as what he did. This was a person with no attitude, no edge, a ready laugh; he was simply a delight to be around.

Richmond, a non-smoker, died in December of lung cancer at age 33. The world will be poorer without him. l