150 Years Of The Atlantic September 2007

Media

This is the 18th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary.
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The Job of the Washington Correspondent
January 1960

by Walter Lippmann

In 1960, the columnist and philosopher Walter Lippmann emphasized the magnitude of the task with which those reporting from Washington are entrusted.

In a democracy like ours, it is an awful responsibility to undertake the processing of the raw news so as to make it intelligible and to reveal its significance. It is such a great responsibility, it lends itself so easily to all manner of shenanigans that, when I can bear to think about it, I console myself with the thought that we are only the first generation of newspapermen who have been assigned the job of informing a mass audience about a world that is in a period of such … unprecedented change …

Last summer, while walking in the woods … I found myself daydreaming about how I would … justify the business of being opinionated and of airing opinions regularly several times a week.

“Is it not absurd,” I heard the critic saying, “that anyone should think he knows enough to write so much about so many things? You write about foreign policy. Do you see the cables which pour into the State Department every day from all parts of the world? Do you attend the staff meetings? … ”

In my daydream … I turn upon him and with suitable eloquence declaim an apology for the existence of the Washington correspondent.

“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed, then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. How do they do this?

“They do it by hearing on the radio and reading in the newspapers what the corps of correspondents tell them is going on in Washington, and in the country at large, and in the world. Here, we correspondents perform an essential service … We make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon, to infer, to deduce, to imagine, and to guess what is going on inside, what this meant yesterday, and what it could mean tomorrow.

“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it and to be glad that it is our work.”

Vol. 205, No. 1, pp. 47–49

The Power and the Profits
January 1976

by David Halberstam

In a comprehensive article on changes in the media, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Halberstam commented on the outsize power—and consequent drawbacks—of television as a journalistic medium.

Journalism at its best is a highly personal art, and radio encouraged individualism. The technology of radio was not complicated or expensive; if a correspondent had a story, he simply went on the air …

Television required so much contrivance. It was a team art, involving producers, cameramen, sound men, levels and levels of technicians, all of whom might distort the effect of the individual journalist …

Politically, television was simply too powerful a force, too fast, too immediate, with too large an audience, for the kind of easy journalistic freedom that radio and print reporters had enjoyed … It was as if an unwritten law of American journalism had evolved, stating that the greater the institutional platform, and the more power it has to influence public opinion, the more carefully it must be used and the less it must wander from the accepted norms of American society. It is better to be a little wrong and a little late on a major sensitive story than it is to be too right too far ahead of the rest of the country.

Vol. 237, No. 1, pp. 33–71

Why Americans Hate the Media
February 1996

by James Fallows

In a media landscape increasingly characterized by combative political talk shows and shallow reportage, The Atlantic’s Washington editor, James Fallows, lamented that many journalists were not taking their profession seriously.

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists … ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public’s views much less than they reflect the modern journalist’s belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile …

They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort. The subtle but sure result is a stream of daily messages that the real meaning of public life is the struggle of Bob Dole against Newt Gingrich against Bill Clinton, rather than our collective efforts to solve collective problems …

Even if practiced perfectly, journalism will leave some resentment and bruised feelings in its wake. The justification that journalists can offer for the harm they inevitably inflict is to show, through their actions, their understanding that what they do matters and that it should be done with care.

Vol. 277, No. 2, pp. 45–64

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