CBS Views the Press

As every’ editor knows, the most difficult and sensitive assignment in journalism is to try to criticize the American press. Thus, when the Columbia Broadcasting System had the temerity to put on the air a program which would deliberately scrutinize the reporting and interpretation of New York’s leading newspapers and periodicals, fireworks were bound to follow. “CBS dews the Press” has now been on the air for a year: the pity is that its example has not been followed locally. The program is presented by DON HOLLENBECK, who has worked on newspapers in Omaha and San Francisco, and who served as a radio correspondent in Europe during the war.

by DON HOLLENBECK

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“CBS Views the Press,” a weekly fifteen-minute broadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System’s key station WCBS in New York, has been on the air for more than a year. During that year, in its discussion of how the New York newspapers handle stories ranging from an international crisis to a tie-up in the subway, the program has aroused the sympathetic interest of the public and has won five major radio awards. But what did the press think of this innovation?

“Man-bites-dog act slays N.Y. press; dailies’ reaction big $64 question,” said Variety. “The worm turns,” said the headline over an editorial in Editor & Publisher. The Jamaica (N.Y.) LeaderObserver s editorial said, “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the bean [sic] out of thine own eyes.” Not all of the printed reactions to the premier performance of “CBS Views the Press” had the charm of a typographical error in a misquotation from the sixth chapter of St. Luke, but most of them had that burden.

What man bit what dog? “ CBS Views the Press ” is a cooperative venture, the result of a study by a number of men and women. Three men are assigned to the job almost full time — Joe Wershba, Edmund Scott, and I — but the entire CBS news staff contributes ideas, opinions, and research. There are nine New York daily newspapers to be read; there are in addition the news magazines and other publications when their contents have to do with news. Sometimes the topic for the week dictates itself: the coverage of the national conventions, for instance, or the Hearst newspapers’ crusade for General MacArthur for President. Often a story will be in the process of development for several weeks before we feel that enough material is in hand to prepare a satisfactory broadcast.

CBS correspondents overseas are called upon when the story involves foreign reporting, as in the case of Maxwell Anderson’s visit to Greece. The playwright made a quick trip to that country, talked to a number of persons, and subsequently prepared for the New York Herald Tribune a series of articles on the Greek problem. As Mr. Anderson saw it, and as he wrote for the Herald Tribune, the problem was all Red. The late George Polk, CBS’s Middle East correspondent, was requested to put Mr. Anderson’s articles into a truer perspective.

The raw material for a broadcast of “ CBS Views the Press” is made the subject of an editorial conference, the direction is set, and a 2500-word broadcast is written, carefully checked as to accuracy, and put on the air. Accuracy is the program’s bogeyman; the beam in one’s own eye sometimes looms large. In one case, the wrong first name of a New York Sun reporter survived all checking of the manuscript, and the reporter’s pained but restrained letter of protest brought an apology the next time we were on the air. In larger matters, the program has maintained a consistent reputation for accuracy.

There is often heated argument as to what the attitude of “CBS Views the Press” should be in a debatable matter. One of the warmest discussions arose over a political story. When Senator Robert A. Taft was launching his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, he made a crosscountry trip to see important people and to get the wheels turning. About the time the Senator’s trip was being arranged, a national food-saving plan had been announced, and the Senator himself had commented that we should eat less meat and eat less extravagantly. Political enemies of Senator Taft made the most of that one. The New York Post listed for seven days the complete menus of the hearty meals eaten by Senator Taft, with price tags attached where possible. Alost of them had been served him as a guest at clubs and hotels by Republican groups interested in Mr. Taft’s candidacy, but some of them were dining-car meals. The story was intended to show that Senator Taft’s advice was hypocritical, and that behind his talk of saving food he was gorging himself.

The question was, was this a fair political attack? After much wrangling, it was concluded by the majority of the CBS staff that it was not: that Senator Taft had been on a political tour, that entertainment and meals for him had been planned in advance by his hosts, that it was not for him to dictate what should or should not be set before him, and that it would have been boorish in the extreme — besides being politically unwise — to have made an issue of it among the people whose votes he was interested in.

Out of such general discussions and arguments come the weekly “CBS Views the Press” programs designed to help readers of newspapers get their own perspective on what they see in print.

Radio has done other adult jobs while growing up, and for several years the type of program known as the documentary has been acknowledged to be one of the finest forms of comment on current problems. Radio news presentation, radio drama, have been received approvingly and without wonder. Criticism of the radio was instrumental in improving radio’s performance. But when radio presumed to criticize the sacrosanct press, that was too much.

“How long do you think you’ll get away with it?” is the tenor of many letters. “They’ll get you, they’ll fix your wagon.” This skeptical attitude is depressing because it indicates the low esteem in which radio has been held for a quarter of a century when a program such as “CBS Views the Press” is greeted with such skepticism.

The reaction of working newspaper men and women to “CBS Views the Press” was somewhat different: hopeful welcome tinged with cynicism. This sort of program simply could not exist. Now they help enthusiastically when their assistance is enlisted in getting a particular story together for the program, but at first they helped with an air of looking carefully over their shoulders to be sure that they were not being followed.

The Columbia Broadcasting System gave air time to a spokesman for the New York Sun when that paper considered it had a grievance over our discussion of its handling of the supposed theft of atomic energy secrets from Oak Ridge. John T. McManus asked in PM, “Is surrender ahead for ‘CBS Views the Press’?” The editor of a Newspaper Guild publication called to get some facts for the obituary he was writing for the program.

The broadcast of an article prepared on the efforts of the management of Time, Inc., to censor the outside writing of its employees was delayed for a couple of weeks while we debated the question of whether dilferences between management and personnel of a publication came within the scope of our program. We concluded that since these differences might have an important effect on the publication, or on books and articles by the writers involved, such differences were well within our sphere, and the story was broadcast. But during the delay, word got around the publishing business that CBS was due for a fall this time. You just couldn’t go on the air with anything critical of Time, Inc., and get away with it. The obituary writers got busy again,

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THIS apprehensive attitude is depressing for a second reason. It reflects an almost unconscious view that one might as well abandon the search for truth; that to discuss with honesty an institution so venerable and so powerful as the press is suicidal. Too many people seem too ready to give up without a struggle their right to free speech and open discussion. They are glad when a program such as “CBS Views the Press” fights to keep that right alive, but they are glad with a wry smile, as if to say, “There goes Don Quixote at the windmills again.”

Last fall, the program dealt with the New York newspapers’ treatment of the trial at Nuremberg of twenty-three top officials of the I. G. Farbenindustrie. The names of some extremely big American firms were linked with Farben in the testimony, and in many of the newspapers those names were not even mentioned. That fact was so stated on “CBS Views the Press,” and the following week the mail increased greatly. The keynote was surprise and praise for our “audacity,” and there was the old postscript: “Better look out, you’re monkeying with hot stuff, and they’ll be getting you.” The following week’s broadcast dealt with a really monumental fumble by the press in reporting a Federal court opinion on a Standard Oil patents case in which the name of Farben also figured. At that, the amazement of some of our listeners knew no bounds: two in a row, think of it!

Now there really seemed to be little audacity involved in what was a straight reporting job on how the New York newspapers treated two particular stories, and yet the nature of the stories was such that to many people the mere mention of them seemed to constitute bravery and audacity.

What is happening? Are the American people willing to see free speech and honest discussion vanish? Are they to salute with despair any attempt to keep alive that free speech and honest discussion, and are they ready to write off such attempts as forlorn hopes and windmill-tilting? Maybe they are, because so far as we know, the only radio station of any size or influence in the country which broadcasts a program critical of the press is WCBS in New York.

Radio stations all around the country regularly get copies of the scripts; they hear transcriptions of the programs; they see the venture discussed in their trade publications; they are keenly aware of the great public interest in it, and, wise in promotion, they are professionally aware of the critical recognition given it. They read in Variety that other stations may soon be putting on similar programs in their communities, and yet those programs don’t come off, or they haven’t at this writing. Why not?

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ONE general conclusion emerges — that the local presentation of such a program would be much more effective than any network presentation, and for obvious reasons. The listener in any community must with ease relate such a broadcast to what he sees in his own newspapers. Listener and broadcaster must establish a rapport, each must know what is being talked about.

There have been many thoughtful and provocative critical studies of the press as a whole: the Hutchins committee’s findings on the freedom and responsibility of the press; the Nieman Fellows’ conclusions as to what an ideal newspaper should be like; Morris Ernst’s excellent book, The First Freedom; A. ,T. Liebling’s New Yorker articles collected under the title of The Wayward Pressman — all offer much valuable discussion and information as to the current state of the American press. But they do not and cannot do what a local critique of the press can do: they cannot establish that rapport which is so necessary for the communication and reception of useful criticism. Their contributions must of necessity be in general terms, and although Mr. Liebling’s discussions come the closest to being specific, they have an inevitable tendency to fade and, to readers outside New York, not to mean much.

It is the constant treatment of the local performance which begins to make the listener think a little more about the newspaper he reads. And about those he doesn’t read, too, but which he sees on the newsstands every day or clutched in his fellow commuters’ hands. “I’ve read one paper for years,” a correspondent wrote in. “It never occurred to me that news could be presented in so many different ways, or simply not presented at all. I never heard of the Dorothy Lawlor story, because the paper I read never printed a line of it.” Our correspondent was referring to the case of the young woman on Long Island who early this summer got a lot of newspaper space around the country by going through the motions of advertising in a New York newspaper for a husband with ten thousand dollars cash. The advertisement was turned down by the business office, but ethics were thrown right out the window by the editorial department. It faked an advertisement, reproduced it in its news columns, and the resulting publicity was something to shudder at.

“CBS Views the Press” discussed some of the journalistic antics, and our correspondent pointed out that since he read the New York Herald Tribune in the morning and got his news from a very conservative radio analyst in the evening, he had never heard of the thing. Not that he wanted to, he hastened to add; he’d keep right on reading the Herald Tribune. But it made him think about how newspapers do or don’t report news, and he wondered if there were other things of more importance going on of which he was unaware.

We reminded him of the now celebrated case of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation: a secret police force was last year empowered to make arrests without warrants in crimes of violence, under legislation which made the possession of explosives by persons who do not use them in normal business prima-facie evidence of possession for purposes of crime; and for the bombing of transportation facilities, the death penalty was provided, whether or not anyone was killed. Enactment of the legislation had followed some strike violence in Mississippi.

A secret police force of this character and power in any one of the forty-eight states should be of interest and concern to all Americans, no matter how far from Mississippi they live. And yet until A. J. Liebling found out by reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune what was going on and wrote an article about it for the New Yorker, and “CBS Views the Press” took it up where he left off, the story had had no circulation at all; the press associations sent out squibs which gave one no idea of the real story and its importance, and as a consequence, editors didn’t bother to print them. This was a case of a regional blockade. Press association editors reason that news originating in the South is of interest only to Southerners, and the same theory applies in other regions.

It is the job of the critic of the press to ferret out these cases, and to report them on the basis of how the local newspapers did or did not treat them. Discussion of the Associated Press means little to the readers of the Emporia Gazette or the Philadelphia Inquirer; it is what those newspapers did with the Associated Press copy they got that can be made of interest to them. That’s why criticism of the press is best done locally; it means more personally to those who hear or read it.

The suggestion has often been made that “CBS Views the Press” should be a daily broadcast, done, perhaps, in the cool of the evening, with all the day’s newspapers close at hand, and a little time for sober assessment of the news after the strain and confusion of going to press are over. From the critic’s point of view it is a horrible thought — enough care is involved in getting out a weekly product; and yet from the interested listener’s standpoint, it must be admitted that here would be almost the ideal criticism of the press. The ideal would be the same criticism by the press itself.