Each spring the members of the American Newspaper Publishers Association assemble in convention and spend a good deal of their time eulogizing themselves. Conventions of editors and reporters, whether for newspapers or radio news, are more practical and less complacent. The American news business, press and radio, certainly deserves some eulogies; it is the most copious in the world, and I think its average quality is at least as good as any other's. But it is not yet good enough. Too often we tell the customers not what is really going on, but what seems to be going on. And I am not referring to the small minority of newspapers, and the smaller minority of newspapermen, who don't want to tell the truth; but to the great majority who do want to tell the truth, but often fall short.
Too much of our news is one-dimensional, when truth has three dimensions (or maybe more); we still have inadequate defenses against men who try to load the news with propaganda; and in some fields the vast and increasing complexity of the news makes it continually more difficult—especially for us Washington reporters—to tell the public what really happened. Some of these failings are due to encrusted habits of the news business, which can be changed only slowly, but which many men are now trying to change; some of them will be harder to cure because they are only the reverse side of some of our greatest merits, and it is difficult to see how to get rid of them without endangering the merits too.
The merits which entail the worst drawbacks are competition and the striving for objectivity; and we should be much worse off without either. But objectivity often leans over backward so far that it makes the news business merely a transmission belt for pretentious phonies. As for competition, there is no doubt that the nation is much better served by three wire services—the Associated Press, the United Press, and the International News Service, sometimes supplemented by the English Reuters—and by several radio networks than it would be by monopoly in either field. But competition means an overemphasis on speed, as has been noted by the Associated Press Managing Editors (not the editors of the AP but the men who use its service); and sometimes it leads to an exaggerated build-up.
Like most radio newsmen, I am heavily dependent on the wire services. I am supposed to be aware of all the world's news, and to report what seems to me most important or that to which I can add something in the way of interpretation. But I can't cover it all myself—not even all that happens in Washington; usually I cover about one story a day on foot, get angles or elucidations on half a dozen others by telephone, and must depend on the wire services for the rest. Experience has taught me, when the versions of the same story given by two wire services differ materially, to prefer the less picturesque; the other might have been souped up to beat the competition.
The President announced his decision not to run again at the end of his speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner on March 29—an extemporaneous addition to a script distributed several hours in advance. All the wire services sent out the text, of course; early editions of the Sunday papers were going to press and had to have it at the earliest moment. The UP and INS merely sent out the text; the AP, desirous of making everything clear (and maybe of getting the jump on the competition), prefaced it with a lead saying that the President made no disclosure of his intentions. Papers carrying that lead were on the street as he was disclosing his intentions. At least one radio station—a good one, too—writing its eleven o'clock news out of the AP, went on the air and said that he had made no disclosure of his intentions; whereas many of the listeners a few minutes earlier had heard the President say he wouldn't run.
I do not suppose that any of the wire services ever consciously sacrifices accuracy to speed; but speed is what counts most, because what every wire service wants is to get newspapers to use its story rather than its competitors' stories. I have seen many service messages on press association wires boasting about how many minutes, or even how many seconds, they were ahead of the competition; how their story got the play. I have seldom if ever seen a message saying, "While our story was unfortunately a few minutes behind time, it had more truth in it." Yet these outfits live, and must live, by competition; and we are better off with that competition, whatever its shortcomings, than we should be without it. One of the wire services has a motto, "Get it there first—but first get it right." I am sure they all try to do that; I am not sure that a wire service which actually succeeded in doing it would last long against the competition.
Nine days before the Germans surrendered in 1945 there was a great, though brief, flurry over an AP report from San Francisco—where the constituent assembly of the United Nations was then meeting—that they had surrendered and an announcement could be expected at any moment. The story was sent by one of the ablest reporters in the country; he got it from a person described as a high American official, who wouldn't let his name be used—something that happens every day; and it may have been mass self-delusion that persuaded many people that the high official was the Secretary of State, who would have known. Actually it was Senator Connally; but he might have known too; and if the reporter had stopped to check up with the Secretary of State or anybody else, the competition might have got the story out ahead of him. So it was left to the President of the United States to do the checking up, and find out that the story was false.
That time, the AP got a beat on a surrender that didn't happen; nine days later it got a beat on the one that did happen—because one of its correspondents broke a release date that fifteen other correspondents observed. Now some of those hold for release regulations of the SHAEF public relations officers—imposed in an endeavor to get simultaneous release in all Allied capitals—may have seemed ridiculous; the German radio was already announcing the surrender; nevertheless the sixteen correspondents who had covered the actual ceremony had all promised to hold the story till a certain hour. Fifteen of them did; one of them did not. If that incident had been repeated once or twice it would have made it extremely difficult for any correspondent to get any news.
Here the fault clearly lay with the pressure of competition. I am told, by a man who should know, that the three principal AP correspondents on the western front had identical instructions; besides competing with everybody else they were competing with one another, presumably on the theory that that would keep them on their toes. It is not surprising that one of them got so far up on his toes that he fell over on his face.
It was the United Press that ended the old war four days early in 1918—an incident now remembered chiefly because Roy Howard, who was responsible for what was then the greatest boner in American news history, was able enough to live it down. He happened to be in a position to see, quite legitimately, what appeared to be an official dispatch; and he flashed it without checking up on it. It was in contradiction to the known intention of ending the war four days later; but I do not suppose there was or is a reporter for any wire service, American or foreign, who would not have done what Roy Howard did. It is hard to say how much actual harm was done, aside from taking the edge off the celebration of the real armistice; but there is some reason to believe that the message that fooled Howard was planted by a German agent in Paris, who presumably hoped that it would do harm.
Now these were not bad reporters; they were all good reporters, among the best; but they were all in too big a hurry, for fear somebody else would beat them to it. We have seen many forecasts of what will happen in the next war, if we have one. I do not know what the course of operations will be; the one thing I feel safe in predicting is that some American reporter will end it a few days before it actually ends; and the families of men who were killed after he said it was over will, for the rest of their lives, be convinced that you can't believe what you see in the papers.