Inside Stuff

by GUY HALFERTY

A former newspaperman and a veteran of the United States Information Service, GUY HALFERTY IS now in public relations work in California.

IN AN advertisement by a magazine, I read the bold headline, “Watch Out for Upsets This Year.”It was followed by this paragraph:-

“As we analyze it, some prices will rise, others will actually slump. Some kinds of business will boom — others may not be able to survive. Controls will be changed in some fields, but will stiffen up in others. Many personal incomes will go up, but some families will be worse off than before.”

A comforting paragraph later in the piece gave assurance that no matter what happens, the subscribers for that publication will be considerably better prepared than most. “If there’s a sudden storm, they’ll have their sails furled and their hatches battened down,” it said.

Well that, of course, is one advantage, perhaps the main one, in subscribing for a periodical written in the latter-day “authoritative” vein. You know when to batten down your hatches. As a follower of this do-aswe-say-and-you-won’t-get-hurt school of journalism you get accustomed to being advised, warned, predicted to, cajoled, and instructed. When the command is “Expect . . . you expect. When it’s “Don’t expect . . .” don’t expect. Just follow orders.

To anyone who prefers to have full custody over his own confusion in the fields of personal and world affairs, the modern style of predigested editorializing is apt to cause a vague uneasiness that it is “authoritarian” rather than “authoritative.” It is a style that demands a yes-sir-no-sirno-exeuse-sir attitude from its readers. In crisp and confident phrases, it lays down what’s what and why’s why, and it rarely if ever mumbles over what’s next —or “what’s to be next,” as its own phraseology would have it.

Such cautious and modest snatches of journalistic good manners as “might be,” “it would seem,” “although,” and “there is a remote possibility that” are to be shunned like the pox. To the authoritarian writer, hedging of any kind is anathema, the cardinal weakness. In his lexicon, a qualified prediction is regarded as a cowardly device usable as a way out only when the jig is utterly up in every other direction. Practitioners of this type of journalism never let their readers think they are groping for thought. Like the lawyer or the psychiatrist, they speak as one who jolly well knows, not as one who is trying gamely to come up with something.

“Thailand will not be taken by the Communists this year,”Magazine A remarked, and followed through in the highest authoritarian tradition with this note from a reporter who in all likelihood had just emerged from a Peiping night session:-

“Mao Tse-tung will be happy, for a time, if he can keep and digest what he’s grabbed.” And “Bigger war, at this season, remains a receding prospect ...”

Now this is a lovely, pear-shaped statement. If there is no bigger war this season, this fact will appear on the reportorial scoreboard. If there is, readers will be far too preoccupied to sue the writer. Since there is no law against long guessing, and no accounting is required under the free enterprise system for Predictions That Flubbed, this system is fairly critique-resistant. The law of averages, combined with some frequently astute reporting, takes care of a sufficiently comfortable share of the predictions. The rest pass off into the air, to help form part of the very smog-mindedness they set out to clear away.

A corollary technique is the Specious, or Empty, Prediction. This is a handy device for predicting unimpressive things in an impressive way. The Department of Predictions of one publication warns ominously, if a bit late, “Advertising will soon reach bombardment proportions, and you will soon be urged to get out and buy.”

Probably the same writer was responsible for another disquieting prediction, apropos of nothing, on the same page_ “Motorists: Don’t expect any relief from traffic jams. There won’t be any.”

Magazines in the authoritarian category are not easily abashed. At odd times they are not above a frank warning to beware of the contents of their own articles. One of them recently ran an exhaustive piece which compared how people spend their money in various regions and at different income levels. After painstakingly whittling the reader down to statistical size and shape, the article wound up on an unaccustomed note of caution. “Look to these figures not so much for instruction as for explanation — for example, the reason your savings are low is that your housing expense is above average. . . .

“Just remember,” it shot back over its departing shoulder, “that in the last analysis it’s not averages that count most. Even averages can’t hide the fact that the biggest budget influences are what you need and want and how hard you’re trying.”

The thoughtful reader can hardly help reflecting that no matter how hard he was trying, he would have saved himself a lot of worry and not a little time if he had read this last paragraph first. Were I a convert to the authoritarian cult, I would try wherever possible to avoid compromising my position by tossing decisions back to the reader in this manner. After all, what would his judgment amount to against mine?

It goes without saying that the advice-givers are right a lot of the time. It isn’t so much their relative rightness or wrongness which raises my hackles as it is the tone they use on me. They speak in a lofty parentishness, covering all subjects with a finality that leaves me no opportunity for a final question-and-answer period.

The advice often deals with a variety of subjects. On baby-sitting (after listing some obvious do’s and don’t’s, and a host of terrifying possibilities): “Now go on out and have a good time!” On buying a second mortgage: “ Know what the monthly payments will be.” On selecting a dishwasher: “Front-opening washers require more armwork, top-opening ones more bending.” On entering politics: “In a pressure group, your main asset will be a thorough knowledge of the facts involved.” On the butter-margarine controversy: “The outcome will be the sum total of the decisions of millions of families like yours.” And on the preconvention political picture: “There is indecision among the Democratic voters.

. . . Generally speaking, things are in a state of confusion.”

But the admonition-from-nowhere that doubtless set many readers chewing their rugs concerned the allegedly improved state of the economy: “The need to rush is past,” it said. “Only a few items will be really scarce, now or later. So if you want something, buy now or later depending on price or need.”

This is good or bad. Depends a lot on how you look at it. Or why.