The Job of the Washington Correspondent

On his seventieth birthday, WALTER LIPPMANN,speaking to an overflow meeting of the National Press Club, defined the new and changing responsibilities of the Washington correspondent. For his acumen and the accuracy of his analysis he received a standing ovation. This is what he said.


THE job of a Washington correspondent has changed and developed and grown in my own lifetime, and if I had to sum up in one sentence what has happened, it would be that the Washington correspondent has had to teach himself to be not only a recorder of facts and a chronicler of events but also a writer of notes and essays in contemporary history. Nobody invented or consciously proposed this development of the newspaper business. It has been brought about gradually by trial and error in the course of a generation.

I think that the turning point was the Great Depression of 1929 and the revolutions and the wars which followed it. Long before 1929 there were, of course, signed articles, essays, criticisms, columns of comment in prose and in verse, and expressions of personal opinion. But the modern Washington correspondent — which includes the news analyst and the columnist — is a product of the world-wide Depression, of the social upheaval which followed it, and of the imminence of war during the 1930s.

The unending series of emergencies and crises which followed the economic collapse of 1929 and the wars of our generation have given to what goes on in Washington and in foreign lands an urgent importance. After 1929, the federal government assumed a role in the life of every American and in the destiny of the world which was radically new. The American people were not prepared for this role. The kind of journalism we practice today was born out of the needs of our age — out of the need of our people to make momentous decisions about war and peace, decisions about the world-wide revolutions among the backward peoples, decisions about the consequences of the technological transformation of our own way of life in this country. The generation to which I belong has had to find its way through an uncharted wilderness. There was no book written before 1930, nor has any been written since then, which is a full guide to the world we write about. We have all had to be explorers of a world that was unknown to us and of mighty events which were unforeseen.

The first presidential press conferences I attended were during the Administration of Woodrow Wilson before this country became involved in World War I. These press conferences were so small that they were held in the President’s office, with the correspondents standing about three or four deep around his desk. When the conference ended, the President would sit back in his chair, and those who wanted to do so would stay on a bit, asking him to clear up or amplify this or that piece of news.

The little group that stayed on consisted of those who were concerned not with the raw news of announcements and statements in the formal press conference but with explaining and interpreting the news. They were the forerunners of the Washington correspondent today. For, these correspondents and their editors in the home offices were coming to realize that raw news, as such, except when it has some direct and concrete personal or local significance, is to the newspaper readers, for the most part, indigestible and unintelligible.

It goes without saying that, 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 great, of such deep, of such rapid, and of such unprecedented change.

THE newspaper correspondents of this generation have learned from experience that the old rule of thumb about reporters and editorial writers, about news and comment, oversimplifies the nature of the newspaperman’s work in the modern world. The old rule is that reporters collect the news, which consists of facts, and that the editorial page then utters opinions approving or disapproving of these facts.

Before I criticize this rule, I must pay tribute to its enduring importance. It contains what we may call the Bill of Rights of the working newspaperman. It encourages not only the energetic reporting of facts but also the honest search for the truth to which these facts belong. It imposes restraints upon owners and editors. It authorizes resistance — indeed, in honor it calls for resistance — to the contamination of the news by special prejudices and by special interests. It proclaims the corporate opposition of our whole profession to the prostitution of the press by political parties, by political, economic, and ideological pressure groups, by social climbers, and by adventurers on the make.

But, while the rule is an indispensable rallying point for maintaining the integrity of the press, the practical application of the rule cannot be carried out in a wooden and literal way. The distinction between reporting and interpreting has to be redefined if it is to fit the conditions of the modern age.

It is all very well to say that a reporter collects the news and that the news consists of facts. The truth is that, in our world, the facts are infinitely many and that no reporter could collect them all, no newspaper could print them all, and nobody could read them all. We have to select some facts rather than others, and in doing that we are using not only our legs but our selective judgment of what is interesting or important, or both.

What is more, the relevant facts often exist far away and out of sight of any newspaperman — as does the condition of the military balance of power in the world today. You cannot go and look at the balance of power: you have to deduce it and calculate and appraise it. The relevant facts may occur in places that the reporter cannot visit — Red China — and then the facts have to be inferred and imagined from secondhand reports. The facts may lie in the past. Then they have to be recovered and reconstructed — as in the story of how we got into our predicament in Berlin. The facts may lie inside the head of a public man, which, like Mr. Khrushchev’s head, is not open to private inspection. The facts may lie in the moving tides of mass opinion — for example, facts about the coming elections — which are not easy to identify and to measure.

Under these conditions, reporting is no longer what we thought it was in much simpler days. If we tried to print only the facts of what had happened — who did what and who said what — the news items would be like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle thrown in a heap upon the table. The unarranged pieces of raw news would not make a picture at all, and fitting them together so that they do make a picture is the inescapable job of a Washington correspondent.

However, very quickly the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle breaks down. Indeed, like most analogies, it is rather dangerous. Our job is harder than it appears. In real life there is not, as there is in every jigsaw puzzle, one picture and one picture only, into which all the pieces will eventually fit. It is the totalitarian mind which thinks that there is one and only one picture. All the various brands of totalitarianism, as violently as they differ among themselves, have this in common. Each holds that it has the key and pattern of history, that it knows the scheme of things, and that all that happens is foreseen and explained in its doctrine.

But, to the liberal mind, this claim — like any other human claim to omniscience — is presumptuous and it is false. Nobody knows that much. The future is not predetermined in any book that any man has written. The future is what man will make it; and about the present, in which the future is being prepared, we know something, but not everything, and not nearly enough.

Because we are newspapermen in the American liberal tradition, the way we interpret the news is not by fitting the facts to a dogma. It is by proposing theories or hypotheses, which are then tested by trial and error. We put forward the most plausible interpretation we can think of, the most plausible picture into which the raw news fits, and then we wait to see whether the later news fits into the interpretation. We do well if, with only a minor change of the interpretation, the later news fits into it. If the later events do not fit, if the later news knocks down the earlier story, there are two things to be done. One is to scrap the theory and the interpretation, which is what liberal, honest men do. The other is to distort or suppress the unmanageable piece of news.

LAST summer, while walking in the woods and on the mountains near where I live, I found myself daydreaming about how 1 would answer, about how I would explain and 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 of the Secretary of State and his advisers? Are you a member of the National Security Council? And what about all those other countries which you write about? Do you have the run of 10 Downing Street, and how do you listen in on the deliberations of the Presidium in the Kremlin? Why don’t you admit that you are an outsider and that you are, therefore, by definition, an ignoramus?

“How, then, do you presume to interpret, much less to criticize and to disagree with, the policy of your own government or any other government?

“And, in internal affairs, are you really much better qualified to pontificate? No doubt there are fewer secrets here, and almost all politicians can be talked to. They can be asked the most embarrassing questions. And they will answer with varying degrees of candor and of guile. But, if there are not so many secrets, you must admit that there are many mysteries. The greatest of all the mysteries is what the voters think, feel, and want today, what they will think and feel and want on election day, and what they can be induced to think and feel and want by argument, by exhortation, by threats and promises, and by the arts of manipulation and leadership.”

Yet, formidable as it is, in my daydream I have no trouble getting the better of this criticism. “And you, my dear fellow,” I tell the critic, “you be careful. If you go on, you will be showing how ridiculous it is that we live in a republic under a democratic system and that anyone should be allowed to vote. You will be denouncing the principle of democracy itself, which asserts that the outsiders shall be sovereign over the insiders. For you will be showing that the people, since they are ignoramuses, because they are outsiders, are therefore incapable of governing themselves.

“What is more, you will be proving that not even the insiders are qualified to govern them intelligently. For there are very few men — perhaps forty at a maximum — who read, or at least are eligible to read, all the cables that pour into the State Department. And then, when you think about it, how many senators, representatives, governors, and mayors — all of whom have very strong opinions about who should conduct our affairs —ever read these cables which you are talking about?

“Do you not realize that, about most of the affairs of the world, we are all outsiders and ignoramuses, even the insiders who are at the seat of government? The Secretary of State is allowed to read every American document he is interested in. But how many of them does he read? Even if he reads the American documents, he cannot read the British and the Canadian, the French and the German, the Chinese and the Russian. Yet he has to make decisions in which the stakes may well be peace or war. And about these decisions, the Congress, which reads very few documents, has to make decisions too.”

Thus, in my daydream, I reduce the needier to a condition of sufficient humility about the universal ignorance of mankind. Then 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. In some field of interest, 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.”