Curator, The Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard University
“The world is full of a number of things besides stock market quotations and golf scores.”
There is a hazard in appointing a speaker on the point of retirement to address a generation just starting out. But it serves to remind me that the climate today strongly suggests that of the 1920’s when I began newspaper work. The parallel is in the general complacence and affluence that is reflected in a widespread unconcern about other affairs than personal careers and private interests.
A difference, and it is an important one that tempers the climate, is our greater sophistication from the pressure of events, forcing us to realize that the world is full of a number of things besides stock market quotations and golf scores. Resistance to this is high. But the velocity of communication compels our attention, at least sporadically, to critical issues crowding upon our consciousness, even though their volume and variety make the daily news menu an indigestible fare for most of us.
That is one of our problems, and I mean to come back to it. But first let me extend my observation about our climate in public affairs.
Elijah Lovejoy dedicated himself to arousing the conscience of the nation to its deepest delinquency, its greatest human problem. His cause was frustrated in his time, and a long time after, by failure of political leaders to reflect the conscience of the country and give it effective expression, so that more than a century later the unresolved issue could still be called by a foreign sociologist the American Dilemma. It was fear of the effects on party that made cowards and compromisers of political leaders, that turned such a powerful politician as Daniel Webster into the great compromiser, leading Theodore Parker in his Boston church to declare of Webster, after his 7th of March speech (1850), that all the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward. The most visible result of Webster’s compromising was the decline and death of his Whig Party, and two ensuing elections of timid Democrats, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who exercised no leadership while the nation drifted to Civil War. The conscience of the nation had to wait for a new party to be born to give it a moral direction. The grapes of wrath were stored. The war came and lasted indeed until it could be said that every drop of blood drawn by the lash might have to be paid by another drawn by the sword.
The war did not solve the dilemma.
Soon the compromisers took over again and in the great swap of 1876 gave the Republicans the presidency in return for handing the Negro’s destiny back to the unreconstructed South.
It would cheer Lovejoy that the race for whom he gave his life to bring elemental justice has now raised up its own leaders and is carrying its own cause.
But again it is threatened by the compromisers who put the machinations of party advantage ahead of great issues. Again a paralysis of leadership, in the Senate particularly, that was the establishment of Webster’s forensic triumphs, threatens the meting out of basic rights to Americans whose color alone denies them full citizenship, a full century after Gettysburg was to bring a new birth of liberty.
I suggest a brief consideration of the present situation in the Senate, because I believe history shows that a paralysis of government function is a dangerous thing. It was a paralysis of the Italian Parliament that gave Mussolini his chance to move in to displace them with dictatorship. The country by then had long lost confidence in the capacity of the parliamentarians to solve any problems.
The French Assembly of the 4th Republic had for years been in the same pass, seeing a succession of revolving door governments come and go as they met problems only with frustration, until they were destroyed by a problem that wouldn’t wait. The Algerian Revolt, that was both an army mutiny and a Civil war, brought in the man on horseback, General deGaulle, with contempt for parties and politics, and deGaulle has made all the difference in the world; the world of the Atlantic Alliance and the Common Market, thwarting the forces that had begun to bring hope for more rational international relations, freer trade, a united Western world and a stronger force for keeping peace.
This is a danger not to be lightly disregarded even in a society like ours whose political institutions are deeply rooted in the democratic ethos and have only once in 175 years been disrupted by the disaster of civil war.
“But what goes on in the Senate? Some people are asking, even some Senators.”
But again there are voices and politicians who sound as secessionist as Calhoun, indeed who revive his nullification doctrine under the synthetic term of interposition, who would deny that the Federal law runs in Alabama and Mississippi or wherever else demagogues can inflame prejudice to defiance. These are little men and from little states, in electoral weight, and they could be ignored or forced to accept the law as to the constitutional rights of all American citizens if both major parties consistently refused compromise or coalition with the nullifiers. Happily the number of states that follow such anachronistic doctrine has declined. Georgia, North and South Carolina have turned to more modern governors and have ceased such flagrant resistance as the barring of Negro students from their colleges. The mayor of Atlanta urged the Congress to pass civil rights legislation to support the many Southern communities that have already persuaded their business men voluntarily to desegregate their facilities, and have appointed Negro policemen and elected Negro councillors or school committeemen to represent the large part of their population which is Negro.
But others would exploit the stubborn racism of the most backward areas. In Mississippi the emergence this month of a two-party election for the first time since reconstruction days would be a symptom of political progress, except that it wasn’t. It was an attempt to get a party foothold in the most extreme racist current, to get the right of the Barnetts and Wallaces, by proclaiming as utter an apartheid doctrine as the Dixiecrats and joining to that the most extreme reaction on all social and economic issues, to turn the clock back to isolation and laissez faire, to raise a standard against the United Nations, against labor unions, against social security, against foreign aid, against an income tax. This is what is hailed as the new opportunity of the party of Lincoln to establish a two-party system in the South. No wonder it terrifies such Republicans as Senator Javits of New York and Senator Scott of Pennsylvania, who face elections, and brings even such a hardened standpatter as Charles Halleck into agreement with the Administration on a civil rights bill.
But what goes on in the Senate? Some people are asking, even some Senators. Sometimes it takes a geiger counter to detect any movement there.
Senator Dodd was bopped down this month by both party leaders for asking why they didn’t lead. Instead, Dodd said, the Senate was dribbling the session away, dealing frivolously with the people’s business.
When he said this the Senate had been nibbling away at the foreign aid bill for two weeks. The next day Senator Byrd, chairman of the Finance Committee, said it would be December 13 before his committee could finish hearings on the tax cut bill. That would be one week before the end of the session and would effectively sabotage that bill, on which the Administration has counted to stimulate the economy and cut into the heavy unemployment. The announced delay brought immediate reports from Washington correspondents that this probably doomed the chance for the civil rights legislation to come to vote with any time to beat off its threatened filibuster. Senator Mansfield, the Democratic leader, had replied to Senator Javits’ demand for action on civil rights legislation that the Senate was waiting for a whole bill to come from the House. It had proved incapable of processing a whole bill itself, segregationists having filibustered on one phase of it in committee hearings all summer.
Senator Byrd’s committee had then had the tax cut bill a whole month and proposed to keep it more than a whole month longer. He had called 70 witnesses and had 100 more he wanted to hear to support his opposition to the bill. Yet the House Ways and Means Committee had worked over the bill for half a year and had a complete record, available to the Senate, of all its witnesses.
Senator Byrd is a proclaimed outright opponent of the bill. The tactics of delay is to force it over into the next session, after a new Presidential budget must be presented. For Byrd demands budget cuts to match tax cuts — which would cancel the object of the tax cut to raise purchasing power and increase jobs in production. This is a position that can presumably be defeated, as it was in the House, if the Senate has a chance to vote on it. The tactics are to prevent such a vote; so to prevent the tax cut from taking effect on 1964 taxes.
In the same week Secretary of State Rusk told a press conference he was concerned at the tendency of Congress to legislate on foreign policy, which is constitutionally the President’s field. The day before he spoke, the Senate had amended the foreign aid bill to deny aid to Yugoslavia, Indonesia or the United Arab Republic. Rusk’s sharp stand brought some results. The trade discriminations against Poland and Yugoslavia were voted off next day.
But compromise is the order of the day in the Congress. The cause of it, as in the time of Franklin Pierce, is sectional disaffection over the great moral issue of race discrimination., and the politician’s concern in one party to exploit it and in the other to avoid a party split.
“Violence and the threat of violence have reinforced the presumption of unanimity.”
The resulting paralysis of action is made possible by outmoded rules that make the Senate in particular an unrepresentative body, ruled by the seniority of Senators from the safe one-party states, where life-long tenure blocks out any modern replacement, and the rules of the Senate establishment confer almost absolute power over key committees to these minority representatives. Not only do they determine what bills their committees take up and how long they pigeon-hole those they don’t like, but their influence from these strategic posts of power, pervades the whole Senate. Senator Joseph Clark has thoroughly aired this in a historic speech in the Senate last Spring, supported by Senator Paul Douglas. This is now in a small book, The Senate Establishment, that I trust all students of government have read or will read, to understand why governmental action, sought by a modern Administration to meet the most obvious needs of an urban complex industrial society can be paralyzed by the obstruction of a few men, mostly elected long ago from small rural states, some of them states in which a large colored minority is denied a vote.
I hope you have read James McGregor Burns’ The Deadlock of Democracy, on the urgent need to modernize the rules of Congress to permit its effective functioning.
Another piece of recent reading that it seems to me is a must for the student of the contemporary American scene was carried in the New York Times November 7, the text of the address to the Southern Historical Association by Prof. James Wesley Silver of the University of Mississippi, where he has taught history 28 years, had served a dozen years as department chairman. This seasoned historian said:
“The search for historical truth has become a casualty in embattled Mississippi where neither the Governor nor the Legislature, in their hot pursuit of interposition., indicates any awareness that Mississippians were Americans before they were Southerners….”
The striking parallel between people and events of the 1850’s and 1950’s brings home the consciousness that Mississippi has been on the defensive against inevitable social change for more than a century, and that for some years before the Civil War it had developed a closed society with an orthodoxy accepted by nearly everybody in the state ….
Violence and the threat of violence have reinforced the presumption of unanimity.
The all-pervading doctrine then and now has been white supremacy, whether achieved through slavery or segregation, rationalized by a professed adherence to states’ rights and bolstered by religious fundamentalism….
Today the totalitarian society of Mississippi imposes on all its people acceptance of any obedience to an official orthodoxy almost identical with the pro-slavery philosophy….
So strongly is the establishment entrenched that without the help of external forces (channeled through the Federal Government), Mississippi Negro leadership is for the short run in a helpless position. For, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the makers of the orthodoxy — the press, the pulpit, the politicians, the philosophers and the patriots — have rushed to the successful defense of their way of life.
So what? What is Mississippi?
In the U. S. Senate Mississippi is the state of Senator Eastland, chairman of Judiciary and of the Internal Security Committee, and Senator Stennis, chairman of the Preparedness Investigation Sub-committee of Armed Services. All Federal judgeship appointments have to clear Eastland’s committee. Appointment of former Governor Almond of Virginia was held back in Eastland’s committee almost a year. Almond as Governor accepted the inevitable collapse of Virginia’s massive resistance to segregation, after Virginia’s own Supreme Court found it untenable. This Virginia Democrat was punished by the Eastland Committee.
Naturally enough, to get judges through this committee, an Administration tends to make appointments acceptable to them. This accounts for some of the flagrant segregation decisions by recent Federal judges in the South as well as those of the old regime, which have to be overridden, after long delays, by appeals courts.
The Stennis Committee sought to block the Test Ban Treaty, staging a series of hearings to try to line up military men to agree that it offers no military advantage. Then Stennis and a majority of his committee issued a report at a strategic time in the Senate debate, that the treaty would dangerously weaken the country, a theory for which they could muster only a handful of extremist votes, in addition to their own.
This same Stennis Committee had, as soon as the Administration accepted the responsibility to meet the race crisis with civil rights legislation, begun investigating the riddle of Soviet strength in Cuba. They collected everybody who suspected there might still be missiles in caves, or who claimed to know there mere more Russians there than our CIA reported, or who thought the President should have gone to war with Castro, and kept up as much of a headline barrage on the Administration on Cuba as they could to set a backfire against civil rights.
“But it is too easy to lay all responsibility of racist demagogues of our most backward states.”
The explosion in Birmingham in May drowned them out and saw this move collapse in futility. But Eastland’s Internal Security Committee continued to keep digging at the State Department over Cuba, trying to show that people on the Cuban desk knew Castro was a Communist before he defeated Batista, or should have known it.
The suppression and intimidation described by Professor Silver affect more than local residents. Unless checked by our courts it restricts our chance to know what is going on in all parts of America by hobbling a free press and hampering the flow of information.
The $3,000,000 libel suit the New York Times is fighting from Alabama officials is now testing the historic freedom of the press in America. Alabama State Courts have held the Times liable for $3,000,000 suits brought by commissioners of Birmingham over an advertisement of an appeal for help for Dr. Martin Luther King which described his harassment in Alabama. The case is being carried to the Federal Courts where the decision will determine whether any newspaper can risk publishing reports and advertisements describing conditions all over America, or must restrict its service to its local area.
But it is too easy to lay all responsibility of racist demagogues of our most backward states. There is responsibility enough to go around. In Boston where a school committee majority brushed off Negro complaints of racial imbalance in the schools, this month’s election found a majority of those voting insensitive to the Negro protest.
Two months ago the crisis in Birmingham led two widely syndicated columnists to explore the power structure of the outpost of Northern industrial capital. James Reston of the New York Times and Mary McGrory of the Washington Star were both writing, the weekend of September 22nd, that the economic control in Birmingham lay in the North, in great corporations, notably U.S. Steel, and that none of these used their decisive influence to reconcile the racial strife, that they contributed to support the racist politicians, and, as Reston put it, New York Times, September 22:
“The Birmingham power structure wants the racial problem to go away. It wants a States Rights president in the White House and segregationist Democrats running the congressional committees. It wants law and order, but not Federal law and order.”
States rights in the South has been a cover for segregation, as earlier for slavery. They are intertwined. So long as segregationist demagogues inflame their constituents over race, the rates charged by, and taxes assessed on absentee corporations can be obscured. States so governed are not apt to be vigorous in their regulation of powerful industry, which have good reason to prefer it to Federal regulation.
The Reston and McGrory reporting of course was not news to those who have studied the social-economic structure of the South. Sensitive Southerners have long described as colonialism, this Northern industrial control. It is always potentially an explosive political issue. But it seldom explodes, for it is smothered by the racism with which political demagogues inflame electoral emotions.
These illuminating reports on the power structure in Birmingham came out of the crisis there.
Perhaps the most serious complaint to be made of modern journalism, in our finance-corporation society, is that it has seldom proved sharp-edged in revealing such basic conditions. A Birmingham crisis brings exceptional conditions for exposing them.
In journalism crises are apt to be very revealing, to provide us the best chance for seeing into a situation. The journalist has allies in uncovering the strategic facts in a crisis. For one thing public attention focuses on it. People pay attention — keen to discover what they can. The public officials or others involved are on a spot. Any covering up is highly visible; any defiance of a legitimate public interest becomes dangerous. The heat is on and it melts away the wrappings of concealment or camouflages. The press assigns its top men, skilled in probing and experienced in getting down to realities. They come in from outside and bring a fresh approach and an objectivity from being independent of local pressures. This has been of immense importance in Alabama and Mississippi, or in Latin America or Katanga, and most recently in Vietnam, wherever controlling local interests have enjoyed either a cozy relation with the local media or exercised intimidating pressures on them.
If the crisis lasts or recurs, as in Birmingham, you soon have a corps of able reporters who have developed independent sources of information and have penetrated below the surface of events to get to the core of the situation.
Let me return to our problem as readers with our indigestible daily menu of events.
The problem of all of us is to get things in perspective — to realize the relationships of events and conditions — in short, to discover meaning in what is happening. A fair test of journalism is if it conveys meaning with its communications.
We have long been told that this is an age of communication. We know that we live in a dizzy blizzard of words, assailing all our senses constantly – in print, over the air, and through the mail, including that large classification of unsolicited junk mail that needs no identification other than “Occupant,” to inflict itself on us.
“States rights in the South has been a cover for segregation, as earlier for slavery.”
The dynamics of this accelerating communication presents a problem to everyone who has any concerns of his own, as presumably students and teachers have. It is a ceaseless distraction. Once having to speak at a commencement of a Cambridge school, I urged the graduates to cultivate inattention. All their school lives they had been urged to cultivate attention. But a stubborn inattention to the innumerable assaults on one’s interest, to divert him from whatever he is about, has become a very necessary shield if one is to have any life of his own, to pursue any individual interests, to get on with his work and to retain his own right of decision as to what he does with his time.
Yet an immense amount of information is relevant to any of us, part of it in our own special areas, much more in our role as citizens who need to be informed about our own public affairs.
The problem, for us is the rate of input-output, as the economists say. How much of the mass of information can we try to assimilate from an accumulation that in total is totally indigestible.
We are all exposed to, and very dependent on, the most instantaneous and comprehensive communications system ever known. Every day all of us can have, and can hardly avoid, the same information, over TV and radio, and in our newspapers, no matter where we live or what we are doing. The same wire service carries the latest news to every newspaper and to every news broadcast. Indeed we select our news broadcasts, not for their content, which is essentially the same, but for the individuality of the broadcaster. The front pages of our newspapers, from one end of the country to the other, with a few exceptions, all carry the same main stories.
One would welcome some diversity, some regional differences. It is this instant universal communication system that is so largely responsible for eliminating most of our distinctive provincial differences, to make us practically indistinguishable units of a uniform pattern. We all get the same news, and in about the same shape, tone, and perspective, if any. We are all talking about the same things. The images in our heads tend to be all the same at any given time. It takes a strong mind to retain any independent concept of the kind of world we live in and what’s going on in it that should most concern us.
We are often said to be the best informed people in the world. We are undoubtedly the most informed – one might without cynicism say over informed. For the velocity of the information projected at us means that most of it bounces off. There’s a saturation point.
Old President Eliot Harvard was saying 60 years ago that anyone who undertook to perform his full duty as a citizen would not have time for anything else. The problems of the citizen have enormously increased in complexity since then.
One of the primary duties, surely, is to inform oneself about his own public affairs. But to paraphrase Eliot, anyone who undertook to inform himself completely about his own public affairs today wouldn’t have time for anything else. I know something about this, for it is my particular job to inform myself in order to communicate information, and it is a losing battle against the vastness of the material one should read, listen to and, hopefully, make meaning of.
“The press is the least criticized institution in our society, though critic of all the rest.”
James Reston, of the New York Times, who works as hard as anyone in this field, once told the Nieman Fellows that the first problem of a correspondent is to hold the attention of the reader long enough to tell him anything. He competes with so many diverting demands on his reader’s attention. The result is, Reston said, the correspondent must be prepared to put across the full significance of the event in the first flush of its front page display. Tonight he may be able to research it. Tomorrow he may get at an authority on it. But tomorrow is too late. That story has been pushed inside by later events, and he’s lost the pristine chance at the reader’s attention.
I have said that this describes an impossible job, as it does. The job is squeezed into the deadlines on the clock and the space limits of the paper, which vary unpredictably day to day from the pressure of other events.
It is too easy to catalogue the inadequacies of the press in meeting the insuperable task of collecting and assimilating even the most essential information an the ever expanding and ever more complicated fields of public concern. But it is also too easy for the proprietors of the press to brush off any criticism with a facile claim to the volume and variety of what they print. Churchill was not the first to find war is too important to be left to the generals. The press is too strategic to all of us to be left unchallenged to those who control what we read. Ever, new merger, reducing the choices of the reader, further constricting the channels of public opinion as well as information, increases the need for ceaseless public appraisal of this essential resource. A monopoly newspaper is an unregulated public utility.
The press is the least criticized institution in our society, though critic of all the rest. No other institution more requires constant and searching criticism, regardless of the hypersensitivity to criticism so often evidenced by too many of its proprietors. Only TV has the capacity to provide this scrutiny and it does not choose to do so, dominated as it is by advertisers who are not eager to sponsor criticism of the other chief medium for advertising. The lack of any serious sustained criticism of so essential an institution as the press is a serious lapse in responsible relationships in a rational society. Other advanced societies have gone further than we to fill that gap, though none, I think, satisfactorily meets our need. This is one of the yet unanswered problems of a democratic society.
But I would repeat that it is too easy to castigate the institution of the press for such deficiencies or delinquencies as are visible in its daily product. It is the only institution whose sins of omission or commission are visible to anyone every day. This makes it vulnerable. Doctors, we say, bury their mistakes. The press publishes it. No institution operates under such pressures of time and space. The New York Times is a daily miracle, and not the only one. The AP wire report is another.
Further, the press is a reflection of the whole society. The economic pressures on it are roughly the same as on other enterprises, though, as I say, less visible in them. Ours is, as J. K. Galbraith tells us, an affluent society. It is a very conservative society and a generally comfortable people fairly complacent, hard to arouse even in those rare cases where crusading is still an accepted role of the newspaper.
The reader also has a responsibility for what he puts in his head. The daily newspaper is at best a gathering of the day’s fragments and cannot be asked to present a full history. The reader to be informed needs to keep up with the score, to add up the daily fragments and come to his own conclusions of what they add up to.
Communication is a two-way street. The intelligent reader needs to exercise discrimination in the source of his news, the paper he reads, the broadcasts he selects. And of course to supplement these immediate sources with serious periodicals that, free of daily deadlines, have more time to explore below the surface of events, and the topical books that now tumble from the presses almost as soon as the Sunday paper, and are available in economical paperback.
“The daily newspaper is at best a gathering of the day’s fragments and cannot be asked to present a full history.”
The reader who wants to try to keep up with the score on his own public affairs can discipline himself to be selective, to follow the few main lines of developments that matter to him, without letting himself be bogged down in the miscellany and trivia of every edition. He can soon develop his own sense of continuity of events and turn to his paper, knowing what he is looking for: to see how the vote in the Senate came out; to learn the action of the Security Council on the pending resolution; to get the gist of the President’s press conference; to get the primary returns; to find the action of the city council or school committee. Many of the most important developments follow a schedule of certain days of the week, in a continuity that one soon gets onto.
For we have distinguished journalists and outstanding newspapers that do make an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the shape of the world we have to live in. Newspapermen have a right to pride in such notable contributions as those of Walter Lippmann, which are so great that two scholars of political science have just produced a book, The Essential Lippmann, in which they bracket him with such thinkers as John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen.
The independent columnist is unique to American journalism. Syndication makes a Lippmann available to countless papers that could not afford to staff a contributor of such caliber. When we complain of syndication as turning newspapers into packaged products, so much alike, we need to put into the balance the asset of the syndicated Lippmann and other valuable columns. It performs another valuable balance too, merely by its independence. It balances to a degree the complaint of a one-party press. In the 1960 election this balance was dramatized in the New York Herald Tribune, its editorials for Nixon, but the same page carrying Lippmann, supporting Kennedy.
Syndication also now carries to large numbers of newspapers the most informed reporting of some of the great newspapers. Just this year the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have pooled their resources for a great new Washington bureau, and they sell its reports to 50 papers that could not staff such a bureau.
Another syndicated columnist, Ralph McGill, has done more than all the clergy of the South to arouse the conscience of his own Georgia region, and much beyond, against racism.
Such a reporter as Clark Mollenhoff is a power-house of dedicated drive to chop through the underbrush of ambiguity in government and challenge bureaucracy to yield information the public is entitled to have.
And there are many more, never enough, but an increasing corps of highly competent newspapermen. The quality of newspaper staffs has never been so high. And their work is increasingly coming through.
For a characteristic aspect of our society that our press reflects is its openness. This is an open society. It is very hard to bottle anything up very long if it is important enough. The denouement on Vietnam illustrates this. In his recent book on the CIA, Allen Dulles complains of the difficulty of keeping secrets out of the press; he speaks wistfully of the greater influence the British government has on its newspapers.
Some of our correspondents may complain of government managing news. Any government doubtless tries to make the best shoving it can. But murder will out. That is my theory of the American press. If the Democrats don’t talk the Republicans will. If the newspapers don’t get it, TV will, or the news magazines. There may be a time lag but it comes out.
“But of course the newspapers are way ahead of television as information media.”
There is a time lag in our press, and long has been, in keeping abreast of a changing society. It was generations before the press reported labor news beyond a police report of violence in a strike. Only in the 1930’s, first with Louis Stark in the New York Times, did the specialist labor reporter take his place with the conventional specialists in politics and finance. Only after the atomic bomb, and mostly after Sputnik, did science reporting take its recognized place; and reporting education, the most universal enterprise in America, is only now beginning to be recognized as one of the fixtures of staff organization.
This obvious lag is an unfortunate characteristic of our press, and quite irreconcilable with its traditional claims to high enterprise. In the large, the press, with distinguished exceptions, lags in recognizing the rising curve of education in this country, and consequently of the capacity of its readers to accept serious news seriously treated.
James Reston says that the chief problem of the press is the pace of our own history. It has also its internal problem of dynamics to keep up the pace.
But of course the newspapers are way ahead of television as information media. In TV, entertainment is the dominant motive, and even the news is presented with a primary eye to its excitement and entertainment. Such serious commentators as Howard K. Smith have a rough time, for their ratings are compared by their sponsors with whatever Lass entertainment may be offered on another network at the same time. If, as in Smith’s case, the opposite number was “What’s My Line?” this is an unrealistic valuation of a program on public issues. The press too depends on advertising. But it has established a tradition that contains the advertiser to his paid space. It does not depend on a specific advertiser to sponsor its political reporting, nor sell the sponsorship of its editorial page to a cosmetics or cigarette company. That is the situation with TV, an industry in which the advertiser calls the tune and determines what programs shall be produced, indeed produces them or has them produced for him. Television with its dramatic impact is potentially the greatest force for an informed society we have. But it has to get control of its own affairs, to find some equivalent of the newspaper separation of advertising from news and comment, before we can accept it as an independent force.
Newton Minow complained, reasonably, of the higher decibels applied to TV commercials. This is symbolic. The commercial controls.
Commercialism has become a bad word. TV has had a lot to do with making it so. American industry cannot be attacked, over all, as lacking values. It has created the great foundations that endow education and medical research and support much of the cultural activity of America. You could write an Elmer Gantry about any occupation. And commercialism is not confined to business: that, indeed, is the trouble. It corrodes every avenue of life, where it is allowed to take over. It is most visible in TV, creating such a wasteland as Mr. Minow exposed to us. Wherever it invades, it is the enemy of standards, of values, of integrity. It is especially the curse of an economic society like ours, where it is so plausible any time that the economic argument must be determining.
Our forbears had their evils and devils to combat. I am afraid that in our time, for all who care about decent values, whether in entertainment or education, in our public life or our community institutions, in our mass communications media or the preservation of our streams against pollution and our natural resources against destruction, commercialism is the enemy that must be fought. Those whose minds and taste are of a quality to be offended by it are those who must be counted on to fight against it, if American life is to have purpose and value.
Of the qualities most needed in men, a case can be made for putting independence first. This can be said of institutions too, notably of newspapers.
Some see it as paradoxical or quixotic to urge independence in a time when increasingly men must do their work in institutions. Most of us are and will be organization men. But it is this kind of institutionalized life that most requires independent men unless the institution fall into flabbiness or dry rot.
The institution must provide the resources, the organization, the program and leadership for its members. But if it is to be a dynamic institution it must support also independent minds lest its vitality be lost.
Walt Rostow in his vital book, The United States in the World Arena, insists that the vitality of an institution, even a bureaucracy–especially a bureaucracy–depends on the vigor and imagination, originality and force of the individuals in it. And conversely that its effectiveness demands it give full rein to these individuals.
That is to say the independent spirit is more than ever needed from the organization man. It is in the clutch that independence counts. As William Allen White said in a famous clutch situation:
“Only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed; and when it is needed, it is most vital to Justice.”
The way to preserve independence is very simple: to think of oneself always as expendable. The man who chooses to act as though he were expendable is most apt to be found indispensable.