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1967_07_15--016_SP-Does the Washington Press Lie

n Affairs of State, by Stewart Alsop Does the Washington press lie? WASHINGTON: o the 1,000 or soWashington-based reporters who cover foreign and domestic news tell their readers the truth? The question is worth examining, for a great many people are coming to believe that the Washington press corps consistently lies to the country. The bitter distrust of the Washington press among right-wing Republicans is an old story. No journalist who was there is likely to forget the furious, full-throated roar of released hatred which greeted former President Eisenhower's off-the-cuff attack on the "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators" at the 1964 convention. It is an article of faith on the Goldwater right that the Washington press corps consists of toadies of the "Liberal Establishment." Among left-wing intellectuals, contempt and even hatred of the Washington press have also become increasingly fashionable—but instead of being toadies of the liberals, the Washington reporters have sold out to the imperialists and militarists. Here, for example, is The New York Review of Books, house organ of the New York intellectual left: "In ways which journalists themselves perceive only dimly or not at all, they are bought, or compromised, or manipulated into confirming the official lies: not the little ones, which they delight in exposing, but the big ones, which they do not normally think of as lies at all, and which they cannot distinguish from the truth." The "truth," of course, is that Lyndon B. Johnson and his chief lieutenants are ruthless imperialists and militarists; and that American foreign policy is dictated by big money, oil, and the "military-industrial power structure." But the "bought, compromised and manipulated" Washington journalists consistently hide this self-evident truth. Thus, according to The New York Review of Books, the Pentagon reporters refrain from telling the truth about American "militarism" in return for "a few beers with the colonels, and a sense of swinging, having the inside dope." They sell their immortal souls, in other words—and for beers with the colonels, not even Martinis with the generals. It is impossible for a reasonably honest Washington reporter, no matter how liberal his views, to satisfy the hunger of the left-wing intellectuals for this kind of "truth." For example, The New Republic's T.R.B. (Richard Strout, able Washington correspondent of the Christian Science Mon- itor) has only to suggest that perhaps Lyndon Johnson deserves some sympathy in the hellish situation in which he finds himself, to be angrily denounced in his own magazine. The fact is that, like the McCarthyites or the Birchites, the left-wing intellectuals favor a devil theory of politics. McCarthy's chief devil was Gen. George Marshall (the "principal" in a "conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"). The chief devil of the left-wing intellectuals is Lyndon B. Johnson. It is symptomatic that MacBird!, an inept parody of Shakespeare, has been hailed in leftintellectual circles as a work of near-genius. The parody is on about the literary level of a freshman spoof. Its real merit in left-intellectual eyes is that it portrays the President as a brutal buffoon and the murderer of his predecessor. The chief stimulus of this McCarthyism of the left is, of course, the war in Vietnam. Just as the McCarthyites were singularly ignorant of the real nature of Communism, very few of the left-intellectuals have any personal experience of either the Vietnamese war or of how the American government really works. An intellectual who writes from first-hand knowledge of either subject is in for trouble. For example, Arthur Schlesinger, the archetypical liberal-intellectual, who has not been to Vietnam since World War II, is a leading dove. He has been bitterly attacked, all the same, in both The New York Review of Books and Ramparts, West Coast organ of the New Left. Schlesinger has been rather thoroughly exposed to the way the American government really works. Therefore his intellectual honesty does not permit him to support the left-intellectual version of "the truth" about that government. Political reporters are also thoroughly exposed to the way the government works, which is why what they write so often infuriates both the Republican right and the intellectual left. Most reporters, liberal or conservative, see the government in about the same rather undramatic way. Because they are in constant contact with it, reporters see the government in terms of people— some very able, some very bumbling; most devoted to the national interest as they see it; most also devoted to their own interest, personal or bureaucratic; many subjected to heavy pressures which are inherently irreconcilable; and all, where the great war-and-peace, death-and-life issues are concerned, groping earnestly in a neardarkness. There is no large, immutable "truth" about what these people say and think and do. There are many bits and pieces of the truth. There is. for example, the kind of truth of which James Reston writes in his book, The Artillery of the Press. At the Vienna summit meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Reston writes, the official communiques were misleadingly complacent, as usual; but "in fairness to Kennedy, it must be added that he told this reporter precisely what had happened . . . in this instance the public did get the truth." Reston's truth was, of course, Kennedy's version of the truth as interpreted by Reston. It was certainly as close to reality as a brilliant reporter could make it. But the fact remains that another President's version of the truth, as interpreted by another reporter, might have been very different. The reportorial process thus produces many versions of the truth, as well as a good many halftruths, and some lies. Sometimes, as when war broke out in the Middle East, the half-truths and lies predominate for a while. But in time, by a self-correcting process, the half-truths and lies get winnowed out, mainly because reporting is a fiercely competitive trade. Thus if one reporter gets a self-serving version of "the truth" from politician or official A, another reporter is sure to go to politician or official B, who is A's political or bureaucratic rival, and get quite a different version. "What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer." For the ideologues of the extreme right or the intellectual left, there is such a thing as "the truth"—like "the truth" that the press is the captive of the "Liberal Establishment," or "the truth" that the government is the captive of the monopoly capitalists. For the political reporter, there is no answer to jesting Pilate's question. There are only bits and pieces of the answer and many versions and variations of those bits and pieces. But because of the self-correcting process, an American citizen, most of the time, at least has a better chance than the citizen of any other country to get a fairly accurate idea of what is really going on, at home and abroad. 18


1967_07_15--016_SP-Does the Washington Press Lie
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