Review of Matthew Pressman, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News (Harvard University Press, 2018)
Readers imagining the history of the American news media might think of William Randolph Hearst and “yellow” journalism, the progressive muckrakers, or the soothing voice of Walter Cronkite. Frequenters of this site may even be tempted to start with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that the newspaper functions as a “weapon” for freedom.
However, Matthew Pressman makes a persuasive case for studying newsrooms between 1960 and 1980 if we want to understand how contemporary journalism emerged. On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News provides a well-researched picture of The York Times and The Los Angeles Times during this period. For, it was in the 1960s and ‘70s, Pressman argues, when the newspaper developed into a consumer product. This is the age when top newspapers fully reaped the benefits of journalists with elite degrees, who, in turn, wrote for a college-educated public that now demanded more than the “who, what, when” of a story. But the rise of the reader-friendly paper provoked new questions, as leading papers inevitably became friendlier to a certain class of readers over others.
Pressman’s primary interest is in the evolution of “interpretive reporting.” Writers and their editors still strove for honesty and fairness, but, in their competition with radio and television, journalists wanted it known that they were more than mere “tape recorders” or “electronic apes.” The New York Times’s “News Analysis” feature—which continues to this day—launched in 1958. These analyses would not simply report the facts. Rather, in well-crafted prose, they would help readers frame those facts; and this is what the paper’s increasingly educated (and opinionated) subscribers were paying for.
After the McCarthy era, journalists were less inclined to defend “objectivity” as their guiding ethos. And in the midst of the Vietnam War, the press adopted a more adversarial approach toward government power. As Seymour Hersh put it in 1973, “Watergate has been freeing. I have a very strong bias against the Nixon administration and I don’t worry about it anymore.”
But Pressman emphasizes that the new freedom of interpretive reporting complimented business interests and developed alongside major investments in “soft news.” The LA Times’s prestige and profits grew in tandem with Southern California’s well-off population and, naturally, reams of advertising. New York suburbanites also wanted in-depth national coverage, coupled with lifestyle articles on the fashion, shows, and museums that played to the cultural attachment readers still felt for Manhattan.
Much of this “society” news appeared in what was then known as the “women’s page.” Pressman does a deft job of explaining how this coverage was often staid and sexist. Nevertheless, these pages invited a more sociological take on the news. Under women’s editor Charlotte Curtis (whose title was updated to Family/Style editor in 1971), the New York Times broadened its scope to urban affairs, feminist icons, and sexual politics. Though frequently demeaned, this section was among the most-read—and most lucrative for advertising. Moreover, these pages enabled a generation of women and minority writers to break into the news industry.
While “The Gray Lady” was already the premier US daily, the LA Times grew dramatically in the 1960s and ‘70s. Under the leadership of its editor Nick Williams and publisher Otis Chandler, the Times consciously shifted away from the stalwart conservatism of California’s Chandler family dynasty. Williams himself was a moderate Republican, but he saw the importance of promoting liberal writers to top positions in order to achieve national prominence. Meanwhile, Chandler was one of the first major publishers to openly challenge the value of strict objectivity. In 1970, the New York Times’s executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, had insisted, “The Times is a newspaper of objectivity” and “keeps objectivity in its news columns as its number one, bedrock principle.” Yet Chandler, speaking in 1971, argued that “Pursuing the word objective only leads you into a semantic jungle.” The press, Chandler said, had an obligation to be relentlessly honest, and honest writers should concede that objectivity is a “misunderstood phantom.”
The New York Times’s editorial page editor, John Oakes, was known as a liberal but emerged as something of an editorialist against “editorialization” in the news pages. Throughout the ‘60s, Oakes strongly objected to the paper’s push toward interpretive reporting, which he feared would undermine the Times’credibility—and intrude on his own turf.
In his history of these objectivity wars, Pressman seeks to show that the struggle to define the right ethical relationship between journalists and their subjects long predates Donald Trump and his administration’s preference for “alternative facts.” A certain amount of handwringing over objectivity, interpretation, accuracy, and fairness has been a consistent activity inside the modern American newspaper.
One surprising insight from Pressman’s study is that op-ed columns developed as a buffer, designed to protect the interpretive reporting unfolding in the main news pages. The New York Times introduced its op-ed (for “opposite editorial”) page in 1970, just after Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a speech railing against the media’s liberal bias. Agnew accused the press of constituting a “fraternity” that “do[es] not represent the views of America.” In response, the op-ed page would serve to showcase a greater range of stances. The Times even hired Agnew’s speechwriter, William Safire, as its first conservative columnist in 1973. But, whether this move was in the spirit of ideological diversity or tokenism, there was no assumption that it would affect the tenor of the general news coverage.
Unfortunately, Pressman doesn’t discuss the Wall Street Journal, which is home to one of the more notorious newsroom-editorial page rivalries in the industry.* In passing, Pressman quotes a 1971 statement by Robert Bartley (then associate editor of the Journal’s editorial page), arguing that most journalists are neither liberal nor cynical but, instead, lean “well toward the idealistic extreme.” Ironically, Pressman fails to note that Bartley himself oversaw the Journal’s well-known advocacy for supply-side economics and created a conservative editorial enclave within the mainstream press. This may have been idealism, but it was idealism with a certain political stamp.
Similarly, Pressman highlights that Irving Kristol was a proponent of interpretive journalism and warned against allowing “objectivity” to serve as an excuse for “mindless reporting.” But Pressman doesn’t mention how Kristol, the “grandfather of neoconservatism,” channeled this desire for interpretation into both The Public Interest and The National Interest—magazines Kristol founded to counter what he found wanting in liberal news coverage. In many ways, the heyday of Cold War opinion magazines like Kristol’s, plus the National Review and Commentary, parallels Pressman’s story about the politics of interpretation.
Pressman does recall how The Village Voice often rankled New York Times editors from the left, by portraying the Times as the face of the Establishment. This created an especially vexed dynamic in the late ‘60s, when the paper’s publisher felt very differently about the Columbia University student uprisings than his younger generation of writers did. Still, Pressman might have included more about how the era’s top editors distinguished their interpretive reporting from the rise of longform New Journalism. How did editors position themselves vis-à-vis leftist commentary emerging from outlets like The Nation or Partisan Review? Yes, newspapers had a significant hand in shaping opinion, but the best opinion writing (then as now) occurred outside the traditional paper.
Though the LA Times took longer to achieve national prominence and adopted somewhat different semantics on the objectivity question, the paper’s culture was, overall, quite similar to the New York Times. Both tacked toward the center-left as the twentieth-century wore on; both came to see the necessity of hiring and promoting young activist, minority, and women reporters; and both embraced lavish lifestyle sections that catered to their cosmopolitan and upper-middle-class consumers. This similarity, of course, is part of Pressman’s point: he’s interested in tracing what trends made their way across both copy desks. Pressman’s decision to focus on these two papers is also motivated by his archival research and the interviews he scored with former correspondents. Plus, he gained access to the unpublished memoir of the late LA Times editor in chief Bill Thomas. Yet a wider range of case studies might have added nuance to these trends.
If interpretive reporting is, at bottom, a consumer product, is there evidence that papers with a less affluent subscriber base practiced less overt interpretation? And, in the wake of Watergate, did respectable midsize papers such as, say, the Minneapolis Star Tribune or the Cleveland Plain Dealer also demonstrate a stronger adversarial tone? Or did political centrism—or even deference toward government officials—linger longer, depending on region? The premier papers no doubt inspired (or bought-off) many of their smaller rivals. But it would have been interesting to explore the culture of papers beyond the US coasts, in the period after McCarthy but before the Internet. Were the best regional papers always eager to imitate the New York Times, or did their own market bases demand a different tack?
That said, all those anxious about where American journalism is headed would do well to study where it’s been, and Pressman offers us a detailed investigation into two of the country’s most celebrated newsrooms. He ends with a call for papers to uphold their “liberal values” while preserving an “apolitical” character, which, in 2019, is nothing short of noble. Much like the mainstream press he covers, Pressman’s book is solid, readable, and informative—even if it sometimes misses pieces of the story.
*Full Disclosure: I was a Bartley Fellow with the Wall Street Journal in 2012.