July/August 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBERS 7 AND 8
B O O K R E V I E W
Muckraking or Money Making
The period from 1968 to 1975 is one of particular importance to the development of new leadership in the newspaper world. The Vietnam War, the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President John and Robert Kennedy, urban riots and Watergate convulsed the nation and had repercussions within the newspaper industry as well. Indeed, the general upheaval during this time was focused and amplified within these organizations. In Ellis Cose's book, The Press, the vision of an old order slowly giving way to new and fresh attitudes at the papers is depicted through sketches of Ben Bradlee, Don Graham, Otis Chandler, Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger, Abe Rosenthal and the men or viewpoints they replaced.
The book's treatment of its subject matter is uneven, offering an important but limited perspective on the changes taking place. Cose describes the time of transition at The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the Gannett and Knight-Ridder empires. But his personal portraits of the major characters involved, while occasionally providing insight into their behavior, tend to be shallow and even simplistic. Some of the most revealing narrative episodes concern issues of race within the newsroom and the relationship of the world inside journalism to the one outside.
Cose captures the feeling of immediacy of a daily news operation but his work sometimes suffers from an overly strong identification with management concerns. He glorifies the growth in coverage, size and profitability that took place under the new management and fails to assess the negative impact of such growth as the papers evolved into what Ralph Nader calls "corporate conglomerate[s] ... with a bottom-line mentality."
Cose describes this evolution, primarily through the eyes of the new managers as they face conflicts over racism, paternalism to the home market in the age of mass media and their institutions' relationship to the government. The Washington Post serves as an example for this review, reflecting the changes that took place at many newspapers across the country.
At The Post in the mid-1960s, any coverage of Washington D.C.'s racial tension was considered disloyal to the city. In 1966, Ben Gilbert and Ben Bradlee, assistant managing editor for local news and managing editor respectively, clashed over a story by a reporter whom Bradlee had recently recruited. The story involved one of the frequent conflicts between the District police force and black youths in the city. After a shouting match with Gilbert, Bradlee finally overruled him and ran the story. Cose gives Bradlee credit for wanting greater coverage and objectivity, saying "He did not share Gilbert's enthusiasm for boosterism. He wanted to make The Post belligerently independent."
The Post came of age with Bradlee's and Donald Graham's rise to power, with a new team of reporters and managers and with the climactic events of the early seventies including the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Post's Howard Simon told Cose that the Pentagon Papers were the beginning of a competition of equals between The Times and The Post. Simons said, "until the Pentagon Papers, The Post hadn't made some sort of ultimate commitment to go super first class," and Cose explains that "For Bradlee, the Pentagon Papers rivalled Watergate in importance."
The Post's decision to go "first class" had a down side as well, according to Cose. Along with the acclaim, there was criticism of an overzealousness, exemplified by the "Jimmy's World" incident (the Janet Cooke story which was exposed, long after publication, as a complete fabrication). That story's demise had a sobering effect on the new stars of the invigorated press who were brought face-to-face with the flip side of the fame and glory which accompanied the Watergate investigation.
The business side of The Post's operation was changing too. In The Progressive, John Hanrahan writes that "over the last 15 years, Katherine and Donald Graham have made The Post one of the most profitable papers in the country--an investor's delight." According to Hanrahan, this transformation took place at the expense of the workers and their union. Yet, in Cose's book, Don Graham appears as a kind of management hero who brings responsibility and tough-mindedness to the paper. The Post press operators and their union appear as early obstacles to his plans for the company.
There was a strong perception within The Post management, as well as among many reporters that the union brought the harsh treatment that it received on itself by sabotaging the presses when it went on strike in 1975 and Cose seems to concur with this view. Unlike his treatment of the 1962-63 strike at the New York Times, Cose almost exclusively offers management's perspective on The Post labor conflicts and omits description of The Post management's behavior which several Post writers have described as distinctly and intentionally anti-union. Tom Sherwood, a Post reporter since 1974, told Hanrahan that after The Post went public with its stock, "They got hooked on profits. On management's part," he added, "there have been outdated and abusive labor tactics and a warfare-with-the-workforce mentality ever since they worked on busting the union in the mid-1970s."
Cose, however, paints a very different picture of that time. He reports that during the strike, those who ran the paper were "sustained by... willpower, camaraderie, and the feeling that they were fighting the good fight." There is no mention of strikebreaking or of the press operators' demands. He writes, "Since the late 1960s, Post production had been throttled by the pressmen. They regularly disrupted the production schedule to wring concessions from the company or stretched out their work to get overtime ... [Donald] Graham saw their actions as a form of guerrilla warfare that made delivering the paper on time impossible." In an interview with Cose, Bradlee explains that management saw itself as powerless in the disputes. "The word 'negotiations' with the union was a joke. You didn't negotiate, you bluffed the union. And when they wanted to call your bluff, you caved. You had to cave. You were in a highly competitive race with the Star and you couldn't print without them."
But this situation was soon turned around under Graham. He trained non-union workers to run the necessary equipment and he invested in new technology which eventually enabled The Post to turn out the paper during a strike. Cose reports that a reporter who covered the strike "began to realize that the paper being formed in the crucible of the strike was very different from The Post he had known. The Graham outlook, so benevolent in the past, was tougher."
The author's comments regarding journalistic styles and personalities during the period of change reflect a greater sympathy for the underdog and a stronger critique of the powerful. Cose emphasizes the importance of racial integration in the newsrooms at The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times as well as management's increased awareness of the need for black reporters, fairness in hiring and coverage of urban and civil rights issues at those papers. He makes clear that the same conflicts and bureaucratic in-fighting over turf, titles, assignments and positions which went on in other institutions and in society at large, took place within the newspapers. What is remarkable is the degree to which Bradlee, Graham and Chandler, among others, made conscious efforts to bring about these changes in organization and outlook within their newspapers. Though he is critical of traditional racist and short-sighted views in newspaper management, Cose allows that these views were not considered out of place at the time. He captures the loneliness and defensiveness black reporters experienced and their struggles for recognition and power.
The Press gives a sense of the innovation, growth and power-brokering which gave rise to new empires stretching across the communications industry. It does not, however, offer much analysis of the changes and what they meant for readers. Cose hints at future developments stemming from the increasing power of management, advertisers and stockholders; but, in the end, The Press does not explain the effect that these developments have had on newspaper workers, on news coverage and on the communications industry as a whole.