Interview with Richard Harwood & Paul Taylor
Former Reporters, The Washington Post
© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.
Rush to Judgment: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage
HARWOOD: I think that we have brought into journalism people with higher
expectations today than they used to have, people who think that the "secretarial",
what I call the secretarial function, is demeaning, to simply take down
what the man said and report it. Instead we have come to regard ourselves
as producers of meaning. This is what it means. And a great deal of the
copy that we turn out has to do with this meaning aspect as opposed to the
actual event or the actual words that we're explaining. That happens at
the White House very frequently, and I think it's rather characteristic
of the top notch journalists that we see around Washington these days.
SMITH: What's the reason for this.... effort to interpret, to give meaning,
even on the day the news breaks?
HARWOOD: I think it's come about because of the education levels, qualifications,
the credentials of people who go into journalism and certainly those who,
shall I say, in an elitist way, who rise to the top tend to be very well
They are simply not, sociologically they do not see themselves in the role
of Hildy Johnson of the front page, a guy who drank whiskey out of hip pocket
and chased after petty criminals and things. They see themselves as actors,
as participants in the public affairs of our time. A great many of them
feel that they have a duty or an obligation to change things, to make a
difference. And one of the things, the way that we deal with those aspirations,
is to in effect elevate our roles into this role of the producer of meaning.
TAYLOR: What does your morning paper have to add to the story? It adds meaning.
It adds analysis. It adds insight, perspective, depth, our own special take
on it, our brand name. And I think that that instinct is not just the instinct
of talented reporters. Increasingly I think that's also the instinct of
managing editors and executive editors as well.
SMITH:Does that lead to a rush to judgment? Does that mean that we have
to be producers of instant analysis?...
TAYLOR: I think it is. I think that's the way institutionally you get your
jollies, you get your sense of job satisfaction. And sometimes you pull
it off and you look awfully good, and sometimes you look silly. Sometimes
you pull it off and sometimes you look pretty silly.
SMITH: You've used the phrase "staus frustration." Could you explain?
HARWOOD: People look on a White House correspondent as sort of the apogee
or the zenith of a person's career. The fact of life at the White House
is quite different from the appearance of it. You sit in a little cubicle
for hours every day waiting for someone to come out and tell you, did the
President sign the bill or didn't he sign it. Or you sit there all day not
even getting that bone, waiting to see if the guy dies or what comes out
of his medical examination. And so you give a report about his bowels and
his internal organs and things of this kind. It is not a very edifying or
a very prestigious way to spend your days. And so the frustrations of the
job, and I think every person who has ever covered the White House at one
time or another has said, "Well, basically it's a death watch."
Why does the press plane always land before the Presidential plane. In case
the Presidential plane crashes. Why do we always have to be there with the
President. In case he gets shot. These are not very edifying and very satisfying
assignments. On the other hand, the prestige that goes with the job is quite
out of proportion to the reality of the function.
SMITH: What has changed in political reporting in the last 25 years? What
are your msigivings and what caused you to leave?
TAYLOR: The whole political culture got more cynical. I loved being a reporter.
I think, I was a reporter for twenty-six years. I think I loved it as much
at the twenty-sixth year as I did at the first, but I didn't like being
a reporter in a cynical era.
I didn't like the tone of voice, the attitude journalism, the edge. It seemed
to me to be increasingly shallow, and I just, and sort of against the arc
of most people's lives, I found myself growing more rather than less idealistic.
And one of the reasons I left was to pursue what many have called the somewhat
idealistic reform proposal. I won't trouble you with the details, but what
may have propelled it in my case was that after twenty or twenty-two years
of reporting in the United States I spent three years reporting in South
Africa. I got a chance to watch that country at that very historic turn.
And I got to sense, to see what can happen when you have big leadership
and the best of human nature can come to the fore. And it was a grand and
glorious experience, in many ways the kind of reporting experience I had
always wanted to have in my own country, so it may have crystallized the
issue for me. So returning from South Africa, I decided to go be a reformer,
not a reporter.
The Washington Press Corps vs. the Politicians
TAYLOR: Well, when the Republican Congress was elected, there was an ad,
"Everything's different about Washington now except for the welcoming
committee." And it was an ad for CNN's Crossfire. And then you saw
an image, I think, of Mike Kinsley and John Sununu. And it was the notion
that the permanent establishment in Washington now is the media. You know
Presidents come and go, but George Will is forever. And he's got the permanent
I'm borrowing a line, I forget from whom, that when you see some of these
Sunday morning chat shows, very intelligent people, witty, glib, discussing
the President, it's with as someone said "the casual contempt that
members of the golf club discuss the pro." You know, they're here forever.
The pro is sort of on probation. And I think there's something a little
bit off on that. And I think most importantly the American people think
there's something off on that. I mean if you look at the ratings, the approval
ratings of all of our institutions in this society, they're all pretty low.
And then when you get down real low at the bottom, there's Congress, and
take a couple of rungs below that and you'll find those of us in the press.
And I think part of that is our own doing. Part of that is the best of who
we are. We do bring the bad news. We're supposed to bring the bad news,
and when you do that, people don't like it. That's fine. That's serving
the democracy. Part of it, I think, is this inflated sense of who we are,
too much in the middle of the screen, too much with the snide sneer and
a little bit of contempt.
HARWOOD: What has happened in the twentieth century to a certain extent
has been that the office of the Presidency has taken on a new aura for a
long time, a sort of regal atmosphere. I had a friend in this neighborhood
a few years ago who when he first came to Washington in 1928 walked over
to the White House one day and went into the lobby and said, "I'd like
to see the President." And a few minutes later Calvin Coolidge came
out and said, "Yeah, what do you want?" He said, "I just
wanted to introduce myself. I'm from Iowa and I'm new here. I'm going to
work in the Agriculture Department." The President says, "Well,
good. I hope you enjoy it here." But today the White House is a fortress,
and the accoutrements of the office are such that, well they're unbelievable.
You know that better than I do. The finger on the button contributed a lot
to that. Here's the man with the power in his hands to destroy the world.
And so we became somewhat in awe of the presidency.