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 educated people.
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 throne.
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.
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