- Ken Auletta
Writer, The New Yorker
- Carl Bernstein
- Ben Bradlee
Former editor, The Washington Post
- Patrick Buchanan
Commentator; former adviser to President Nixon
- Walter Cronkite
Former anchor, CBS Evening News
- Mark Feldstein
Professor, The George Washington University
- Ted Koppel
Former anchor, Nightline
- William Safire
Columnist, The New York Times
- Bob Woodward
Reporter, The Washington Post
I've had a number of people make the comparison, in terms of the attitude toward the press, between George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. What do you make of that comparison?
There are some comparisons. I think Nixon had darker caves into which he entered, but I think that he was angry at the press; I think Bush is angry at the press perpetually. But I'll tell you a difference. ... One of the things that it seems reveals the Bush administration's attitude about the press being a special interest is the way [it] has decided -- in a way that the Nixon administration and previous administrations did not -- to aggressively go after reporters.
It had been traditional that you don't press reporters for who their sources are. The presumption is that in order for us to perform our public service function, we will often need anonymous sources to reveal My Lai, Abu Ghraib, things that we're getting from people in the military or intelligence services or diplomats, things that happen that are scandalous, that the public wants to know about, and we help bring them. ... The public wants to know that and has a right to know that, and the press is doing its job in doing that. ...
Now we have situations where the Bush administration has decided that they are going to prosecute potentially the Washington Post reporter who reported on secret prisons in Eastern Europe, and they may prosecute the New York Times reporter who reported on secret eavesdropping [by the National Security Agency (NSA)], and they may prosecute the San Francisco Chronicle reporters [Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams] in the BALCO case for saying that [San Francisco Giants'] Barry Bonds used steroids. ... They've asked the San Diego U.S. attorney to investigate leaks to the FBI in the [private investigator Anthony] Pellicano [wiretapping] case in Los Angeles, which involves two New York Times reporters. ... So you may see sometime fairly soon reporters, as happened in the [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller case, brought before the grand jury, and if they don't identify their sources, going to jail. ...
These are big issues that are going to surface relatively soon and pit the Bush administration against the press in court, demanding our sources in a much more aggressive way than even the Nixon administration did. And the Nixon administration was very blatant -- I mean, [Chief Counsel to Nixon] Chuck Colson saying to Mrs. [Katharine] Graham, who was the head of The Washington Post Company, "We're going to take away your TV licenses." That's pretty strong stuff, and I [haven't heard] the Bush administration say that. But on the other hand, [the Nixon administration] didn't threaten to put reporters in jail the way the current Bush administration is doing. ...
... Pat Buchanan said in 1969 that you could cut the liberal bias in the press with a knife. Was that true? Is that still true today?
Listen, I think the press has to be honest and be more introspective about itself and its [bias]. Every survey of the Washington media shows that when they do these secret surveys of reporters, often more of them identify with the Democratic Party and with moderate to liberal policies, not left liberal -- they're not that; they're kind of establishment. ... The job of a press critic is to try and reveal that if it's there, so the public has transparency. They can see the biases.
But my own attitude is that the operative bias to worry about in the press is not a liberal bias, or even a conservative bias, though those exist. The operative bias you've got to worry about is the bias for conflict, and I think that oftentimes does cause us to have mindless coverage of events and to focus on the wrong thing, not on policy but on who's involved in a spat with each other. That gives a nice headline. And maybe our editors and bosses who worried about circulation and ratings like that more. But it isn't necessarily the function we're supposed to perform. ...
... And what have the media done maybe to help foster that impression or damage themselves?
Oh, let us count the ways. The media damages itself in many, many ways. One, you start with the blatant mistakes that are out there, be it Jack Kelley, USA Today, who makes up stories, or the fellow [Jayson Blair] at The New York Times who makes up stories and is thrown out for that; be it the television reports that are exaggerated; be it the pictures in Time magazine that are composite on the cover. So we're constantly making mistakes and giving ammunition to our critics. ...
On the other hand, we do a lot of good things and have for many, many years. There was a period of time when [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein were reporting Watergate in '72, '73 and early '74, where the charge was The Washington Post is biased, and people like Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire to a lesser extent were out there railing against the press, against the anti-Nixon bias. Well, in retrospect, they were right. They did a pretty good job. So the press has a mixed record like every institution has a mixed record. And we do better if we admit our mistakes. That's why it's a healthy thing to see ombudsmen or public editors or correction boxes, or to see press critics online, who hold us to account. ...
... What effect on the bias debate do you think that the Dan Rather/National Guard reporting debacle had?
Well, that's a classic. What happened with 60 Minutes [II] and Dan Rather in the fall of the presidential election, if you go back and look, you say, well, 60 Minutes actually had some good scoops in there. ... They had some evidence presented that Bush shirked his duties when he was in the National Guard and didn't really fulfill his functions and get away with it because he was politically well-connected.
But then they went the next step and said they had a document that proved all of these things and more. And that document -- in part because of the power, the speed of the Internet -- within hours, bloggers were up on the air over the Internet saying, "Hey, wait a second," or, "This can't be true; this IBM typewriter didn't exist at the time they said this report was issued, and it was typed on this IBM typewriter."
So the bloggers quickly got in, and then the Bush administration jumped in; a lot of people jumped in. But CBS, for 10 days, didn't acknowledge it may have made an error. It was full speed ahead; we stand by our report. They were not being transparent, not being humble, which is what we're supposed to be as journalists. We should never be sure of anything. ...
Ten days later, they had to admit that they may have made a mistake and they were launching their own internal investigation, reinforcing a view -- not just among conservatives, but certainly among conservatives, but also among others -- that the press doesn't always get it right, often gets it wrong, and when it does get it wrong, doesn't admit quickly that they got it wrong. That was very harmful to CBS. ...
Was there something in how the Bush re-election campaign played the "Rathergate" story so that it ended up focusing on the one wrong document out of all of it, or was it just a lucky break for them?
It was a lucky break for them that CBS made a big mistake, but they did more than that. The Bush administration is very good about going on the offensive. If you look at the campaign, starting with the way they were running against a war hero, ... they were able to change the narrative that [Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry wanted to present because they were aggressive about it.
And they were aggressive about CBS. They attacked Dan Rather for his well-known "bias" against the Bush administration -- not just this Bush administration, but his father's administration, and they used every technique to impugn Dan Rather and CBS. Unfortunately, CBS gave them some ammunition to do that. .....
[It] seems safe to say there are more conservative voices in media. The landscape has changed.
Oh, I think there is no question there are more conservative voices in the media. You just start with Fox News. Start with bloggers. Those are all things that didn't exist 10 years ago. You've got a lot more voices, and that's a very healthy thing.
But the important thing is transparency here. That is to say, if someone on Fox News -- if their slogan is "Fair and Balanced," is that a true slogan? Does that represent the truth? It doesn't. Sometimes it does, but oftentimes it doesn't. ... And when someone claims they have no interest, and they have an agenda -- be it a liberal or a left agenda or a right agenda -- it should be exposed.
But the good news is that you've got so many different sources of information out there -- cable news, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, television, satellite television, your iPod -- that people in a democracy can choose. That's a good thing. And if they want to choose a conservative blogger or a Fox News or a CNN, good for them.
[Is it always a good thing?]
It is more ways to get around the filter. That's a healthy thing. It's also an unhealthy thing in the following sense: You have so many sources of information that you don't have any common sources of information. It used to be that our common sources of information were the networks, let's say. So on a typical evening at 6:30 at night, 90 percent of Americans were watching one of three network newscasts, which were fairly similar. ... And in a world that is increasingly polarized between left and right, people have an excuse now to say: "Hey, I don't trust your news. I want my news. I want Fox News. I want The Nation news. I want whatever news that shares my views." Therefore that common source of news declines in value, and that's a problem in a democracy, which is based on compromise. ...
What do you make of the accusation that the press has sort of wimped out on Bush in covering him?
I don't think the press today is too soft on George W. Bush. I think there was a period of time, particularly after 9/11, where America was attacked, a lot of casualties, a lot of frightened people, including press people, and a lot of patriotic people included press people. America was at war, and it was a war unlike other wars, where you didn't know who the enemy was. You knew generically who it was -- militant Islam -- but you didn't know whether it was someone sitting next to you on the subway or not who carried a weapon.
People were frightened, and people probably gave Bush in the press more benefit of the doubt than they should have. So when he announced that somehow Saddam Hussein was connected to our enemies, including Osama bin Laden, and then had Colin Powell, the secretary of state, come up to the U.N. and show these horrifying pictures of places where the weapons of mass destruction were stored and manufactured in Iraq, there was a natural tendency to believe it. They were aided by the fact that if you go around the world to other intelligence services -- the French, the Germans, the British, the U.N. weapons inspectors -- there was a general consensus that, in fact, Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. ...
So the press was hamstrung in part by the fact that it seemed there was a consensus that he did have these weapons of mass destruction. Very few people thought he didn't have them. Now, people thought he might not use them, ... but it was a hard story to get, because you couldn't find good sources, intelligent sources, who said the opposite of what the Bush administration was saying. Nevertheless, the press went through a period of time where their coverage was too soft on Bush and not enough skepticism. ...
[What has changed the relationship between the press and government?] Has anything changed for good in terms of the relationship between the government and the press?
Things like technology change the relationship with the press as much as anything else. If you think of 20 years ago, 15 years ago, a president can think about: "What is my story of the day? What's a story we want to promulgate today, we want to get out today? What's the headline we want in tomorrow's paper or tonight's evening newscast?" and, "Who are the people, the key people, in the media we can communicate this to, either through a leak or a sit-down for interviews?" etcetera.
How do you do that today? You don't have a knot of six or seven people who determine what's going to be written. You don't have that filter that everything runs through, be it The New York Times, The Washington Post or the three networks. You've got three cable news networks. You've got bloggers. You've got the BBC, which has an office here. You've got people who are alternative means of communication.
So what happens today, the president and his staff wake up; they don't say, "What is my news story for the entire day?" They basically say, "What are the five or six news stories we can come up with today that will top each cycle of news?" because there are ... many more opportunities for another news cycle and another headline to develop. So it's totally changed, and technology is the major change agent.
Where do you see the White House press corps in five years or 10 years?
We're going to see more of the trends we've begun to see in the White House and the press relationship. This started, by the way, with Nixon, when Nixon said, "I want to avoid The New York Times or Washington Post filter and go out to local newspapers and get them to communicate my story." They very aggressively organized to do that to try and get around the filter.
In the Clinton administration, Clinton got very angry at the press in his early years and talked about how he's going to avoid using the middleman, using early technology, which was satellite, communicate directly to local press around the country, etcetera, and calling in people who would be honored to be in the presence of the president to do interviews. Bush has extended that, and technology allows him to extend that.
I think what you're going to see more in the future is White House using its own Web site. … They can basically chase the press out of the White House press basement, put back the swimming pool that was covered over there, say: "Go out and do your job however you want. We're not going to help you by giving you these briefings. Check our Web site twice or five times a day. If you want [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's speeches, they're there." They'll do what [Vice President Dick] Cheney's been doing. Cheney travels all over the country, oftentimes without the press, kind of a stealth vice president, and it's an attempt to control the way we cover the news.
They have the power to do that. Will they dare do that? Politics may make it harder for them to do that if the public saw it as an attempt by a future administration to deny the public information. ... Bush has done fewer live press conferences than any modern president. Does the public say at some point, "Hey, where's his transparency?" We want it for Enron; we want it for corporate America; we want it for the press. What about for the president? In a democracy, you can't act unilaterally. You might want to. You might want to say: "Hey, deal with my Web site. Get all the information from that. You don't like my spin? Tough." Well, it may not be politically possible for you to do that. ...
Finally, I just want to get your reflections on the [famously contentious] relationship of Richard Nixon and the press. ... How does that compare to George W. Bush and the press?
First, Nixon's relationship to the press was consistent with his relationship to many institutions and people. He saw himself as a victim. We now understand the psyche of Richard Nixon, that his was a self-destructive act and presidency.
I think what we're talking about with the Bush administration is a far different matter in which disinformation, misinformation and unwillingness to tell the truth -- a willingness to lie both in the Oval Office, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in the office of the vice president, the vice president himself -- is something that I have never witnessed before on this scale.
The lying in the Nixon White House had most often to do with covering up Watergate, with the Nixon administration's illegal activities. Here, in this presidency, there is an unwillingness to be truthful, both contextually and in terms of basic facts that ought to be of great concern to people of all ideologies. ...
I remember the first words Richard Nixon said about the Watergate case was that he was going to be unable to discuss it because it involved matters of national security. That was just baloney.
Katharine Graham took the [Watergate] documents under her possession when a subpoena was served on The Washington Post. If she hadn't stood up through that period, would Watergate have happened?
I don't know the answer to that. We called that the grandmother defense, because if we suddenly gave all our documents to a woman who was in her 60s then, instead of [to] Bernstein and Woodward -- Katharine Graham is a whole lot better possessor and a lot more important witness. We never did have to take it. The man who's trying to get those documents was [Spiro] Agnew, the vice president, and that whole negotiation, about whether Agnew could get Katharine Graham to cough up the documents, became moot when he was indicted and forced to resign.
How did you meet Richard Nixon?
I met Richard Nixon [in] 1954 [for the] first time when I was a caddie at Burning Tree Country Club. I was in his twosome carrying a golf bag around late one afternoon.
But I met him in St. Louis in '65, which would be about 10, 11 years later. ... I had been three and a half years an editorial writer, and I was having some difficulty with my publisher. I went over and met him, and introduced myself in the kitchen to him, and I told him if he were going to run in '68, I'd like to get aboard earlier. ...
I got a call from Nixon's office -- invited me to come up and see him in New York, sent a plane ticket. I went up and was interviewed for three hours straight by Nixon. At the end of it, he said, "I'd like to hire you." I said, "You'd better call my publisher, because he doesn't know I'm here." So that's how I got aboard.
So you're from a newspaper background?
I was Columbia School of Journalism 1962, and I did three and a half years as an editorial writer in St. Louis. I had started, obviously, doing obits, but then, because I had an economic writing fellowship, they moved me to the business desk for about six weeks, and there was an opening on the editorial page. So I was very fortunate. ...
In November '69, Nixon delivered a speech about the "silent majority." What was happening in the country that made you write those lines and give those words to the president? What were you responding to?
I think those are Nixon's. You've got to give Nixon credit for his own lines, the great "silent majority" and the rest of it. But I'd recommended the speech because there were about 300,000 [anti-war] demonstrators in October and another 500,000 expected, who did arrive in mid-November. ...
I sent Nixon a memo saying that it was really time he was going to have to stand up and go to the country and use the bully pulpit of the presidency if he wanted to maintain a coalition behind his policies on Vietnam. And he did that, and his speech was a startling success.
But when it was over, the instant analysis from the networks and [former U.S. diplomat and Democratic adviser] Averell Harriman, they all jumped on the speech, cut it up, and the commentary was all negative. So Nixon told us to respond and write letters to the editor.
I sent him a memo through [Nixon Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman saying: "This isn't going to do it now. We ought to go directly after the networks themselves, take them on in public, in a high forum. The vice president [Spiro Agnew] ought to do the speech, and I will write it." I got back a little note at the top of that memo, which I still have, which said: "P has seen. Go ahead." That was the president.
So I went ahead with the draft, and I sent it over to the president. He invited me over to the office, and he started editing it himself. I was a little concerned, because the language flowed, and you don't like anyone fooling with your work. But at one point in the draft -- he had his glasses on as he was editing, and he took his glasses off, and he said, "This will tear the scab off those bastards."
Now, who are "those bastards"?
I think it is the columnists and commentators who were carving him up and denying him the right to fulfill the commitment he had made to the American people to gain peace with honor in Vietnam.
You called them an "elite," an "unelected elite."
Uh-huh. Small unelected elite.
Who do you mean? Who is this elite?
It would be the small group of editors, commentators, columnists, but with regard to the network, it is the anchors and the dozen or so people behind them who select what went on the evening news, which was the primary source of information then for two-thirds of the American people. So what we did in those two speeches I drafted for Agnew -- the second was about The New York Times and Washington Post, but the first on Nov. 13 in Des Moines was a direct assault on the networks and their denial to the president of the United States of his capacity to communicate directly with the American people and win them over to his policies. As we said at the time, there was a very small group of people who were deciding what two-thirds of the American people saw as news.
And Agnew asked, "Is it not proper to ask, what are their biases? What are their prejudices? What do they bring to the table as they choose and select what the American people will see as news?" ...
It was a tremendous success, and in response to the speech, something like 50,000 telegrams of support for Agnew went directly to the networks. If you look at the Time and Newsweek and I think U.S.News [and World Report], the cover of the magazines that next week had all of the anchors on. We had elevated the issue of network power and network bias for the first time in American history, and it was a startling success. ...
[The networks] would come back and say they put the speech on the air.
(Laughs.) I think it was one of the worst mistakes they ever made. Listen, it would not have had the impact had it not gone on all three networks. It would not have had the impact. If you hadn't had that enormous audience that they had, their captive audience, they delivered to them these addresses that basically took them apart. And the audience which had listened to them agreed with us.
In the speech, Agnew says that the people have a right to make up their own minds without having a president's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.
This sounds a lot like what President Bush is saying today.
I wouldn't really get too much into what Bush is saying, because there's such multiplicity of sources today. Networks don't have the power they did. I mean, you've got Fox; you've got MSNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, the three networks. Sometimes the networks don't cover his speeches.
But what we were talking about then, what Agnew was talking about, was instant analysis. In other words, the president would finish speaking, and they would start chopping it up rather than let the American people make [up] their own mind about what it was he had said to them. ...
Let me give you a Bush line: "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people." That's really your line.
He sounds like Pat Buchanan 35 years ago. Uh-huh, you do; there's no question about it. Look, a president's got an obligation to communicate with the American people. ...
That's why when you say "go over the heads of them," we would go over the heads of national television, Nixon would. In the Reagan era, we would bring in the anchors from local [media], what we called "regional media," from, say, the Midwest, and bring in all the anchors into lunch with Reagan, and we would have briefings for them. Then Reagan would speak to them and he'd take questions at lunch, and the national press would be outside of it. In that way, all of these individuals would take back segments to their local districts.
That's the whole war -- the battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda. ... The real power of the left was in the national media. ...
So this is an ideological battle?
It was a political and philosophical battle. ...
You found an issue to mobilize people around -- the disaffected, the silent majority. This was all part of a political strategy.
No, the attacks on the media were not part of a preconceived strategy. ... We didn't come into the White House saying, "I'll tell you what: This fall, let's launch some attacks on the national networks." We had an agenda we wanted to implement, and the principal impediment to that objective in Vietnam was the mass demonstrations, given aid and comfort and support by the liberal media which was attacking the president constantly. At the same time, when he would speak to the country, as soon as he would finish, they would reinterpret everything for the listener so that he would not go away carrying with him what the president had told him.
They were standing on our windpipe, and that's why we went after them. ...
So you didn't really know what the reaction was going to be to Agnew's speech. But you discovered that it was an issue, something people could rally around.
After the Agnew speech, there was a national explosion over the issue. On the covers of Time and Newsweek they had the network anchors. It was the number one story all week long. It was the hottest story in the country. And the fact is, the vast majority of the American people agreed 100 percent with us. The networks were inundated with telegrams denouncing their bias.
So what had happened was, the cordite was all out there; we just ignited it. And there's no doubt that the public responded because the public already believed what Spiro Agnew had said. ...
I really want to get back to this idea of an elite. "That elite," you've written, "is using that media monopoly to discredit those with whom it disagrees and to advance its own ideological objectives." Who is this elite, and what are their objectives?
By the time we'd come to office, their objective[s] were two: It was to break Nixon's policy on Vietnam; and in Watergate, it was to break Nixon and bring him down. We succeeded in Vietnam in winning the battle with the media. In Watergate we failed. Because of Nixon's mistakes, then they brought him down. ...
So this is the bias that you're referring to in the Agnew speeches?
Look, the liberal bias, you could cut it with a knife. Back in the 1960s, it was hard to find a conservative in the national media. ... In 1972, they took a survey of who you voted for of the national press: Eighty-five to 95 percent went for [Sen. George] McGovern when Nixon was winning the biggest landslide in American history. I mean, what was that? (Laughs.)
Well, maybe they would say, "We knew more about him as president, what he was doing."
Could be. Sure.
And that this media monopoly that you talk about, ideological monopoly, really hadn't communicated to the American public.
Why did they all vote for Mondale, too?
So you're just saying that's the way it is.
Sure. Look, if you go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, with the exception of the Fox News table, you're not going to find a lot of conservatives there. And that's a very large group.
So it's continued to this day?
It continues to this day. But with regard to the establishment media, it is the citadel of American liberalism. It's what's left. That's where the real power is, and it continues to this day.
But if they don't win elections, they don't own the media?
Well, let me say this: If the media turned against the Democratic candidate, he would never have a chance. We conservatives can beat them at times, and at other times we can't. But if the media ever abandoned the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, I don't think it's got much base in the country.
The Democratic Party?
The liberal wing of the party doesn't have much base in the country.
So if things reverse -- because in my memory, most newspapers and media before television were dominated by Republicans, by conservatives mostly. They never endorsed Franklin Roosevelt.
Let's come up the to modern era, when I was raised. Let's go down: The Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal and Constitution [sic], even the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Denver Post -- not a single conservative paper there, not one. All the big ones, the major newspapers, the networks, the White House press corps -- overwhelmingly liberal, left of center. I don't think they'll deny it. They don't deny it anymore. Probably wouldn't do them any good, because I think we persuaded the country, or the country was persuaded. What Agnew did was tell them what they already knew in their hearts. That's why they got the response we did. ...
Walter Cronkite has written that ... stories on the front page of the country were almost without exception exactly what it was on the networks' evening newscast. And the editors of those mostly Republican-owned newspapers then weighed the news and came to the same conclusions as the broadcast editors did.
That's Mr. Cronkite's view. But the point is, when Vice President Agnew spoke to the country -- and it was the first time he had ever spoken on national television -- the response was extraordinary. ...
That tells me that the American people had come to their own conclusions, and all Agnew did was articulate what they saw and what they believed. Cronkite had an opportunity every night after that to challenge that, as did his successors.
What has happened is that we have won this battle. We have won this war to the point where the American people, when they look at the network news and someone says, "That's the way it is," they say, "No, that's not the way it is; that's the way [Dan] Rather or Cronkite or some of these other fellows think it is, or believe it is, or want us to believe it is."
What the networks had done was to try to create a sense of skepticism and disbelief about Nixon and what we were saying. What we said is, "Have that same skepticism and disbelief when you watch the network news." And they did, and they do now.
And so Nixon got a landslide in '72.
Nixon got a landslide in '72 despite all that support from the media for McGovern. Nixon was in touch with middle America in 1972. ...
When I came to the White House -- I won't mention his name -- there's a columnist [who] later on came to see me in the White House, and he said: "What you've got to understand is that we are the adversary press. In other words, we are your adversaries."
I said to him: ... "Why? We'd been elected. Nixon's been elected to carry out a certain agenda on Vietnam and domestically. Why should the press be our adversary?" And he said: "Well, that's our function now. We're the adversary press."
If someone decides they're going to be our adversaries, it seems to me within our rights to deal with them as an adversary. I think that [was an] idea which Nixon already had and a lot of us did not when we first went to work for Nixon. Nixon had more journalists working for him than any president before him. We didn't have that attitude, but I think by the time Nixon left office, virtually all of us did. …
William Safire wrote in one of his books there was a "conspiracy on the part of the Nixon administration to discredit and malign the press that was encouraged, directed and urged on by the president himself."
That's inexact. But there's no doubt. Look, when I came with Richard Nixon, he told me, "The press is the enemy." I did not believe it, or I argued, "Look, there's a number of people that don't like you, but there's a new generation that's come along since 1966. It's not 1948," in his case.
But there's no doubt that as we became engaged and in battle and the press became the main adversary -- we did see them as our adversaries, our principal adversaries -- we did go after them and fight back. We did launch pre-emptive strikes. The whole idea, however, was to enable the president [to have the] freedom of action to put into place what he was elected to do. If all things were equal, we didn't want the war with the press. Why would we want it?
You want them to surrender. You want them to be on your side.
We wanted them to get off our back, and if they couldn't get off our back, the thing to do was to throw them off your back. And that's what we did. If they're going to challenge our credibility, then we would challenge their credibility. We had every right to do so.
Frankly, they did not break us as they broke Johnson. What broke us was, quite frankly, the mistakes Nixon made in Watergate. And of course they were exploited by our enemies and adversaries to bring him down. ...
Today, reporters are being subpoenaed about information that they get from individuals in confidence, and they may not even have written anything about it.
Well, it's the [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller case. Look, if the press was screaming and hollering and demanding that the special prosecutor be appointed to find out the leak and that [then-Attorney General] Mr. [John] Ashcroft recuse himself, and so they get him a special prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald], and he said, "Oh, OK, I'm going to find the leak," and he goes and asks the same journalist, who knows who leaked, and they don't talk to him.
Basically, I've got to agree with Fitzgerald on this one and the judge ... that approved the subpoenas and imposed them on Judith Miller. I think she should have had to testify.
You don't think journalists have a right to protect their sources?
I think they have an obligation to protect their sources, a duty to do so, but I do think that the journalists really do not have special rights that do not attach themselves to other citizens, no.
So then how can you protect your sources?
I think you just do your best to protect them. I don't understand this. If I were a White House aide, for example, and I'd been told something in secret -- as I was. I was hauled before the grand jury; I had to talk about my conversations with the president of the United States.
You mean if I talked to a journalist, he doesn't have to tell about his conversation with me, but I have to talk about my conversation with him? ... When I leave the White House as a sworn assistant to the president and become a columnist, why do I suddenly get new rights?
Why do you think there's a First Amendment clause in the Constitution in the Bill of Rights?
So that the press is free to report and comment on what it wants.
How can it do that? How can it gather information, particularly about government, without some protection to the people who are willing to talk to you?
It looks like it's been going just fine. (Laughs.) I haven't noticed any chilling effect in this town on people talking to reporters because of the Judith Miller episode.
Or the pending leak investigations that are going on.
No. It's going to start happening again.
Let me go back to the bias issue. When you think about those days and you think of today, can you compare it?
I can. Here's what's happening: Since the Agnew speeches, there has been a tremendous -- I don't deny it -- a corrective. The first thing that happened was the arrival of young conservative columnists on the op-ed pages of various newspapers to the point where they almost dominated the op-ed pages.
Then came the arrival of talk radio in the '80s. You had the arrival of nationalized talk radio with Rush [Limbaugh], and you've got the Internet, and you've got Fox News. So, if you will, there is an alternative media today. It's a populist media. Populist media today is conservative. ...
So from your point of view, things are much better?
There's no question about it. I can see talk radio is a tremendously powerful influence, and it's overwhelmingly dominated by conservatives. ... These are reforms.
These are reforms?
Uh-huh. Excellent reforms, partly as a consequence, I think, of the criticisms of the media. Some of the media made the reforms themselves about the op-ed pages and partly as a result of a marketplace. The American people want to hear conservative voices, and with this multiplicity of cable channels and news stations -- all-news talk … and syndicated and networked radio -- people pick and choose what they want to hear.
I want to take you back to the '60s, ... and let me quote something you wrote: "The Nixon administration policy related to the press was based on a simple formula. If you could bring down the press's credibility, it might improve his credibility." What was that like ... when you heard the attack from the Nixon administration?
Oh, I don't know. I don't think that it sent any of us crying out of the room exactly. We expected it. Very shortly after he began to attack the press, we understood that that was a certain attitude that the man had toward the press. The fact that he would occasionally make us the target, make me the target, was not bothersome. ... That's the way he's going to react to almost anything we do. We're not going to satisfy him, and that wasn't our job, to satisfy him.
That's one of the things that must be kept in mind, that we have no obligation to our subjects, particularly political subjects, who are going to use whatever they can get hold of to further their own cause of getting re-elected. No matter what their job, whether just as a president being re-elected or a congressman or a city councilman, they all work on the same principle. The principle is that if they feel they're in any way being offended by the press and embarrassed by the press, they're going to retort, come back at you. That's their defense mode. So we live that way. Yeah, that's the business.
You weren't surprised when [Vice President Spiro] Agnew gave his speech about the Eastern liberal press and the unelected elite -- of which you were a prominent member, in his view -- that stood in the way of the president talking directly to the public?
Oh, no. I wouldn't even call it a surprise. It was a development in our relationship that was one more chapter was all. The very first time a politician puts you in his target is sometimes a disappointment, because perhaps you thought you were friends and getting along well. ... But it is not something that you dwelled on. At least I did not. ...
We interviewed [commentator] Pat Buchanan yesterday, and he says that this was part of a tactic or strategy on the part of the Nixon administration, himself included, to identify this elite, as he put it, and that because they did this, they had a great popular reaction, developing their silent majority, if you will, against people like you. So you were a political factor.
Yeah. Well, we recognized that. We lived with that. I'm not surprised that you now tell me that that's what he said, or they said, or you've accumulated in your research. It's been going on since the very beginning of politics as far as I know, at least since the days of television, where we are a little more targets than a byline in the newspapers. The fact that we're out there in the public even as they are, there is more of a competitive atmosphere with television. We know each other's faces. They are therefore more inclined to believe that we are in the same field together, that we are part of a political world. And I guess we are. ...
It reminds me of that confrontation between Nixon and Dan Rather, where Nixon said to Rather, "Are you running for office?"
Yeah, sure. And Rather answers back: "No. Are you?" Yeah. That is a little bit sharper than most television journalists would play with a politician, an officeholder. I think that that was a little disrespectful. He's the president of the United States. ... That hit me the wrong way at that moment. ... I felt that Rather was lowering himself in doing that, in trying to bandy around with the president of the United States. It seemed to be a little out of step.
... Pat Buchanan would say that back in those days, when there were three networks and you dominated the news, you were in a sense a monopoly. And for people getting information, ... the problem, from his point of view, was your bias, -- that you're a liberal. ... Are you biased?
I'm a liberal, but I'm not biased. Seriously. ... A journalist covering politics, most of us are aware of the necessity to try to be sure we're unbiased in our reporting. That's one of the fundamentals of good journalism. We all have our likes and our dislikes. But ... when we're doing news -- when we're doing the front-page news, not the back page, not the op-ed pages, but when we're doing the daily news, covering politics -- it is our duty to be sure that we do not permit our prejudices to show. That is simply basic journalism.
You felt it necessary apparently back then in 1969, ... after Agnew's speeches, to publicly reply. Apparently you went to St. Joseph, Mo. That's where you were born, St. Joe?
Why did you do that? Do you remember?
Yes. I had decided at that time that it was time for us not to answer on air, but to demonstrate nearly as we could and to explain as nearly as we could how journalism works, how we work in a given environment: a political convention, election. That is not the way [Sen. Barry] Goldwater [R-Ariz.] thought it was done and preferred to have the people believe it is done. ... I thought we should try to educate the public as much as we could as to Agnew's attacks upon us.
There's no reason why we should remain silent when we are under such attack. We can't use our own reporting to do it. ... I did not feel we could do it on our own program. We later on got to the point where we were doing some pieces in retort, but that was ... at [a] later stage. ...
We may have our own prejudices, but we are not permitted to use them in a news broadcast. We might do it in an editorial piece somewhere, if you have that privilege. ... But most of us didn't have that opportunity. Those of us doing news broadcast did not have our own little editorial niches. ...
When you see what happened back then with Nixon and that confrontation with the press, and you see what's happening today with the Bush administration and the press and the way in which the press is characterized, ... what do you think?
I think that there has been little change there. I think, however, in the present situation, that White House is so buttoned up, so lacking in associating with the press really, that the press itself, ... [the print press] who cover the White House, are embittered by the fact they're kept so distant from the people of authority, that they aren't answering back. ...
Let me take you back again to the Nixon era. In those days, like when you were covering Watergate, apparently you would get phone calls from the White House, complaining about your coverage. And [President Lyndon] Johnson had complained.
Johnson complained. He was on the phone before I was off the broadcast insisting that they put the telephone line through to [me]. Our poor secretaries in the news area. We'd get these calls from the White House, and he'd say, "I want to talk to Cronkite," and they'd say, "Well, he's on the air." He'd say, "I know he's on the air, but put him on the air with me." They had a hard time keeping him off the air for a few more minutes until we were off the air. Then I would take his calls, of course, and he would complain about something we had on that day.
And I understood you got calls from [Chief Counsel to President Nixon] Charles Colson and other people in the Nixon White House.
Oh, yeah, those as well. However, they more frequently called the heads of our network, ... and not the news department.
Did [the network head] protect you?
I wouldn't say protected us. He would get back to us and say, "They didn't like something," but he never said, "Don't ever do that again." ... He just relayed their complaints. ...
Richard Nixon despised the press. It's ironic, because his very rise as a politician in the first place came from very favorable press coverage during the [alleged Soviet spy] Alger Hiss case. The Los Angeles Times was in his corner, and he had a whole coterie of right-wing journalists, anti-Communist journalists, who built him up and helped launch him as a national figure.
But Richard Nixon had a very thin skin. He was really temperamentally unsuited to the kind of hurly-burly of American politics and the minor criticism. He got really stung, and he brooded about it. He plotted revenge for it. He had these various scandals -- the slush fund scandal in 1952 that led to the Checkers speech; 1960, more scandals about money from Howard Hughes.
Particularly in the 1960 campaign, he correctly saw the news media as siding with John Kennedy. JFK was a charismatic, much more likable figure than the kind of introverted and shy Nixon. And when Nixon lost that election by a razor-thin margin, he blamed the news media for that defeat. By the time he became president, he vowed he would get revenge on the news media for all of the slights and arrows that had [been] shot his way over the past 20 years in politics.
And what did he do?
He did everything. He wiretapped reporters without court order. He sicced the CIA, illegally, to spy on journalists. He composed enemies lists that targeted reporters. Reporters were audited by the IRS for income tax audits. He leaked information to his favorites, and he even, in one celebrated case, his aides came up with a plot to assassinate a particularly meddlesome journalist. It wasn't carried out, but this gives you some sense of Nixon's antagonism and how far he was willing to go to attack the press.
He, in the Pentagon Papers case, for the first time ever, tried to engage in prior-restraint censorship of the news media. It was his Justice Department, overruling career prosecutors, who took to the Supreme Court the Branzburg [v. Hayes] case, which limited reporters' rights to protect their sources.
He unleashed Spiro Agnew, his vice president, to issue a scathing public attack on the news media. All presidents had had problems with the press; no president likes to be criticized. But this was the first concerted effort to target the media as an institution across the board, not just individual reporters, and to undermine their credibility with the public. To attack them as an institution and, in some cases, to arrest them and throw them in jail and to undermine the whole notion of journalism as a check and a balance on wrongdoing in the government.
Tell me about the use of subpoenas [relating to the press] during the Nixon administration. Was it an epidemic or a normal number?
I don't know what the numbers are on that. I know there actually were a lot of subpoenas that came out, surprisingly even before Nixon took office. After the '68 [Democratic] Convention in Chicago, all the violence, they wanted outtakes.
But the raft of new subpoenas, whether it started to occur at the end of the Johnson administration or was in the first days of the Nixon administration, the raft of subpoenas was so great that John Mitchell, the attorney general under Nixon, actually drew up new guidelines for how the Justice Department should process all of these subpoenas that were coming forward and under what circumstances they should intervene, to try to issue subpoenas to journalists and to not do that.
This was what led to the Justice Department guidelines, which are actually pretty good today. And had they been followed in subsequent cases, like the Plame case, maybe, you know, they [the cases in question] wouldn't have occurred.
Well, again, this is a function of the fragmentation. In the old days, when all you had was the three networks, no one, no public official who wanted to communicate with the American people, could afford a bad relationship with all three networks or all three network news organizations.
Nixon came close to it. ... You go back; you see that what Nixon tried to do was he invited local anchors from around the country to come and visit him at the White House and to talk to him directly. He thought he would go over the heads of the networks. It was a smart thing to do, because let's face it: If you're coming in from wherever it is -- Sacramento or Canton, Ohio -- and you're suddenly sitting in the Oval Office, and you're interviewing the president of the United States, all those tough questions you were rehearsing in the shower that morning, out the window. …
... What was the object of the speeches [given by Vice President Spiro Agnew about the media]?
With Spiro Agnew, Nixon felt he could go over the head of the columnists -- or, as Eisenhower [called] them, the "sensation-seeking" columnists and commentators. Eisenhower said that at a national convention, and the place went wild. So there is a built-in anti-media feeling. ...
Pat Buchanan wrote a speech for [Agnew] about the media, and it was a rip-snortin' speech, and it went to Nixon. I was there, and I saw him look at it. Nixon's response to reading that speech that Agnew was going to make was, "This really rips the scab off, doesn't it?" I expected him to edit it or at least say, "You can't go this far," and he handed it back and said, "Go." So there was a good feeling about that.
Now, when he made that speech, ... the media felt it had to broadcast it. Here you had a whole speech -- not a piece, not an excerpt, but a whole speech broadcast on national television and covered on the news shows. That made the speech an event and made Agnew's reputation as the anti-media voice. ...
Didn't the Nixon administration, your group inside it, see the press as the enemy?
Nixon himself used that phrase a dozen times in my hearing -- "The press is the enemy" -- because he had been savaged right from the start by the press. They didn't like him going after [alleged Soviet spy] Alger Hiss. When I say "they," a great many people in the press were on Hiss' side and felt that Nixon was being McCarthyite. ...
So the feeling that Nixon had was that he was fighting an enemy, and it peaked really in the '62 campaign for governor in California, and then where he lashed out at the press at his last press conference.
However, here's the point: After he declared the press his enemy, and after the press helped start to bring him down -- I don't say the press brought him down, because Judge [John] Sirica really brought him down more than anybody -- on his way out of the White House, a farewell speech to the troops, as it were, the last thing he said was, "You'll never win if the people who hate you cause you to hate them, because then you destroy yourself." Now, that was a piece of hard-earned wisdom that Nixon realized as he went out, and it's one that I think politicians today could remember; that if you hate people back with the same virulence that they hate you, you will destroy yourself.
... You wrote after the '68 election that Nixon and his advisers decided that since the people who opposed him and opposed the Vietnam War "managed the news," we would be better off discrediting the news media. So discrediting the news media was a political strategy for the Nixon administration.
Yes. No doubt about it. There were those who kind of resisted that. Herb Klein, the communications director, ... he didn't go for the discrediting business. And [White House Press Secretary] Ron Ziegler was reluctant to really join in with a vengeance. But certainly when you could catch a reporter in a mistake or get the feeling that there was pack journalism going on, the president -- rarely personally, but through Agnew and others -- lashed back.
[Was it a strategy to win votes?]
I don't know about that. I wouldn't break it down that closely. I think it was more visceral on Nixon's part -- [about] the intellectuals, the elite who he had never been a part of, and who he had fought his way past them to elective office.
Then Kennedy had a lot to do with it. The press loved Kennedy, most of the press, and Nixon always felt that the press gave Kennedy a break that they would never give Nixon. That was true, but he went overboard on it.
And when Pat Buchanan says to us that the battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda, then and now?
I think that's excessive. That's drawing the battle lines too closely. The press ever since the country was founded has been a check and a balance on the government. That's the whole reason for the First Amendment, to protect the persnickety press of the 1780s, the scandalmongers. They were a burr in the side of Washington and Jefferson and [Alexander] Hamilton and John Adams.
When you read their feelings about the press, they were not always the high-blown phrases that you see carved on their monuments. (Laughs.) George Washington was pretty much down on the guys who were after him, and certainly Hamilton and Jefferson were fiercely angry at [Scottish scandalmonger] James Thompson Callender, who kept blowing the whistle on them. So that's in the American tradition, and it's why the Alien and Sedition Acts are looked on today as a terrible mistake by our founders, and it was corrected in 1803 or so.
Well, let me take you from the founders to Nixon. You wrote to Nixon in 1969: "Attacks on a biased press and sinister Eastern establishment run the danger of appearing thin-skinned and whining." Were you right?
Well, I'm glad you dug that up. ... Yes, I think I was right on that.
But Buchanan disagreed with you. He thought it was an issue that Nixon could rally the country around.
Yeah, right. And fortunately for us, we had a president at the time who would have both a Buchanan and a Safire. ... Buchanan was the tough-minded conservative, and I was the phrase-making opportunist. (Laughs.)
But do you see a similarity between the Bush administration distancing itself, the White House, from the press and the Nixon, if you will, adversarial relationship with the press?
The Bush administration's "isolation" is the word that the media likes to use, is nowhere near the calculated wall that was put up during the Nixon days. Nixon changed the name of the press conference to the news conference. Why? Because it wasn't the press's conference; it was the president's conference to make news. He thought about that. That wasn't an accident.
At one point, he would tell Klein and Ziegler: "I don't want to see that guy on the plane again. Make sure he doesn't get on the plane." At one point, I remember Ziegler had to say to him: "Look, we've got a press pool of four guys. It's picked not by us, and we really can't say no." And Nixon kind of licked his lips and said: "Tell you what. Put all four of those guys on Air Force One. Go ahead; do it." And Ziegler said, "I can?" And the president said: "Right. And I'll ride back on the press plane," the other plane riding in back. Well, we talked him out of that. (Laughs.)
But you don't see a similarity with this administration attempting to control its message?
Managing the news, which is always the charge made against both Democratic and Republican administrations, is always attempted to a certain degree, and it should be. I mean, you should say, why should we be concentrating on foreign news when people are worried about inflation or recession? So let's put out stories about this and put out legislation about that. That's managing the news. ...
You don't see any special wall with this White House?
Not more than ever.
Or discipline about what their message is?
It always is tried, and it always breaks down, thank God.
This is where this question comes from. Let me read to you from [former White House Chief of Staff] Andrew Card: "The press doesn't represent the public any more than any other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." It sounds like the Nixon White House.
Well, I disagree with him on that.
Yeah, but Buchanan might not disagree with him, or Nixon might not have disagreed with him.
One of the glories of the Nixon administration is it had people of different points of view. It had [liberal urban affairs adviser] Pat Moynihan and it had [Federal Reserve Chair] Arthur Burns arguing conservative economics. There was more internal debate in that administration than it ever got credit for. And we got some great people coming out of it, like Moynihan, like [Secretary of Labor] George Schulz, who would stand up to the president from time to time and would talk to the press.
Now, some of us had a franchise. [Nixon White House counsel] Len Garment could go to parties in Georgetown, the dens of iniquity as far as Nixon was concerned. But he was a loyalist, as I was. We had the franchise to go out and talk to people, because we believed in a lot of the things, in almost all of the things, that Nixon was doing. We didn't believe in what was called then "the Berlin Wall," the [Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman and [White House counsel John] Ehrlichman resistance to or real enmity for a lot of the reporters -- not all, but a lot.
And that surfaces -- believe me -- when I tried to get through to people in the Carter administration. ... Same thing happened with me in the Clinton years. It was tough getting through to people.
Can you get through to people now at the Bush White House?
Well, now I'm a language columnist, and I can get through to anybody anywhere. (Laughs.) But when the Sept. 11 attack came, and the prompt response was to crack down on civil liberty, really, and the first policy statements came out of the Justice Department and the White House a couple of weeks after the attacks, I felt that the president was making the mistake, frankly, that Johnson and Nixon had made in cracking down too hard, too fast. ...
I wrote a column saying that this was a grab for power; this was a dictatorial act. That was before the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] moved. Now, what kind of a reaction did I get? From my conservative allies in the press, they thought I was being hysterical. And maybe I was being a little bit hysterical, but sometimes you have to exaggerate in order to make your point. But I thought it was a terrible mistake. ...
So you still had access to the White House. You could call up and get called back?
Yeah, because there's an element in Washington that is not purely partisan or political; it's personal. When you grow up with people, and you go through the wars with them and go through the campaigns with them, there's a certain tolerance that develops. You'll give them the benefit of the doubt, and they'll give you the benefit of access, even when you're at each other's throat, even when you're irritated with each other.
So you don't see the Bush administration's, for instance, preference for Fox, avoiding the networks, avoiding The New York Times, The Washington Post, as sort of an extension of the same kind of attitude toward the press that you grew up with with Nixon?
The key word in your question is "extension." How much of an exaggeration is it, or how far does it go? When Vice President [Dick] Cheney, after that shooting accident, decided to go on Fox, it wasn't because he was afraid of a tough question. Quite frankly, a tough question handled properly is more effective for the politician. It was his way of putting his thumb in the eye of the rest of the press and saying, "You guys are going wild on this story, and it's a non-story, so I'll turn to the network that professes to be fair and balanced." He put his thumb in their eye, and everybody knew it.
Well, that's where he appears regularly, as his place of choice.
All right. And on the other hand, he does appear on Meet the Press and a lot of other places where he gets pretty tough questions.
In 2004, you told The Boston Globe that you helped move along the idea of opinionated reporting. How?
Well, there used to be a division that said reporters should be objective, and opinion columnists are allowed to sound off left or right with their opinions. But they base their opinions on what they read in the papers.
It occurred to me fairly early in my career as an opinion monger that something that Stewart Alsop told me -- he's my ideal columnist. He was with The Washington Post and Newsweek. ... He said, "If you can bury an unknown fact in your column, you'll force people to read it and react to it."
Now, you have access as a columnist beyond a lot of reporters. Not only do you know these guys, you've been there forever, but they'll tell you something sometimes. Or they'll let something drop. Now, you don't put it in a lead because then you're competing with reporters. You drop it in the fourth graph, and the reader will have to start looking for interesting new information in your column. Then you build on it and give your opinion about it.
So that's how opinionated reporting, clearly labeled as such, came into my life. And I kind of like that. It got a good reaction at the paper, at the Times. Here's somebody who's not sucking his thumb and staring at the wall, but getting on the phone, calling his contacts, doing some reporting, and then still remembering that he's an opinion columnist, giving his opinion spiced with this extra information.
When you say The New York Times liked it, The New York Times keeps its opinions on the editorial page, right, and its reporting, we assume, or its supposedly objective, unbiased reporting in its news pages?
No. That was the old way, and that's the way it's often done. The Times I think does that better than most, but it also permits a reporter, a great reporter like Tom Friedman, to write a column, just as The Washington Post has a great reporter like David Broder writing a column. Now, how can you say that he's a reporter and he shouldn't have an opinion, or he's an opinion monger and he shouldn't get on the phone and report?
No, but the concept, it seems, of unbiased reporting is under attack these days.
Absolutely. And when a reporter goes on the air, on television, when a newspaper reporter -- not a columnist, but a reporter -- goes on the air and takes a partisan position or a philosophical position, he's saying to his readers, "This is what I think." It colors the way readers read his reporting. There's a possible confusion there, and that has to be watched out for.
I'm saying something different. I'm saying that opinionated reporting labeled as such is proper, good. But it's kind of dangerous for somebody to say, "I'm a reporter, but I can also give opinions on television."
Fox News: Is that opinionated reporting?
I don't see it as much as PBS.
You think PBS is opinionated reporting?
Yeah. I think there's a mental set in the selection of stories and documentaries and that sort of thing that goes on at PBS that has a liberal bent to it. Now, I don't charge that as being mean-spirited or conniving. Most reporters, most writers tend to be liberal and tend to vote Democratic. Don't look shocked and horrified; everybody knows that. There have been surveys taken. It's not shocking. People who write for a living usually are more Democratic or liberal than people who don't write for a living. ...
You know, Buchanan talked, for instance, about Nixon [using] local reporters to get around the Washington press corps. ... Recently President Bush did the same thing. ... He said, "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people." Sounds like your old friend Richard Nixon.
Now, if it sounds like Nixon, does that mean it's wrong? No. I think it's perfectly legitimate for a president or any other politician to say instead of talking to guys who I talked to all the time, I'm going to go out and reach some other people.
But you know it's more than that. The guys you talk to all the time you see as the adversary. They're filtering what you say.
You don't think you're getting your message to the grassroots, so you freeze them out, and you talk to the locals.
And what you say to them is seen by them as stale. When you look around sometimes at the press corps following a candidate around in a campaign, the Washington press corps has heard the stump speech 20, 30 times. And when you get to an applause line, "Nobody's going to make a doormat out of the American flag," they all roll their eyes. But the people that Nixon said it to liked that and applauded, and the reporters -- local reporters -- wrote it down. It becomes fresh if you go on to a new fresh audience. …
... Do you believe that there is a professional kind of journalism that people should rely on that has standards and practices to get really reliable information?
I believe there should always be a pressure for trying to be fair and straight and objective in your reporting. Now, that standard is not everybody's standard. You can't give it a formula. You can't say there will be this many column inches on this side and this many column inches refuting it.
If somebody makes news, it is not a job of a professional, objective reporter to balance that news with as much news as he can find rebutting it. It's like instant analysis. When the president [Nixon] went on the air with a speech to the nation, I remember CBS, I guess it was, had a rebuttal immediately by an objective reporter who was giving the rebuttal. Agnew [said]: "Hey, wait a minute. The president's talking to the people, and here's somebody given his audience, inheriting his audience, rebutting him, ostensibly from an objective point of view."
Now, when he said that instant analysis speech, the press bridled -- you know, "We have a right to comment." Right. And CBS held tightly to that standard until the pressure was off. And then -- well, you look at it now, they'll have the rebuttal by a politician of another party so that the viewer says, "Well, this is what the president says, and this is what the other party says." That's legit. That's, I think, objective journalism.
We should strive as reporters to cover the happening and give the background to the happening and also remind people the why of the story, why he's saying this. But you give people a chance to say what they have to say.
One of the things that bothers me on television a lot is a stand-up reporter in front of a candidate who's talking to a crowd and in 20 seconds says, "This is what he said today." And you can see the guy trying to make his point in the background, and you don't have a chance to hear him say it. I think it should be more coverage of what the politicians are saying -- both sides -- than the commentators.
You don't subscribe to, let's say, [Washington Post op-ed columnist] Michael Kinsley's recent remarks that there is no real objective journalism and that, in fact, inserting opinion into journalism gives you better reporting, better information.
He's brilliant, and he can be brilliantly mistaken. I think you should strive, if you are a straight reporter and if you are fulfilling the role of trying to inform people of what's happening, what event are you covering and tell it straight. You don't always do it, but you should always try to do it, and let the commentators comment. ...
I'm going to switch to confidential sources here. In the period of the Nixon administration, that's when we saw many reporters being subpoenaed, and in fact it ended in the Branzburg [v. Hayes] decision in 1972. ... When you see the subpoenas today, is this 35 years again replaying itself? The truce seems to have broken down between the Justice Department in particular and the federal government and reporters.
What we're seeing now is an outbreak of the invasion of the right of the press to get information as never before. There's never been a precedent to the way this is happening now to what Justice [William J.] Brennan called the "chilling effect" on the First Amendment.
You have these guidelines that came out of that Branzburg decision, and the Justice Department is very careful to make sure that before you subpoena a reporter, you try everything else in the world; then if it's a matter of extraordinary urgency, then you go to the judge, and the judge then has to decide, is this a capital case? Is a person who was accused of a crime possibly going to jail unfairly because the reporter wouldn't -- ? And the great weight was on the side of the reporter [who] has a certain obligation to keep his sources confidential.
Well, now, probably because there's a special investigator, a special counsel who works outside the guidelines of the Justice Department, that started this whole business of subpoenaing reporters and their notes. Because it had to do with the feeling that the administration was leaking something deliberately and that would harm a critic because that was the feeling then, suddenly reporters, journalists who would protect sources said, "Well, you don't protect all sources."
They lost sight of the principle, and the principle is this: The government has all kinds of ways to get information. It can eavesdrop; it can wiretap legally; it can offer immunity to criminals, to people who have committed what seem to be crimes in order to get them to testify. The long arm of the law is a powerful arm in getting information.
What is the essential route to get information by the press? That is to offer a confidentiality, so that if somebody wants to whistleblow or leak something, he knows that you won't rat him out; you'll protect him. As a result of that, a great deal of information comes to the public and also comes to law enforcement that wouldn't get it otherwise because people don't want to get involved.
So when people say, "Well, nobody should be above the law," spouses are above the law. They don't have to give the testimony against their spouse. Lawyers don't have to; doctors don't have to; social workers don't have to. Why? Because there is a social, judicial benefit to having confidence imbued in certain relationships.
You think reporters deserve a special privilege.
The same privilege that goes to spouses, doctors, lawyers, social workers, and wherever confidence is seen by the public -- by the law -- as being terribly important.
But what happens if it's national security? What happens if it's top-secret information?
That's why the bills that have come before the Congress are very careful to say in national security situations there are exceptions to be made. I'm not an absolutist. Lawyers can't break the law when they are working with their clients, and doctors can't either. This doesn't go through everything. You can't [be] a total absolutist on confidentiality, but you can be a 90 percent absolutist, and that's the way it has been, and that's the way it has worked.
But now, with all these subpoenas flying around the country and with the trust that people have in being able to talk to a reporter and say, "Hey, there's corruption going on here," or, "This guy is doing something terrible," and then you leave it to the reporter to take that information and check it out. …
And what happens [when] you're a reporter and you get a knowledge of felonies being committed? Your source may even be involved in those felonies, but you made a promise of confidentiality to that source.
And then you go to court, and the court decides that [there's] no other way [we can] get this information other than this way, and this information is so important that we can make the exception. Now, that's a far cry from what's going on now.
That's what the Court said. The Court said that the special prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] had to have the testimony of [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller or [Time magazine reporter] Matthew Cooper or any of the other people in order to determine that high crimes were committed. They indicated there were very, very serious crimes here.
The serious crime of outing a confidential covert agent was not pursued by the special prosecutor. Right from the start, you realize that that law did not apply in this case. That was obvious.
Obstruction of justice, perjury.
Obstruction of justice sounds terrible. It's hard to explain this, but when you're in a bunch of meetings in the White House, as I was, and somebody says, "You remember the meeting back when you talked to so-and-so?," and if you're looking back three months or six months and you've had 40 meetings, you don't necessarily remember everything that went on. But when you say that, people look at you funny and say: "Aha! You're obstructing justice."
Now, coming back to the thrust of your question. There are some things like national security where the country's security is involved that you have to cough up a confidential source. But that should be a rarity. … And it would be a rarity if they passed a federal shield law the way 49 of the 50 states have these shield laws or case law in the states, protecting the right of somebody to say to a reporter, "Hey, if you keep my name out of it, this is what's going on."
How often were you a source in the Nixon administration for reporters?
From time to time.
Yeah. I didn't have too much to leak except I worked on some confidential sources.
You were protected by reporters.
Was this whistleblowing, or was this spinning?
Oh, I spun a lot.
Right. So you were getting protection not for the public good, but for your political good.
No, because they liked me, and I was one of them. And also I have a feeling that there was too much classification going on.
You, William Safire, decided, sitting in the White House, decided on your own there was too much classification going on and I'm going to declassify documents? A speechwriter?
Let me tell you what happened once. I got a bunch of information from [Henry] Kissinger's office about Vietnam speeches I was writing. So I write the speech, and I put on the top of it: "I'm sending into Haldeman to give to the president. Secret. Eyes only. No dis," meaning no distribution.
Someone put that on there.
No, I did. I typed it across the top of the page. ... I sent it in, and I waited for the president to send the speech back, and it didn't come. I called Haldeman, and I said, "Where did [he put] the draft?" You know, the president would make notes on it, and I'll rewrite it. And he said, "I would send it back to you, but you're not cleared for top secret, no not for distribution." So I had classified my own stuff and I'm not cleared for it.
There's an element of ridiculousness in this overclassification business. I'm aware of the fact that stamping something secret is easy to do and unstamping it is very hard to do.
So you decided to leak some of it? I mean, you said earlier that you had been a source for some reporters in some cases involving classified information that you, William Safire, decided on your own to declassify.
No, I didn't declassify secret information; I spun. I said, "Now, this is what's been published, but this is what it means." Now, is that leaking? It's spinning. I didn't say, "This many troops went into this place." That would be leaking, but when you're inside, you should be expressing the point of view of the administration that's trying to affect public opinion.
But what I'm getting at is that you expected confidentiality from the reporter you were spinning, and he theoretically, or she, would have to be willing to go to jail if there had been an investigation of some kind. You expected that you were going to be protected. But the content --
No, no, no, no, no. You're operating on the thesis that I was giving information of a secret, and I wasn't.
OK, but you did expect protection.
When I would say, "This is not for attribution," that means you can't quote me at all or indicate a White House speechwriter. I didn't do that all too often, frankly.
No, but the reporter who you were talking to, you expect them to basically protect you.
Of course, or otherwise I'll talk to somebody else, or else I wouldn't talk at all. That's the whole idea of confidentiality. If the reporter has the weapon of being able to say, "Tell me the story and I won't get you involved," that's a powerful way of getting information out into the public. Now, you sometimes will burn a source if he has deliberately misled you. Then all bets are off.
Pat Buchanan told us that it's never appropriate for the news media to publish information if the government claims there's a national security issue involved. In fact, he used the Dana Priest's stories [in The Washington Post] which identify detention facilities in certain Eastern European countries. Didn't name which ones. But he said, "That destroys the U.S. government's relationship with foreign governments."
Well, there are times when you have to as a journalist, and your editor as a supervising journalist, have to make a decision about revealing information that is embarrassing and in your view is not a national secret.
Now, who are you to say what's a secret or not? You're somebody who can challenge, and responsible newspapers discuss things with the presidents or the administration involved on national security and hold things for years sometimes. I remember the New York Times editors went to see Gerald Ford, and he talked about an assassination of a foreign leader and then realized he shouldn't have said it and said that was off the record. The editors put their heads together and said: "This is a good story. What do we do?" And the decision was, "The president said we can't talk about it, and we don't talk about it."
Some other reporter got wind of it -- I think it was Daniel Schorr of CBS -- and broke the story. At that point, the paper had to then cover it as the second way. But you'll find newspapers rather responsible, very careful when it comes to national security stuff. In a case like this, it's a close call, but it's a careful call.
... What was your reaction when Time magazine decided to hand over Matt Cooper's files?
I didn't like that at all. The differences of opinion of different news media can be solved by a clear decision by the United States Congress about what could be kept confidential and what is not. We need a law that says, similar to [the law] all the states have, saying that with the exception of national security -- and that's to be decided by a judge -- that a reporter had a right to guarantee confidentiality to a source, and it goes to his notes as well. That way everybody knows what the rules are, and you don't have to start saying, "I can give them this, and I can give them that." ...
But in this case, the courts held there was no privilege.
That's because there was no law saying there's a privilege. And runaway prosecutors can make their own rules and set up their own guidelines, and judges can make their own decisions based on no guidance from above. ...
... In February, [then-CIA Director] Porter Goss said that he wants a grand jury investigation with reporters being ordered to reveal who is leaking to them. The leak investigation has started. People are getting polygraphs in the government. There's a hunt on.
And that's seen as a terrible mistake, and defense attorneys are saying, "Well, you see the prosecution's getting these subpoenas; why can't we subpoena, and why can't we call as witnesses the reporters?" The thing will just mushroom and keep rolling until there is no confidentiality in talking to a reporter.
How would you like it if your husband or wife could testify against you on something you told them in absolute confidence when you were in love with each other? You wouldn't like it at all. You would be very careful what you had to say with your spouse or to your lawyer or to your doctor. What kind of world is that? ...
When you saw the Justice Department in 1970 and '71 subpoenaing people like [New York Times reporter] Earl Caldwell to federal grand juries investigating the Black Panthers, did you object to that?
No, I didn't, because it didn't come before me. And now looking back, I wish I had.
Because that decision is now what's putting some of your former colleagues in jail.
Well, there's been a lot of deciding and case law between then and now in 35 years. ... Branzburg was a very close decision, with Justice [Lewis] Powell, who was the fifth vote, putting in a bunch of caveats. Now the caveats are no longer considered important, and we've got this momentum of "Let's go after the press, and let's subpoena them, and let's slam them against the wall."
I think the great check and balance that was built into the Constitution is under challenge. This pendulum has got to stop. It's got to come back again, and you've got to have a relationship between the government and the press that's adversarial but not an enemy.
If a confidential source issues a blanket release as in what happened in the White House recently, are you still obligated as a reporter to protect their anonymity?
No. Blanket releases are phony.
So you're still obligated to protect them.
Yeah, unless you can look them in the eye and say confidentially, "Are you really truthfully releasing me, or is it something that you're doing because there's a gun to your head?"
So once Judy Miller got a personal communication, should she have stayed in jail anyway?
Oh, I think she did the right thing. She was very careful about not just getting that communication, but getting the guarantee from the prosecutor to limit the subpoena, to limit what he was going to go after.
Let's talk about the Bush administration for a minute, because you've obviously covered them from Nixon to the present. Is this the most hostile administration to the press?
I think Nixon was much more hostile. We now know from the Nixon tapes and the convictions and all of the investigations that it was a criminal conspiracy that they were covering up, so the incentives to immobilize the press were as high as they might be.
In the case of the Bush administration, I haven't seen convincing evidence that there's a criminal conspiracy. They are secretive about decision making on all kinds of things, particularly national security. But their incentives are not, as best I can tell, to keep themselves out of jail. Their incentives are to keep the public from knowing how the sausage is made.
Well, you can say their incentive isn't to keep themselves out of jail yet, because they haven't had to deal with a hostile Congress until now.
That's possible, but we'll see. There are lots of important legal issues, debates about whether something falls under a certain law, whether they should disclose more, NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping and so forth. But I haven't seen evidence of criminality.
Now, you're right. Maybe congressional investigations will so discover, or the press will so discover. But we're six years into this. Watergate really was something that occurred in the first Nixon administration and obviously ended his second administration more than two years prematurely.