Interview with Mark Hertsgaard
by Steve Talbot
July 11, 1996
ST: On Bended Knee has become a sort of classic book, I think it's fair to say, in courses on journalism these days. The argument in your book was in part that Reagan was so charismatic, so powerful, and had won by such a large vote that the Press Corps in Washington was intimidated by him, and no one dared criticize him. What about the Press Corps today?
MH: Clinton has had a much tougher time with the Press than Reagan did, and part of that is the charm that Mr. Reagan had. But that was always much overstated, as was his supposed popularity. If you really go and look at the statistics, Reagan was not so popular.
Essentially in Washington what you have is a Palace Court Press. And they reflect the views within the palace that is known as official Washington. And essentially they report the spectrum of opinion from Democrat to Republican, which many Americans have now come to recognize, is not a very broad spectrum.
This was very good for Reagan, because Reagan really faced no opposition party. The Democrats were really, as I say, very cowed by his supposed popularity, and indeed, often agreed with him outright.
Now Bill Clinton faces a very different position. Clinton comes to power at a time when the opposition party is extremely passionate, extremely confident, extremely aggressive. And as a result, they are frequently on the offensive. And they're feeding all kinds of information and quotes to the Press. And so the press coverage of Clinton has reflected that.
ST: What do you make of the consistent charge of conservatives that the press has a liberal bias. Does it have a liberal bias?
MH: That is the oldest canard, I think. This idea of a liberal bias is now, twenty almost thirty years old. Nixon started talking about that with Pat Buchanan as his speechwriter.
You know, first of all, who do they work for? They work for the biggest corporations in the country.....not exactly inclined to tearing down the established order. But more importantly, look at the coverage. And that's really, I think the most persuasive proof that this idea of a liberal press is really poppycock.
As I say, the press in this town tends to reflect the views of the powerful... Russell Baker had a great line in one of his columns the other day, "Nobody in America calls themselves a liberal anymore." No politician calls himself a liberal. None of the reporters do.
When you look at statistics of the coverage, they're certainly not doing what a Liberal-quote-unquote would do. For example, you look at, in particular, the minimum wage vote, which came up this summer and will finally be implemented next summer. We're talking about a 90 cent increase in the minimum wage, from $4.25 an hour, to $5.15 an hour. The way that the press reports this is: That's the choice. We can either stay where we are, which is the Republican position, or go to $5.15 an hour, which is the Democrat's position.
Well, nobody ever tells you that $5.15 an hour will still leave a family of four beneath the poverty line. Now why does nobody tell you that in the Press? Because there's nobody in Washington, not the President, no significant power bloc in Washington who is making that case. And as a result, it doesn't get into the media.
ST: If there's not a liberal bias, what kind of bias is there? Is there a sort of pack mentality of this press corps?
MH: Of course, there's a pack mentality. I don't think it's because they're close personally, so much. It relates to a lot of other factors, for example, this absolute mania to only deal with what is new. To be first, even if it's by 20 seconds. You know, the AP reporter and the UPI reporter will run down that hallway after the Presidential Press Conference to be 20 seconds quicker on to the wire.
So they're not trained to think for themselves. You don't get here by being terribly independent. You don't become a reporter at the White House if you're going to go off in your own direction. So, they all tend to follow the same perception. Partly it's also I think intellectual insecurity. You know, they see the other guys doing it, and they say, "Oh, well, you know, if it's in The Times, then I guess we better take it seriously."
Especially the TV reporters, they all rely on the same sources of information, and they all tend to have pretty much the same view of the world. They all tend to agree with what's important...
But above all, they take their cues, again, from officialdom. Their definition of news is basically what government officials are saying and doing today. Now that's not entirely unfair. It is very important to know what President Clinton or Speaker Gingrich is saying about welfare or Medicaid or Star Wars... of course.
But, where the Press drops the ball is when they stop with what the President says and what the Speaker of the House says. And if neither one of those guys is talking sense, the American public is left with a lot of nonsense and nobody pointing out that the sky is blue.
And that's one of the problems with reporters -- they literally cannot report that the sky is blue if they can't cite a government official saying it.
ST: You wrote this summer in The Nation about one example of this, Star Wars. Why don't you tell us about that.
MH: Star Wars is, I think, the perfect example of the idiocies of the Palace Court Press. You've got a situation where Bob Dole in order to get the Republican nomination has got to pass the right wing test, and they believe in Star Wars, and have ever since Ronald Reagan.
And there's a problem with this, which is that all of the physicists who studied it have concluded, not only is this system utterly impossible now, but there's no reason to think that it will ever be possible. We are talking about levels of technical sophistication that are just aeons away. That's why in 1987, the American Physics Society said, "It's going to be ten years before we can even know whether this will ever be possible."
However, as I said, Dole wants to get the Republican nomination so he begins talking about Star Wars, and he wants to show that Bill Clinton is weak on defense. Bill Clinton, of course, doesn't want to be painted as weak on defense, so he fights back with a speech at the Coast Guard Academy saying, "We're not going to waste money on Star Wars the way that the Republicans are. We're going to build a missile defense when we know how to do it. And so we're going to continue our research and development, but we're not going to build it right away. We're going to wait till the year 2000."
Now, you know, the hole in the middle of all this argument is that the system won't work. So we're talking, and the press is presenting this as an argument between Dole and Clinton: When do we want to build this? Do we want to build it right away? Which is what Dole wants to do. Or do we want to wait a few years? Which is what Clinton wants to do. And nobody points out that, "Hey, this is a ridiculous conversation to be having. Because in fact it doesn't work."
ST: All right. If you refer to this as a Palace Court Press, isn't Bob Woodward the prince? Twenty-five years ago, he was an inspiration to a whole generation with his Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein.
MH: I think Bob Woodward is a very sad example of what happens to reporters who are seduced by the blandishments of the Palace Court society, known as official Washington.
Here's a guy who made history, with Carl Bernstein. History. Very few journalists ever do that. And made history in a very grand and noble fashion.... the best of what journalism' is supposed to be about. And, as you say, inspired an awful lot of people... set off a whole revolution within the Press.
And now you look and it's 25 years later, and he's basically become a stenographer to power. And "The Choice" is not the first book, where you see this coming. His book on the Gulf War also was very insider. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong about writing an insider book, but it is extremely limited.
And essentially what he does, he's kind of like a tour guide to the White House. And you get enormous, enormously interesting detail of who's sitting where and who said what. But no critical distance. And obviously Watergate had quite a bit of critical distance. And unfortunately, he seems to have lost that interest.
He says, if you ask him "What is journalism about?" He says, "It's about 'the truth.'" There are very few journalists in Washington who could get away with saying something quite so self-important: "The Truth." But it's quite right. That's what we're supposed to be about. I think that his truth, though, is a very narrow vision of things. Why? Because it is told in the words and from the perspective of the power-wielders, and with no view from outside the wall.
And that's really I think in a nutshell, the problem with so much of the coverage in Washington. Is that the habits of mind that inform it, the sympathies that inform it, are all with the people at the top. And not with the people outside the Palace.
And that's who we journalists are supposed to writing for. We're not supposed to be writing for the powerful. We're supposed to be writing for the citizens of this democracy, who rely upon us to tell them what's going on here because they can't be here themselves. They have jobs, they have kids, they have all these things they're supposed to be doing. We as journalists are their surrogate to tell them what's going on in their government, in their democracy.
ST: What happened to the ideal, at least for my generation, of an I.F. Stone kind of figure. Of the outsider. Who doesn't go to the Georgetown dinner parties, is not part of the either reverential or snarling press pack at the White House. Are there any people around like that? Is that still something that someone might aspire to doing?
MH: I think, sure, there are people who aspire to Izzy Stone's example. Many of us. But you know, none of us are as good as Izzy. That's the short answer to that. And also it's a different technological world now. You know, when Izzy was doing the I.F. Stone Weekly, that could have a much bigger impact on opinions within the sort of liberal side of the equation, than it would today. Simply because of the reach of television which was much more restricted then.
ST: Is TV the culprit here? I know that you're a print person.
MH: Au contraire. My father did television. I think this idea that the problem is television is such a dodge.
Television... It obviously has different characteristics than print. But I'm finding television can do a much better job at some stories. Tianamin Square, for example, is a story where television was absolutely essential. It brings you there. It shows you what's happening.
It's not enough. You have to have the deeper and more considered and nuanced coverage that print can offer. But television's very important. And very capable. And never let it be said, either that because Ronald Reagan was able to run rings around the television network, that they were somehow helpless before him.
Television, and the television networks are as powerful as the President. Because they decide what is political reality in this country. That's the number one power of the press. Is they decide what matters. They decide what people talk about.
Also you look at our network anchors -- Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings. I'm sure they all consider themselves journalists, and I'm not saying they're not. But first and foremost they are actors. And that is what determines their audience, and the reason that they are on the air is how well they look into that camera.
And it doesn't have to be that way. In the BBC, their television, they call them "news readers." They are not big stars. And they didn't used to be big stars. But here, television has been made a profoundly commercial profit- making enterprise, an entertainment enterprise, so we have made these reporters into stars.
Let's remember here the public airways are ours. They belong to the people of this country. They don't belong to NBC and CBS. And in theory, we could very well say to them, as the 1934 Communications Act originally implied, that, "Look, if you want to be able to make hundreds of millions of dollars of profit every year, well then,you have to give something back to the community. And one of the things you can give to the community is not just 22 minutes of happy talk news every night, but 30 minutes or 60 minutes and you can't sell ads."
There is nothing technological about television that keeps it from doing a good job. That is the pursuit of profit speaking. Not the requirements of the television technology.
ST: What's with these Sunday talk shows here? I mean, you've been out of the country for awhile and you've come back, what's the role of these Sunday morning political talk shows in this town?
MH: Well, they haven't gotten any better. I'll tell you that. I think that they are the most over-rated things. The only people who pay attention to that, to those shows on Sunday mornings, are here in Washington. You know, and the occasional political junkie out in the country.
That's again something that's very important inside the Palace Court because you can go to the cocktail party and these people watch the weekend shows -- the Georgetown set and the journalists, they all take that stuff seriously. On the other hand, because the Press takes it seriously, those shows often do end up helping to set the agenda for the news of the week. The White House in particular, in the Administration and leaders of Congress like Mr. Dole, have learned over the years to manipulate those settings.
ST: Why do you think the public has low trust in the press?
MH: The reason that the people don't like or trust the Press is precisely because the Press doesn't respect them. The Press gives them all this pseudo-news, superficial and not about the real issues. The people are concerned about job security and economic opportunity and all those bread and butter issues and the Press wants to talk about seances. And it's no wonder, I think that the public looks at them and says, "We don't trust you. We see you and you're no different from the politicians. You're all rich. You're all powerful. You have no conception of what life is like out here for all of us."
And you know, it's all very well. I agree with Paul Taylor that it would be nice to break down the cynicism. And one can hardly disagree with his idea of whatever it is, ten minutes or five minutes a night in September to have the candidates come on and talk straightforward to the public about this.
But it's a little like, you know, bailing out the Titanic with a teacup, to think that that is going to change the presentation of this election, when you consider what else is happening in the media.