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April 23, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 17
Inside Newsweek: Separating Reporters From Responsibility
by Paul Cowan and Jack Newfield
Newsweek is the best and fastest-growing newsmagazine in America. It has more credibility with the young than Time, and its circulation is growing while the Time-Life empire is in decay. Its cultural section is much more in tune with underground film, experimental theatre, avant-garde literature, and pop culture than Ramparts’ or the New Republic’s. Pay scales are higher than at daily newspapers, editors tend to be more sophisticated and interesting than their counterparts at Time, the Times, and the Post. The publisher, Mrs. Katherine Graham, scrupulously avoids interfering with editors and writers; the Washington Post and several television outlets which she also owns exercise no influence over the magazine.
Newsweek is the epitome of group journalism, the form Henry Luce developed a generation ago, and it inspires profound loyalty from editors who regard themselves as part of the political and cultural vanguard.
Why did we decide to include it in our series of critiques of the elitist assumptions of the mass media then, instead of focusing on more obviously slanted publications like Time or U.S. News and World Report? Specifically, Newsweek’s distorted cover story on the Black Panthers and its one-sided account of Ralph Featherstone’s death in Maryland…persuaded us to investigate the people and processes that produce the magazine.
More generally, years of reading Newsweek — and weeks of interviewing its staffers — have persuaded both of us that its perspective is limited by the same institutionalized set of upper-middle-class prejudices that caused New York Times editorial writers to misinterpret the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial so grossly, and that made it impossible for the media barons who have always been close to power to organize a firm early resistance to subpoenas, intimidation, or Agnewism, which now threaten to poison the press.
Newsweek also has no tradition of original muckraking. The important exposes of the recent past have all been uncovered by creative individuals — not mass organizations that have all the economic advantages. Sy Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre. Ralph Nader has exposed how business interests control most of the federal regulatory agencies. I.F. Stone has pointed out the lies and distortions in the State Department’s White Papers on Vietnam. Drew Pearson exposed the financial chicanery of Senator Dodd. Newsweek, despite its world-wide network of bureaus and contacts, has not embarrassed any important authority with any irreverent reportage.
Still, when it appears in print Newsweek is able to disguise some of its biases toward familiar authority, its distrust of insurgency, with a hip, flip, now generation style of prose. The style not only helps conceal a rather conservative political line; it also, almost certainly, boosts sales by persuading Middle America that they are privileged insiders during the two hours they read Newsweek without jolting their prejudices much. But it also creates a further distortion of the magazine’s contents. News is often confused with what is fashionable, and packaged as if it were merchandise. A tone of uncertainty, an emphasis on ambiguity, might compromise Newsweek’s authority or make it less marketable. And the fundamental objective of an American newsmagazine is to sell ad space and copies, not educate readers to complexity.
Except in the cultural sections, no individuals are accountable for Newsweek’s contents. It is produced behind a screen of corporate anonymity which is as damaging to the magazine’s employes as to its readers. “In theory,” one former editor said, “an objective machine writes all the articles.”
“The problem for people who work at Newsweek is that no one there feels responsible for his own work,” the same former editor told us. After a while that magazine’s employes begin to feel like cogs in a great newsgathering machine (or like alienated auto workers on the assembly line), instead of individuals who are responsible for their own judgments and actions.
The problem for people who read Newsweek is that its style and its reputation as the liberals’ leading periodical encourages acceptance of interpretations of organizations like the Panthers, events like Ralph Featherstone’s death, that would seem outrageous if they appeared in Time or U.S. News and World Report.
If Martha Mitchell strolled through the cubicles of Newsweek, she might feel that she’d found the headquarters of the great “liberal-Communist” conspiracy. The walls are plastered with pictures of Ho, Huey, Che, Eldridge, Lenin, Lennon, and Malcolm. A sign on the door of culture editor Jack Kroll’s office says: “No tickets here for ‘Oh, Calcutta!'” Much of the casual office banter and serious conversation is about sex, radical politics, and underground culture.
It is like the office of a college newspaper. Though senior editors tend to dress conservatively, younger male staffers can come to work tieless, unshaven, with sneakers and no socks; younger women wear slacks or mini-skirts. Secretaries, researchers, writers, editors talk with one another freely — an interesting bull session is usually going on somewhere on the 11th floor — and all call each other by their first names or even by nicknames. For example, everyone at Newsweek refers to the three top editors, Osborne Elliot, Lester Bernstein, and Kermit Lansner, as the “Wallendas” after the famous circus act; the area where they work is known as the “Wallendorium.” Editor-in-chief Elliot is called “the Big O”; managing editor Bernstein is “Lester the Investor”; executive editor Robert Christopher is “the Big Yank”; Edward Kosner, head of the Nation section, a small, wiry man, is “Fats.” Some Newsweek editors cite the staff’s free use of those names as proof of their organization’s openness.
But the more time we spent at Newsweek, the more convinced we became that the office’s surface openness is an inaccurate a reflection of the real work relationships there as the magazine’s hip tone is of its actual political outlook. Most of the staffers we interviewed seemed too fearful of reprisals to identify themselves when they criticized their organization. Their jobs, despite the informal atmosphere in which they are performed, are governed by a rigid and hierarchical pattern of work. Sometimes we felt like were interviewing dissident Communists in Poland.
Many researchers, writers, and editors are dissatisfied with Newsweek, and quite a few were eager to supply us with facts and impressions. But they would punctuate their interviews with frequent, anxious reminders that they were talking off the record.
Kermit Lansner, the magazine’s second-in-command, was the only one of the many Newsweek employes we approached who readily agreed to be quoted by name (another editor, Peter Goldman, talked openly with us, too, but only after a week’s hesitation), though Lansner flatly refused to let us attend story conferences, a privilege the magazine had granted reporters from Esquire and New York magazine. He told us he thought the rest of the staffers distrusted us, that’s why they wouldn’t talk with us. But Lansner disliked us quite intensely. (We both list old friends among the magazine’s editors, reporters, and researchers, but as we gathered material for this story we found ourselves accumulating enemies. We wanted to be out front with our own opinions, so often we argued instead of interviewing to see if the magazine’s editors could refute us. Some, like Goldman, accepted our approach as a useful challenge; but others like Lansner and Ed Kosner, who refused to be interviewed at all, treated it as a threat.) We were told that once Lansner referred to us in a meeting as “those two scummy guys”…
Newsweek editors are quite nervous about the current rebellion of female researchers and reporters. In negotiations, they indicate a desire to adopt a more flexible policy toward women, but their reflex attitudes may undermine that desire…
The oppression of women at Newsweek is not unique: the same situation exists throughout the communications industry. On newsmagazines they are reporters and researchers; in book publishing houses they do publicity or work as secretaries; on television they are hired as script girls or publicity girls. In all these professions women are told not to expect promotions, and it is assumed they want nothing more than to marry and breed. Their few years in the communications industry will give them a chance to meet some celebrities — hear constant, interesting gossip, attend some glittering parties and perhaps trap a husband.
The operative fact at Newsweek is that on March 14, 1970, 46 woman employes joined the ACLU in filing a suit which says that at Newsweek women are “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and are forced to assume a subsidiary role”: Newsweek, they charge, is in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Eleanor Holmes Norton, soon to be head of New York City’s Human Rights Commission, is representing them in negotiations with Newsweek executives.
None of the top three editors or 12 senior editors at Newsweek are women. Women are usually not hired as reporters, while men with inferior credentials often are. Women are discriminated against in promotion and try-outs. Women are excluded from Newsweek’s Top of the Week luncheons, Periscope panels, and the campus speaker program.
Phyllis Malamud has been working at Newsweek for nearly a decade, first as a researcher, then as a reporter. Throughout that time she has been assigned to “back of the book” sections like education. (In general, women prefer jobs in the back of the book — where most stories are based in New York and even researchers have to do interviewing — to the front of the book, where most stories are submitted from distant bureaus and therefore most of the work is fact-checking. It offers some chance for promotion. It has also shown women that they can perform Newsweek tasks like reporting at least as skillfully as men.)
Miss Malamud is a skilled writer and researcher, who prides herself on her ability to complete any assignment no matter how exhausted she is. In 1968, in recognition of her work, she was awarded a Russell Sage Foundation Fellowship to work at Transaction magazine in St. Louis. (When Newsweek refused to pay her living expenses that year, she accepted the decision as a matter of policy; this year, though, she discovered that the magazine did provide such benefits to a male editor who won a similar Stanford fellowship.)
Miss Malamud has risen only to the rather low rank of assistant editor while male contemporaries with no more talent are now general editors and bureau chiefs…
Social class, geography, and the peculiar anonymity of a newsmagazine employe tend to shape the outlook most Newsweek writers bring to the situations they seek to describe.
Most of the magazine’s editors tend, like Osborne Elliot, to be products of the Eastern upper middle-class, or, like Kermit Lansner, to have deep roots in that strange DMZ of Manhattan society where the intelligentsia and the communications industry become indistinguishable. Many of them seem somewhat nervous about covering stories and people that take them outside that rather narrow segment of society, and that reaction provides a fixed limit on the sort of material they obtain and transmit.
If Spiro Agnew gives a speech in Phoenix, for example, the typical Newsweek reporter joins the rest of the press in their small enclave; it is the rare journalist who spends much time going off limits and interviewing local people. Nor are many Newsweek staffers apt to volunteer for stories about remote areas of hard-core poverty like the Appalachias or an Indian reservation or an Alaskan town; they only venture to such places in the wake of spectacular public figures like the Kennedys. They cover poverty through famous personalities; no James Agees have made their careers at Newsweek, no Robert Coleses, no George Orwells, just what Pete Hamill has called “clerics of fact.”
Now that domestic violence has become a volatile issue, Newsweek editors tend to associate it exclusively with upper-middle-class revolutionary groups like the Weathermen, which might include among its members a reporter’s Harvard classmate, or with the Panthers, subject of so much inside dopester cocktail party gossip. They rarely write about the para-military right; the Minute Men, the John Birch Society, Cuban refugees, CIA dropouts, FBI agents. (Lansner reacted to that point by reaching back in his memory and recalling a 1962 cover story about General Walker called “Thunder on the Right.”)
Kathy Wilkerson, Ted Gold, Bernadine Dohrn have been made into exotic symbols of American terrorism, but where are the articles describing the individuals who bomb school buses in Denver or Lamar, or the Minute Men who are training for battle on the deserts of New Mexico? What are the Cuban exiles planning? What are former army generals thinking?
Violent reactionaries are absent from Newsweek’s pages because their biographies and geographic locations make them seem nearly invisible and rather dull to Newsweek editors. But what about the people in power who sanction wanton brutality, whose hideous decisions and actions have forced a generation to become revolutionaries? Men like Lansner and Losner seem to have cataracts that prevent them from seeing that the American government might now be regarded as an outlaw by most people in the world. Where are the articles asking what went sour in the psyches of the wholesome-looking generals who order the dropping of anti-personnel bombs on old men, women, and children throughout Southeast Asia, who sanctioned the slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese in Cambodia? Where are the articles speculating on the 1984 that the business suit fascists in the Justice Department like Richard Kleindienst and Will Wilson might have in mind for blacks, dissenters, and longhairs?
After a few years of working for Newsweek, many staffers develop a de-sensitized attitude toward work and an affluent style of life which often drains them of the passion to fight for life’s casualties and victims.
By profession, many journalists feel that the world exists mainly to provide raw material for their next article. A newsmagazine executive like Lansner, who controls hundreds of journalists, begins to see history as a great chess match in which his main objective in moving his men is to sell more magazines and more ad space than Time.
At the same time, he — and by extension his reporters — begins to feel that all America is yearning to obtain a few lines of type in the magazine. Thus, the passive observer is royalty; the bold activist in history (who often doubles as the author of a press release which announces that history is being made) is the supplicant on whom he might bestow a great favor. And that attitude is strengthened by benefits that most reporters come to accept as their right — the luxurious travel, the food, drink, and dope that is always available, the credit cards and invitations to lavish parties, the women who regard sleeping with a writer as a wondrous adventure, the effort that organizations and even governments make to condense their complex news into a single, manageable hand-out.
And, most of all, the terrible power to define and judge a man’s life in a few hastily written sentences.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]