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Republic of denial : press, politics, and public life /
Michael Janeway.
New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, c1999.
216 p. ; 22 cm.
0300081235 (alk. paper)
More Details
New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, c1999.
0300081235 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Michael Janeway has been editor of The Boston Globe, executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He also served as special assistant to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, 1977-78. He is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and director of the National Arts Journalism Program.
First Chapter

Chapter One

"Let's Remember the Energy"

          AMERICANS' PASSAGE FROM an era of cohesive, heroic national enterprise, fortune, and spirit to times in which alienation, pessimism, loss, and disintegration became rampant is a story sensed and even known in the streets, among friends and co-workers, in families. Novelists and playwrights wrestle with it. But the story of that passage is not for the most part the subject of political or journalistic discourse.

    Save for an interlude in the 1970s, neither political leadership nor mainstream journalism have been able to name or contend with the story in a sustained and comprehensive way, for a fundamental reason. Full articulation of it -- it is understood in politics and the news business -- backfires with bedrock constituencies and audiences, giving them more harsh news when what they want is relief from it. This anxiety about giving offense is also part of the story. So the story, and the taboo attaching to it, have fed upon each other. Thus, a sizable part of the full story of our time has, over the long haul, with some honorable exceptions, been more or less officially unspeakable.

    That politicians should avoid forcing full discussion of so painful a story on a resistant public is not new or surprising. They behaved similarly with respect to slavery in the United States in the decades preceding the Civil War, and toward totalitarian dictators' designs abroad through the 1930s.

    That the press as a whole should have missed the story in our time is another matter. For the modern press renewed its vows in recent decades to note, question, investigate, connect, correct, critique, fill in, that which officials and politicians celebrate, claim, charge, conceal, overlook, evade, deny, wish, pretend, and actually do.

TO UNRAVEL THIS state of unreason, and perpetuation of it by those in command of public discourse, fall back to the key turning points on the road to today's confusion.

    Six months before Pearl Harbor, with isolationism still a force in the land and President Roosevelt still a very cautious internationalist, the most influential publisher in the country, a Republican, preempted center stage in the national debate. Condemning "the moral and practical bankruptcy of any and all forms of isolationism," Henry Luce used the pages of his popular Life magazine to declare the era "the American Century." He called for an end to Americans' failure "to play their part as a world power -- a failure which has had disastrous consequences for themselves and for all mankind. And the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit" (emphasis added).

    Why would such a posture not simply replace Europe's fading imperialism with our own ? Because in this "revolutionary" century, said Luce, America was the world's premier democracy. Our newfound world role, he exhorted, "must be a sharing with all people of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people, for the people."

VICTORY IN World War II was a triumph not only for American arms and the American political system. The American economy, converting industry to build the arms, overwhelmed the German and Japanese mobilization machines, wiping out unemployment at home and thus the residue of the Great Depression. The war left the nation, alone among the principal participants, resilient in victory. America, it was universally agreed, had "come of age," with morale and will to match the national muscle.

    It was a victory, along with the rest, for lessons learned. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the men around them, veterans of disillusion and dislocation in the wake of World War I, orchestrated a post-New Deal, postwar consensus supporting "full employment" and economic growth.

    At home, American victory in the war was a boon for pluralism. Labor took wartime and postwar hits, but it was a player as never before in party politics, in generating social policy, and in negotiation with industry, and it was growing stronger. With their fair-employment-practices initiatives and gradual racial integration of the armed services, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman commenced the second post-Civil War Reconstruction.

    Other groups basked in the warmth of postwar American pluralism and prosperity. The G.I. Bill of Rights served younger veterans' educational aspirations, housing, and credit needs. The boom in modern household appliances began to free women from the unrelenting hard labor of housekeeping. The United States' determining role in the creation of Israel in 1948 recognized a devastated world Jewry and, implicitly, American Jews as well. Passionate grass-roots participation in both the Eisenhower and the Stevenson campaigns of 1952 refreshed and renewed the Republican and Democratic parties.

    The narrator of Philip Roth's American Pastoral creates a verbal documentary of the soaring spirit of the time:

Let's remember the energy. Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion ... laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball ... and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI Bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined possible before the war.... And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over.... Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

An almost ecclesiastical version of such spirit can be found toward the end of Dean Acheson's audaciously titled memoir of his years at the center of foreign policy making, Present at the Creation . Summarizing the postwar American realpolitik he and his colleagues had shaped, Acheson wrote:

These lines of policy, which have guided the actions of our country for nearly two decades, were not sonorous abstractions -- much less what President Lincoln called "pernicious abstractions" -- written down in a sort of official book of proverbs. Nor were they rules or doctrines. Rather they were precedents and grew by the method of the Common Law into a corpus diplomaticum .... Its central aim and purpose was to safeguard the highest interest of our nation, which was to maintain as spacious an environment as possible in which free states might exist and flourish. Its method was common action with like-minded states to secure and enrich the environment and to protect one another from predators through mutual aid and joint effort.

    Popular culture reflected a more informal application of these policies. Call Me Madam , Irving Berlin's hit musical comedy of 1950, featured Ethel Merman in a role modeled on the Truman administration's party-giving "hostess with the mostess on the ball," Perle Mesta. Truman rewarded Mesta with the ambassadorship to Luxembourg, at the heart of the postwar European industrial recovery. On Broadway, Merman as "Ambassador Sally Adams" sang an ode to the Europeans based on American Marshall Plan and Point Four aid:

Can you use any money today ...

Nice new bills that we're giving away ...

Can you use any dollars today ...

We've so much that it gets in our way.

JOURNALISM'S ROLE AT the level of opinion making and commentary in those years was, more often than not, a reflection and interpretation of these grand story lines. The press of course gave time and space to those who questioned the story -- Henry Wallace and others on the left, Robert Taft, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and others on the right. Walter Lippmann, at the center, challenged elements of the Truman administration's evolving policies to contain Soviet designs in Europe and the Near East. But even in a critical posture the press was driven less by the hard-bitten, reflex skepticism common today than by a more or less idealistic view that great nations performing great deeds should be held to the highest standards. "We can do better," said the press at such moments.

    Covering the organizing sessions of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 for The New Yorker , E. B. White paused on the conduct of American reporters observing Allied diplomats' solicitousness toward nations notoriously sympathetic to the Axis powers in the late war.

Argentina was on the fire and [U.S. Secretary of State Edward] Stettinius was being backed against the wall and made to explain how a peace-loving nation could also be a Fascist-loving nation, and vice versa. A good many newspaper people, that day, were sore right up to their armpits, and although they were present in the capacity of recorders ... they were extending their function and were managing, in the course of asking questions, to make short, hot speeches from the floor. Thus the Press, in the process of being told, was right in there telling. It was a fascinating moment in the pungent laboratory of democracy, with test tubes and flashbulbs exploding with a cosmic crackle.

    But on the whole journalism followed its leaders: elite, insider reporters and commentators like Lippmann and Arthur Krock, and later James Reston and the Alsop brothers. And allowing for deviations, they tended to follow their leaders. That is, the work of journalism's peers was shaped as well as informed by the culture of power as conducted in world capitals, especially Washington. ("Hark, The Herald Tribune sings, Walter Lippmann's dined with kings," went some doggerel of the time.) Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and their top national security advisers saw those premier reporters and commentators as interlocutors, sometimes as friends; but more important, however edgily, as collaborators -- by which I don't mean stooges -- in a long-term project.

    That project was the steady growth in America's leadership role in the world as the twentieth century unfolded. At home, it was the steady extension of the national agenda, and -- allowing for swings between Democratic and Republican emphasis -- the government's dual agenda. That was, first, stabilizing and reforming the ravaged economy in the 1930s, regulating and fueling it thereafter, and second, the expansion of opportunity and betterment of social conditions.

    The relationship between thoughtful men in power and thoughtful men in the press (with rare exceptions they were of course all men) was not necessarily one of co-optation of the journalists. Indeed, the traffic could run the other way. Lippmann, as Sidney Blumenthal has written, "descended from his lofty tower and involved himself with the decision-makers, advising them and writing speeches for them, putting his words into their mouths.... He was on intimate terms with politicians and statesmen; he could be influenced, of course, but he liked to think that the others were serving him and his imperial column."

    There were strong disagreements -- over Cold War policymaking, over the creation of Israel, over Europe-first versus Asia-first policies, over nuclear policy, over the direction of the economy. But the shared view among peers of government and peers of the press was that America's responsibilities had never been greater. It followed that for those at the top who traded intimately with one another in privileged information, the need for the press to assist in public education about those awesome new national responsibilities had never been more urgent.

    As a principal architect of postwar foreign policy, Acheson was, as his biographer notes, "careful to cultivate certain journalists." Chief among them was James Reston of The New York Times . As Reston recalled the basis of the relationship in his memoirs, "if you're looking for a decisive point in the politics of the twentieth century -- the emergence of the United States from isolation to the protection of Western civilization -- the place and time are Washington in the late forties and early fifties, and Acheson, in my view, was the central figure in the drama."

THAT WORLD, VIEWED from the end of the century, was of course clubby and narrow. On the other hand, a common observation of our time is that where giants walked then, midgets pose now.

    Henry Luce, upstaging the nation's leaders with The American Century , helping to bankroll Winston Churchill out of office in the 1940s, set the tone, but he was hardly alone. Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of The Washington Post , recalls in his memoirs a formative experience in his cub reporter days, covering a race riot in the summer of 1949 over segregated swimming pools in the District of Columbia, then still administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bradlee filed a vivid report. That evening in the newsroom, he searched for his story in the first edition of the next day's paper and found it played way down, cleansed of alarming details, and buried way inside. Bradlee exploded with "indignation about how the great liberal Washington Post was scared to tell the truth." Just then he received a tap on the shoulder from publisher Philip Graham, dressed in a tuxedo. "All right Buster," said Graham, "come on up with me."

    In Graham's office were Truman's secretary and undersecretary of the interior and White House counsel Clark Clifford, all, like Graham, in tuxedos, engaged in something other than the usual stag dinner retreat. The publisher commanded his reporter to tell the officials what in fact had happened that afternoon, thanked him, and sent him back to the newsroom. Graham then told the group, Bradlee later learned, that either the pools would be closed and reopened the next year, integrated, or Bradlee's "real" story would run on page one of the newspaper the next day.

    A done deal -- but as Bradlee wrote, "a deal no publisher would make today." In her own memoirs Graham's widow Katharine calls the deal "a typical example of the way Phil used power, in this case the paper's, to accomplish something good," but calls it not "appropriate" to "keep a story out of the paper to achieve a purpose, even a fine one."

    Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham both salute contemporary standards for separating the truth-telling role of the press from its potential for flexing its muscles behind the scenes. But both pass over the historical fact that in those days, a sense of common purpose, and not just the thrill of power, often joined those in charge of government and those in charge of the press as comrades-in-arms.

    The men in Graham's office that night were each, after all, committed liberals struggling with a mockery of justice in the capital of the nation that led the free world, still almost a decade away from coming to terms with its racial segregation. The meeting's point man was the same Clark Clifford who had, the previous year, engineered Truman's come-from-behind strategy as the first out-and-out civil rights candidate for president of the United States in history. It was not that Graham, for his part, was brazenly bending government to The Washington Post 's will. It was that he was managing the paper so as to help identify and resolve the great problems of the nation, newly established as leader of the free world, and of its capital, the city in which Graham happened to publish his and his wife's family's newspaper.

IT IS COMMON now to view the postwar era through a darker lens. That was a time (it's argued) of incipient American imperialism, of complacency, narrowness, fear, and reaction, of insensitivity to the aspirations of women and minorities, a time when children grew up haunted by nuclear anxiety and obsession with "the bomb."

    The pendulum did swing heavily from reform and hope to reaction and fear in the postwar years. The war buried isolationism, but McCarthyism, mixing anger over Soviet intelligence's penetration of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations together with old nativist furies, unleashed hysteria in the land. It distorted politics and public policies. It ruined careers and lives far beyond the ranks of those the Soviets had compromised.

    And the press helped the demagogues. How could that have happened?

    The postwar red scare was far along when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy jumped on the issue in February 1950. Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury for having denied before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he was a Communist three weeks before McCarthy hurled his first charges. HUAC had been in full cry about "communists in government" since 1947, generally in tandem with security agencies that had gotten there much earlier, feeding hysteria but sometimes picking up on what we know now to have been the genuine article.

    Most of the press, much more provincial than today, was reliant on the national wire services for news on such fronts and less inclined to make its own judgments about them. And the wire services were frightened of offending clients by appearing to add interpretation, let alone implicit judgment, to word of who said what about whom in a breaking news story.

    George Reedy, then a United Press reporter and subsequently press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, observed that Joe McCarthy "couldn't find a Communist in Red Square -- he didn't know Karl Marx from Groucho -- but he was a United States Senator." McCarthy's sheer brazenness trumped the journalistic norms of the day; as historian Edwin Bayley noted, "editors and editorial writers refused to believe that McCarthy would make such charges without having the evidence to back them up." Therefore, recalled Reedy, "We had to take what McCarthy said at face value.... And boy, he really had the press figured out."

    McCarthy understood the mechanics and needs of the press, its deadlines and cycles. According to Murray Marder of The Washington Post, reporters themselves led McCarthy on, coming to him and saying, "`I must have a story.' And McCarthy would go through his files until he found something. McCarthy learned that on Friday the wire service reporters were always in need of stories that could be run on Sunday or Monday, the two dead news days, and he saved up tidbits for them." William Theis of the International News Service summed it up this way: "We let Joe [McCarthy] get away with murder, reporting it as he said it, not doing the kind of critical analysis we'd do today. All three wire services were so God damned objective that McCarthy got away with everything, bamboozling the editors and the public. It was a sad period in American journalism."

    A remarkable benediction came early on from none other than Dean Acheson, a lightning rod for attacks by McCarthy as a coddler of Communists. In a talk to the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the outset of McCarthy's rampage in 1950, the secretary of state said, "Now, I don't ask for your sympathy. I don't ask you for help. You are in a worse situation than I am. I and my associates are only the intended victims of this mad and vicious operation. But you, unhappily, you by reason of your calling, are participants. You are unwilling participants, disgusted participants, but nevertheless, participants, and your position is far more serious than mine."

    The recovery was slow (and the press all too slow in moving to more interpretive reporting), but the terror eased. Responsible politicians and some journalists pushed back. Television itself helped; the Army-McCarthy hearings before a Senate committee caught McCarthy at his most reckless and devious for all to see. In turnabout, McCarthy himself was censured in the Senate, and ruined.

    To see the era only through a dark, revisionist lens is to miss the overall exuberant mood of the nation as a whole, still riding the wave of victory in World War II. The immensely popular President Eisenhower's winning campaign slogan, "Peace and Prosperity," was a formulation with which there was little fundamental quarrel.

AMERICANS' FAITH IN progress, notwithstanding the ravages of anti-Communist hysteria and nuclear anxiety, maintained and even renewed itself. Revisionism on the left, in the spirit of C. Wright Mills, paints public policy up through Vietnam as a case of indiscriminate, unthinking anti-Communism, unable to heed Eisenhower's valedictory warning about a growing military-industrial complex. War, in Mills's bitter words (echoing George Orwell's in Nineteen Eighty-Four ), was "no longer an interruption of peace; in our time, peace itself has become an uneasy interlude between wars; peace has become a perilous balance of mutual terror and mutual fright."

    But that leaves out the determination to avoid the selfish folly of the 1920s and blind denial of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. It leaves out the then prevalent idea that what the country was about was the measured, pragmatic application of American know-how, American idealism and will -- the still-ripe fruit of 1945. If (went the governing consensus) there was a threat abroad -- and there were threats, in Europe, in competition for the new weaponry of destruction, in espionage -- they would be, and were, met. As in Luce's articulation of an "American Century," the ideology underlying that resolve was informed as much by the liberal internationalism of the time as by anti-Communism.

    At home, with the exception of the Taft-Hartley Act's check on organized labor's new power, the flow of social and economic legislation through the Truman and Eisenhower years was generally in the direction of expansive outlay and liberal reforms. The spirit of the times was that what was repressive, inequitable, or an affront to the American dream -- bad schools, slums, failing farms, poor health care, disease itself -- required in the way of remedy only the naming of the wrong, and then the focusing of legislation, expertise, energy, and money on it.

    As to civil rights (and also civil liberties, despite the toll taken by McCarthyism), the Supreme Court in the "complacent" Eisenhower years expanded definitions of freedom and equality at their very roots. The Democratic-led Congress under Ike passed federal aid to education bills, legislation to build hospitals, clear slums, and construct modern housing for working- and middle-class families, support farm prices, build public power systems, lay out a modern national highway system, fund research into dread diseases. Congress even beat down reactionary efforts to roll back libertarian Supreme Court decisions in the late 1950s, though sometimes by the narrowest of margins.

    By 1957, when the ambitious Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, broke the Southern-dominated congressional blockade against civil rights legislation that had prevailed since the end of the first Reconstruction, no category for the national agenda was inadmissible. Even in the United States' bastion of reaction -- the racially segregated South -- the Shrewdest of white leaders, such as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, saw change coming and acquiesced in behind-the-scenes accommodations with it (if not, like Johnson, going so far as to help it along).

THE PRESS ATTITUDE toward those who governed through the midcentury decades has been described as reverential, but such terminology also misses the point. The attitude was closer to trust -- discounting for the usual roguish behavior and thievery, as on the part of Harry Truman's "Missouri Gang." Trust, because the overall story line was that the system worked. Americans had reason to trust a government that appeared to be in overdrive in bringing them progress, in the form of expanded education, housing and medical programs, cheap credit, higher minimum wages, and more job security. Undergirding all these, defining "the American dream," was the seemingly boundless postwar consumer economy. Even the boundaries of the nation swelled; in 1959 Hawaii and Alaska become the forty-ninth and fiftieth states.

    As late as 1965 journalist Meg Greenfield could write (tongue-in-cheek, reflecting a still-confident mood in Washington) that the cando Johnson administration was alarmed that a "solution explosion" was leading to "an unprecedented problem drain." Greenfield's jest was bemused rather than sarcastic, reflecting identification on the part of the mainstream press with the optimistic spirit of the times. But as the tide of American mastery of its challenges crested, Greenfield's telling send-up of 1965 quickly became a dated period piece.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-09-27:
These are bad times for both the American press and American politics, observes Janeway in his broad overview of the linked machinery of politics and journalism. Hemorrhaging its own credibility, today's media establishment seems more embattled than ever. The same could be said of American politics: a disaffected public has traded confidence in democracy for jaded cynicism. Those two conditions add up to a recipe for disaster, writes Janeway, a former editor-in-chief at the Boston Globe who now directs the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. He argues that a confluence of forces in both the news business and politics has plunged America into a dark night of the soul, from which we are unlikely to awaken anytime soon. Sketching the jarring trajectory of our nation after such events as the Bay of Pigs debacle, Kennedy's assassination and, of course, Vietnam, Janeway plugs in other variables such as the consolidation of print and broadcast media and the insatiable appetite of 24-hour cable news. The upshot is that the quality most needed by journalists nowÄa critical skepticism toward governmentÄis being replaced by market research at newspapers driven more by the bottom line than a sense of civic duty. While Janeway's thesis is not strikingly original, those interested in how headlines are made will appreciate his analysis of the crumbling barrier between the newsroom and the boardroomÄand the dismaying notion that serious journalism has itself become just one more niche market. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-10-01:
"Politics in the United States today is almost universally disdained for falsity and shrillness. The media in the United States are widely condemned for bad practices and attitudes," writes Janeway in the opening sentence of this thoughtful analysis of the relationship among the press, the political process, and the public interest. Examining the reasons for this disdain, Janeway (journalism, Columbia Univ.), a former editor of the Boston Globe and the Atlantic Monthly, warns that Americans are in "a democratic crisis in a republic of denial." He focuses here on the print media but also looks at the impact that broadcast media (particularly round-the-clock coverage and "tabloid TV") have had on news delivery. He also describes questionable business practices that have eroded some media independence and integrity. Readable and well documented, this work is recommended for public libraries and highly recommended for political science and communication collections in academic libraries.ÄJill Ortner, SILS, SUNY at Buffalo (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Choice on 2000-02:
Former editor of The Boston Globe and executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Janeway (now at Columbia Univ., formerly at Northwestern) draws from his professional and academic experience to provide yet another view of the impact of the press on politics and national life. He argues that over the last three decades or so the US has become a nation in denial with widespread disdain for both politicians and the news media. The author looks at why this has happened--reviewing who did what to whom--and what might be done to turn things around. Janeway presents his cogent argument in 11 chapters, divided into four parts that look at "as we were" (how things appeared before the recent malaise); "disarray" (how the structure and character of US media and society moved to a seeming everlasting focus on scandal); "the business" (how the news media work, especially the role of the bottom line in editorial decision making); and "alternatives" (some approaches harkening back a long way, others more current). Janeway's singular contribution is to consider the sad state of society and the media together, to find interrelationships that have brought media and politics so low in public regard. Good insights here for a variety of readers, particularly undergraduates. C. Sterling; George Washington University
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, September 1999
Library Journal, October 1999
Boston Globe, November 1999
New York Times Book Review, November 1999
Washington Post, January 2000
Choice, February 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Bowker Data Service Summary
Drawing on years of experience in news business and in politics and government, Michael Janeway argues that in the absence of recognition of its buried democratic crisis, the USA has become a republic of denial.
Main Description
With wit, clarity, and an eye for offbeat cultural indicators, Janeway examines the full complex of forces that have corroded our press, politics, and public life.
Table of Contents
Introduction: A Story of Our Timep. 1
As We Were
"Let's Remember the Energy"p. 17
And Thenp. 29
Malaisep. 43
Structurep. 57
Characterp. 74
Private Livesp. 93
The Business
Bottom Linep. 109
Managingp. 128
Trying Somethingp. 140
Hamilton and Jeffersonp. 157
Thereforep. 168
Notesp. 179
Acknowledgmentsp. 203
Indexp. 205
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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