Putting the "Izz" Back into Journalism
Myra MacPherson hates television news.
And after more than 40 years in print journalism, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and former Washington Post reporter is not afraid to say so.
"If the president says the sky is orange, somebody will have to write that piece the next day. But if the facts are that the sky is really green, you have to get that in there too, and that doesn't happen. TV is so awful," MacPherson says. "It's so embarrassingly bad. Edward R. Murrow was late to cover [former Sen. Joseph] McCarthy, and Cronkite was late to Vietnam, but at least it really resonated. Nobody does that now."
Those historical times are clear as day for MacPherson. But she's equally concerned with today's historical moments, and how journalists are recording and interpreting those moments. One of the things MacPherson thinks young journalists need today are irreverent role models; tough, hard-working, smart reporters who dig deep, take time to scour through documents and take risks. As a female journalist in the '50s and '60s, she took many.
When she began working at the Detroit Free Press in the '50s, women were not even supposed to be in the newsroom, she said. Officials kept MacPherson out of the press box when she covered the Indy 500 in 1960, the year scaffolds fell and killed people attending the event. She covered the New York Mets winning the 1969 World Series from outside the press box. Hired by Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post in 1968, she became known, among other things, for her insightful political profiles and worked at the paper until 1991.
At 72, MacPherson is still taking risks.
Take for example the title of her new book: All Governments Lie. You gotta love that. On Sept. 12, she spoke at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism about one of her role models and the book's subject, legendary rebel journalist I.F. "Izzy" Stone. In his "I.F. Stone's Weekly," Stone was the first journalist to expose lies about the Gulf of Tonkin that started the Vietnam war, and his reporting helped end McCarthy's communist witch hunts.
MacPherson is sharp. She's got an institutional memory about journalism and has high hopes for its future. She's also quick. She can rattle off an I.F. Stone quote, recommend six top-notch reporters to read and then praise Woody Allen's latest flick all in one sentence. She's hip to the blogosphere, but criticizes uninformed, "axe-to-grind" ranting.
WireTap recently called MacPherson back East to discuss her book, her journalism career and what the future may hold for young journalists.
WireTap: Why did you write this book?
Myra MacPherson: [Stone] was a neighbor. I knew him after he got famous for writing about Vietnam. I profiled him and his wife on their 60th wedding anniversary. He became rich and famous for doing exactly what he wanted to do -- just be his own boss and write and say what he wanted. Izzy was the first blogger, really. He was with a magazine called PM around 1940 to 1948, which was a paper without ads. The idea was to be their own form of social workers and inform the little people, the underdog.
He did the first exposes on oil cartels doing business with Hitler through Franco's Spain. [Stone] speaks to so many issues that are important today, like free speech, government lying, war and suppression by force. His trenchant view sounds so fresh today. He covered civil rights, Vietnam and protesting in such a brilliant fashion. He was a touchstone for me and for others. I thought this was important. This is what journalism should be about. With issues like weapons of mass destruction and everything that's happening now, history is repeating itself. Izzy is the best of the biz and he pushed to do the right things.
WT: How is someone like I.F. Stone is relevant and fresh to young journalists today?
MM: He's even more relevant today, because the spin has been perfected. You must look at documents with a keen eye and disabuse yourself of generic wisdom out there. There's not a soul in government who will tell you the flat-out, absolute truth, particularly at a press conference. Izzy's skepticism was vital. If you don't bone up on things, they will feed you information that is wrong. [Young journalists] have to ask, "Why are they saying this?" People need to find people below the surface, below the top person.
They have been trained not to tell you too much. Be thorough, and be an examiner of what is considered official wisdom. Faux objectivity vs. real objectivity. Find facts, lay them down, and say here's what matters, and find varying points of view. Do not be spoon-fed. Also be a student of history, and examine it for current life. There is so little institutional memory left. I would almost call for a draft, just to get people up and get some dissent today. It is not disloyal to dissent. It has been perpetuated by this administration, just like they did during Vietnam and the civil rights movement. If you fought for civil rights, you were un-American and unpatriotic. Remember Truman's loyalty oath?
WT: Sad to say, I've never heard of it. But what about media ownership today? We are moving closer and closer to monopolization of news outlets, particularly here in the Bay Area. How does this factor in to what you are saying about dissent?
MM: There's no place for that now. Journalism is driven by the moment. In the '60s and '70s, there was a rebellion going on. Papers were eager to cover it. Acceptance today allows papers today to go along with status quo. But my book said that papers are never good as their myth. Papers are always run by rich people for rich advertisers. But in the old days, there were individual owners that let some voices come out. We're always a cautious lot, but with varying voices of dissent. We have stifled news in America.
WT: Is there dissent coming out of [journalism] schools?
MM: No. I don't see it. But I would be happy to see it.
WT: What about blogs and new online media that are drawing in more youth and an audience that isn't as interested in the newspaper?
MM: I do support this. It's excellent. But the real problem with blogging is that it is in some cases what [Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and Kudzu creator] Doug Marlette called the "karaoke of journalism." What that means is that you get a lot of fiction along with fact. And an awful lot of opinion. And narcissism. You know, that what they have to say is the most crucial thing to say.
Izzy was opinionated, and a smartass, but he always grounded it with facts and admitted when he was wrong. You get axe-to-grind bloggers with no fact or knowledge too often. Serious bloggers inform young people who don't read papers. But the Anne Coulters of the world can perpetuate lies in the blogosphere. I'd like to do away with the excesses. There should be differentiation. And there should be facts. There is nothing wrong with opinions. The moment you start a sentence, you have made a subjective decision, and you will take something out of context. It just happens. You have to weigh the whole thing. A reporter is not a robot or stenographer. Izzy said this. But he would not have you mouth off without something to back it up with. Everybody likes to let off steam, but you have to know what's behind it.
WT: Let me ask a little bit about you. Did you receive strong mentoring along the way as an aspiring young journalist? And what motivated you the most to keep moving forward in journalism?
MM: I received mentoring at the Michigan State daily and became the night city editor. I started at the Detroit Free Press, and the editor said no women were allowed in the office. It was not a time for women. In the late '50s, I started covering sports and politics. Women then were not allowed into the National Press Association. I just wanted women to not be left out. We had all kinds of difficulties and no one hid it. There was no interest in making it different. Now women are everywhere. My daughter is a sports producer for ESPN and pregnant with her second kid, and she gets right into the locker room. Things are different now.
WT: How did those experiences shape who you became as journalist?
MM: I felt like I had to be better than the guys. I worked longer hours. I ran scared a lot more. I was hired by Ben Bradlee in 1968 for the style section. But we did cutting edge stuff, like 2,000-word deep profiles of presidential campaigns. I covered the McGovern campaign in '72. Covering Reagan, I said Reagan's speeches were canned and were the same every time. Some guy said, "I wish I could write stories like that" to me. Bloggers today give us that freedom again. We had that freedom then. Analysis, and reporting. Having that format and working for the Post in that era, we were doing good stuff. It was the best job anyone ever could have had. It was not just about the who, what, why, when and where.
WT: Speaking of the "who" question, the press release for your upcoming lecture describes you as being renowned for your "penetrating political profiles" at the Washington Post. How did you earn that rep, and how did you learn to ask the right questions to get the best profiles?
MM: That's probably exaggerated. I can tell you this: I should have been shot dead in the hall if I didn't look up former clips. We used to go into the morgue and get clips, to get your self down pat before interviewing somebody. One advantage as a young woman back then was things like "What's a cute little thing like you doing here?" It's what you have to do. You want to get to everybody. Go to the enemy, go to friends, people who like [your interviewee], and people who think they are despicable. It's a hard thing to do. It's a lot simpler to just go to a press conference. A lot of it is just plain hard work.
There is no question that you end up not using 90 percent of the stuff you dig up. Have you been watching the news? This week, there were all these stories about JonBenet Ramsey and a story about wiretapping. And JonBenet Ramsey got all the coverage. I bemoan the fact that nobody knows who so many older writers are, like Izzy. There is so little reading about journalism and journalists by journalists. People should know Walter Litman and [James] Scotty Reston. Izzy was hard of hearing at a young age, which is why he got into reading documents.
WT: Who are some working journalists to watch out for now? Who are writers that you like to read?
MM: Molly Ivins, Josh Marshall's "Talking Points Memo," Jim Hightower, [Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist] Cy Hersh, and [New York Review of Books'] Michael Massing. You can always learn by reading about people like this. The New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the Nation, Fair magazine and Mother Jones do good work.
WT: Do you have any advice for today's young journalists who want to produce good work and are committed to reporting on social justice issues in the world of shrinking media outlets?
MM: I wish I had an important answer. I don't. I get discouraged every day. My hope is the Internet. I hope they won't just start speaking to the choir to get a larger audience and not just say what they think. News people talk about shrinking readership and what can they do to acquire it, but they don't seem to have answers. This book is a good primer for what's going on today. You can't just get what [Dick] Cheney and [Condoleezza] Rice say. We've got five years of propaganda myths. You can find people who will say, this is what they are really saying. People like John Stewart ...
WT: I'm glad you brought him up. People like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are attracting more and more viewers that are attracted to their approach to news analysis and interpretation. How do you feel about that, considering that both of their shows run on Comedy Central?
MM: People are getting their news from those guys. They bring that healthy skepticism, which I think is important. I don't think it's a problem, but it's sad that people have to go there to get that. Molly Ivins is one of the wittiest, funniest columnists. Humor is great way to tell truth.
Mainstream media is owned by cautious, rich corporations, and they don't want to piss off anybody. Why do we have to find Stewart on Comedy Central? Megamonopoly media. When you have that, it is driven by what they think will sell today. They're not looking for the clever, brilliant reader. It's the "People-ization" of American journalism. It's celebrity hounding. Papers feel they have to compete. You have a problem when Paris Hilton is all over the place. I was so glad Angelina had a baby, so that could be all over the place instead.