John Byrne Cooke, a graduate of Harvard College and son of legendary
journalist Alistair Cooke, is the author of a number of historical novels, articles and other media. His latest book is Reporting the War: Freedom of the Press from the American Revolution to the War on Terrorism. Reporting the War was described by former Cox Newspapers war correspondent Joseph Albright as “a definitive and compelling account of the evolving struggle between a free press and censorious officialdom,” and documents the issue of press freedom and press performance over wars ranging from the American Revolution to the “War on Terror”. On January 21, 2008, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Cooke by telephone; what follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Cooke.
The Talking Dog: My usual first question is where were you on September 11th?” [I ask because my office then was, and now is (they are different offices, btw) about one city block from the WTC; the 9-11 question is certainly relevant to the subject matter of your book.]
John Byrne Cooke: I was at home in Jackson Hole, WY. I came downstairs just before 8:00 a.m. and turned on the radio, which was set to NPR’s Morning Edition. There was something odd in the announcer’s tone — He was talking about the “situation in New York City,” when he should have been wrapping up to prepare for news on the hour.
I turned on the television, just in time to either see the first tower fall, or possibly the very first replay of the first tower falling, and from then on I was glued to the television. Because I was so far from New York and my calls
weren’t being routed through switching exchanges near the city, I could call my father in Manhattan and my stepmother in Long Island, but they couldn’t reach each other, so I was acting as a messenger between them, and my sister in Montpelier in Vermont. My father was in New York, at 96th and 5th Avenue.
We all remember the events of that day vividly, the way those old enough remember about JFK’s assassination, or where they were when they first
heard about Pearl Harbor. Although I saw it on television, as a New Yorker, it was certainly something that hit me as very real and personal. I was in New York within three weeks, and we visited “Ground Zero”, when the fences were covered with pictures of “the missing”, who were not, of course, missing, but just gone.
This was a magnitude of shock to the United States that I don’t believe we ever experienced before. In my view, this was much more like the JFK assassination than like Pearl Harbor — a big part of the shock was that it happened here, within the United States proper, like the JFK Assassination. Somehow we were attacked here, in downtown New York, and Washington. Three thousand people gone, in a matter of an hour or so. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before.
The Talking Dog: Your book takes a fascinating historical journey at American journalism in wartime, from the Revolution, through the Mexican American War, Civil War, Spanish American War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and then the second and current Iraq war and the “war on terror”. Aside from wondering why you left out the War of 1812, my question is whether there were any common threads you observed in the practice of American journalism over all of those conflicts — both that you regard as salutory (or perhaps “best practices”), and any common threads you regard as… not so good?
John Byrne Cooke: The common thread I had hoped to find when I set out writing was that in times of great stress to the nation, especially military conflicts, when the threats to civil liberties would be most acute, that the press would step up… and my hopes were realized. The press almost invariably stepped up and invoked the Constitution to protest threats to thos liberties. In particular, in any kind of crisis, freedom of the press is asserted, because it seems that it is always threatened.
Freedom of the press is arguably even more important than freedom of speech, because it is the only way to ensure that the speech of the citizenry can be meaningfully informed. So I was actually gratified to find that I didn’t have to dig deeply to find what I was looking for. For the most part I found the stories in the headlines and on the front pages, or the editorial pages. In the dozen wars that I examined, the the press went back to constitutional principles and asserted them– and one hopes that the press would continue to be equal to the challenge.
The unfortunate exceptions I found were in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, and the failure of the press in World War I, after having helped defeat a censorship provision in the 1917 Espionage Act, which was proposed by the Wilson Administration, which would have given it blanket censorship powers over the press, to speak against an amendment to the Espionage Act that the Administration put forward the following year, which the press called “the sedition bill,” and is sometimes referred to as the Sedition Act, but it was really an amendment to the Espionage Act of the year before. The amendment mentioned printing as well as saying things critical
of the government or the military, but it was understood that the press wouldn’t be targeted — it was really about going after political agitation. And the press really fell down on the job; it failed to voice concern or opposition to the sedition amendment, and so in the end, thousands of Americans were convicted and jailed for speech — for nothing more than voicing their opinion in opposition to the government’s policies. This was the single most repressive measure on speech restriction passed by an American administration.
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about Fort Lafayette — I suppose arguably, my home borough of Brooklyn’s own version of Guantanamo — a former island fortress off of Bay Ridge (now home to a piling of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge)… Fort Lafayette was used as a detention facility for Civil War objectors by the Lincoln Administration… how did you come across it as a historical matter, who were the types of people confined there (and for how long), and how did the press of the day address it — and the other excesses of the Lincoln Administration — then in the name of “national security”? Can you describe what qualities were shown by Benjamin Wood (i.e. as a “journalistic hero”), and if there are any analogous reporters to current similar abuses of rights by the current governments (Jane Mayer, Charlie Savage, Dana Priest, Murray Waas, Sy Hersh, etc.) that you believe worthy of mention? Also… do you observe anything about Wood’s being brother of Fernando Wood, then mayor of NYC, perhaps reminiscent of our current mayor Mike Bloomberg, himself a media mogul?
John Byrne Cooke: I came across references to Fort Lafayette in the [New York] Daily News editorials of Benjamin Wood. I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica and other references to look up more details. I’m fascinated by all these historical sidebars, but I had to stay I stayed focused on the topic of my book, on the issue of press freedom and government actions. For example, until I saw your question, I didn’t actually know the exact location of the fort. In the context of finding the voices of the press in response to government abuses, Wood was eloquent — he protested that people were taken off the streets of New York City and jailed in Fort Lafayette, and that President Lincoln did this without proposing special legislation — he simply declared that he could expand the powers of the presidency — this was quite a step forward in presidential power.
When you lock someone up — quite literally throwing them in a stony dungeon, with the walls dripping, and the realities of a dungeon with no access to courts, including the right to file a writ of habeas corpus (habeas corpus simply be
ing the right of a person detained to demand that the detaining authority legally justify the detention in court)… you have gone quite far. The Constitution is clear that habeas corpus can only be suspended in cases of invasion or insurrection. So Lincoln was techically justified, because the Civil War was certainly an insurrection. But Lincoln also imposed martial law far from the field of battle, and he tried civilians before military tribunals, and after Lincoln’s death, the Supreme Court issued a decision that said he was wrong to declare martial law far from the field of battle, and that he was wrong to try civilians before military tribunals where the civil courts were still functioning. The decision [Ex parte Milligan] was a severe rebuke to those wartime policies and to Lincoln, post mortem.
The term “journalistic hero” is a reasonable term — of course, it is somewhat of an oversimplification to designate a “hero of the free press”. I was looking for articulate voices sounding the alarm about persistent government abuses — particularly when the government expanded its powers during war, and when the press was most likely to be suppressed.
As for Benjamin Wood, he’s a difficult case. (By the way, the Woods’ Daily News is not a direct ancestor of the current New York Daily News.) The victors get to write history, and Wood and his brother Fernando, were “Copperheads” — the term for peace Democrats sympathetic to the South. But Woods’ accounts of the war referred to rebels as “them,” and “the enemy”, “the rebels” and so forth, while the Union troops were “our boys”. Wood and others like him were not advocating the victory of Southern arms, but they were willing to tolerate the conditions of slavery. They believed that the North should let the South go in peace rather than fight a war to prevent the separation, and that the North and South could live as sister republics.
To read Wood’s editorials, he was a good writer, and quite eloquent as to what the Constitution is for, and what principles in it, such as freedom of the press and limitations on executive power, that were built into the Constitution by the Founders, should be defended. A student of history, looking back, and looking at his record on this, will likely judge him better than the simple label “Copperhead” suggests.
The Talking Dog: Your book starts off with an account of colonial Massachusetts’ publisher Isaiah Thomas (presumably no relation to the coach of the N.Y. Knicks), back in a day when publications were weekly local affairs, featuring a lot of what we would call op-eds… almost comparable to blogs these days. Thomas and others realized, for example, that their anti-crown stances might well have gotten them hanged for treason had the American Revolution failed. I note the numbers of journalists in Russia and in Iraq who have been killed (indeed, the current Iraq war seems to be one of the bloodiest conflicts ever– for journalists). While I don’t blame American journalists for being afraid of going into Iraq as too dangerous– I personally wouldn’t either– I do wonder about a comparable lack of courage in, say, asking tough questions of the President… it shouldn’t really come down to 89 year old Helen Thomas (who never gets called on anyway, and who presumably is also not related to the Knicks’ coach) to have to carry everyone on this… it’s one thing while editorial boards may pontificate in favor of wars or other government policies… but do you find it historically anomolous in how
rank and file journalists these days seem more willing to defer to government spokespersons, rather than try to ask the tough questions… or am I mistaken in that view… and is there historical precedent for this?
John Byrne Cooke: At the beginning of the revolution in 1775, there were about two dozen papers in the 13 colonies. However, they weren’t strictly as local as your question implies. Thomas started the Massachusetts Spy in 1770, and it fairly quickly became the most popular newspaper in New England, but by 1775, it was influential throughout the colonies. For example, a letter in the Massachusetts Spy in Boston criticized the governor of North Carolina for an armed clash where a hour’s truce had been arranged in a skirmish between the militia and some colonists, but the militia attacked the colonists before the end of the truce; the letter called the governor a tyrant, and the Massachusetts Spy was burned in North Carolina, and Isaiah Thomas was burned in efigy. So his weekly newspaper, a “mere” 4
sheet weekly, was influential throughout the colonies.
I certainly agree with the premise that these days there aren’t enough tough questions asked of the President, and particularly of the current President, who engages in an awful lot of unconstitutional actions, without tough questions being asked. Certainly, Helen Thomas has shown courage, for which she was edged out of her position of seniority in the White House Press Corps, so she is no longer called on for the first question, but one tough questioner isn’t enough. There is no equivalent of Sam Donaldson (who dogged Richard Nixon with his questions)… no equivalent at all, today.
You know, on the occasion of his retirement, Dan Rather said something I found very surprising. He said that when the President says something, you tend to believe him. Well, in my view, the prevailing attitude in the press should be skepticism of pronouncements by the President, or anyone else in the Government. The press needs to be more willing to challenge the President
— especially one such as the current one, who is willing to threaten the balance of powers in so many ways.
The Talking Dog: Let’s talk about the Spanish American War, and the famous dueling jingoism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, well, especially Hearst anyway, which arguably helped incite public opinion towards that conflict. First, were there other papers sounding a more moderate (or at least nuanced) position (vis a vis American aggression, anyway)? Second, do you find any analogs to the current times, i.e. the run-up to the Iraq War, and in particular, say, CNN, the Washington Post editorial page and so forth… or does the analogy break down? (And where do the “alternative press”… the Phoenix, the Voice, etc…. blogs? … fit into this?)
John Byrne Cooke: Of course there were more moderate views than Hearst– Hearst was the extreme example! Then, Hearst had only two papers — the New York Journal and the San Francisco Examiner. New York papers had no comparable analogs in papers of comparable importance elsewhere — even in Washington. Hearst was out front — he was in a battle for circuulation with Pulitzer’s New York World. Pulitzer was one step more cautious than Hearst. The New York Evening Post was much more cautious still. It was strongly opposed to the war, and to “yellow journalism” as well.
With respect to the Spanish American War, two naval battles ended the war with Spain rather quickly. Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila and wiped out the Spanish fleet in May of 1898. A couple of months later, with the Spanish fleet bottled up at Santiago de Cuba, the commander of the Spanish fleet decided to get out of the harbor, as American forces approached Santiago overland, and
his fleet was promptly decimated by the U.S. Navy. This battle decided that war, and ended Spain’s 400 years of colonial rule in the Americas. At that point, the issue arose of what to do with the Philippines. Pulitzer was of the view that we shouldn’t keep them. President McKinley agonized over this… but he decided the US should keep the Philippines. Now, Hearst supported the war against Spain, and he was in tune with the public on this. There were real abuses by Spain in Cuba. It had set up concentration camps, not just for captured insurgents, but for whole villages, thousands of people, and in these camps, there was not adequate food, water and so forth, and people were dropping like flies. Sen. Redfield Proctor of Vermont, who visited Spain, was no warmonger. He came back and gave a very sober speech in the Senate about what he had seen, which convinced many people that we should go to war with Spain. But when it came to the Philippines, Hearst was wholly in favor of expanding the American economic empire into the Pacific; he wanted California to build ships for trade with the Orient; he favored annexation of Hawaii, which had been discussed for 50 years and was accomplished around this time. Hearst was all for Hawaii and the Philippines as naval bases for American ships, but he did not believe we should rule Philippines by force. He editorialized against the war in the Philippines. The San Francisco Examiner said President McKinley’s representatives were “ruling by arbitrary power, without regard for the Constitution.”
As to current analogs, certainly the alternative press was out front on both the first Iraq War and the current Iraq War in pointing out problems in the “case” for those wars. There were, of course, lots of stories in the mainstream press
as well doing this, as well as shouting for war. By the 1990s and now in the first decade of the 21st century, the voices in the press are not so concentrated as they were earlier. In the Vietnam era, we only had three commercial television networks dominating the landscape. The importance of their evening newscasts is almost impossible for anyone who grew up since then to imagine. There is no single source today with that kind of authority.
With the current Middle East War, there have been quite a few analyses done, by now. But certainly, in the 2002 and 2003 period leading up to the war, there were wild claims about Saddam Husein being made by this Administration, and we now know they were false. There were no weapons of mass destruction, no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda or the events of September 11th. While there was no dominant voice in the media before the Iraq War comparable to Hearst before the Spanish American War, there was, arguably, a better balance of opinion among the press, at least before entry into the war in 1898, than there was prior to the current Iraq War.
The Talking Dog: In World War I, your book notes that by and large, journalists (at least Americans) were not really permitted near the actual fronts, so that the true horrors of trench warfare would not be known by and large until we read first hand accounts, in the form of books written by the soldiers themselves, after the war. To some degree, this is true in all wars, but I don’t believe we saw this again to this degree until the First Gulf War, when again, journalists were not really permitted near the front, and such reports as there were were subject to military censorship, so a lot of the “reporting” ended up being broadcasts of military briefings (including a perception of war as video-game, as military briefings showed neat moving diagrams of perfect explosions, missiles hitting targets, etc.). To some extent, this is how the Afghan conflict was covered, though with the current Iraq war, we have that “coverage” and we also have the ingenious “embedding” that still makes reporters dependent on the military with somewhat more subtle control of content. First, have I put this accurately, and second, if so, should (and can) the press be more demanding of actual access to the theater of combat, and in your view, is there a qualitative difference in the press’s ability to actually cover the conflict in such a way as to actually mislead the public into believing, say, the wars are more antiseptic than they are, or indeed, going better than they are?
John Byrne Cooke: Before the Civil War, there had not been that many journalists actually in the field, covering wars. In the Civil War, however, the New York Herald alone had 60 reporters out covering the fighting. The Civil War was kind of an exception to American war coverage, because it was being fought at home. In the Spanish American War, Cuba was only 90 miles from Florida, but the access wasn’t so easy. Hearst hired Richard Hardng Davis to write and sent Frederick Remington along to illustrate Harding’s pieces from Cuba, and he got them there on a private yacht, but let’s just say the military wasn’t encouraging others to come and cover the fighting.
In the First World War, it was not that hard to get across the Atlantic (despite the unrestricted submarine warfare, convoys and so forth). But the French and English kept journalists away from the front. At the outbreak of war, Richard Harding Davis was in Brussels when the Germans marched through, and sent back a vivid report on passage of the German army, but soon, there was no more of that kind of reporting.
The next time a similar thing happened was the first Gulf War– in the intervening wars (WWII, Korea, Vietnam) the press had more access.
In the 1991 Gulf War, the system the Pentagon put in place was “press pools.” The journalists hated them. A small group of people, usually a print journalist, a still photographer, and a two or three-man television crew five, traveled together and sent everything back to be shared; there was no exclusivity in the reporting. The correspondents hated this, and there was a very limited number of journalists in the war zone under this arrangement. Some American correspondents– for example, Forrest Sawyer of ABC News, traveled with Saudi units, to escape the control of the US military. Sawyer had a satellite uplink, but there were very few of those. In those days they required a vehicle to carry the thing and it took a couple of hours to set up. By 2003, satellite uplink technology was much, much lighter.
The other thing that limited journalists’ access to the fighting was the short duration– the ground combat lasted only 4 days. Some of reports from the front never got back during the fighting — some because the war was so short, others because the military censors simply discarded entire dispatches, rather than taking the time to censor only sensitive information. There was some heavy handed censorship, so the WWI analogy is somewhat valid, although in 1991 the press at least had some access to the actual fighting.
As to your other question on access, yes, the press should certainly be more demanding of access. In 1991, Walter Cronkite, who was then retired from CBS News, spoke to the issue of censorship. The difference was that in World War II, and early Vietnam, anyway, there was a cooperative relationship between the press and the military. But things were more adversarial by the first Gulf War. Cronkite suggested that with rational censorship, journalists shold be able to go where they wanted and to report what they wanted — not to endanger the troops or reveal operations before they are under way, of course, but otherwise, journalists should be able to report whatever they wanted. And he said the press the press should demand this kind of access, “to the point of insolence.”
The Talking Dog: World War II seems to have a unique place in the American mind (you call it “the Good War”); I’m wondering if you observed something qualitatively different in the reporting that came out of that conflict?
John Byrne Cooke: That’s an interesting question, and I would give a qualified yes to it. First, the war was huge, in terms of millions of Americans involved in it, and a high number of correspondents involved in all theaters of war all over the globe. Every aspect of the Pacific, European and North African War was covered, and with such a large number of correspondents in the field, there was a greater likelihood of exceptional writing. So we have exceptional quality from a number of sources, like a Ernie Pyle, or Bill Malden or a Homer Bigart, from the New York Herald Tribune, reporting from the Pacific, and others. It was inevitable, thanks to the sheer number of reporters covering the war.
So far as the press was concerned, the most important aspect of the war– which was exceptional– is that the relationship between the press and military was so cooperative. We all agreed that the war had to be fought. The Nazis were clearly bad guys. They were the Dark Side, to use George Lucas’s term, from the Star Wars movies… there was no question that the war was necessary and right. The press was just as convinced as the military commanders. There may have been disagreement over a specific policy, such as how long to fight in North Africa, when to invade Italy and so forth… but those policies were argued between Churchill, FDR and Stalin — and a bit in the press — but overall, what stands out is the cooperation and sense of unity and common purpose. This is why I, and many others, call it “the good war”.
The Talking Dog: Arguably, the Afghan conflict in 2001 had that characteristic, did it not?
John Byrne Cooke: I would agree that the Afghan conflict– and to a great extent the 1991 Gulf War– had aspects of being well-supported domestically. Certainly, in 1991, some people were experessing concern with the consequences of engaging US forces in the Middle East, but of course, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, evoking the 1950 North Korean attack on South Korea, which began the Korean War. There was a lot of support for getting Saddam out of Kuwait. There were many who favored giving sanctions and diplomacy more time, and warned against the rush to war… but almost everyone favored getting Saddam out of Kuwait.
Afghanistan was different. In the fall of 2001, the Taliban were known to be sheltering al Qaeda, and it was quickly establihsed that al Qaeda was behind 9/11. There was a strong majority, if not near unanimity in the public, about
entering the Afghan conflict. Now, the press access to the conflict was very limited, in part, because of unique aspects of small numbers of Americans literally dropping in and sneakingup on targets. There was no room for correspondents in these operations. Later in the conflict, there was reasonably good press access, but it\rquote s always been a difficult theater to cover, because of its remoteness.
The Talking Dog: Let’s talk about the Walters– Lippmann and Cronkite… both of whom had outsized influence, Lippmann of course in print, and Cronkite as a broadcaster, in their ability to sway decision makers and the public vis a vis war policies. To what do you attribute their singular influence, particularly with decision makers? Is there anyone on the scene now with anything approaching that influence (and given how vapid the people I’m thinking of who might qualify are… is that a bad thing)?
John Byrne Cooke: Walter Lippmann was an unusual case. He was a Harvard graduate, and was one of the founders of the New Republic. He was asked by President Wilson to help draft what became Wilson’s “14 Points” speech. But Lippmann was disappointed with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and he returned to journalism.
Lippman began his column in the New York Herald Tribune, for which he was best known, in 1931. By 1950, he was the dean of American columnists, and by his knowledge and experience he was uniquely qualified to comment on American global strategy and policies and positions. It was extraordinary to go back and read Lippmann’s columns. Literally on the third day of the war in Korea, he wrote that best we could hope for by military action would be to restore the stalemate and partition of Korea that had existed since 1945. And of course, that’s what ultimately happened after three years of war and thousands of lives lost. By the 8th day of the war, a week into the three year conflict that would take over 30,000 American lives, Lippmann wrote that it should be a rule of US policy, as long as Soviet forces were not committed beyond Russia’s borders, that “we should retain our mobility and freedom for our own military forces. We must remember that our power is on the sea and in the air, and that
we must not commit our meager infantry forces on distant beachheads, thus engaging large elements of our not of our own chosing where no decision can ever be had.”
To read this at that time, early in the Korean War, and then to remember that Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq were to follow… it certainly looks as if we would be better off listening to our journalists (at least if they’re Lippmann!) than our Presidents! Lippmann looked at the big picture — the Asian landmass and its much larger population, and he realized that we be very careful about extending our land forces that far from home. Even the British realized that they couldn’t t maintain supply lines to fight a hostile people across an ocean, which is why they settled both the Revolutionary and 1812 Wars. Lippmann was wary of American engagement on the Asian land mass. And when the Korean War became a stalemate at, roughly, the 38th parallel, he wrote another line that resonates with Vietnam, and today in Iraq. He wrote, “A stalemate without prospect of victory or defeat, and with no end in sight, is not the kind of activity to which Americans are by temperament well suited. We do not like getting nowhere at great trouble.” Lippmann was, to say the least, exceptional.
Walter Cronkite’s influence is easier to explain. In the 1960s, there were only the three commercial networks plus public television, and PBS did not then do a daily newscast. The men who reported for the three networks as on camera anchors were all experienced journalists, with foreign reporting experience, and were dedicated to their jobs. They were not entertainers or part timers — they reported the news. Walter Cronkite became known as “the most trusted man in America.”
When he went to Vietnam during the Tet offensive and came back and said he believed the Vietnam War was a lost cause, it had a huge effect. Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, said if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation. And he had. Just over a month later, he withdrew from the presidential race.
Now, of course, we’re no longer limited to three newscasts. There is a proliferation of broadcast outlets, and the Internet, and no single voice has can have anything like the impact that Cronkite had then. It seems that the more polarized we become, as has been the case in the George W. Bush era, people tend to go to sources they believe will agree with the opinions they already hold, rather than seeking a variety of opinions. But I have some optimism. I think we may have passed the point of greatest polarization, and if we do enter a less polarized time, the proliferation of sources will inure to our benefit in making a better informed public (or so we hope).
The Talking Dog: How would you characterize the current American conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq, the nebulous universal “war on terror”) as compared to prior conflicts, and I’m talking specifically about the fact that now we have the potential for instantaneous access vis a vis the Internet and 24-7 cable and satellites… and yet, I get the feeling we are seeing (at least through the American media lens) a heavily filtered presentation of current conflicts colored by the tint our government and military wants to put on it– and much moreso than in prior “familiar conflicts”, say Vietnam. Aside from learning Arabic and watching al-Jazeera and other local broadcasts and reading the local press in conflict zones… how would you suggest an “eager news consumer” cut through the dross and chaff that is presented to us in the guise of “news” and find actual coverage of the kind (I think) we once had… or should we?
John Byrne Cooke: What is different about these conflicts from earlier wars is somewhat obvious insofar as in the ongoing wars in Iraq and the war on terrorism, we’re not fighing a nation state with an organized army. Even in Vietnam, where we often had to look hard to find battle lines, the irregular Viet Cong were backed by a nation state, North Vietnam. In the current war…. what is al Qaeda? Al Qaeda is not so coherent as we’d like to believe. We’d like to
have a definitive enemy to focus on… but that’s very hard now, and that’s a significant difference from prior conflicts.
As far as the current coverage, we have an enormous number of broadcast and cable channels, and the Internet of course, so there are numerous sources of information out there, of varying quality. We need to recognize that as citizens of a free society we need to seek out that information, and not just to switch around from the football game to the basketball game and say “you’re not reaching me.” It is the citizens’ JOB to seek out that valuable information. It is not that hard to find information in the kind of detail necessary to make informed decisions as citizens with the options that we now have at hand.
The Talking Dog: How do you view the seeming obsession with getting “a comment from the other side” and passing off “we presented both sides” as “news”? How does this fit in historically?
John Byrne Cooke: I’m not the first to criticize the media for this, noting that the dueling comment model is not the same thing as reporting. Reporting means evaluating, providing context, and seeking out the actual truth.
Just presenting two opposing opinions is not reporting — it’s abdicating the journalist’s responsibility. The press has an obligation to try to determine where the truth lies — because there is such a thing as the truth.
The Talking Dog: My traditional lawyer’s weasel question is “Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t, or anything else that the public and my readers need to know on these vitally important subjects?
I will also throw in… any particular people of note that we haven’t discussed whom you think merit special comment?
John Byrne Cooke: I’ve been implying this, but I’d like to say it explicitly: what the founders protected in the First Amendment is the ability of the press to question, criticize and oppose, when necessary, our own government. But we have to remember that the job of the press is not to right all the wrongs the world — it quotes the job of the press to sound the alarm for the rest of us.
The very last line of my book is a quote from longtime CBS journalist Eric Severeid, who said on the CBS Evening News, on the day before he retired, “Democracy is not a free ride. It demands more of
each and everyone of us than any other arrangement”. It is our responsibility, as citizens, to get the news, and keep ourselves meaningfully informed.
The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Cooke for that facinating interview, and commending interested readers to take a look at “Reporting the War: Freedom of the Press from the American Revolution to the War on Terrorism“.
John Byrne Cooke, a graduate of Harvard College and son of legendary