Raymond Price RIP: His Still Relevant List—the Dirty Dozen—of How Journalists Get It Wrong

From the February 14 New York Times: Raymond K. Price Jr., a cerebral, pipe-smoking speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon who helped write the first and last words of his presidency, his Inaugural Addresses and his resignation speech, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 88.

In 1977 Raymond Price wrote a story for the Washingtonian titled “The Dirty Dozen,” with the deck “No Surprise: Nixon Aide Attacks Media. Surprise: He Makes Some Sense.” Much of what Price wrote about Nixon is echoed in today’s coverage of President Trump.

Price had worked as a journalist at Collier’s magazine and Life before joining the New York Herald Tribune. At the Herald-Tribune, he was a reporter from 1957 to 1964 and editor of the editorial page from 1964 to 1966. He then became the chief speechwriter for Richard Nixon. He worked on both of President Nixon’s inaugural addresses and Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974. In 1977 he wrote a book, With Nixon, and his Washingtonian article was drawn from that.

Here’s how Price’s 1977 story began:

Of all the running wars Richard Nixon was engaged in throughout his presidency, the one I found personally most painful was that with the media. Most of my working life had been spent as one of “them.” I felt a bit like a member of one of those families torn by the Civil War, with one side fighting under the Union flag, and another in the uniform of the Confederacy. Many of our bitterest “enemies” in the press were people I liked personally, and some were people with whom I had worked professionally….

He then listed his Dirty Dozen complaints about about the media. Here are shortened versions of each:

1. They have acquired a power out of proportion to their accountability, and out of proportion to the ability—or inclination—they have yet shown to use that power responsibly. When I was a newsman, I viewed that power as a good thing.

2. They pretend to far greater accuracy than they deliver, to far great authority than their reports really have, and to a high-minded pursuit of truth even when they really are maneuvering to keep the facts from getting in the way of a good story. . . .Newsmen routinely pass public judgment on matters they understand only dimly or not at all.

3. They display too much bias, and bias too much to one side. Every newsman worth his salt knows perfectly well that his colleagues, as a group, stand substantially to the left of the general public….One reason for this imbalance, I think, is that the kinds of people drawn to journalism tend to be the kinds who flock to liberal causes: activists, reformers, those who identify emotionally with the underdog, those who are skeptical or cynical about establishment institutions and see journalism as a vehicle for “exposing” the sins of those institutions. They like to think of themselves as being on the cutting edge of social change.

4. They are too self-righteous. The media regularly exempts themselves from the moral standards they impose on everyone else, piously condemning the sins of others while practicing the same sins themselves. . . .They shade, embroider, and distort the truth for their own purposes, while demanding truth from everyone else. . . .Too often, getting away with it goes to their heads, and they begin to believe their own notices.

5. Competitive pressure to get the story first translates into a pattern of scrambling to report the news before it happens, and as a result reporting it wrong, often grossly distorting it. Newspapers and networks rush to get out ahead of one another with what will happen, rather then what has happened. Because they seldom know what will happen, they guess, they grasp at clues, they let themselves be manipulated by sources with an ax to grind.

6. The mirror they hold up to society is a distorting mirror, and therefore they should stop pretending that what it shows “reflects” reality. It reflects those portions of reality that are sufficiently atypical, sufficiently unusual, to be news, or that have an uncommon enough element of human interest or drama to be exciting.

7. A sort of cultural and professional insularity creates a sameness among the constituent elements of the media monolith which almost totally dominates national news coverage. . . .Those who see a “conspiracy” among the national media miss the point. There is no conspiracy, no sinister plot, but they all do view the world through essentially the same prism.

8. The media display an excessively defensive, even paranoiac reaction to criticism. An institution that prides itself on its ability to dish out criticism ought to learn to take it.

9. A misperception of the role of the media has badly distorted a lot of recent coverage. The currently fashionable doctrine that the role of the media is to “challenge” government is as wrong-headed as would be its opposite, that the role of the media is to support government. The role of the media is to inform the public as fully and fairly and truthfully as possible.

10. Even when violent, the youthful antiwar, antiestablishment protestors were almost always portrayed in a heroic, or at least sympathetic, light—they were in fashion.

11. Like surgeons, newsmen bury their mistakes. . . .Both editors and reporters fiercely resist setting the record straight except when absolutely necessary.

12. A right brain/left brain phenomenon has developed over the years, and I have often puzzled over the ways in which it helps shape the strange and often contradictory folkways of the journalistic tribe. They seem pulled in two directions. Verbal skills are left-brain skills and many journalists take particular pride in their analytic reasoning, their capacity to marshal facts and process information in a classically linear manner. But much more than most journalists would admit, the presentation of the news tends to be governed by right-brain perceptions, by emotional triggers, by a “romantic” cast of mind. The romance of journalism attracts the romantic into it, with a self-perception of knight-errantry and derring-do, of dragon-slaying and maiden-saving. . . .The important thing is not to confuse romantic truth with empirical truth.

Comments

  1. Barnard Collier says:

    Dear Jack,

    I’d had not read Ray’s Washingtonian article. I am not surprised that what he wrote about reporters (and editors) then is still as fresh as today’s news conference.

    In my mind, ever since I got to know him at the Herald Tribune in 1964, when he was 34, Ray Price saw clearly and appreciated more facets of anything than almost anyone I’ve known since. He was that rare and romantic amalgamation of deep, cool, and contemplative.

    As a reporter he was rarely wrong about the accuracy of his facts because he habitually double and triple checked them. He was blessed with a pleasant gentle face and attitude that could calm a Caribbean storm. He smoked fragrant pipe tobacco in a nice pipe worthy of Sherlock Holmes. If he wore a scent it must have been called Parfum de Sagesse.

    As the Trib’s youngish editorial page editor, Ray helped mold the political and moral direction of its opinions into a “conservative” Republican stream that was much like midstream Democratic thinking in 2019.
    He happily worked for the aristocracy of John Hay (“Jock”) Whitney, a very, very confident, wealthy, and diplomatic man, whose political and journalistic views were richly colored and influenced by Ray’s brilliantly formed questions.

    Naturally, Jock created the right answers himself. Ray well knew that questions are the most powerful form of suggestion.

    Ray was a precise and delicate wordsmith who, with powerful rhetorical magic, made even Richard Nixon’s speeches and books sound sincere and reasonable without excessive bragging or groveling.

    It was easy to see that Ray quietly held a hell of a lot of high cards close to his vest. He measured his own words and illuminated the words of others. When he took the time to explain to you something vastly complicated and nuanced, a 12-year-old could comprehend his explanation.

    Ray was supremely gifted with respectfulness, modesty, realistic sense, and clarity of observation. Every member of today’s “media” might hope to sharpen those traits in themselves.

Speak Your Mind

*