2005 Devroy Forum presentation
Fellows show promise to improve the profession
Thank you for that welcome, and I just had an extraordinary set of experiences here on your campus today, and this is one of them: To be warmly welcomed, to see some of the idealism and the freshness of the students who are being educated, to see the devotion of a faculty that really is quite clearly committed to the students and to this institution, and to enjoy Karen all the hospitality with the Department of Journalism and Communications. I’ve really, really enjoyed being with you today, and I just can’t help but think Ann Devroy is looking around here somewhere, laughing at the fact that everyone is having such a good time partly at her expense, and I’ll get into that in a second. Gina and DJ, I want to say to both of you that just interacting with both of you a little bit and your colleagues here — your colleagues both at the paper and your fellow students in the department — it really does give me some sense that a lot of what I’m going to talk about tonight will solve itself in time. I’m going to give maybe a dispiriting picture at first of the quality of journalism, but I think you have an enormous hope in the future of where we’re going in the country and the future of both the profession of journalism and those in politics that communicate to think that people like you are coming along, so it’s been a pleasure to get to know the both of you. Mr. Matthews, it’s nice to see you. For all that we will extol the virtues of Ann Devroy as a journalist, you’re not a bad one yourself. Mark and I got to know each other very, very well when he taught me a thing or two about foreign policy, when I pretended that I was the State Department spokesman for two years at the beginning of the Clinton administration, and getting to know him was a real pleasure. But there’s a lot to talk about tonight, but I’m first of all going to explain why I’m here, because there’s going to be a fit note in the long series of speakers that are here as part of this program, because I’m the first non-journalist. But by doing that, (I’ve) got to explain a little bit about who is this McCurry anyhow, because some of you might not remember that I was actually famous one time.
I’m now a Washington-based consultant, and I do a lot of work on Capitol Hill. I work for a lot of fancy corporations that drive you around in big fancy cars. In short, I’m trying to live how to live like a Republican a little bit. And I got into a car recently, (and) a driver clearly didn’t recognize the name at first. He looked up in the rearview mirror, and he said, 'Hey, you’re Mike McCurry. Whatever happened to you?' I did make a brief return, and I hope later on in the evening we talk a little bit about the campaign in 2004, because I came out of my self-imposed retirement/exile to do a little work for Senator John Kerry during our presidential campaign last year. But by enlarging the memory of what I did was formed very much in that zesty time that Bill Clinton was president of the United States, and I was talking about topics that probably are not suitable for a PG-13 audience. And I have to tell you one story. We’ve been talking a little bit about our kids, and Mark and I were catching up on our children today. I have an eighth-grader who's as tall as I am, but when I got out of the White House at the end of 1998, he was in the second grade, and I’ll never forget one afternoon when I was going off to give a speech, and (I) was really actually was going to go to a meeting with one of these new fancy clients, and they had sent this big Lincoln Town Car to pick me up. And it was there in driveway, and we were getting ready to go off, and I said to the driver, 'Listen, can you wait just a second, because the school bus is coming, and I just to say good bye to my kid before we take off here.' Guy said sure. So the school bus pulls up, and little Will McCurry — then in the second grade — got out and looked at this big car and (had) never seen anything like that, (and he) looked at the driver with the little black uniform and the hat on, and he came racing across the lawn, racing, grabbed a hold of me, and he said, 'Daddy, Daddy, I don’t want you to have to go to jail.' It reminded me of some of the occupational hazards of working in the Clinton White House.
Between Ann and the truth was a bad place to stand
A lot I will say a lot in the course of the evening on and off about Ann Devroy, but I want to say this: If you were a press secretary, to know Ann was not exactly to love her, because fear was probably closer to the mark. She took great delight in terrorizing press aids and spin doctors, because she really believed they stood between her and the truth — not a place you wanted to stand when you were dealing with Ann Devroy. She was ferocious and relentless when she needed to be, but she was also a very reasonable person. If she thought you were helping her get things that she needed to know and track things down, she was enormous fun to work with. We got to know Washington sort of together. I was a young press secretary right out of college in the late 1970s in the office of a New Jersey senator when Ann first came to Washington D.C. in 1977 to cover the capitol for the New Jersey paper, the Gannett newspaper chain. I was learning how to be a press secretary, in other words, just as she was learning the Capitol Hill Washington beat. I think because we got to know each other in that way ... I think it made things a lot easier two decades later when we faced off in the White House briefing room. You know, they called us an adversarial relationship, and it should be, because there should be a careful arms-length distance between the reporter and the source. But in the case of me and Ann Devroy, it was always an amicable adversarial relationship. I wouldn’t go so far to say we were friends, because I think she would think it inappropriate that flack, near flack, would be a friend, but I could say this: We liked each other enormously, and I think the professionalism of our work was something that gave us both similar times of joy. That kind of relationship where you keep an eye on the truth, where you treat people with respect: That’s really kind of the central point of my talk tonight. Because I think in a lot of ways things have gone sour in Washington, because we’ve lost exactly those kinds of relationships.
I will say to start tonight that I deeply appreciate that I am the first non-journalist to give this talk. There have been an extraordinary list of them, beginning (with) David Broder going through Andrea Mitchell last year, some of the best in journalism, some who were colleagues of Ann’s, some who were her bosses. I think the fact that you’ve invited someone from the other side of that adversarial relationship to offer a perspective to something you appreciated, and it's something even though Ann would have laughed at me being here making this observations and probably would not expect me to tell lots of affectionate stories about how sweet she is. Hey, she would still respect the notion that there are people who try to get the work of Washington done correctly, and they need to be understood, they need to cover, and they need to be held accountable. My talk tonight is about why we need to do something about the spinners who often distort the truth in the name of advancing political agendas. To that I plead guilty, because some said I was pretty good at that. I think we also need to do something about the snarks in the press corps and in the punditry who so often poison information with attitude and with analysis which prevent us from seeing more clearly to sober truths about the times in which we live. The combination of bad attitudes and bad communications on both sides of this adversarial relationship is making the work of Washington exceedingly difficult, and it's put us in the position we are in today. And I think some of you know what that is: It is an atmosphere bordering on crisis when you think about the ability of our institutions of self-government that function properly. We have a Congress that is very badly broken. It is gridlocked, it is about to pull the trigger on a thing called a nuclear action, which will only increase, if that were possible, the level of bitterness and sulfur in the air in Washington, and we have a media that seems to be descending increasingly into serial obsession, with the lesson important in the name of sometimes just entertaining us, but very often just to create additional conflict because sometimes that’s fun to watch. And it has done significant damage to the institutions that we rely upon to keep us well-informed.
Data indicates readers aren't happy with the press's performance
I don’t need to tell you that we hold politicians (and) the institutions of politics in low repute. Most of you who are parents or grandparents probably wouldn’t want to send your children into that kind of career. To consider what’s happened to the field of journalism, that profession is so noble. Here’s some data from The Pew Charitable Trusts, from its program on the People in the Press. This is the change in attitudes of the American people about journalism from the period 1985, which was coincidentally the year that Ann Devroy went to work for The Washington Post, to today. The number of Americans that think news organizations are highly professional declined from 72 percent to 49 percent. The number of you (that) think news organizations are moral fell from 54 to 39 percent. Those that felt news organizations try to cover up their mistakes grew form 13 percent to 67 percent — and that’s even before Dan Rather and CBS. The number of you thought the press gets the facts straight fell from 55 to 35 percent. Those who thought news organizations were biased politically raised from 45 percent to 59 percent. That is the portrait of a filter for information in the eyes of the American people (that) no longer works to give us the critical information we need about the political society in which we live. And I think that’s what I’d like to talk about tonight: What we can do about it. I instruct that there’s a central paradox in the way we think about the way we gather and use the information we need to govern ourselves as a nation, and it’s this: We live in one of the most incredibly hopeful times in human history, because of the changes in the world around us, and yet the very things that have changed our world so dramatically in the last 15 to 20 years have ironically conspired to make the business of governing ourselves more difficult. Let me explain this.
The sort of two forces that I would say most shape the history of our times are first the end of the Cold War, which was really a triumph of American values; market economics, those things we cherish as the people of America; and the rise of the information technology revolution that we know today as the Internet and all the technologies associated with faster quicker communications, and we unpack that. The geo-political change of the Cold War. When Ann and I first showed up in Washington in the late 1970s, it was still an era in which there was a dramatic juxtaposition the two belief systems contesting for power in the world, the bipolar divisions of the Cold War, the long twilights struggling, which we faced at the Talitarian Soviet enemy. If we’re real consequential, you’d question who would best lead the world into new times and to a new century. And in that era, there was some measure of bipartisanship forced on us, because at the end of the day, we had to act together as Americans. I’ll never forget that in the late 1970s at the end of the day when it came to foreign policy, even if there were strong disagreements, even if there were bitter debates as there were on Vietnam, Democrats, Republicans would reach together some consensus that would allow us to stand together as the American people. Because we had to. We were leaders of a great alliance that was facing Soviet totalitarianism, and it was literally a matter of life or death for us to succeed. Think of the president of the United States. We called him not coincidentally the leader of the free world. The one thing I’d suggest that you would not do to the leader of the free world in those times was put him through — let's just pick something hypothetical — a dramatic and tawdry sex scandal, because that would be dangerous to all of us to corrupt the authority, integrity and power of the leader of great alliance. So there was something that sort of forced us to minimize both conflict and partisanship and the desire to constantly pull more cannibal and very personal ways and the person that we saw is the titular head of that alliance. And I think that change had real ripple effects through our politics. It’s not a coincidence that once the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and throughout the 1990s that our politics did become more bitter and nastier and the climate of our politics no longer had that self-forcing mechanism which brought us to some bipartisan consensus.
Now, those changes are dramatic. They unleash very hopeful things that we’re still struggling with: Globalization, the rise of an economy in which bids in services and capital and labor flow across boundaries instantaneously, and that has been largely positive for us, because it's raised levels of living, and it has the prospects of making the world a better place for all. But it’s had this corrupting influence at home, which I find ironic, that is now married to the second-greatest change in the last generation. And the other thing, I would argue, (has) most impacted the politics of our time, and that’s the changes that come about because of these amazing technologies of information and communication that are a fact of our life now.
More information doesn't mean we're wiser
When Ann and I first started out in Washington and when I just got out of college, we will have the students here appreciate this millions of different worlds that we live in. We had a thing in particular — those of you in journalism will be surprised to hear this — there were things called typewriters, and you pushed the little button, and up went up a key, and it put pieces of ink on a paper, and you could actually then push another button, and it went up and took the pieces of ink off the paper. It was an amazing thing. We also had these devices: They were called record players, and they had ... this plastic disc that we would put into our record player, and then we’d play music. It was really marvelous, and the only bad thing about it is some of that music still exists today. We did not have personal, digital assistance. If you had used the term personal digital assistant in those days, probably someone would have thought you were referring to a manicurist or something else. We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have iPods, we didn’t have IM, we didn’t have PCs, we weren’t wired. We basically had a pretty comfortable way of gathering, collecting and figuring out what mattered. Because we gathered around a common campfire every night where the network news broadcasts, and they heard Walter Kronkite say, 'That’s the way it is,' and that’s the way it was. We had one common vocabulary they kicked together, defining where they were as a country, what mattered most and what we needed to know in order to guide the decisions we had to make together as a community.
Things have changed so much. We live now in an era as Joe Nie, my friend who was until recently the dean at the Kennedy School in Harvard, said recently, we live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding. You can take your laptop into class with a gigabyte of information on it, and you can access anything through Google instantaneously all the time, but there’s no sense that that is making us any wiser. There’s no sense that that companion of information can be used wisely by all of us to make the decisions that will chart the future of the great nation.
Now I suspect also that some of our problem is the age of we who are baby boomers. I just having turned 50, just probably six years younger than Ann, who died just before turning 50 at age 49. We came of age in a time in which we had enormous faith that government could collectively be a great instrument that would improve the lives of the American people. We thought government could help end racial segregation, could lift people out of poverty through a great society (in which) we give them opportunity. We had enormous belief that the regulatory prior government could bring women into new roles in society and actually correct long-standing ... injustices. That we also in the 1960s and 70s began to learn about the limits of power and the dangers of the corrupting influence sometimes of people who had too much government power. We learned the governments lie, as they did to us in the case of Vietnam, and we learned that powerful presidents can sometimes misuse the authority and violate the Constitution, as happened in Watergate. Those became great moral stories for journalists about the power of speaking truth, and in those times, journalism flourished as a profession ... as I got out of college in 1976. Woodward and Bernstein were the coolest things around, and having a career in which you might actually end up being a movie star with (a) pencil and pad one day: That looked like a pretty good career option.
Readers became skeptical of journalists' power
But things have happened since then, I think, to destroy some of the luster of those professions. Ironically, just because the power of the journalist included the power to take a president off the pedestal and take him out of office, as happened in Watergate. That kind of power in the eyes of the American people became troubling, and I think it began to cause both resentment and skepticism, coupled with the cost of what it took to run this kind of government that was activist, and as that baby boom generation began to get older and began to see how much came out of their own pocketbooks and wallets in higher taxes, a deep ambivalence grew about how much government we wanted versus the benefits we saw of activist government addressing the concerns we had. And in many ways the ambivalence that we have about what we want government to do and our belief that government can correct wrongs and address social needs versus the limits who want to place on that government is an unresolved question of this great baby boom generation that puts our politics in such a precarious position of gridlock today. The result is the limit you all know; in 2000, we basically literally could not decide who had been elected president. In 2004, we had a very narrow close election in many respects, and we left ourselves with a Congress bitterly divided — in fact, much more divided than the American people. But at the heart of this is an argument about what do we expect from government, and do we like it or not, and that is a question that is unresolved in our minds.
Why we trust Washington
Jacob Weisberg is many one of the brightest of the young journalists coming along the scene right not long after 9/11; this government hating is a rather superficial and artificial sentiment, a luxury of secure times when terrorists knock down buildings, when drought wipes out farmers, when the economy threatens to come to a halt. Even those who are ideologically hostile to the government turn to it both logically and reflexively for help. We suddenly trust Washington not because it has done something new to earn our trust, but because the alternative of not trusting it has suddenly become too terrifying to contemplate. If you think about the challenges we face in the world today, with dread of terror, the need we have to have a government that protects us and then simultaneously the doubt we have (that) the government can run efficiently — because most of us think it's got about the same kind of efficiency as the U.S. Post Office — you suddenly see that we have a deep natural doubt about whether our capacity to govern ourselves is really here within the bodied politics. And I think that has caused enormous dysfunction in our capability of coming together (to) reason, compromise and mediate conflict — those things that we need our political system to do to resolve differences in between people with strong viewpoints and different ideologies. It doesn’t work that way anymore, because we’ve lost some confidence (that) the government itself can provide that kind of role in our lives.
Now, I have seen kind of the symptoms of what this gridlock brings from the perspective I had standing at that podium at the White House. It’s great to be at a podium like this. It reminds me of that geography of the West Wing where you can walk out of your office if you’re the press secretary, turn right, go 50 feet and get yelled at by the president of how miserable the press is and why they’re trying to destroy this great country. Turn left and go 50 feet the other direction, and be in the briefing room and hear how bad ... the president is and why he always lies. That juxtaposition, that role being in the crosshairs of that institutional fight, is exactly where the press secretary is located. It gives you a unique viewpoint of what some of the shortcomings are of both the press and then those politicians that we elect.
When we start with the politicians — because I think they’re partially responsible for the condition that we’re in. You know, most Americans believe it or not are pretty modest. I bet you if we went around the room here, yeah, there’d be plenty of Republicans; there’s probably some brave Democrats. There may be more than a few brave Democrats. But we just said recently, just before this session at dinner, if you roll up our sleeves around the table, (begin) to talk about the difference we have and try to figure out problems that we would solve, we’d reach accommodation with each other. We’d hear each other, we’d listen to each other, we’d figure it out. In this most recent election, according to the data produced by those who do the exit polls right at the election, 21 percent declare themselves liberal; 34 percent said they were conservative; 45 percent said they were moderate. That is roughly the same proportion, same breakdown, going back now five or six elections. The number who were self-declared moderates hovers around 50 percent in elections going back into the 1960s. Now, the problem with being a moderate is it's just kind of boring. And there’s a great guy, Jim Hightower, who is kind of the spire brand radical down in Texas. He used to castigate this centrist new democratic Clintonian Democrats all the time and say, he’d say to us, 'Look, you miry Democrats, you middle-of-the-road Democrats. The only thing in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.' And our rhetoric would be, 'You know, that’s not fair, because that’s where in fact most Americans are.' They look for not strong ideology based on the extremes. They’re looking for people who come together to solve problems. But we rarely get that kind of politics out of our system. In part, it's because of Jerry Mannery. The way we apportion Congressional districts and the elected member of Congress is much more fearful of getting defeated in a primary by someone to his far right or far left of the case of a Democrat rather than be defeated by someone who might be moderate, more centrussed and better capable of producing compromise. So we’ve engineered a system, I think, right now that speaks more strongly to the bases of both parties, which tend to be ideologically further apart from the center than they are to the people that they purport to represent in the middle. Now, what that means as far as the policies that we face (is) that all of the questions that I think have been unresolved on the national agenda for quite some time now are still there and still stuck.
Issues to cover still the same
When Ann Devroy went to Washington to start covering Congress and politics in 1977, the list of issues that we needed to face as a country and do something about are almost identical to what they are today — what we’re going to do about persistent and budget shortfalls and deficits coming about, because we didn’t want to pay equal in taxes to the benefits that we wanted from government. What would we do to kind of invigorate a national economy in the face of foreign competition? What would we do about trade and the issues of how we interact with other economies in an increasingly diversified global economy? What about this baby boom and its retirement needs? What would we do about Social Security and the need to reform entitlements? How are we going to reform education and improve it so that our kids can compete in the global economy that we are in? What about health care costs rising faster than most things in our economy, and what about the gaps in health care coverage that left too many without insurance? What about energy policy and the need for conservation, an issue that was literally at the heart of Jimmy Carter’s presidency the moment that Ann and I arrived in Washington? What about extending the benefits of research and technology while preserving the sanctity of life? What about just difficult issues of faith and how they intersect with human life and sexuality in issues like abortion, the death penalty, homosexuality? How would we project the idea of America in the world, especially as we were seeing ourselves triumphant in the Cold War that was beginning to look like it might come to an end as Ronald Reagan became president? All of these things are big-to-hit issues; they define what truly matters in Washington. And how little of that debate and the need for sober thinking on those questions do we hear in the coverage we get at the Washington we face today?
So I say (in) many, many ways, our politicians in our political debate have left us shorthanded when it comes to the kind of truth telling that will lead us into clear and rational discussions about how we address those problems, how we move ahead together as a nation. And that’s the political piece.
Coverage seems to focus on political game, not issues
Let me deal with the other side of that adversarial relationship: The press. And remember your designated role when you’re the White House press secretary — to be the piñata for the White House press corps. They get to whack away, and Ann Devroy carried the biggest stick of all. They’d whack away at you and see if anything interesting would spill out, and occasionally it would, if you got off track. But the theatre of that relationship — the theatre of drama, confrontation, and the way in which the story of politics and policymaking in Washington is presented to the mirror and people — is part of the dilemma of what’s wrong today. Because I would submit that what we’ve done is turn into one ongoing soap opera through the serial obsession with scandal and personality and character and all of that. We’ve turned the story of Washington into this political game of who’s up and who's down — not into the deeper and more complex questions that lie on that unresolved agenda that I just mentioned. We’ve moved from politics, as the two great media critics Tom Rosensteel and Bill Kovich like to say, we’ve moved from the journalism of verification — reporting fast and giving people information that they can use to make choices — to a journalism of assertion, where to make an argument and to have an opinion triumphs over the reporting of hard news. And I think ... that is one of the consequences of that choice by news organizations, as we’ve gunned down the debates so that it becomes something that just a little cut above entertaining most of the time. If you think about channel surfing through what’s on here offers on television, you can see it wherever you go. Look at the dominant offers on television — you know, roller derby, professional wrestling, smack-down NFL, Hardball with Chris Matthews. You know, you get some sense there, the genre there, that’s sort of one kind of way presenting ideas and information. It's (a) sort of falsified fight in the name of entertainment. It’s supposed to hold your attention for awhile, and you also get some sense that it (is) probably more economical for news organizations to present politics in mad fashion as big mud wrestling than it is to really get into real discussion of issues (and) how you cover them. I think that it looked like everyone understood that these problems existed in our system, that we could do something about it.
Journalism after Sept. 11 was extraordinary
And for a brief shining moment, right around September 11th, 2001, it looked like all of these things dysfunctional by our policies and our journalism might suddenly be set aside in the name of everybody who (turned) into the kind of excellence that I think characterized the reporting of Ann Devroy. And then, unfortunately, we went right back to the same old ways. If you think about it, some of the most extraordinary journalism of our times was produced in the aftermath of that terrorist attack that really struck deep in the soul of who we are as the American people. And we got the best out of both our political leaders, including President Bush, and we got the best out of the journalists who cover Washington at exactly that moment when we needed it most. And we sustained it for awhile — and not long enough. Four months after 9/11, (in) The Washington Post — and this was the first Monday in January of 2002; I’ll never forget this front page — the headlines said: "Partisan Politics Returns to Capitol, Still Made For Scene on Domestic Issues," and the lead was this: "The new year has restored a combative mood in the capitol, as strategists from both parties predict a year of regular fights and little progress on a full slate of domestic priorities." Doesn’t that exactly define the condition of Washington, D.C., today, and won’t that exactly be the condition of our political system unless we do something about it?
What journalists can do
Wow, what can we do about it, and here’s my prescription. I’d say first we need a real and genuine new ethic of what journalism is about in the tim