July 02, 2016
A Sorry State of Affairs

A propos of nothing, here’s a piece I did for The Harvard Crimson in 1986 while I was teaching there:
Several years ago scores of passengers came down with severe diarrhea after eating a meal aboard a Japan Air Lines jet. It turned out that a food handler at a stopover in Alaska had caused the outbreak by coming to work, in violation of airline rules, with an infected cut on his thumb.

Just one of those things, and, fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt. Until a few days later, when the Japanese executive in charge of JAL’s food service department apologized to everyone concerned by committing suicide.

Americans react differently to these matters. After the leaky booster rocket made by his company caused Challenger to explode, the chairman of Morton Thiokol was asked if he should have resigned. His name is Charles S. Locke. Here is what Mr. Locke said: “You explain to me why I should.”

We don’t go in much for kid stuff like responsibility or honor, here in the Land of the Setting Sun.

And so I was mildly surprised a few weeks ago to read that Bernard Kalb, a former newsman, had resigned as State Department spokesman on what sounded a good deal like a point of personal honor. It was like seeing a cow eat a chocolate bar; no physical reason why the thing can’t be done, but you don’t run across it every day…

What you run across most days is what issued immediately from President Ronald Reagan, a former actor and labor leader, Secretary of State George Shultz, a former economics professor and businessman, and National Security Advisor John Poindexter, an admiral. All three appeared to endorse lying so enthusiastically that you came away with the idea that it was not only the salvation of the Republic, but could probably cure hives as well.

This is of course the general view of the matter in all governments, and in all other bureaucracies, too. Kalb’s action makes him stand out from the crowd like Boy George at a sheriffs’ convention.

No such thing has happened since 1983, actually, when Les Janka quit the White House press office over the lies his superiors were telling about the conquest of Grenada. Before that we have to go back to 1974, when White House Press Secretary Jerald F. terHorst quit after President Ford pardoned Nixon.

Both men, like Kalb, came from news backgrounds. Could it be that former newsmen are marginally more, well, honorable than the rabble of lawyers, lobbyists, military men, bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who hold most of the high appointive jobs in any administration? The notion seems so preposterous that I advance it without much confidence.

How could honor survive very long in anyone who has worked on newspapers? Most papers, after all, are timid, wretched things that can reliably be counted on for the truth only in such small matters as baseball scores, stock market quotations and yesterday’s weather. And their publishers, by and large, have the same regard for the truth that a cocker spaniel has for a fireplug.

But publishers do have a high regard for money. My brother, a publisher himself, remembers a meeting of the clan at which Kay Graham of the Washington Post received a standing ovation. Afterwards he turned to the publisher beside him and remarked on this spontaneous tribute to the woman whose paper was just then breaking the Watergate story.

“Watergate, hell,” his neighbor said. “It’s because she broke the pressmen’s union.”

And it is a true fact (as opposed to the government kind) that most newspaper publishers would rather give away free ads than pay their employees a living wage. Decent salaries would violate the most sacred tenet of journalism, which is to net 20 percent on gross.
If union-busting is needed to reach this goal, then so be it. But reporters are easier game then pressmen. All a publisher has to do is encourage in the poor saps the belief that they are working for something far more precious than money: The Truth.

Somehow this works. Newsmen who are so cynical about everyone else’s profession can be wonderfully naïve about their own. They need to believe that there is such a thing as truth, and that they are the boys who search it out, and that, once printed, it can set men free.

Even former newsmen tend to hold onto these reassuring beliefs, as they might to an old teddy bear. It is this reluctance to put aside childish things that causes the poor fellows now and then to walk the plank for no good reason, instead of lying like a good boy.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at July 02, 2016 01:01 PM
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