Jerry's Reviews > Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth

Straight Stuff by James Deakin
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it was ok
bookshelves: conviction

“No comment! And that’s off the record!”

I have always thought that the vehement bias among legacy journalists against conservative figures was a new phenomenon. James Deakin’s arguments that there was no such bias throughout the FDR through Reagan presidencies is so poorly argued that it begins to make me question that assumption of newness.

His argument is basically a series of contradictions. There is no bias. But, bias is good. And there is a lot of argument shifting like that. When the industry is biased, you must look at individuals. He devotes an entire section toward the end to an epic listing of where various journalists went to college—after acknowledging that most of Washington’s journalists did in fact go to Ivy League or Small Ivy schools. He also uses small-town newspapers to counter the argument that Washington journalists are biased. Here, as everywhere else, his arguments tend to be easily interpreted in multiple ways; he chooses the bad.

Look not at the New York Times, but at an ordinary newspaper in an ordinary city, and see how much actual news there is after page 3 or page 5.

His complaint is that profits is just “a new term meaning greed”. But this doesn’t even make sense. He thinks his complaint is that small-town newspapers carry too much advertising. Read literally, though, his complaint is that newspapers tend to relegate advertisements to later pages rather than giving them the same status as news. He doesn’t even see the alternative explanation. Part of the problem is that bias is something you have, and conscience he something I have.

And, when an individual reporter is biased, you must look at the whole industry, including the dinky little towns who do things all wrong.

I bought this book used, and the only writing in it is is next to his knee-jerk assumption about the intelligence of Reader’s Digest subscribers, what we would today call flyover country.

Deakin typical liberal. Hates Reader’s Digest because it is pro-USA. Patriotic. Liberals only like Kremlin.

This would be over-the-top even about Deakin, except for Deakin’s defense of the Soviet Union and their spies in this book. He calls Attorney General Brownell’s statement that (a) Harry Dexter White was a spy, and that (b) President Truman had known this, demagoguery and political vilification, a “smear campaign”. It was also, it turns out, true. One of the things that proved Reagan’s ignorance was that Reagan said “the Soviet Union, under communism, was about to collapse.”

How silly.

It many cases, it is difficult to say how accurate he is because he quotes almost none of the complaints against the media, or even the silly things conservative presidents have said. He paraphrases them, which, in 1984 wasn’t as obviously unprofessional as now in the age of google when quotes would be easy to verify but paraphrases almost impossible.

But he also cherry-picks the arguments he’s addressing, to the point that he proves the opposite. For example, conservatives often complain that the media highlight opinions the media considers far right, tarring the entire conservative movement with them while hiding far left voices that might alienate the public from the left. Rather than noting this complaint, he presents evidence that it is true and then says, see, the only bias is against the left. We give all sorts of air time to the extreme right, but the extreme left has a devil of a time getting on the air!

He also pulls a Michael Moore by conflating multiple things; in some cases this is very clumsy, or else I’m not understanding the timeline. Under Nixon, for example, there were far fewer press conferences. By 1972, it was pretty obvious we had to do something about that, so we got together in 1970 to try and coordinate our questions.

At the end of the 1970s, however, it was evident that the press conference was in trouble…

They held a meeting…

After observing reporters during the Nixon-McGovern campaign of 1972, Timothy Crouse came to believe they could accomplish more if they were willing to cooperate. Specifically, Crouse wrote, they might have compelled Nixon to hold more press conferences…

The meeting took place on the morning of December 8, 1970…

The worries were that media critics might take this meeting as proof of media conspiracy:

If reporters act collectively, they lay themselves open to a suspicion that they are managing the news.

It’s too bad he didn’t write this after electronic communications allowed proof of such coordination, such as the JournoList email leaks.

Another Moorism is when he uses Jody Powell’s statements at the White House Correspondents Dinner to prove that the Carter administration was just as angry with the press as anyone. Now, I’m pretty sure he was. But Deakin presents these statements without noting that Correspondents Dinner remarks are traditionally roast-style jokes, heavily exaggerated complaints, and that, in a sense, they prove the opposite: that the Carter administration still got along very well with the press and could joke around with them. This has been the case at least since President Ford’s Chevy Chase impersonation.

There is a sense of entitlement in this book, about the “public service” that journalists perform, that is very off-putting. He writes like a snide teenager, annoyed that people are paying attention to him and annoyed that they’re not. One of the strangest complaints is that he was really annoyed that a university archived television news broadcasts for future reference. Sure, it provided a useful service for the future, but boy those conservative researchers sure had a field day with it.

He also complains about how President Reagan (president at the time of Deakin finishing the book) refused to answer questions about how far he’d be willing to go to compromise with Congress. But of course, any answer to this question would have turned the compromise into the new starting point. I’m not saying the questions shouldn’t be asked. But reporters certainly should not feel entitled to an answer.

Like the snide teenager, there are BMOC he likes and BMOC he doesn’t like, but he absolutely knows more than all of them. It gets so bad that he basically ends up lecturing presidents on economics and showing off his complete ignorance of economics. He often provides a list of the stupid things a President has said (well, I only saw the list under Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan, but that could be my own bias). But his examples of the confusing things Eisenhower said are not confusing if you understand free markets and bureaucracies. You might disagree with them, but it would be highly ignorant to use them as an example of being ignorant or misinformed.

An even better example of his smug ignorance comes during the Ford administration. He explains to the reader how to solve inflation in a handful of sentences that boil down to, there are only two types of inflation. If it is demand inflation, raise taxes so that people have less to spend. If it is a wage-price spiral, freeze wages so that people have less to spend. In other words, do what didn’t work for Hoover and FDR during the Great Depression—nor for Nixon in the seventies.

He thinks Ford is acting as if this were a demand inflation, but, he asks Ford, experts think it is wage-price spiral, so how can your tax increases and cutting spending work?

Now, I happen to be reading a history of the Great Depression right now, and am pretty sure that those solutions don’t work in either an inflationary nor a recessionary period (people also often forget that the Great Depression was preceded by fears of runaway inflation), and in fact just prolong the agony at best or make it worse. When production is low enough that prices are rising and no one is responding by building more, a very likely cause is that the government is monopolizing money, withholding it from the economy, and so blocking people from borrowing in order to supply more of what people clearly want.

Ford’s answer is a very polite you are wrong, but of course Ford doesn’t say that and Deakin is too arrogant to hear it. Ford’s answer is that the reason he is reducing government spending is to “make money more easily available… so that home purchasers will have more money… [to] stimulate the homebuilding industry and… provide more jobs.”

All perfectly reasonable, although ending all of Nixon’s price and wage controls would have been a better idea. Deakin, however, is not smart enough to realize he’s been disagreed with, so asks the question again. This time Ford explicitly says “I respectfully disagree with you,” and more explicitly says that his policies are meant to “stimulate production”.

Deakin still doesn’t get it, and uses this as an example of how Ford just wasn’t very smart.

He was very good at not seeing things that disagreed with him. He finished this book in 1983, writing without any expectation of an improved economy before the 1984 election. Reagan was doomed. But in fact the economy was already visibly improved in 1983 and by 1984 would enter one of the longest sustained periods of growth then or since, dashing Deakin’s hope for a one-term Reagan presidency.

In March 1981, Reagan was wounded in a shooting outside a Washington hotel. Deputy press secretary Larry Speakes informed the press corps that the White House had received 7,500 telegrams and communications in the first forty-eight hours after the shooting. A reporter inquired blandly: “Pro or con?”

He is so arrogant in believing that he knows everything, he even makes Nixon sympathetic just by disdaining him. I find Nixon to be the worst president since Wilson, and yet I found myself siding with Nixon over Deakin in this book.

Nixon was an anomaly: an introverted politician.

Part of the problem is the incredible tone switch between when he talks about the Johnson administration and the Nixon administration. The tone switching between Eisenhower and JFK was sad, but between LBJ and Nixon it was so blatantly biased it made Nixon look good. Early in his administration Nixon, a huge football and baseball fan, went to the press section of Air Force One to find someone to discuss sports with. As Deakin reports it, they all refused to talk to him about it until he left. What a strange missed opportunity for journalists to squander.

Nixon also finally listened to press complaints that the White House press room was too crowded. He built a bigger and better one. Deakin’s response was that the old one “was home.” They liked it better crowded and messy.

Within a short time, the snide teenager is again complaining that there isn’t enough room.

He displays very little sense of perspective, though it may just be a different form of argument shifting. The chapter on JFK ends with some national security relativism. He starts with Kennedy’s complaints about press reports warning the Cuban government about the impending invasion, and that newspapers should have known this was a national security issue. Deakin goes into a long discussion about how so many trivial things are classified, and so many public officials breach security after they leave office and write their memoirs, and so many secrets really aren’t critical after the events they relate to have passed. But none of this addresses the actual criticism which seems unassailable from that front. A good argument could almost certainly be made that a secret invasion outside of an official war ought to be reported before it happens. But arguing that it isn’t an important secret, or that once it’s over it shouldn’t be a secret, makes no sense.

Ultimately, Deakin’s major flaw as a writer is that he isn’t very introspective; he doesn’t see what he’s missing and thinks, instead, that he’s comprehensive. This book ends up being a watered-down and vague version of Philip Knightly’s The First Casualty. There are a handful of interesting stories, such as the chicken head at a Ford press conference. It is supposedly on display at the Gerald R. Ford museum, which I will now need to visit.

Mostly though it’s just a long series of vague, unsubstantiated, contradictory complaints. Vague claims that people complain about the media unfairly. Vague rebuttals and then vague proofs. It’s not that it’s bad (though in many places it is) but that it rarely says anything, and when it does, he misses it.

It is the motivation that is important—because it determines the results. For the majority of journalists, the prime motivations remain sheer curiosity and the belief that communicating information and explanations is a public service. For others, the chief spur is reform. And for some, it is fame, power and $1 million a year. It is permitted to be in more than one category.
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Reading Progress

January 27, 2019 – Started Reading
January 27, 2019 – Shelved
February 7, 2019 – Finished Reading
February 8, 2019 – Shelved as: conviction

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