Second Glance: David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be
For years, I had intended to go back to David Halberstam’s big book on the media, and a few months ago I finally seized the opportunity. I spotted the 1979 book at the town dump of Lincoln, Massachusetts, where I drop in once a week to dispose of stuff. The book was bashed and battered but still intact; one of my neighbors apparently had read it cover to cover. I grabbed it and took it home, dusted it off and sat down to read it.
Halberstam, who died in a car accident just ten years ago this April, would have been pleased, except perhaps for the dump angle. For he was rightfully proud of The Powers That Be, a 771-page chronicle describing where the U.S. media came from, who the key innovators were and how their foresight has stimulated public discourse in America’s democracy. This book deserves a new life, especially now. Presidential politics loom large in the narrative as in life today. The book reads as a freshly told tale of high tension in Washington partly because history has a way of repeating itself. In many eerie passages, Halberstam unwittingly echoes current controversies. He could be talking about the jittery climate around the administration of President Donald Trump.
Speaking of the White House press corps, Halberstam writes of the 1930s:
If newsmen misread the rules or transgressed even slightly, he could come down hard and quickly, indeed quite brutally, on them… He tried to shape every story. … He was so confident of himself, so sure that he was the ablest man in the country to govern, so aware in his own patrician way of his right to be doing what he was doing, that he seemed totally natural as President; it was a great art and he made it seem artless.
His subject, Franklin Roosevelt.
And what he is describing here is …
… a new kind of presidency, with far more potential for manipulation and far less accountability, far more able to dominate the landscape, with a capacity to transmit its will far faster and more directly. The new conditions also meant that the inner texture of the President himself and the state of his psyche became ever more important, because the possibilities of abuse were greater than ever … He discovered that even in a hostile press conference with hostile questions there was drama, and he could benefit from the drama and the hostility.
Not Trump. His subject was John F. Kennedy and the sudden impact of political television
Some of the great egos of the 1970s emerge vividly too, notably when performing at White House press conferences. Former CBS reporter Dan Rather felt the wrath of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson for betraying his origins and adopting East Coast ways. As Halberstam told it:
The first White House press conference Rather covered, Lyndon Johnson simply refused to see him or acknowledge his question … All (Rather’s) bosses were watching. A lot of institutional manhood was riding on it, it was imperative for Rather to show that he had the clout to do his job. … Dan Rather again and again kept jumping out of his seat as if there were a spike in it, trying to get the attention of the President, but to no avail…. Rather was devastated, and decided he could not let this happen again, his very career was at stake.
Halberstam was a social commentator but also star reporter in his days at The New York Times, having made his name covering the Vietnam War. His skeptical coverage won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. He deserves credit for standing up to the good-news generals and politicians during his tour there, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He asked McNamara on a Saigon whirlwind visit whether the struggle in Vietnam was not a “bottomless pit.” McNamara, still trying to be hopeful at this stage, quipped, “No David. Every pit has a bottom.” Halberstam knew better. He had done his reporting.
Those habits served him well in backgrounding this complex story of the media as in the rest of his oeuvre that covers all his passions – some 20 books on such diverse subjects as baseball, basketball, the Kennedy-Johnson years, the Korean War and various social trends.
This is more than just another book for media junkies. The Powers That Be is especially valuable for its historical sweep. We forget that the media once did not monopolize our attention as the 24-hour news cycle does. Halberstam noted that in the 1920s the Washington press corps consisted of half a dozen men, “all gentlemen … the beau ideal of their time, very properly dressed, men who wore fedoras and carried walking sticks.” They packed calling cards and they never ran from one office to another. There was plenty of time to do their reporting, and anyway the government was “so small.” Only when Franklin Roosevelt arrived did life accelerate and the hats and walking sticks go out of style.
The book looks back at the fathers and grandfathers of the major publishers and editors to help explain their origins and their devotion to sound journalism. The main players made for a colorful cohort: CBS founder William Paley, Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce, Adolph Ochs of The New York Times, Philip and later Kay Graham of The Washington Post, and the Chandler family of The Los Angeles Times. The only major network missing is CNN, which in Halberstam’s day was a shoestring operation known by its own staffers as the Chicken Noodle Network. Now CNN seems proud to have grown up sufficiently to be banned from White House briefings for its critical reporting and commentary.
Halberstam’s technique was to devote pages and pages to family background and personality, then delve into the organizations they built and their often-courageous clashes with authority. It’s a sprawling theme for one book but with the help of his editors the story drives relentlessly forward. The big events of the six decades are retold through their treatment in the media and the tension that resulted between media and government – the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy era, the invasion of Cuba, the Kennedy and Johnson period, the Nixon years and – one of the strongest chapters – the Watergate scandal as covered by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
The detailed portrait of Paley, son of a Russian Jew, a cigar maker, reveals a young man hooked on early radio. He built his own private radio set before receivers were available to the general public. As time passed, he was able to establish CBS as a broadcast leader because “he was so much smarter than everyone else in the business, so much more subtle, he could sell not just entertainment and products but an aura as well, the idea that CBS was different, somewhat classier, more statesmanlike…” Paley was also so handsome and rich that enthusiasm “seemed to jump out of him”.
Halberstam was an old-fashioned reporter. He had no internet, no Google, no Wikipedia to rely upon. He spent five years interviewing about 500 people, most of them face to face. He modestly called it “straight legwork,” for which there is no substitute. Reporting at his level was and still is a rigorous and demanding profession, nothing less than a constant search for truth. Reporters treat facts with reverence.
As a writer, Halberstam had his limitations. He tended toward the prolix but his information was so solid that it carried the day. Still, purists objected, and some found him easy to parody. His paragraphs are punctuated with “of course,” flattering the reader into thinking he or she probably already knows what is coming next. And too many new thoughts begin with “And so …” A typical sentence might have five or six commas. He had a fondness for the run-on sentence, splicing two sentences with a conjunction, a present participle or another comma. Still, he seemed satisfied with his quirky style, and I also came to appreciate it once I got used to it.
He exceeded himself in this 12-comma marathon that virtually leaves the reader out of breath:
Kennedy, by contrast, in 1960 had been working on his television approach for several years, traveling around the country, meeting local pols, but also working out connections with the media, in effect trying out his television style as a kind of road show, knowing immediately that the talking heads and the long thirty-minute formal speeches were out, that people did not want a long semi-formal lecture, that a certain spontaneity was needed – a show, a drama, a cliff-hanger, an element of combat and conflict of will.
Halberstam didn’t work alone at this stage of his career. He depended on his publishers to edit him, a service that has all but disappeared from the industry today. In his earlier book, The Best and the Brightest, he acknowledges a debt to editors such as Willie Morris, Midge Decter and Bob Kotlowitz, all veterans of Harper’s magazine where long excerpts first appeared. And for the book under review here he is more effusive, thanking Charles Elliott of Knopf, “who in a brief time took an immense and complicated manuscript and helped fuse it together” in 36 chronological and fast-paced chapters. Later in his career, as his style became more generally accepted, he forbade editors of his smaller books to touch his prose.
The story of CBS News revolves around ex-New York Times editor Edward Klauber, whom Paley recruited to build up a news operation of integrity beyond reproach. Klauber set such durable standards for objectivity that within a decade CBS News had a higher level of prestige and intelligence than 90 percent of the U.S. print press. Klauber’s credo included this basic duty:
[Reporters] should point out the facts on both sides, show contradictions with the known record and so forth. They should bear in mind that in a democracy it is important that people not only should know but should understand, and it is the analysts’ function to understand, to weigh and judge, but not to do the judging for them.
This corporate ethos guided Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, William Shirer, Alexander Kendrick, Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, David Schoenbrun and others as CBS grew to dominate the competition.
American journalism was always run by men, but in one of the most interesting chapters Halberstam focuses on Katherine Graham, the first woman to break through the glass ceiling. When her husband committed suicide, she found herself in the publisher’s chair in 1963, the first woman to run a major paper. She was not interviewed for this book, at least not on the record, but Halberstam pieces together an image of how panicky she felt on her first days in her new role:
There were men everywhere. That was the first thing about the new job. She had to deal with men who were quick and verbal and ambitious and self-assured and who had risen through the ranks against other men who were also smart and ambitious. These men seemed to know what they were doing at all times and always had the answers and they talked in a kind of insiders’ shorthand. It was easy to feel slow among them. They were not just men, that was bad enough, but a special breed of high-powered men who were always ahead of the game, always on the inside, always in the know…. They sometimes terrified her and she felt unworthy….
She grew the Washington Post into a business so robust that it was listed among the Fortune 500 companies as measured by revenue. The courageous confrontation with Richard Nixon’s White House and the revelations around the crimes of Watergate remain part of her legacy. Even during the Watergate investigations, Halberstam wrote, she was not sure the paper’s crusade would end well:
She had no illusion about how little support the Post had among other newspapers; since Watergate began, she had been isolated and snubbed by most of her erstwhile colleagues, treated at various professional meetings like a pariah. It was clear that most of them did not like papers like the Post and The New York Times , and it was also clear that they approved far more of Richard Nixon.
Indeed, amid the investigations, Nixon was reelected by a landslide, only to be forced to resign later as more Watergate details poured forth.
The Post’s business side ballooned, but many of the editorial staff lost respect for management, including Mrs. Graham. Business goals always clash with editorial goals, and here was a once-independent and idiosyncratic newspaper being treated as a giant corporation. The new goals
resembled … those of other giant corporations on that list. For a highly individualistic profession like journalism, there was an inherent contradiction in this. … Reporters were aware that in recent years Kay Graham had committed herself more and more to profit, to winning Wall Street’s approval.
In one unforgivable gaffe, she told a group of business leaders that she dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize for business management.
David Halberstam was a stickler for accuracy. His double-checked facts made his career. Unfortunately he is not around to witness the current White House attacks on the media for dishonesty and “fake news.” He would have witnessed this age-old contentious relationship descend into another uncomfortable period, and possibly worse – an undermining of the free press. A New York Times columnist recently bristled over the tone and content of the president’s attacks. “Fact-based journalism is a ridiculous, tautological phrase,” wrote Roger Cohen. “There’s no other kind. Facts are journalism’s foundation the pursuit of them, without fear or favor, is its main objective.”
Reporters, so marginal in the 1920s, become steadily more involved in the democratic process as Halberstam tells his story. They emerge “more influential and more prestigious around town, more sought after; similarly, as the stories became more serious and more complicated, the people writing them became better qualified, better educated, and more serious.” And writing of the McCarthy years, he asks rhetorically, “If liberties were being destroyed … and no one else was willing to be the watchdog, who but journalists would do it?”
Regrettably Halberstam is not around to write an update but before his death he did look backward once. In a new introduction to the paperback edition in 2000 he took a dim view of what had happened to the media environment since publication. So much had changed, mainly in the loss of individuality and panache, as media companies became more hungry for profits than Pulitzers. Indeed, he noted, Time, Inc. had become – through acquisitions and investments – a forest products company with a magazine appendage. Indeed, media gurus are betting that the magazine will be gone soon.
He said his original book seemed as if it had been written 200 years ago, not 20. But his defense of high journalistic values remain valid and is worth remembering. And what might he make of the eclipse of the great television and print media, now called “dinosaurs,” by social media?
He would have a field day.
Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International New York Times, American Spectator, Facts&Arts.Com, and various classical music outlets. He has written for Open Letters Monthly on Messaien, John Cage, Solzhenitsyn, and many other topics.
Sketch of David Halberstam by Michael Johnson