Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A story about the press – with humor and a challenge for all

When a social worker asked Harry, at age 92, to name an accomplishment he was most proud of, he answered, my writings. So, in honor of Harry's birthday on this day in 1921, I pulled out a magazine article published in 1970 – an old one, but one I know made him proud – called “The Press and Public Opinion.” I grabbed the following excerpts from the middle of the story because they show his signature use of humor in the form of anecdotes and analogies.  

Probably every President since Jefferson has had similar complaints [about the press]. Woodrow Wilson started his first conference by saying: “I feel that a large part of the success of public affairs depends on the newspapermen …” But before long he was saying: “I am so accustomed to having everything reported erroneously that I have almost come to the point of believing nothing that I see in the newspapers.” ...

President Truman once wrote to a reporter: “I wish you’d do a little soul searching and see if at great intervals, the President may be right.” And according to Theodore Sorensen, President Kennedy never challenged the accuracy of Oscar Wilde’s observation: “In America, the President reigns for four years, but Journalism governs forever.” ...
So government and the press, like it or not, live together in a sort of miserable marriage. It reminds one of the story of the disciple who asked Socrates whether it was better to marry or not to marry. “Whichever you do,” replied Socrates, “you will regret it.” ...

An old story illustrates this skepticism most apply. A fellow asked a friend what he should do about a very critical article in the newspaper. Should he demand a public apology or file a suit for damages? His friend listened to the complaint and then said: “What should you do? Do nothing. Remember, half the people who read that paper never saw that article. Half of those who did read the article did not understand it. Half of those who did understand it did not believe it. And half of those who believed it are not worth bothering about.”

Here's Harry around the time he wrote "The Press and Public Opinion," 1970 (when neck ties were starting to widen). I was in college then, although I first saw the article some three decades later when I started a position as a speech writer. That's when Harry went down to his basement and retrieved a pile of large file folders (those brown accordion folders that stand up, and a little dusty) and handed them to me to take home. They were from his Pentagon days, tightly packed with speeches, articles, poems, editorial tips, and -- best of all -- his archive of humorous anecdotes, scribbled or typed on papers and index cards. And, yes, I did recycle a few of his jokes.

A challenge, still relevant for all
On a more serious note, below are a few more paragraphs from the same 1970 article, “The Press and Public Opinion.” The last paragraph might look familiar to some of you.

Our elected officials risk a disastrous confrontation with the voters if they embark on an important policy without first making certain that large body of Americans is informed about it and has had an opportunity to discuss it. Whatever the government seeks to do – whether it seeks to negotiate an arms control or disarmament treaty, or a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or an agreement to limit the production of ballistic missiles – there must be broad-ranging public discussion about the objective and the means of attaining it.

The discussion takes place primarily in two places, the Congress and the press. The people participate only vicariously, in a sense, but their concurrence is absolutely imperative to the success of any long-range policy. …

The ultimate burden, therefore, falls upon the individual citizen. If he wishes to be well informed, he must read widely in the press and listen widely to the broadcasts. No one example of either can serve him adequately. Moreover, he must add up what he reads and hears over a period of time and apply his own thinking processes to what he absorbs.

Did you recognize Harry's challenge in the last paragraph? It was his mantra: Read many news sources, or watch many TV news channels, before you make a decision about what’s true and right. I heard him give that challenge a hundred times over many years to anyone who would listen. And yet, how many of us really take the time to apply it?

Harry’s story about the press ends with – what else – a humorous anecdote. You can find the full article online. If that link doesn’t work for you, search the internet for “The Press and Public Opinion Air University Review.”

The joke’s on Harry
Cartoonists liked making Harry their subject. Does anyone know
the date or backstory for this one?


  1. Harry's friend, Les Evjen, wrote:

    Happy Birthday Harry . . . wherever you are. And to add a little humor to the celebration, I am reminded of Will Rogers response to the Great Mystery question asking him if he was going to heaven or hell when he died? "I reckon it don't matter; I have friends in both places."

  2. I read Harry's full article that is linked in Elaine's article. Harry's ideas are worthy of a college course or a grad school course. Yet he explains them so simply, and illustrates them with such excellent examples, that a 12 year-old could understand them.