Honest, tough, unbiased journalism is essential to a healthy democracy

by Bernie Swain

As the White House correspondent for ABC News, Sam Donaldson has had a front row seat to major events of the modern era, from Vietnam and Watergate to Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal and Impeachment hearings. Throughout it all, he held on to  to a lesson learned sitting in front of the family radio, listening to the news reports of World War II: Honest, tough, unbiased journalism is essential to a healthy democracy.

I’ve always been fascinated by broadcasting. My mother bought a radio after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and we listened to the war news every night at 9:00. The world was coming into our living room through a small box. 

After graduating college and serving in the Army, I eventually became a correspondent with CBS News in New York.

I had a great time at WTOP, covering the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the summer of 1964, and presidential election that fall, in which President Lyndon Johnson defeated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

In 1967, ABC News hired me as a Washington correspondent. I covered the 1968 presidential campaign, in which former Vice President Richard Nixon defeated sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and in 1969, I began anchoring the 11:00 p.m. weekend network newscasts. I covered the Vietnam War, and in 1973 and 1974, I was the network’s chief correspondent during the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resigning the presidency. In 1976, I covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and was then named ABC’s chief White House correspondent, a post I held for twelve years.

Ronald Reagan, of course, was president for eight of those years, and we developed something of an affectionate, albeit adversarial, relationship. I think it was a case of two hams playing off each other. I was the straight man, and he’d deliver the punch lines. Early on his presidency I asked, “Mr. President, you have blamed Congress and past mistakes for the continuing recession. Does any of the blame belong to you?” Without missing a beat, he answered: “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”

I love the news business for a lot of reasons, but the ability to make news is right up there. A couple of days after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan held a press conference. Everyone knew how Reagan felt about Communism and the Soviet Union. But he was president now, not just a former governor, so we wanted him to clarify his position. He called on me, and I asked, “Mr. President, do you believe the Soviet Union is interested in detente or do you think they are still attempting to achieve world domination?” And Reagan made his feelings known in no uncertain terms, saying the Soviets lie, cheat, steal, and can’t be trusted. He whipped it to a fare-thee-well, and it made a lot of news because he went on record as president.

The best question that I ever asked Reagan didn’t make any news. It was after the story broke that we were selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages, even though we had an arms embargo on Iran and were pressuring our allies not to sell them arms. It was a big story that the Reagan administration was denying. Reagan called on me at a news conference, and I asked, “Mr. President, if we weren’t selling arms to Iran in exchange for the hostages’ release, why do you think Iran’s allies in Lebanon are releasing the hostages?” Presidents are usually briefed for almost any question. Not this time. There was a long silence, and then he moved on to the next question. It was basically confirmation that the story was true.

You don’t have to ask a killer question and get an instant confession to make an important point. The American public isn’t stupid; they know when someone doesn’t sound right. And when they hear language used as an evasive measure, they get it.

I say to people, only half facetiously, that good reporters treat everyone equally badly. I’m not talking about being mean or going for a “gotcha!” answer. I mean reporters must be absolutely straight and fair and tough with all public figures. You can’t play favorites. Everyone has to get the same level of questioning. It’s the answer they don’t want to give that the public needs to hear.

Politicians can be shrewd. I’ve heard a question asked three different ways by three different reporters, and each time the person at the podium used a different prepared answer. You’ve got to find a way to get through their armor.

With Reagan, you could sometimes find that chink. In October 1985, members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt and killed wheelchair-bound American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The leader of the raid was Abu Abbas who, after abandoning the ship, was granted asylum in Morocco. He was onboard a flight from Egypt to Morocco when the U.S. Air Force forced the plane down in Italy and arrested him. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak lodged a protest and demanded an apology.

As the story broke, Reagan was getting off Air Force One in Kansas City. The press corps peppered him with questions about the incident and asked if he was going to apologize. He wouldn’t talk. He walked to the presidential limousine. The car door was open, and he was halfway in when Chris Wallace shouted, “Mr. President, do we have anything to apologize for?” Reagan turned around and shouted, “No!” We all ran off and filed our stories.

When I came to Washington, members of the press corps socialized with the people they covered. There were a lot of dinner parties. Arthur Krock, then the premier columnist for The New York Times, would have the secretary of state over to his mansion in Georgetown regularly – and often proceeded to instruct the secretary on foreign policy matters.

My generation grew up on the Vietnam War, an era where politicians began to lie routinely. Then there was the Watergate scandal, where lying was endemic. A feeling took hold among the press corps that our job description didn’t include becoming friends with the people we covered. Once you establish a personal relationship with someone, you lose objectivity and being tough becomes harder. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a cup of coffee or be at the same dinner with Senator so-and-so. It just means that you avoid forming close friendships with the people you cover.

You have only to look at the recent past to understand the necessity of this professional distance. If our leaders decide they’re going to invade Iraq and have to come up with a reason and settle on a false claim about weapons of mass destruction, then we as a nation have a real problem. Journalists have a responsibility to unmask these lies, one that transcends any personal relationship. This duty demands objectivity, asking tough questions, and being a bulldog, just never ever letting go.

This brings me to a truth that for me remains paramount, one I first understood, instinctively, when I was sitting with my family in front of our radio listening to the news of World War II: Honest, tough, unbiased journalism is essential to a healthy democracy.

Get more lessons from turning points and everyday life in Bernie Swain’s new book, What Made Me Who I Am. Available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.


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