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Aug. 6, 2013, 11 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Press in Perspective” by Ralph Casey (1963)

“Good enterprising reporting of ideas on basic issues can in many cases be as important as the reporting of action. The decisive point in many great events comes long before the event happens.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Press in Perspective by Ralph D. Casey

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The Press in Perspective is actually 17 essays on the problems with the press, first delivered as lectures at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. “A common thread runs through most of them: discontent with the status quo of American journalism,” editor Ralph Casey writes.

This essay, “Press and World Affairs,” was written by the hugely influential political reporter James “Scotty” Reston, who would serve as The New York Times’ executive editor and was “the quintessential Washington insider.”

He argues for a more proactive approach to covering politics, one that monitors people and ideas daily as they become the forces that shape domestic and foreign policy. His views on journalism were forged with a clear belief in the role of the press in helping Americans understand what their politicians do and whether they support those actions. “We should be asking what our institutions can do to adequately prepare the country adequately for its decisive role in the world affairs,” he wrote.

His solution? Rethink the structure and the content. Short news stories, based on a single day’s events, focusing on “the bright, the startling, the bold, the sharp, and the clear simple fact,” might make the most interesting reading, but those features are all less important than reporting the essential truths.

I am not arguing for less aggressive reporting. Nor am I arguing, believe me, that only the irresponsible can be bright and that to be accurate you must be dull. I am arguing for a more modern test of what is news; for keeping on top of these momentous foreign policy developments while they are developing and not merely after they are announced; for the explanation of intricate and fundamental issues, even if they have no “gee whiz” angle.

Good enterprising reporting of ideas on basic issues can in many cases be as important as the reporting of action. The decisive point in many great events comes long before the event happens…

It will take a conscious effort on the the part of those who run newspapers to meet the new responsibilities imposed on us by the new responsibilities imposed on us by the news responsibilities of our country. The problem, I suggest, is not that anybody in the business is willfully trying to mislead the public or distort the truth. The problem is that we are busily engaged, like congressmen, and State Department officials, and even Presidents, in acting the way we have always acted, in using techniques we have always used, without asking whether they are the best techniques for America today

We have always been good at reporting wars. We have always been pretty good at winning wars. But the problem is to prevent wars, and the question before all responsible men and institutions is whether they are doing that as well as they could.

POSTED     Aug. 6, 2013, 11 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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