How could Sydney Schanberg’s story on Vietnam POWs appear in The Nation and then vanish in the mainstream media? A clue, I think, appears in the memoir of former Nation editor Carey McWilliams.

In 1960, McWilliams learned that La Hora, a leading Guatemalan newspaper, reported that the CIA was training guerrillas there to invade Cuba. The Nation picked up the story in January 1961, the same month President Kennedy entered office. A few days later, the New York Times acknowledged the existence of the secret camp, but said its purpose was to train Guatemalan forces to repel a Cuban invasion.

That April, the Bay of Pigs fiasco confirmed The Nation’s account. Soon after the failed attempt to oust Castro, President Kennedy told a Times editor that his paper’s story was a premature disclosure of security information. When the editor reminded Kennedy that similar reports had already appeared in La Hora and The Nation, Kennedy replied, “But it was not news until it appeared in the Times.”

Kennedy’s simple statement described a complex social reality. By running a story, the Times turned mere information into news. That bit of magic has what language philosophers call a performative quality, much like a priest pronouncing a couple husband and wife. The priest isn’t reporting a marriage; he’s creating one. If a layperson utters the same words, nothing happens.

Despite profound changes in the media ecology since then, President Kennedy’s point is still valid. Information is more accessible than ever, but for any news story to reach a significant fraction of the American population, a major media outlet must disseminate it.

When it comes to generating those big stories, however, major news organizations have a mixed record. Consider two recent examples, arguably the most consequential events of the last decade: the housing bubble and the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, the big outfits had world enough and time to expose official negligence, recklessness, and mendacity. If they had, we might have avoided the staggering human costs of recession and war. Yet even when Big Media admitted their mistakes, the statements were dodgy. The clear suggestion was that everyone had missed those stories, but in both cases, experts were shouting the truth from the rooftops.

When smaller media players generate big stories, a major outlet’s decision to run them often hinges on the source’s institutional savvy and showmanship. In the 1960s, for example, Ramparts magazine broke a handful of blockbuster stories about Vietnam and the CIA. Adam Hochschild, a Ramparts staff member who later co-founded Mother Jones, described the San Francisco muckraker’s formula: “Find an exposé the major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash so they can’t afford to ignore it … and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other.”

If the formula is simple, its skillful execution is rare. Ramparts managed it by offering exclusives on its biggest stories to the New York Times, an arrangement that worked for both organizations. Ramparts reached audiences far beyond its own readership, and the Times beat its direct competitors to the punch.

But Ramparts’ success was short-lived. Investigative reporting is expensive, and Ramparts’ ad revenues were weak—the norm for political magazines Left or Right. After filing for bankruptcy and reorganizing in 1969, Ramparts never regained its power to rock the establishment. Facing stiff competition from other organizations, some created in its own image, Ramparts declined steadily before closing for good in 1975. Operating at a lower altitude, The Nation carried on, mixing investigative pieces with budget-friendly opinion and analysis.

Today’s business climate is much tougher for news outlets large and small. In part that’s because Americans seem to accept the idea that news organizations, whose product is a public good, should perish if they need public support to stay alive. That idea hasn’t prevailed in other industrial democracies, or even in earlier periods of U.S. history. In the 19th century, for example, the U.S. Postal Service delivered newspapers for free—the equivalent of a $30 billion subsidy in today’s dollars. (Our subsidies for public broadcasting now come to about $400 million.) The result was more voices, more diversity, and a smaller proportion of stories generated by the very institutions the media should be scrutinizing.

As for investigative journalism, the most expensive and therefore most vulnerable form of reporting, its best chance for survival is a media ecology that includes savvy fringe players and larger outlets—not necessarily newspapers—that can be played off each other. As Schanberg’s POW story demonstrates, even this arrangement isn’t foolproof. But without big players, most stories will never reach a large audience, and without small ones, too many important stories will never be told at all.
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Peter Richardson is the author of A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009) and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (2005).

See also

Ron Unz: How I met the real John McCain

Sydney Schanberg: My four-decade fight to report the truth

Peter Richardson: Why small media breaks the big stories

Gareth Porter: The evidence doesn’t stack up.

Andrew J. Bacevich: Will Iraq be forgotten as well?

John LeBoutillier: How the D.C. media covers for the establishment

Alexander Cockburn: Sometimes conspiracy theories are true.

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