Taylor Branch: Journalism allowed trivialization of public debate

November 12, 2009

Alex S. Jones and Taylor Branch.

Alex S. Jones and Taylor Branch.

November 12, 2009 — In introducing Taylor Branch, the 2009 T.H. White Lecturer, Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones began by describing Branch’s youth in the segregated south of the 1950s. It was a place of “whites only” entrances, of Lester Maddox and Martin Luther King Jr. “For southerners of Taylor Branch’s generation … the Civil Rights movement was the crucible that put you on one side or the other politically. He found himself on the Civil Rights side.” Branch became a journalist and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963, the first volume of his three-volume study of the King years.

Branch’s most recent book is The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, which was based on 79 secret interviews the president gave to Branch in the White House from 1993 to 2001. The author and his subject first met long before, when both worked for McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. “People have asked me since, did I recognize that Bill Clinton was likely to be a future president, and I said, ‘Are you kidding? We lost Texas by 30 points.’ ”

After the campaign the two parted ways for 20 years, until Clinton, then newly elected, contacted Branch about conducting private interviews throughout his presidency. “If we can keep it secret I’ll be candid and we’ll tell this story,” he quoted Clinton as saying.

“The very first story he told me shocked me,” Branch said: The administration had been “stampeded” by the press from the first day in office over gays in the military. ” ‘Not my idea,’ Clinton said.” Then came Whitewater, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Waco. After reelection, Whitewater continued, and was joined by “Chinagate,” the arrest of alleged spy Wen Ho Lee, all topped off by the supposed removal of all Ws from the keyboards of the White House computers before George W. Bush’s arrival. While Clinton considered much coverage of his administration to have been “on the merits,” he felt that much was not.

“Attitude can trump fact. It’s not new in American politics,” Branch continued. “I do not say that poor performance and entertainment and ‘spitball journalism’ … is the sole cause for the trivialization of our public debate. Sad as it is, that so much of it is two sides saying that the world would be perfect if the other side just dropped dead, with no thought, really, on either side. That our modern journalism has allowed this to be the public debate is a great tragedy.”

The evening began with the awarding of the 2009 David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism to Nat Hentoff, whom Jones described as “a columnist and wordsmith of the highest order.” In accepting the award, Hentoff, speaking from New York, quoted legendary journalist I.F. Stone: “If you’re in this to change the world, get another job, but get the story.”

This article was written by Leighton Walter Kille of the Shorenstein Center. The photo was taken by Martha Stewart.