Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup
Search Collections

Harry Ashmore
6/29/58

Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his forceful editorials denouncing the racist mobs during the desegregation conflict in Little Rock's high school, talks to Wallace about the integrity of journalists, the influence of advertisers and the government on the press, techniques of interviewing, and the desegregation of Little Rock High School.

Watch Video



Transcript
THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW
Guest: Harry Ashmore
6/29/58

WALLACE: This is Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. Mr. Ashmore won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his forceful editorials, which denounced racist mobs and defended law and order, during the desegregation conflict. We'll discuss the role of the press in a free society with Harry Ashmore in just a moment.

OPENING CREDITS

WALLACE: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. A nation's press is a good yardstick of a nation's health. Take a look at the history of any nation which has lost its freedoms, and you'll find that the men who grabbed the power also had to crush the free press. Tonight, we'll discuss some of the problems of our own fourth state. Our guest, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, Harry Ashmore, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on desegregation. His newspaper also won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished reporting of the Little Rock crisis.

Mr. Ashmore, first let me ask you this; you won the Pulitzer Prize this year, as I've said, for your forceful editorials on the integration problem. You criticized Governor Faubus. You denounced the racists who caused trouble over desegregating Little Rock Central High School. What kind of pressures do you have to buck, when you take a controversial stand, as you did, on an explosive issue?

ASHMORE: Well, Mike, I think that the business I'm in and the business you're in, is a pressure center. It always has been. I think the degree of the pressure goes up and down and sometimes the sources of the pressure change. Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution once said, I think very profoundly, that being the editor of a newspaper in the South these days is like living in the permanent eye of a hurricane.

We've had pressures from our readers, we've had some organized pressure exerted, or they attempted to exert it, by the Citizen's Council against our advertisers. But, with all of this, I think the large area of pressure has been a reflection of the very deeply disturbed feeling of the people of the South and of Arkansas, and the great division of opinion that exists on what a proper course is in Central High School; and of course we have felt this pressure.

WALLACE: Of course, too, a newspaper is a business, as you have begun to state; among other things, it is there to make money for its owners. As a result of your editorials, now, your Arkansas Gazette, for a time anyway, lost 10 percent in circulation. What I would like to know is how can a newspaperman operate with integrity when the people who own his paper have to keep their eyes on circulation and on the almighty dollar?

ASHMORE: Well, again, I think this is one of the natural hazards of the trade, and I don't think there is anything new about it. If our readers dislike our position, they certainly have a God-given right to cancel their subscription. I've always said that when a man pays 5 cents for a newspaper he gets a proprietary interest in it. And if he doesn't like what it's doing, he's got a right to quit taking it and he's got a right to cut off his support. This also applies to advertisers.

However, I think the Arkansas Gazette is going to survive. It's been there now for well over a hundred years. It's been through a great many storms before. I think that our readers are coming back to us now because they recognize that whether they agree with us or not, that whatever our opinions are, they are honesty held. And I think that this is a temporary storm which will wear itself out.

WALLACE: What about advertising in your paper? Did it fall off to any appreciable extent?

ASHMORE: No, we have not had any loss of advertising that we could attribute to pressure.

WALLACE: How do you account for that?

ASHMORE: Well, I think, again, because fundamentally we are a business institution and the only basis on which we can sell advertising is that we can put more people through the front door of the advertiser than any other medium he can use, for the dollars he spends. We're still delivering. The advertisers know this. If it becomes uneconomic for them to advertise in the Arkansas Gazzette, I'm sure they'll quit. I don't think that they will ever quit permanently for ideological reasons.

WALLACE: But, generally speaking, in the long run; isn't the reporter, the editor, to a certain extent anyway, at the mercy of financial interests, if his work is going to alienate a certain amount of the public, certain pressure groups, and that is reflected in decreased business for his boss for a considerable length of time, doesn't he automatically put himself out of a job?

ASHMORE: Well, I assume that if your position is unpopular enough, the subscribers all leave, the advertisers all quit, the whole newspaper will be out of business. I don't think this is too real a hazard in our trade. We are subjected to all sorts of pressures, including those that come directly from advertisers upon whom we depend for income and we are, first of all, a business institution.

WALLACE: Well, how much power do advertisers wield over editorial policy and news content of our magazines?

ASHMORE: There's no easy answer to that, Mike, because the situation varies in many places. I would say that advertisers exercise that degree of power over editorial opinion that the proprietors of the press are willing to give them. If the proprietors of a newspaper or any other communication's agency are willing to stand firm, I think they can win that battle. I think that perhaps too many of them don't stand firm.

WALLACE: You feel that too many of them don't stand sufficiently firm against the advertiser?

ASHMORE: Right.

WALLACE: For what reason?

ASHMORE: Not particularly the advertiser. I think these pressures are diverse. I don't think that, in the case of newspapers, the direct pressure of advertisers is a dominant factor. It's a much more subtle thing than that. Of course, if your advertisers have an adverse view to that you express, you're going to hear of this. It's very rarely that anybody comes storming down to the paper and pulls his advertising out. You don't, these days, run into the situation where... the classic story, in my business, of the day, the elevator fell in the department store. -- This is apocryphal. -- What do you do? Do you publish this or don't you?

And the department store proprietor comes down and says, "If you print this story, that the elevator fell, I'll pull my advertising out." It doesn't work that way. The pressures are much more subtle than that. And of course very few advertisers ever want to be in the position of having made a public monument to the fact that they withdrew their support for an ideological reason, from any newspaper.

WALLACE: When you say the pressures are much more subtle than that, I'd like to hear about some of those pressures. Incidentally, this week we talked with Walter Reuther out in Detroit. He charges that generally the Daily Press, with a few notable exceptions, he says, slants its news against labor. And he said particularly the Detroit press slants its news against the UAW. Now, one, if this were true... if this is true, one reason might be that the automobiles are big advertisers, the automobile companies, the unions are not. What's your reaction to that statement by Mr. Reuther?

ASHMORE: Well, I'm not, certainly, familiar with the policies of the Detroit News, which I don't read regularly, and I couldn't pass judgment on whether the allegation is true or not.

WALLACE: I think that he means that... not the Detroit News specifically, but the press in Detroit.

ASHMORE: Well, even in the situation of the press in Detroit, I would find it rather questionable. After all, the newspapers in Detroit have two sources of pressure. One might very well be the automobile industry, which controls a large amount of advertising. The other, which would seem to me to be a matter of great concern to a Detroit editor, would be the readers of the paper. You've got to sell it to them and most of them are members of the UAW. The unions, as a matter of fact, are one great source of pressure on the communications media. In many ways their pressure, I think, is equal in force and sometimes greater than that exerted by the business community.

Again, I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with this. I think the unions are going to try to get a break in the press; they are going to try to get not only a fair presentation but a presentation that is favorable to them, which might be unfavorable to the other party in the controversies in which they are engaged. And they're going to try to get editorial support from the newspapers. Whether the newspaper gives it to the union or gives it to management in a labor dispute is a decision the newspaper must make, but the pressure is going to be there from both sides.

WALLACE: You talked about subtlety of pressure, a little while ago. Specifically, what are you talking about, Mr. Ashmore?

ASHMORE: Well, I'm not sure that "subtle" is the best word that I might have chosen, Mike. I think what I am saying is that it's very rarely that a man walks into your office and lays it on the line; says, "You either do this or I pull out of the advertising contract... You either do this or I have my Citizens' Council cancel your 100,000 subscribers," which has happened to me. This wasn't very subtle. But generally speaking, everybody who is involved in any kind of public issue is trying to influence the presentation of the news about that issue.

And you might get into this sort of things; some of the most difficult ones are purely in personal terms where the person who is asking for influence or trying to use you has no evil purpose and has no real threat to hold over you. I've been waked up at 2 o'clock in the morning by a personal friend who's been arrested for drunken driving. He wants this kept out of the paper, and he says to me, "If you print this in the morning, you're going to ruin me. This is much worse than a hundred-dollar fine or even a jail sentence." And then I have to be Solomon and say, "We have to print it." This is pressure. This is very real personal pressure, when you have to say "no" to somebody who not only needs a favor but maybe needs help.

WALLACE: Sure. Mr. Ashmore, you -- let's move into another area, or another part of the same area, I guess. -- You helped guide Adlai Stevenson's 1956 presidential campaign. Governor Stevenson charged that this country had a more or less one-party press; another Democrat, Harry Truman, charged that we have a kept press, "kept" by what he called wealthy vested interests of the Republican Party. Do you think this is a fact?

ASHMORE: Well, no, I would dissent in rather important particulars from the judgment of both Adlai Stevenson and Harry Truman on this. I think it is quite true that the press is generally conservative. I don't think that our problem is that the proprietors of the press are all members of the Republican Party, or most of them. I speak on this Mike, with some authority because I think that we could hold a convention of the Democratic newspaper editors in a telephone booth these days. I'm one of the few left. That was one of the reasons I was with Mr. Stevenson, because if he looked around the country and wanted the editor of a Democratic newspaper, there weren't many of us to choose from.

But I think this is an exaggerated argument. I think it is true, as I say, that the tendency of the proprietors of the press and the communications media is conservative, which is not necessarily wrong. I don't think that there is any conspiracy involved in this, of any great magnitude. I don't think the favoring of the Republicans by the press results from policy decisions made by those people who control the media, in many instances; there may be some.

WALLACE: Let's look at another angle. A few years ago, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi launched a Congressional Committee investigation into the politics of certain newspapermen in New York City. The New York Times charged at that time that the investigation was solely an attempt to harass and intimidate New York newspapers, which had been critical of certain politicians. Now if you want to, you can leave aside the issue of whether the Times was right in this case; but do you think that this kind of situation represents a considerable threat to the nation's press generally?

ASHMORE: Well, a threat, I suppose, Mike, but one that's always been with us, from the days of the Founding Fathers forward, and will be with us and is one of the things that I think we must accept as a hazard of our trade. I do happen to agree with The New York Times in the case of the attack launched by Mr. Eastland and what I deem to be an improper use of a Congressional Investigating Committee. However, I don't think that that sort of thing is going to be halted; I don't think that the Times cried out in despair. I think the Times did what it should've done; that was to point out what Mr. Eastland was doing and take into account that it had a pulpit too.

Now, there are going to be people who are attacking the press; there are going to be politicians who are going to attempt to discredit newspapers. This, I think, is a natural part of the process. I don't find it very pleasant, mind you, but I think it is something that we live with. I don't think we want to change the ground rules and say that a Senator may not investigate a newspaper. I think we're subject to investigation. I think we're also subject to answering back and this we should do.

WALLACE: Drew Pearson told us that White House reporters are so dependent upon Press Secretary Jim Hagerty that sometimes they don't dare write stories that are going to antagonize him. Would you go along?

ASHMORE: I don't know whether that's true or not. I'd hate to think that it is. I think it is pretty ridiculous. Mr. Hagerty is a very efficient and effective functionary as a public relations man for the President of the United States. I gather that Mr. Hagerty does a very good job. Why Mr..., or how Mr. Hagerty could intimidate a newspaperman is a little bit beyond me. I still think that they have the right to press Mr. Hagerty, as they frequently do, for information which Mr. Hagerty may or may not release, and Mr. Hagerty has a right not to release it. And the newspaperman who is pressing him has a right to print the fact that Mr. Hagerty would not release it. And that, it seems to me, to be the extent of the press' right.

WALLACE: By and large, though, would you find that political figures will retaliate in some way against newspaper reporters or newspapers which antagonize them? Attack them?

ASHMORE: Oh, I would think they would, I think, being human beings, of course they would.

WALLACE: And as far as you're concerned, that's all right?

ASHMORE: Of course it is. I happen to be in this sort of relationship at the moment with the governor of my state, Mr. Faubus, who is running for a third term. My newspaper is opposing Mr. Faubus' re-election. The relationship between the newspaper and Mr. Faubus is, let us say, strained. My reporters who are covering Mr. Faubus, in the State House and on the campaign trail, have some difficulty these days. They don't get much cooperation from Mr. Faubus and his agents. But this is all right and I have no complaint about it.

I don't expect Mr. Faubus to be very cordial to me these days, because I am saying every morning that he should be defeated. Mr. Faubus has his pulpit; I have mine; and I don't think that I deserve any special quarter. I don't think that Mr. Faubus has to answer any query that one of my reporters may address to him. I think my reporter, on the other hand, has the right to ask the question and print the reply, if he can get it, or the fact that he couldn't get it.

WALLACE: You think then, in the case of Sherman Adams, let us say, that it's perfectly sensible for him to turn his back on the reporters... make his statement, turn his back and walk away without answering any questions?

ASHMORE: Oh, I wouldn't say that, Mike. I wouldn't say, in my judgment, it's a very sensible thing for him to do. I think he has an absolute right, however. Mr. Adams has a right not to be interviewed. He has a right not to say anything about the Goldfine case, if this is what he wants to do. The press has no right to assume that it can grab Mr. Adams when he comes out of the White House and direct a question to him. The significant thing is that the questions are raised. The press is prepared to ask them and if Mr. Adams chooses not to answer them, then this becomes a part of the record, too.

WALLACE: On the general subject of getting stories from political figures, Mr. Ashmore, sometimes a reporter on the track of a first-rate story doesn't have clear sailing. For instance, a politician might tell him, "I'll give you a good story, but before you print what I tell you right now, I want the right to review my remarks, so that I can be sure that I am being quoted in only those areas in which I want to be quoted." Do you think that a reporter can make that kind of an agreement and retain his integrity?

ASHMORE: Well, the agreement that you just stated would seem to be a little extraordinary to me. I don't recall any experience of my own in which I have ever had the proposition quite put to me that way. I do say this, about this interview technique, that the purpose of a serious interviewer, on any part of the media, television, newspapers, or whatever, I think, is primarily to elicit information.

Now, the means by which you do this are several. There are certain circumstances under which you would insist that everything said is on the record. This might be the press conference, where the man is trying to explain why he got caught with his hand in the till, or whatever. And all of this would certainly be on the record and the only way a man might take it.

But a more common case, particularly talking to public figures, would be with the single interviewer, sitting down with a man and making whatever agreement in advance might seem to be the most feasible one to elicit information. That might be that the whole conversation was off the record. It might be that part of the conversation was off and part was on, or that the interviewer would say that "If you say something that I want to use, I'll tell you in advance I want to quote this and you may say it's on or off the record."

I don't think there are any hard and fast rules on this thing. You know, I think we get into, what seems to me, teapot controversies about this. I might say this, Mike, that television -- first radio, and now television -- seems to me, that have introduced a new element into the interview that those of us of the old Gutenberg moveable type, old-fashioned people like me never had to contend with, in the old days. Nowadays, when you've got a microphone, as we have here now, everything is on the record. Everything I may say is on the record.

Therefore, I've got to be concerned not only about the content of what I say, but the form in which it is said, because I can't call these words back. Now, in the old days, before we had microphones and tape and all of this stuff to contend with, reporters sat around and the subject of the interview was informal. He assumed one thing, that his language would be cleaned up, if that was necessary; that even though he were talking for the record, the people were going to try to ask enough questions to find out what it was he was trying to say and would present it in some intelligible fashion, whether it actually was in his words or not.

This was a much more relaxed procedure than we have now and I am even inclined to think that, with the advent of the microphone, that the press conferences become a very different thing from what it used to be. It's not really a free give and take and exchange; and a public man who understands these techniques, of course, uses this to communicate with his public. And occasionally he gets a hard question, but the microphone is in front of him and he can seize it and shout his questioner down, if he chooses to.

So, I think we've got all kinds of techniques that we should use, if our purpose again is to try to get an understanding of what this man's position is, as against the other thing that we sometimes should do, which is expose him as being a fellow who doesn't have an answer and that's when you pin him and stick pins in him and put him against the wall. Both things seem to me to be useful.

WALLACE: Of course, there is one device, or one method, I should say, in television, and radio and that is the use of tape or film, in which you overshoot. Let's say, frequently, Ed Murrow overshoots an interview that ends up eventually as a half-hour interview, he may shoot as much as an hour and then pick from that hour's film, the parts that he feels best represent the position of the man with whom he is speaking.

ASHMORE: Well, I suppose you could say technically that this is the same thing that any reporter does, because you don't write everything the man said when you go into a press conference or an interview. You're selecting those things that are important. The difference is, I think, rather an essential one, that, with film, the man is there and whatever part you pick, you don't control, you can't change, the emphasis of what he says. I think that there are great advantages and great possibilities of you electronic or tube people, of what you can do with an interview by taking a lot of film and getting a man relaxed. I think you can show the people the personality in the round, in a way that those of us who have to depend on the written word can't do.

I think that there're many techniques of interviewing, possible to television, that have not yet been developed. I think that, actually, I would accuse you and I would say you personally, Mike, in part as a symbol of this, of having taken some of the worst faults of my trade and translated it into the new medium. I hope you're going to develop new techniques that will outstrip us.

WALLACE: We're still young. One area... incidentally, I do want to get into the Little Rock... into a discussion of what has happened very recently in Little Rock.

ASHMORE: Almost everybody does.

WALLACE: And we have only about four minutes left. Maybe it would be best if I get into that right now. First of all, can I ask you for a prediction? What do you expect to be the action of the Supreme Court on the appeal from Judge Lemley's decision, postponing integration in Little Rock for 2 1/2 years?

ASHMORE: I'm in no position to make any prediction about what the courts might do. I would say this: Judge Lemley's decision posed, I think, a very fundamental question that has been coming ever since 1954, when the Supreme Court originally ruled. Judge Lemley's opinion in the Little Rock case now draws firmly and finally, and in a way where it cannot be longer avoided the question of enforcement of the Supreme Court's decision as it has been implemented by the lower courts.

Judge Lemley has said that the Little Rock situation is such that the school cannot run normally with the Negro children in it. And he has said that this condition is inherent and therefore it will take at least 2 1/2 years before there is any possibility of resuming normal school operation. I agree with Judge Lemley, certainly, that the situation that existed there for the last 9 months was intolerable. To me, it's unthinkable that the school would have to open in September with armed guards around it.

But what has not been settled in any way, by Judge Lemley's decision, is what is going to be done about this condition, if Judge Lemley is overturned. Many lawyers with whom I've discussed this, think the possibility is that the superior courts, either the U.S. Supreme Court or the Circuit Court of Appeals, will either overturn Judge Lemley or seriously modify his ruling. If this happens, then the question still is raised "who's going to enforce the court decision when a court, whether it be Judge Lemley's or a higher court, orders the Negro children back to school in Little Rock?"

This, I would say; there will be no enforcement of this ruling by a local authority. Governor Faubus, if he's re-elected, will obstruct by his own definition, by his own promise, will obstruct this ruling. There will be no one there to enforce it, unless the Federal Government does it. The Federal Government, in my view, has no clear policy in this matter. I think that the Judge Lemley's ruling has moved the Federal Government up to the point where it has got to have a policy; it has got to evolve one between now and September or nullify the effect of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.

WALLACE: Still, if I may press you just a little, your best judgment as to what the Supreme Court will do?

ASHMORE: I think it would be very difficult for the Appellate Court to uphold Judge Lemley in this case, because of the precedent that's involved which is much larger really than the question of integration and segregation; it's the question of the enforcement powers of the courts. If they say that public resistance of the kind that we've had in Little Rock, to the carrying out of a court order, is sufficient reason for the court to nullify its order, then they are getting into an area of constitutional interpretation and law which I doubt very seriously that the court can afford to go.

WALLACE: Therefore, you really do expect that the Lemley decision will be overturned?

ASHMORE: I had to anticipate this and this gave me one of my bad moments, Mike, because when Judge Lemley ruled and granted the delay in Little Rock, this was what my readers wanted to hear. I had to warn them that the delay, the ruling, the time granted by Judge Lemley, we might not have, and the problem had not been resolved and we still had to face it and this, a lot of my readers didn't want to hear and because I told them this, they assumed that this was what I wanted to say and that I was opposed to Judge Lemley, which was not the case, but that again, it is one of the hazards of our trade.

WALLACE: Mr. Ashmore, you said fairly recently that despite the bitter lesson of Little Rock, and this is a quote from you, "The Eisenhower Administration still has charted no effective course of action nor displayed any disposition to do so." You've said that here again tonight. Specifically, what would you like to see the Administration do?

ASHMORE: A very good question and I don't have an answer, I'll tell you frankly, before I start trying to answer it. I feel that, after Little Rock happened last September, people in the South and in Little Rock assumed that the court order was enforceable and that some procedures would be taken by the courts to enforce it. This has not happened. Now, if you ask me, I'm not a lawyer and I don't know what particular procedures the Department of Justice might use.

I do say that the Department of Justice, the Executive Department of the Federal Government, is going to have to enforce the decrees of the Federal Courts if they're going to be carried out. How they do it? I don't know. I'm even prepared to say that, if they don't want to do it, then they should tell the people that this law is nullified and there will be no enforcement. But I think this is the problem that the Lemley decision has posed in Washington. It will have to be resolved in the next few weeks.

WALLACE: Harry Ashmore, I surely thank you for coming up from Little Rock to spend this half-hour with us. If I may, I'm sure you'll have no objection if I recommend to our audience that they read Harry Ashmore's book, An Epitaph For Dixie, billed as "A Southerner explores a middle ground where thoughtful Americans can come together." Thanks very much.

Harry Ashmore himself once summed up the task confronting our nation's press and I think it merits our attention here; he said, "The press should give us a chronicle of the world we live in, cast in terms of moral values." And he added, "We will err certainly and we will be abused, but we will at least be in position in the watchtowers, trying to tell the story in all its dimensions."

Next week, we go after the story of capitalism and free enterprise in a free society, and whether any modification of free enterprise does not also modify our freedoms as a whole. Our guest will be a dynamic young industrialist who says, it does, who says he deplores our government's incursions into the areas of private capitalism. You see him behind me, he's Charles Percy, President of Bell and Howell, a member of the Business Advisory Council of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and in the past, a personal ambassador for President Eisenhower to South America. That's Charles Percy, next week. Till then, Mike Wallace, good night.

CLOSING CREDITS

DIGITIZATION CREDITS