Journalist Sander Vanocur Fears Future of News

Acclaimed journalist Sander Vanocur has been in front of NBC cameras, on the front lines during the civil rights movement, on a first-name basis with presidents and now standing before Phillips Academy students. Vanocur shared anecdotes from his long career in the news industry and spoke of the differences between the new “masters of the mass media” and the media of the 1960s at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting. Vanocur said, “I have some fears about where journalism, or what is now called journalism, is going.” Specifically, Vanocur talked about coverage of politics. “Watching TV shows, talk shows, we get the general impression that we’re being governed by deadbeats and our nation is going to hell in a handbasket,” he said. Vanocur said modern journalists are sending an “alarming toxicity” into the “bloodstream of the nation.” He continued, “Media claims to be reflecting our discontents, but I have come to believe that they are inciting our discontent.” Vanocur said he also disapproves of the way that some current media personalities believe that they have an obligation to support one candidate over another. The true job of journalists is to report the news, and writers should report the flaws and virtues of a political candidate, Vanocur said. “If [the media] influences anyone, that is up to the person who receives the information and how that person chooses to process it,” he continued. Vanocur also talked about the way that reporting has changed because of the 24-hour news cycle, saying that journalists and reporters sometimes sacrifice accuracy in the rush to report the news. Vanocur said, “When I reported, we all wanted to get the news first, but we didn’t do so at the expense of fairness and accuracy.” Vanocur also worries that in today’s media, the “line between opinion and news has disappeared.” “There’s a tip in the direction of opinion, rather than news—a tip more pronounced than ever in my experience,” he said. Another notable difference today is the lack of privacy given to political candidates. “The rules of the game were that you had to ask yourself if there was a connection between the private interest and that candidate’s public effectiveness.” In the years when he was a reporter, Vanocur—and the Associated Press—did not write private details about candidates if they did not believe that the information was pertinent to the candidate’s campaign. “We knew that Ike [President Eisenhower] had a girlfriend, the same as Kennedy and Johnson, but we didn’t report it,” he said. Vanocur, however, admits that in some cases, the press was wrong in holding back information such as when the press chose not to print that President John F. Kennedy had Addison’s Disease. According to Vanocur, these changes point toward journalism’s attempt to shape itself to the new generation. “You can’t stop technology,” Vanocur said. “We need to follow the changes and attempt to control them.” Vanocur came to Andover at the request of Geraldine Bidwell ’79, who heard Mr. Vanocur speak in their mutual hometown of Santa Barbara, CA. “I loved the way his mind worked. He was lucid and not afraid to tell the truth about anything,” Bidwell wrote in an email to The Phillipian. “He did not seem to have a personal agenda with politics, yet it was in the reporting of them that he made me so interested in them.” Vanocur worked at publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post and was an NBC White House correspondent. Vanocur is best known for reporting on the chaos resulting from Robert Kennedy’s assassination and moderating the 1960 presidential debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon.