One Dollar a Word? That’ll Be $28,000

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Carl Bernstein attends the 2017 New Yorker Festival - All The President's Reporters at SVA Theatre on October 6, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

In October 1977, Carl Bernstein — then still basking in the post-Watergate glow (though, at the time, he had recently left the Washington Post) — wrote a 25,000 word feature titled “The CIA and the Media” for Rolling Stone detailing the chummy relationship between the press in the United States and the CIA. According to Bernstein’s reporting, reporters for the Post and the New York Times, among other publications, had advanced the agenda of the CIA for years. As he wrote,

…[More] than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty‑five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents on file at CIA headquarters. Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There was cooperation, accommodation and overlap. Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.

The feature should have been scathing, but its publication was instead somewhat of a dud. For starters, the story accompanied the first-ever punk cover in Rolling Stone‘s history — a feature on the Sex Pistols by Charles M. Young — and America did not react kindly to a snarling Sid Vicious and a sneering Johnny Rotten on newsstands: The magazine only sold 108,000 copies, one of the worst-selling issues in Rolling Stone‘s history. Secondly, for all of Bernstein’s revelations — one such bombshell was that the New York Times, under the direction of the late publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, knowingly secured media credentials for CIA operatives — the piece was jejune. As Joe Hagan writes in Sticky Fingers, his 2017 biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner,

…’The CIA and the Media’ was a dud (and no revelation to Wenner, who appointed a former CIA agent, Putney Westerfield, a retired publisher of Fortune, to his board of directors in 1977).

Wenner called the article his “one mistake” in publishing, and features editor Harriet Fier (who, following her tight edit of Bernstein’s draft, later became the magazine’s managing editor) told Robert Draper in the classic Rolling Stone Magazine that the piece was “really terrible.”

Still, in light Robert Mueller’s independent investigation and strained relations between President Donald Trump and the United States’ intelligence communities, Bernstein’s exposé is in the midst of a renaissance. Notably, the decades-old feature was given a boost in mid-July when Jack Shafer included it in Don Van Natta’s weekly “Sunday Long Read” newsletter as a “Classic Read.” But what’s interesting about the article viewed through today’s prism are not those connections — rather, it’s the stark contrasts between the two media climates.

Bernstein had always wanted to write for Rolling Stone, telling a Playboy interviewer that before Watergate, he felt that he had reached his ceiling at the Washington Post. He had grown bored of “covering Virginia” and editor Ben Bradlee refused to send him to Vietnam, so he thought his next move would be to join the ranks of music criticism and become a “rock critic.” Bernstein had heard whispers that Hunter S. Thompson was about to leave Rolling Stone, so he wrote to Wenner, asking (as he recounted to Playboy), “Hey, I’d really like to take Hunter’s job.” Bernstein sent the letter weeks before the Watergate break-in, but even so, “Wenner being Wenner, he took forever to make up his mind about what the hell he was doing” and Bernstein ultimately “stayed at the Washington Post, and that was the end of that.”

But, following his departure from the paper, the two reconnected, at a time in which Wenner was flush with cash: The magazine, which was about to shed San Francisco and move to New York City, was in the midst of a publishing boom, launching Outside (for $1 million) and helping reinvigorate Look magazine; its fat revenues were helping to finance prestige journalism. The year before, Wenner had paid photographer Richard Avedon $25,000 for “The Family” issue, a multi-page spread of Washington’s most influential figures. The issue had won a National Magazine Award, and Wenner believed an investigative feature by Bernstein could help snag another Ellie, so he commissioned “The CIA and the Media.” The price Bernstein quoted? An astounding $28,000 (which, accounting for inflation, would be $116,430.16 today). True, it was a little more than $1 per word, but the fee was an exorbitant boondoggle and as such, it was breathlessly reported throughout the publishing industry, which only helped to hype Rolling Stone‘s success and acclaim.

It’s challenging to imagine a media climate in which a reporter — even one as celebrated as Bernstein at that point — could earn that much for one article. Wenner’s employees certainly couldn’t understand it: Draper reported that the fee was more than what the magazine’s associate editors made in a year, and it even dwarfed Young’s salary. When compared with publishing in 2018, the halcyon fee is almost perverse. According to the Washington Post, 200,000 jobs in journalism have been eliminated since 2000, not to mention cuts to the editorial staff of the New York Daily News, half of which were let go this week in an attempt to trim $14.8 million from its coffers (a debt that was created when Tronc, the paper’s publishing company, shelled out $15 million to jettison its chairman Michael Ferro following sexual harassment allegations made against him).

There are serious conversations being had about whether journalists should write for free, and if exposure counts as payment, all the while chants of “fake news” are continuously being hurled against those in the profession. Dark times, indeed, and it is frankly astonishing to think back to a moment in publishing history in which five-figure payments were — while not the norm — at least not gobsmacking.

According to Bernstein, the CIA began to work in tandem with the Gray Lady during the Cold War:

Arthur Hays Sulzberger signed a secrecy agreement with the CIA in the 1950s, according to CIA officials—a fact confirmed by his nephew, C.L. Sulzberger. However, there are varying interpretations of the purpose of the agreement: C.L. Sulzberger says it represented nothing more than a pledge not to disclose classified information made available to the publisher. That contention is supported by some Agency officials. Others in the Agency maintain that the agreement represented a pledge never to reveal any of the Times’ dealings with the CIA, especially those involving cover. And there are those who note that, because all cover arrangements are classified, a secrecy agreement would automatically apply to them.

Attempts to find out which individuals in the Times organization made the actual arrangements for providing credentials to CIA personnel have been unsuccessful. In a letter to reporter Stuart Loory in 1974, Turner Cadedge, managing editor of the Times from 1951 to 1964, wrote that approaches by the CIA had been rebuffed by the newspaper. “I knew nothing about any involvement with the CIA… of any of our foreign correspondents on the New York Times. I heard many times of overtures to our men by the CIA, seeking to use their privileges, contacts, immunities and, shall we say, superior intelligence in the sordid business of spying and informing. If any one of them succumbed to the blandishments or cash offers, I was not aware of it. Repeatedly, the CIA and other hush‑hush agencies sought to make arrangements for ‘cooperation’ even with Times management, especially during or soon after World War II, but we always resisted. Our motive was to protect our credibility.”

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