We Are Pragmatic

The Philosophy of USA Today.

Let us pause, during the New York Times’ year-long celebration of its 100-year march to journalistic dominance, to glance at the newspaper that may dominate the next century of print journalism (if there is one): USA Today, a newspaper that scarcely needs a Web site (though, of course, it has one), because its front is a home page in print.

For all its obvious yearning for marketability and user-friendliness, USA Today built its circulation without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. From the law courts to the tennis courts, it covers the news straightforwardly. But what does McPaper stand for? What is the philosophy of USA Today?

Large-circulation American newspapers, to be sure, don’t market philosophy, except sideways. A major newspaper is supposed to be a team effort, a nonideological pursuit of the objective truth. Asking for its official philosophy is like demanding the creed of the Chicago Bulls. The likeliest payoff is a slogan on the order of “Get it Over.” With a newspaper, “Get it Out” is about the best you can hope for. But USA Today is the lengthened byline of one man, former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth–and the flamboyant South Dakotan spent years preaching the philosophy of his paper, both before and after its September 1982 launch.

Neuharth, it turns out, is a more important 20th-century philosopher than anyone expected. (“We Find Al Philosophical,” the in-house headline might read.) His struggle through the start-up and red ink of USA Today succeeded in bending daily journalism to the principles of classical American pragmatism.

For years, media critics pounded USA Today: An “explosion in a paint factory,” the “flashdance of editing,” the “junk food of journalism.” Asked early on if USA Today could qualify as a top newspaper, the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee replied, “If it can, then I’m in the wrong business.” Post literary critic Jonathan Yardley condemned USA Today for giving its readers “only what they want. No spinach, no bran, no liver.” Critics cast Neuharth as the disreputable heir of William Randolph Hearst. But try a different succession: William James; John Dewey; Al Neuharth.

No, William James didn’t take off on “Buscapades.” And John Dewey didn’t festoon the Columbia philosophy department with the white onyx and black marble of USA Today’s Rosslyn, Va., headquarters. But what, after all, were the beliefs of the “pragmatists,” those American heroes whose comeback in the intellectual world (through present-day scions like Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson) now makes them founts of wisdom to philosophers around the world? James urged us to think of true beliefs as those that point to successful actions, most of which result (in the sense of pragmatism’s coiner, Charles Sander Peirce) from a convergence of belief among our “community of inquirers.” James didn’t mind if our beliefs occasionally took us a bit ahead of the evidence (see his “Will to Believe”), particularly if that passionate, optimistic confidence stirred us to make the world better than it is.

Such sentiments are practically the anthem of USA Today, which brings together the USA’s “community of inquirers” faster than Jerry Springer unites addled families. Some may see a latent liberalism (in today’s sense) in USA Today’s editorial line: its espousal of gun control or publicly financed elections (to name to editorial positions taken by the paper in recent weeks). But the argument on these topics is no less practical in tone and substance than its more “conservative” recent stands in favor of public shaming as judicial punishment or its endorsement of hunting. Policies are to be preferred if, in proven practice, they save lives–or dollars. On the contentious issue of gerrymandering, racial or otherwise: The practice is to be deplored not on grounds of high principle, but because, by creating safe seats for one or another party or interest group, it makes “elections meaningless.” Moreover, in pursuing racial fairness, there are better alternatives available.

James declared: “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere.” What paper better embodies that belief than USA Today, which recently ran a graph on “Rain and Drizzle: The Difference”? (“The difference is the size of the drops, with drizzle drops less than 0.02 inches in diameter, falling close together, and rains drops larger than 0.02 inches in diameter, widely separated.”)

As for Dewey, he threw out the false distinction between theoretical inquiry and practical decision-making, proclaiming that all thinking amounts to problem-solving. For the author of Experience and Nature and A Common Faith, the smartest way to educate people was to give them the information and skills necessary to solve their problems–not to point them to an authority who’d tell them what to think or solve their problems for them. Which would be the paper of choice for a man with such a mind-set: the New York Times or USA Today?

Dewey himself liked Peirce’s definition of truth as the “opinion” on which all investigators are “fated to be agreed.” More than most papers, USA Today steps aside and delivers the experience that Dewey considered necessary to that convergence on solutions: statistics, direct lengthy quotations, complete box scores. Why, it even runs pages entitled “Solutions.” (“Trucks: What Needs to Be Done.”). Mindful of the fragility of “truth,” and trustful of how a better “truth” might emerge from experimentation and debate, Dewey thought we might well drop the whole concept of “truth” and speak more usefully of “warranted assertibility.” Does any editorial page so clearly reflect that belief as USA Today’s, with its regular “Opposing Opinion” and cross section of positions?

One of Neuharth’s first articulations of his metaphysics came in October 1983, in a speech to the Overseas Press Club in New York. As recalled by Peter Prichard in his book, The Making of McPaper, Neuharth condemned the “old journalism of despair,” a “derisive technique of leaving readers discouraged, or mad, or indignant.” In its place, Neuharth declared, USA Today delivered a “journalism of hope”–an enterprise one can imagine James franchising under his “Will to Believe.” It offered reportage that “chronicles the good, the bad, and the otherwise, and leaves readers fully informed and equipped to judge what deserves their attention and support.”

Neuharth imposed his philosophy on the newsroom. Stories deliver facts and information with minimal interference from reporters eager to be literary. As a result, sentences are short and clear, often brilliantly compressed. “USA Snapshots” and other regular graphs abound. Lengthy quotations from transcribed interviews let readers hear newsmakers directly. USA Today’s modular layout and bold type anticipated the typical multidimensional Web page, almost inviting the finger to point and click, to follow Christine Royal through the process of her cosmetic surgery, to jump to the daily profiles of Olympic athletes, to explore the depths of the Bosnia power struggle. [See displayed picture of July 1,1996, front page.] Headlines are supposed to emphasize the positive. About the crash of a charter plane in Malaga, Spain: “Miracle: 327 survive, 55 die.” Neuharth criticized a headline about a health study that read, “Death Rate Drops,” saying it should have read, “We’re Living Longer.”

Other devices ensure that USA Today’s editors keep the focus on the exact community the paper covered: the USA To Neuharth, that meant the USA, not “America.” In a 1985 memo, Neuharth threatened to transfer out of the country any editors who sloppily allowed “America” or “Americans” into the paper when they meant citizens and residents of the United States. Personal pronouns anchor the headlines as they drive home an idea James and Dewey would have welcomed–the USA as one big first-person-plural community. Classics included “We Move Less Often” and “We’re in the Mood to Buy.” If the New York Post’s candidate for immortality was “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” USA Today`s might have been “USA is Eating its Vegetables.”

Yet, even in USA Today’s recent in-the-black years, the paper has been a magnet for negative media-critic boilerplate. In Read All About It! (1995), an attack on newfangled newspapering by ousted Chicago Tribune editor James Squires, the poppin’ mad former honcho railed that USA Today “adopted an editorial philosophy designed to avoid all controversy.” In Who Stole the News (1995), veteran AP correspondent Mort Rosenblum recycled the standard yuck that USA Today “is for people who find television too difficult.”

“Balderdash!” a turn-of-the century Deweyean might have replied. Is USA Today uncontroversial because it opens up its agora, presuming truth will rise from a clash of diverse debaters from all regions and classes of the national polis? Can it be more simplistic than television when its front page alone regularly presents or capsulizes more than 30 different news matters–far more than you’ll hear about on one edition of World News Tonight?

USA Today’s journalism fulfills the political philosophy of the Framers, themselves heavily influenced by the ancient rhetoricians (see Carl J. Richard’s The Founders and the Classics). Both groups favored the Isocratic notion of a truth emerging from ongoing debate over the Socratic notion of The Truth emerging from an old kibitzer’s endless dialectical probing. USA Today weds that impulse to the pragmatist program: If you give the people facts, if they identify an authentic problematic situation in their environment, if you permit them to hear multiple views, they’ll converge on a truth that works.

And so it happens every day in USA Today, as much as it can in a paint-factory explosion. Big and small explanatory facts (how airport security works, the percentage of people who screen each phone call, why women reject technology jobs), and problematic issues (animal rights, standards for criminal punishment) come together in a virtual Journal of Pragmatism. You say the New York Times is a century old, and we ought to join its celebration? Nah–too Cartesian.

Back in his early Chicago days, John Dewey tried to start a newspaper. He failed. Al Neuharth hasn’t. He, like James, knows the meaning of cash value. If James and Dewey lived today, they’d be reading “Snapshots,” absorbing the blooming, buzzing confusion of “Across the USA,” and probably arranging for Al Neuharth to give a few lectures at Columbia and Harvard.