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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Yesterday, after we finished, you said there were a couple of people that you wanted to talk about, Helen Simms and Paul Minor.
Richards: I think you asked me at one point about whether I felt that I was a mentor to anybody. I sort of was, I think, to Paul Minor, although he was only a couple or three years behind me. He also was at the University of Kansas while I was working for United Press, and I used to go up to K.U. maybe a couple of times a year, once each semester, to talk to journalism classes about this, that, and the other. Paul was in one of those classes, and he used to call me up. We became quite good telephone friends. Ultimately, he wound up as president of the Kansas City Star Company. But he used to send me little notes that he recalled that I taught him this or I taught him something else, this sort of thing. Maybe because everybody likes stroking—at least I do—maybe it was because Paul stroked me all the time, I don't know, but at any rate, I had a special fondness for Paul.
Biagi: And Helen Simms?
Richards: Helen Simms was, for perhaps twenty years—I came across a note from her, too, not too long ago. I was in no way Helen's mentor, because we weren't in the same field at all. She was the PR person for the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, and she was there during an era when they were under a lot of flak about various policies. It was basically, of course, a charity hospital. It was also a research center and a lot of other things. But there was a lot of controversy at the time. I became a great admirer of Helen's because she handled all this so skillfully. She was so appreciative of what the press did for her. She was not one of these people that wanted the world on a platter or expected it. I think maybe Helen and I had a mutual admiration society, though I don't know. But at any rate, I've always admired Helen. Where she is today, I have no idea. I'm sure she's retired by now.
Our professional association continued over a period of perhaps twenty years, I guess. She was real active in Theta Sigma Phi, which both of us joined in college, and the Kansas City chapter of Theta Sigma Phi later became Women in Communications. I guess the whole organization did. Do you know whether that still exists?
Biagi: Yes, it does.
Richards: I presumed it did. In our part of the country, they had a lot of worthwhile projects such as the hospitalized veterans' writing project. Volunteers would be assigned to individual patients in the local veterans' hospitals and the job was to encourage them to write, not necessarily to teach them, but to encourage them. This was too difficult for me, because I never knew where that fine line was. If somebody showed me a piece that was just awful, what do you do about it? You're not doing them any favors if you don't try to steer them in a little different direction. But at any rate, they published a publication I don't know how many times a year, but a little magazine called Veterans' Voices, which that local chapter does all the time, too. I'm sure this is a very worthwhile thing. A lot of those men were very appreciative of the contact and the stimulation that they got out of that.
Biagi: What ultimately happened in your role in the organization?
Biagi: You said they decided to change it somewhat.
Richards: Well, in the changing attitudes of feminists, they decided that they wanted not to belong to a women's group only, but to belong to Sigma Delta Chi. I'm sure you know what that is. They were admitted, of course, to Sigma Delta Chi and the Kansas City Press Club, all those things. But Theta Sigma Phi immediately—it had enjoyed considerable prestige, really, among the working press and others, the whole community, partly because of its annual matrix table banquet. They gave awards each year to women who were leaders in the community in one category or another.
But they began to set their goal on numbers, more members, more members, more members. In the early days of my acquaintance with that group, to be invited to membership in Theta Sigma Phi was something of an honor. At least I think everybody thought it was. The requirements were—I don't know how to say it. They weren't all that high, but you had to be a working professional journalist for at least five years to get in, and there were no grocery clerks. I don't mean to put down grocery clerks, but that's for another organization. Their membership standards had been quite high, but ultimately they became obsessed with this desire for more and more members. By now I can imagine whom they're taking in. Anybody that ever read the front page of a newspaper, apparently, is eligible for Theta Sigma Phi. On Women in Communications, I should say.
Biagi: Did you ultimately resign?
Richards: No, I just sort of drifted off into retirement. Their meetings were always at night, and, of course, the composition of the membership changed entirely. It was taken over, as it should have been, by much younger women. The group that I belonged to—we happened to call ourselves the Old Girls—still meet about once a year. Of course, I'm not near enough to participate in that. My personal involvement just died because of lack of time and inconvenience and lack of interest in all those things.
Biagi: Were there other organizations that you belonged to or that were a part of your working life?
Richards: The Downhold Club. Everybody that ever worked at United Press belongs to the Downhold Club. [Laughter.] And, of course, that's my great joy.
Biagi: Which is?
Richards: Everybody that ever worked for United Press, retired or otherwise, is automatically a member of the Downhold Club. I think I told you about the Downhold Club. Surely I did at some time or other.
Richards: But this is a delightful assortment of people out of your past and the not-so-distant past.
Biagi: Do you still correspond with some of them?
Richards: They have a roster, and about twice a year I get a deal that tells me where everybody is. Most of them, of course, their names are unfamiliar to me, even. About twice a year they have a one-evening meeting of the Downhold Club, sometimes in New York, sometimes in San Francisco or Los Angeles. I haven't been to any in late years.
Biagi: You said that overnight you had some thoughts about the economic arrangement that UPI was; in other words, how UPI worked and served the rest of the press organizations in the country. You said that UPI was wholesale.
Richards: That's true. United Press and the Knight Ridder Syndicate and any other person like that that comes to mind, in the sense that no word of United Press copy was ever received direct by the consumer of that piece of information. We were wholesalers. We delivered the report into the hands of people who contacted the reader or the hearer or the viewer, whatever, directly. But we had no direct contact with them.
Biagi: I thought that was a real interesting concept, the idea of wholesaling news.
Richards: Well, I don't know that I ever thought about it exactly that way, except that not so much now, really, but for so long a time you said you worked for a wire service. If you said, for instance, "I work for the AP," everybody thought you were in the grocery business. If you said you worked for UP, then you must be a railroad man. But it was sort of a shadowy existence, as far as the man in the street was concerned.
Biagi: He didn't exactly understand your job, is that it?
Richards: No, it just never occurred to them. I may have told you about the time I called home and informed my mother-in-law that Roosevelt had died very unexpectedly. She called back in about half an hour and she said, "You know, Margaret, you were right about that." [Laughter.]
Biagi: She'd heard it somewhere else.
Richards: In the 1951 flood, at my husband's employer's factory and offices, I think the water was up over the second floor. At the time when the flood broke through, I happened to be on the phone talking with Eddie Meisberger, who was at the business end of some sort of a communications gadget. Eddie was a PR man for the U.S. Corps of Engineers. He was walking the flood area right down where it was going, and all at once he said to me, "Maggie, the C.I.D. [Central Industrial District] is going! The levee's breached!" And I sent a bulletin, just punched it direct, moved the operator over and punched it myself, because this was one of the few occasions when I felt that what I did could have an effect on what happened. But at any rate, I did that. The minute I had completed that, I called my husband's employer and told them that the whole C.I.D. was going and they'd better get out. Fritz Redheffer, who owned the company, did not believe me.
Biagi: You're kidding!
Richards: I'm not kidding. Guess what? He called Colonel Paul West, the district engineer in charge of the whole shebang, and Colonel West said, "Oh, no. C.I.D.'s perfectly all right." He just wasn't in touch yet. Well, to Redheffer's credit, the head of Great Western Paint Company, he never forgot that. He alluded to it many times that he just didn't have the wit to take anybody's word for it.
Biagi: Let's go to some more general questions. I do want to talk briefly about your actual retirement, the decision to retire and how it came about, and what happened when you retired.
Richards: It was a matter of physical concern, I guess, really, not concern for illness or my personal health. But I got this sudden sort of realization that if TWA dropped a plane in the Missouri River, I might very well not have enough physical stamina to ride out the crisis. I kept thinking about this, and I sensed very strongly the moral obligation to be able to perform under whatever circumstances might be indicated. I think this was the major reason why I retired, although it wasn't all that much early. I felt like I just could not live up to what might be expected of me. My way of expressing it at the time was that I thought I'd better retire before they had to carry me out. Well, it wasn't quite that bad, but I felt this very strong.
Biagi: And the specific date was?
Richards: This is hard to determine. I think my last working day was in late May of 1974, but I had a month's vacation time left. I don't know. There were some other bookkeeping things that gave me time off. My retirement date technically, I think, was in late July.
Biagi: So did they just cart you out the door or did they actually have a ceremony for you, a party?
Richards: They had quite a party, yes, and, of course, I was flooded with letters from—quite literally by now—from all over the world. That's one of the nice things about working for a wire service. My friend Joe [Galloway], about whom I'm sure I told you yesterday, wrote, I think, from Hong Kong, as I remember. At any rate, his letter urges me now that I've hung up my pool cue, as I think he put it, put my cue back in the rack, to come and he promised me all sorts of perks. The perks really existed, you know! The treatment I got, even after I retired, in the London Bureau, for instance, in Paris, everywhere you go, if you work for—I shouldn't say the wire service. I don't know anything about the others. But there was this wonderful personal affiliation that people in the United Press felt.
Biagi: So you did have that benefit after you retired?
Richards: Oh, yes, yes. You always received such great treatment when you went to the Washington Bureau or the New York Bureau. Any bureau you ever went to, you were received so fondly.
Biagi: Can you describe the ceremony or the party?
Richards: Yes. Here you get into ethics again. I had a dear friend, a longtime Unipresser named Brian Putman, who for many, many years was the public relations man for Hallmark Cards. Did I tell you this before?
Biagi: You did tell me about that.
Biagi: He had a party for you?
Richards: His employer did. Hallmark Cards did. They sought certain little tiny—no, I shouldn't say they sought benefits afterwards, because it wasn't really that, such things as—now, why Joyce Hall thought he needed to be introduced to Walter Cronkite, I will never know. But after I had retired, "Put" asked me very timidly if I would mind calling Walter and asking him if he would come and make a speech in Kansas City at which he was going to be honored with some sort of award. Now, of course, Joyce Hall doesn't need any intervention by me or anybody else if he wants to talk to Cronkite. Well, I hated to do this, really, for obvious reasons. I'm not that kind of a friend of Walter Cronkite's. But at any rate, under some duress, I called. "Put" kept saying, "Now, you don't have to do this." But I did it. Fortunately, all I got was his secretary.
"Walter's out on his yacht someplace at the moment." [Laughter.] I didn't even talk to him at all. And he did come. I talked "Put" into talking Joyce Hall into approaching him direct.
Biagi: Tell me about the party.
Richards: Hallmark Cards opted to give this reception for me, this retirement reception. They have a very beautiful penthouse on top of their office building within what's called Crown Center, which is a beautiful, beautiful development of both apartment accommodations and mainly business offices. But at any rate, they gave me this party in the penthouse at the top of one of their buildings there, and there were about, I think, 125 people there, some such thing. It was complete with hors d'oeuvres and a bartender and the whole works. It was a beautiful party, although Randall Jesse did fall into the fish pool, not flat in, but he stepped into it. He had cataracts and stepped into that water.
Biagi: There were, as I recall, some gifts that you received.
Richards: Yes. I did. My fellow employees gave me an electric typewriter, thinking I would do a lot of writing. [Laughter.] I haven't written a word since. After I retired, somebody gave me the chair in which I had sat for about the last twenty years of employment. I always knew which one was mine because it was wound way down low and woe be to the man who raised that chair, to which they had attached a plaque. I still have this.
Biagi: The plaque says "73s, KP."
Richards: That simply means "Best regards. Kansas City." At any rate, it's out in the shed now. I wouldn't part with that for anything, although I never know where to put it or what to do with it.
Biagi: It's not exactly a new chair. It's been around.
Richards: Yes, although it's been reupholstered heaven knows how many times! It was a really good chair to start with. It's one of these aluminum jobs.
Biagi: An office chair.
Richards: Right. I suppose perhaps a secretarial chair; I don't know. But I can remember three of four different upholstery jobs on that thing.
Biagi: You wore it out, did you? [Laughter.]
Richards: [Laughter.] Well, everybody's had to be redone. Hallmark gave me—I still have, sixteen, seventeen years later, boxes of notepaper that Hallmark gave me at that reception. The company, in the person of the division manager, Bob Crennan, presented me with a pair of white sneakers. They were to replace at that very late date, a pair of white shoes that I was wearing for the first time when I got blood all over them at the scene of the Union Station massacre, and I never did wear them again. I wrote a backlooker many years later about this event, and remarked that I was still a little angry about those shoes because they should have been on the expense account. So the company rectified that situation.
Let's see. What other gifts? I think those were the only gifts. The company gave me not anything like 125 people, but they gave me a very beautiful dinner at the top of the Crown, so called, the restaurant which is on top of one of the tall buildings at Crown Center. There were, oh, I suppose, probably between twelve and twenty people there. I'd have to count to remember how many.
Biagi: Looking back on your whole career, what would you think was your happiest time of all the time you were working?
Richards: It's kind of hard to relate time in the abstract, rather than relate to specific situations and events which, of course, changed from time to time. But I think probably, on balance, the happiest period of my life was in the late fifties, early sixties. This was professionally a very happy time, although really, honest to goodness, I don't remember—of course, I can remember grousing about the job all the time. That was a perpetual state. Ward Caldwell put that very well. He wrote a letter—I came across this letter the other day. He gave me a copy of it, which was nice. But somebody in New York had written something complimentary to me, and Ward, in replying, said, "Well, she has two good days a week: Thursday, which is her day off, and Friday, which is the day the paychecks arrive. The other days, she grouses, 'I'm going to get out of this squirrel cage.'" This was sort of really the way it was.
I always was pretty happy. I guess anybody, if they're not too ambitious, don't expect too much of themselves, tends to be happy as a very sizable frog in a tiny, tiny little puddle. I was very happy most of the time. The reason why I select that period is that I had sort of settled into a very comfortable role with my long-time employer. I felt very secure, very secure, in my job, and it was a happy time in my family, happier than most. Our son by now was—he was always an extremely good student, extremely good, and he was at a very successful stage in his youth. He was happy and doing well in school. Jake, of course, was well, and we were prospering. So I'd say that was the happiest time in my life.
Biagi: Of course, the other side of that, what was the most unhappy?
Richards: I don't think there's any doubt about what was the most unhappy time in my life, and it had nothing to do with my professional life or anything like that. It was the period in which I lost my father over a period of years to Alzheimer's Disease. He died in April of 1945, so that was the worst time in my life.
Biagi: You had a lot of things going on at that time. You were busy with your son, the war was winding down. A lot of things were going on all at once. So that was a difficult time.
Richards: Only because of my father, I think. I don't remember being unhappy about anything else.
Biagi: Would you do anything differently?
Richards: Yes. Some things I would. I'm not sure that I was wise in fending off transfers and in living out my whole life in that comfortable, familiar rut. Maybe I should have changed employers, though on balance I don't think this is the case. I think perhaps I told you there was only one time when I seriously considered leaving. A local NBC television station in Kansas City offered me a job that was quite attractive, and it was one of those, "I'm going to get out of this squirrel cage" sessions. I decided to take it. I fed the paper into the typewriter to write a letter of resignation to New York, and, in fact, I got, I think, clear down to the signature part of it, and I ripped it out of the typewriter, threw it away, and thought, "I'd just as soon divorce my husband." I did not leave.
But this turned out to be a most fortunate decision, because the man who was going to hire me, Walt Bodine—that station was sold within a couple of months after that, and Walt Bodine and Bill Leeds and all the people that I knew were fired. So I would have been maybe out entirely. I can only presume that I would have been. Certainly I would have lost my pension
and my seniority with UPI, the comforts that I enjoyed there. So I don't think that was a mistake.
But I made mistakes in things like this. One time there was a medical evac unit at Rosecrans Field at St. Joseph. I believe this was the air national guard, although I'd hate to have to take my oath to that. But one time they approached me during the—was it the Korean War or the Vietnam War? Must have been the Vietnam War. It was. They approached me with the suggestion that I ride one of their planes over to Tokyo, get off, and enjoy Tokyo for a while, return on a plane loaded with Vietnamese wounded, which they thought would make a great feature story. I have never really liked air travel, not really. I've gone to great lengths a few times to avoid flights in small planes. But at any rate, I turned this down because some wise person warned me that these planes they use were just the old cargo planes and you'd wish you were dead by the time you'd get to Hawaii. So I didn't. So there were turndowns of that kind, too, that I regret.
Biagi: You regret that you didn't take them?
Richards: To this day I've never been to Tokyo, so I'm sorry that I didn't accept that.
Biagi: What are your ideas about the changing roles of women in journalism and how women's roles generally have changed?
Richards: Well, they're hardly recognizable. The changes have been so great that it doesn't seem like we're talking about the same subjects. There just weren't any women in journalism of the kind we think about now. When I began, there weren't any. As I'm sure I told you, I was the only woman in the Kansas City Bureau; in fact, I think maybe the only woman reporter for United Press until the war pinch began. But now I don't see where there's any field that's barred to them unless they want to go into the men's locker rooms, which never seemed very appropriate to me.
Biagi: So you've seen a lot of changes.
Richards: Oh, yes. Of course, the changes now are so visible, too, because as long as you're thinking only of print media, all you know, really, as the observer is the name of the reporter or writer and maybe her picture that's beside it. Now you feel like you have a close acquaintance with everybody. This gets to be kind of a problem. I suppose everybody's that way. I feel like I personally know Tom Brokaw, which is ridiculous! I never saw him in my life. The whole concept has changed. I hope salaries are more nearly even now. I don't know whether they are or not.
Biagi: If you had to talk about your salary over time, do you remember what it was when you started and what it was when you finished?
Richards: Oh, yes, I remember very well what it was when I started. It started at $17.50 a week. That was the first Monday after Labor Day in September of 1931. And in October, along came that downhold message, and with it came a ten percent cut for everybody. So my salary was cut in October to $15.75 a week. But it didn't stay there. They restored the pay cut to the really impoverished among the people, so I got that back pretty quickly.
Kansas City was a poor locale in which to compare salaries, because the Kansas City Star's salaries you wouldn't believe! I once went over there to talk about a job, and I can't really say that they offered me one, but they kept calling me back and back for more interviews. They finally got around to mentioning a price, and they mentioned $25 a week. I was making $40 at the time. So that ended that negotiation right there. But in the era in which I speak,
wire service people in Kansas City were paid much better than newspaper people. In St. Louis, that was not true. The Post Dispatch paid very well, I think.
Biagi: When you left the company, do you remember your salary then?
Richards: I'm trying to think. I really am. It was four-hundred-and-some dollars a week. I don't remember exactly how much, but maybe $430, something like that.
Biagi: That was quite comfortable, would you say?
Richards: Oh, yes. See, that was back in 1974, before all this inflation. Yes, that was comfortable.
Biagi: A good living, in other words.
Richards: Yes, a good living particularly for a woman. I don't know whether it was all that good—
Biagi: Did you have other professional women friends that you considered close friends?
Richards: I told you about Sigrid Arne, I think, yesterday. Two women who worked for United Press, both of whom I'm sure considered me sort of a mentor, one was Til Haggerty. I'm sure I mentioned her yesterday. The other was Virginia Tieman. Virginia joined United Press during World War II and was one of the first—maybe the first. She and Jo Hoffman-Hewitt came in at the same time. I don't remember too well about Jo, but Virginia and Til were both extremely competent.
Biagi: Did you know them well personally, or was it primarily a professional relationship?
Richards: It was primarily a professional relationship, except, of course, that back in this era there was an awful lot of social activity within the staff. As somebody put it, we worked together and we played together. So there was this sort of thing.
Biagi: So when you had problems or you wanted to talk to somebody about the job, you had those people and other people to share ideas with?
Richards: Yes, I suppose so, to some extent. Although I really remember those relationships not so much talking about my job as about theirs.
Biagi: I guess what I'm getting at is that some women have said that they have too little time to develop friendships.
Richards: I think that's true. Yes, I think that was true, especially since I, after all, had a husband and a son that I was primarily interested in.
Biagi: What about your relationships between you and your job and your husband and your son?
Richards: I am married to the most tolerant man in the world. See, I had worked for United Press for several years under my maiden name and used that byline. I changed to using Margaret Richards, or Margaret P. Richards, because we kept going to parties at which Jake was introduced as Mr. Plummer. I thought this was just asking too much of any man, so I dropped that.
But I think he always shared vicariously in my good luck and the things that happened to me, although he used to get his foot in his mouth every now and then. I had such a dear friend whose name was Joe Hearst. I think I've mentioned him before, too. I was just such an admirer of Joe's. Joe and Sam Hales were two people whom I loved dearly—of course, in the purely platonic sense. I was so fond of Joe, and Joe was very fond of me. We were with the Hearsts quite a bit, Jake and I together. Jake remarked to Joe one time—something was said about the fact that I went out all the time for beer with the men and I ran with the men all the time, including Joe. Something was said about someplace that Joe and I had been together. Jake said, "Joe, I wouldn't be bothered a bit if you and Margaret went to Europe together." [Laughter.] Which he decided afterwards was not—Joe kind of laughed. He wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not.
Biagi: He trusted you.
Richards: Jake is very secure about a lot of things. He always was. And he went to all sorts of lengths to help me! The time, for instance, when I went down into the Missouri River bottoms where there had been a bad explosion in a grain elevator. The lower elevation of this elevator was below ground level, the surrounding terrain, and this area had filled with water from the fire-fighting effort. It was during a near blizzard, and I didn't have any galoshes, I didn't have any gloves. I had left home not expecting any such thing as that. So I called Jake and asked him to bring me my galoshes. He went home and got the galoshes, came back over, sat by a desk in the office. I said, "Sit here and listen." It was by the main phone out of the place. I said, "Sit here, if you will, take a notepad and write down everything you hear over that phone," which he did very graciously. But he was full of things like that. Always was, which made life much easier for me. Now, he's never been much for helping wash the dishes or any of those things.
But I was so fortunate, too, in another thing. In that era, I never had, as I told you before, any problems with child care because we had a live-in babysitter. In addition to which I had the same cleaning woman and general helper for twenty-five years. At first she came three times a week, then she came twice, and then she got down to once a week when automatic washers came in. But I didn't have any of these [problems]. I don't know how a woman works now, because except for a fabulous salary, you couldn't afford to hire people the way we did.
Biagi: So the domestic chores were essentially taken care of.
Richards: Yes, that's right.
Biagi: And that helped you to do your job.
Biagi: Let's go back to the big events that classically are mentioned in your lifetime and talk about how they affected your life and see if you have any thoughts about them. Suffrage. Do you remember when women got the vote?
Richards: Oh, no. I think the women had had the vote. Please!
Biagi: I'm sorry. What I mean is having a vote.
Richards: I was concerned about it in this way. I was concerned as to whether my personal political opinions were influencing the copy that I produced, but I concluded early on that if I were a candidate, I would much rather have Margaret Richards against me than for me.
Biagi: Why is that?
Richards: Because I think I leaned over backwards not to favor the people that I really favored.
Biagi: What about World War I and its effect on you as a child or otherwise.
Richards: I was eight years old when World War I ended, so I have only the vaguest memories of that.
Biagi: How about the Depression?
Richards: The Depression, now, that's something else. Everybody that lived through it, I'm sure, remembers the Depression very vividly, although I was not nearly as much affected as most. My father never lost his job, he never had a pay cut. Prices went way down, which meant that probably our living scale was better than it had been in more prosperous economic times. Of course, when I got out of school, that was something else. I was graduated in the spring of 1931 and very few of us got jobs. The jobless people in that era were so visible. It wasn't just a matter of reading the statistic of 6.6 percent unemployed; you knew, because maybe not on every street corner, but you encountered them selling little things on street corners. People came to your doors all the time. They'd come to your back door and would say they'd like to work in exchange for food. They'd come to the front door and offer to either mow your lawn or shovel the snow, this sort of thing. So you were acutely aware of them.
Of course, you remember individuals. There was a man whose last name was Root. I can't remember what his first name was now. He had been the city editor of the New Orleans Item. Do you happen to remember that newspaper?
Richards: I don't know whether it's still being published or not. I doubt it. But he had been city editor of the New Orleans Item. He came and got a job on the Kansas City Journal Post, and I remember yet that his salary was $12 a week. I don't think this was too unusual. People worked for amounts like that.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: We're talking about the Depression. Do you remember the labor activity that began to take place in newspapers and in newsrooms? Did that in any way affect you?
Richards: Oh, yes, sure. United Press, fairly early on, signed a contract with the American Wire Service Guild, but I was not really over enthusiastic about that. There were two reasons for this. One was that among my personal acquaintances—I'm not saying that this was true universally—but among my personal acquaintances, the people who were active in promoting the guild, not just the members, but the guild leadership, was comprised exclusively of marginal-type employees.
Biagi: By "marginal," what do you mean?
Richards: There would have been doubts about their holding their jobs if they had not been better protected by the guild. The other thing was that the people complained in all seriousness about what they called "sweatshop conditions." I particularly remember one morning when the guild enthusiasts were sitting at a table in the little restaurant that was operated on the ground floor of the Journal Post building where our offices were. I walked in and they were already in session, drinking coffee and whatever, and I sat down and joined them. We sat there for something like an hour and a half, and they talked continuously about the terrible sweatshop conditions in United Press, while they sat there and goofed off. And I didn't like that, either.
But I don't think anybody can deny—me, least of all—the benefits of the guild, because I don't think they would have paid me as well. Anybody pays exactly what the market will stand, exactly what it takes, and you can't blame people really for that. Nobody pays more for a loaf of bread than they have to. Why should anybody pay more for services than they have to? So I think it was a great benefit.
Biagi: World War II. You talked quite a bit about its effect on your life. Is there anything you wanted to add about that?
Richards: I don't think of anything.
Biagi: The [Senator Joseph] McCarthy era.
Richards: Oh, the McCarthy era. I think that had everybody terribly upset. I personally thought they ought to take him out and hang him. [Laughter.] Without benefit of trial! And I think everybody sort of felt that way. I was in Washington on a personal pleasure trip, I guess you'd call it, during the McCarthy hearings. Of course, they were so widely attended by the press. Everybody was tremendously interested in the McCarthy hearings.
Biagi: Was there any fallout on Kansas City or the kinds of activities that took place?
Richards: Not that I recall.
Biagi: The civil rights movement.
Richards: The civil rights movement, that's something else. I think we talked yesterday, or some time or other, about the changing of neighborhoods and the resentment that arose there and the problems that resulted from that. I don't know whether there's any more or less racism in Kansas City than anywhere else. Of course, everybody will tell you that they have such good friends among the blacks. This is a universal thing. Actually, I have two, really—Percy Mason, who became our next-door neighbor, really, but Percy is one of the finest men I ever knew. How he did this, I do not know, but he was an executive for the Parke-Davis Drug Company. He was in charge of security of all their contraband drugs. It was Percy who planned the operation and all this sort of thing. He was tall and distinguished-looking, but I think the reason, maybe, why I found no abrasiveness whatever in that friendship is because Percy—let's face it—had absorbed the white culture. If you were to talk to him on the phone, you would have no idea he was black, none whatever. Of the people who came to see him, I would say his friends, ninety percent of them were white. I suppose probably that blacks maybe think of Percy as an "Oreo cookie."* You've heard that expression.
Biagi: Yes. Do you think that's good or bad that he absorbed the white culture? By implication you seem to be saying that it's a loss to him to do that.
Richards: I don't think it was a loss. I'm not sure that I have a fair view of this. I might perhaps interject here that I came from a southern family, and how much of that has stayed [with me], a lot of it has stayed with me, not in my speech, but expressions. For instance, a favored expression of mine which came from a black person my parents employed is, "Well, this doesn't fry any fish nor chop any cotton," which—the obvious meaning of that. So maybe I have residual prejudices that I don't know about.
* An old expression that means "white on the inside, black on the outside."
I think I told you yesterday about the two black men that I knew about that worked for United Press. Now, maybe some of that is bias, too. I don't know.
Biagi: You have another friend, you said.
Richards: Oh, yes. He was the news director of a sizable radio station in Kansas City. His name was Poindexter. I was very fond of him, liked him very much, respected him and thought he was very competent.
Biagi: Did you notice any effect of the later women's movement in the seventies?
Richards: I left work in 1974, so I'm not that familiar with the late seventies. You can't sit and watch television without realizing whether you want to call it the women's movement—to tell you the truth, Shirley, I'm not the biggest feminist in the world. I think so much energy has been wasted about—I realize the psychological things involved, but why all this ruckus about "chairperson?" "Man" is a generic term. It means "of the human species." When women refuse to accept the term "man," as in "chairman," they are admitting that they feel a certain inferiority.
Biagi: Do you think so?
Richards: I think so. In this demand for the recognition of the difference, what they're demanding is the recognition of differences between the sexes. If what we want, actually, is an absolute even shake, why do we want to talk about that?
Biagi: Why not call everybody a chair?
Biagi: I mean why not call everybody a chair?
Richards: Of course, some things are so difficult. One time a good many years ago I was asked to help in the elimination, or the reduction, of sexism in the language of Methodist literature. I'm not talking about the Bible, but all the publications that the church is involved with. Well, I found I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't rewrite the language, and I dropped out of that because of it. I didn't think it made any sense.
Biagi: Are there contradictions in the feminist movement, do you think?
Richards: Didn't I just say that there is one? The striving for the elimination of gender as a consideration in any way, and yet all this flap about—look up the word "man" in the dictionary. "Man" does not mean males. "Man" means human being—to me.
Biagi: Any other contradictions that you see?
Richards: No, I don't think of any other. I don't think I'd penalize any woman political candidate because of her gender or a woman doctor. Is that what you're asking?
Biagi: That was just a contradiction that you were talking about in the feminist movement, something you didn't like about it. I was wondering if there were other things.
Richards: I think it's not that I really dislike these things; it's just like it seems to me that it spends a tremendous amount of energy on what are basically superficial things.
Biagi: Are there other issues more important?
Richards: Don't worry so much about "chairperson" or simply "chair" as you do what the chair is being paid.
Biagi: [Laughter.] There are economic issues to worry about.
Biagi: Have there been reporters and people you've most admired? If you had to say there were two or three people you most admired as reporters over the years, who would they be? Journalists.
Richards: That's a hard one.
Biagi: Or writers.
Richards: That's a real hard one. This is not in order of the one I admire most being first, but as a group, I would have to say, of course, Helen Thomas. I believe she's about the only woman that I feel that much admiration—oh, Jane Pauley. I have great admiration for Jane Pauley, as who doesn't? This also is partly because of certain similarities of background. She happens to belong to the same social sorority that I do. But those two, among the women.
Biagi: What has been your exposure to Helen Thomas or Jane Pauley? I know there's a nice note in there when you retired.
Richards: Yes, and I have encountered her [Helen Thomas] many, many times. I think I told you before that she was also so gracious. When she'd come into my bailiwick with whoever was present at the moment, she never would really have anything to do with the story. She would always hand it over to me to byline, whatever. She's most gracious in that regard. Of course, I have great regard for her competence. I know more about her reporting ability than her writing, because I never studied that aspect of it particularly. But she's one, and Pauley, with whom I have no personal contact whatever.
On the male side of the fence, I would have to name William Allen White, whom you probably don't know at all.
Biagi: I've heard of him.
Richards: I'm a great admirer of William Allen White.
Biagi: A reporter from Kansas, right?
Richards: That's right. The Emporia Gazette. He was a man with such great wit and such a zest for life.
Biagi: Did you see him a lot?
Richards: Not a lot, no. Of course, he belonged to a different generation. I think his daughter, Mary, who was killed in an accident, was older than I was. But I loved William Allen White for such remarks as the time he was walking along the street with a friend and they came to several teenage girls, and the friend said, "You know, I don't think the girls are as pretty anymore as they used to be. Their clothes aren't as nice," or something. To which William Allen White replied, "Yes, and have you noticed that green applies aren't so good anymore, either?" He was full of things like that. I loved William Allen White.
There is a man, still a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, his name is Calder Pickett. I admire Calder Pickett greatly for his writing. I don't know how to describe this. He is a recorder of current history. I don't mean history in the sense of World War II or the presidential elections or any of these things, but history as he sees it from Mt. Oread, which is the pet name for the campus there. But I admire him greatly.
I admire, among writers, generally speaking of course, there's nobody that matches Ernest Hemingway, as far as I'm concerned.
Biagi: Did you have time to read during your life?
Richards: No. I was so tired of reading in a "must" situation. I read quite a lot at that because I always carried a book with me—still do, for that matter—although I can't read that much anymore, but I always had something with me to read, and I read for brief intervals. Then after I retired, of course, I read a lot. I can't read anymore. I mean, I can take a magnifying glass and read the words in a recipe or something like that, but I can't read for pleasure anymore.
Biagi: This is a tough one.
Biagi: What's the farthest ethically you went to get a story?
Richards: Oh, my! Turn that off a minute while I think this over. [Laughter.] [Tape interruption.]
In the first place, before you can decide when you committed a breach of ethics, you've got to define ethics. Ethics today are not necessarily the same thing that ethics were a long time ago. I've used all sort—and frequently—of the traditional ploys such as calling up the Secret Service and saying, "By the way, what's the ETA on Air Force One at Municipal?" Maybe I don't even know Air Force One is coming in. This sort of thing, pretending to have knowledge, hoping to trap somebody into an admission of something that you suspect is happening.
I think I told you yesterday—it wasn't exactly my breach of ethics, but I enjoyed it so thoroughly, that it must have been all right—the bit about the spy who kept us informed of the AP serialization. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: We're talking about the FBI book.
Richards: It was probably a breach of ethics when we infiltrated Grandma, in a sense. By "Grandma" I mean the Associated Press, which is the wire term. That or Rox.
Richards: That meant the Associated Press. Either that or Grandma.
Biagi: What did that stand for, Rox?
Richards: I don't know. It goes back to my earliest memories. That and Grandma, either one. I don't think that was ethical, and it was not my decision. I'm not the one that engineered all this, but since I enjoyed it so much, I suppose it was my breach of ethics, too.
Biagi: Were there any sources that you felt you got too close to?
Richards: This is a hard thing to define, too. I don't think so, really. It's such a fine line, but any reporter worthy of the name is going to develop sources. You're not going to stay in the business very long if you don't develop sources. I don't think I ever really tried to trap anybody into admitting anything that they shouldn't. I really don't think that I did.
Biagi: Do you have a special recollection of assignments that you hadn't expected and it made a good story?
Richards: I never broke a confidence. If anybody told me something off the record—and that happened many times, of course—it was off the record. I never used it.
I think I told you about Truman saying that one of the reasons why he gave me an interview one time after he stopped seeing the press, generally speaking, and he had said something to me and I was still making notes, he said, "You're not going to use that, are you? I told you that was off the record."
I said, "No, of course I'm not. You know me better than that."
He said, "Yes, I do, and that's one of the reasons you're here." No, I never did that. Never.
Do you know who Charles O. Finley is?
Richards: He's a mad man. Oh, wait a minute! I shouldn't have said that, that's for sure. He maybe can prove his sanity and may be one of those who has a certificate that he's sane. I don't know. Well, he was the longtime—well, not so long—he was the owner of the Kansas City Athletics back when that baseball team was based there. He was liable to tell you most anything for two hours at a time. But I can't remember that I ever—oh, I know what I was going to tell about Charlie Finley. He was the sort that he'd tell you something at ten o'clock, and then if he saw it in print, he'd deny that he'd ever said it. So we all got to the point where if Charlie Finley called—and he usually called us; we didn't call him. He was based in Chicago. But anytime you were going to talk to Charlie Finley, you gave somebody the high sign and they got on the other phone so that you had a witness to what had been said.
Of course, most of my working years, in fact, were spent before the days even of tape recorders. We didn't have tape recorders.
Biagi: While we're on the subject of well-known people, were there any particularly well-known people that you spoke with or interviewed that were highlights of your experience?
Richards: I don't think of anybody that we haven't talked about that was that much of a highlight, really, of experience. I certainly didn't regard talking with—I tell you, one of the troubles with this is that with working as I did, and as you have for so many times, is that fame loses its glamour. I wouldn't walk from here to that corner to interview George Bush, let alone just to see him. I can't conceive of this! I don't have anything against George Bush; I didn't mean that. But he lost all attraction for me years and years ago. I'm constantly amazed at the number of people for whom that is not true. My dearest friend, Susan Hudson, spent half an hour one day telling me about one time when she happened to be in a hotel dining room at the same time that Robert Goulet was there. I thought, "Ye gods, Susan! Who cares?" But I just don't get any kick—so unless I know them well enough to develop a personal admiration for them or something, I just plain don't care that much. Of course, Harry Truman, I've talked about him too much already, but he was a very notable exception. I became very, very fond of him as a person.
Biagi: Do you think going to college was helpful to you in your career?
Richards: Oh, yes. In the first place, back then I would never have had a shot at the career if I hadn't had a degree. They weren't hiring people who did not have a degree. And what I learned—well, who can remember what they learned in Editing II? [Laughter.] You know, you just don't. I do remember the course that I consciously used the most through the years was a course entitled "Law of the Press," which was a course in libel. That I know I profited from, and so did my employer.
Oh, you talk about ethical things that you don't do, I did not do this, but in the wire service business, you know, you can fake a message. You can put a machine on test and type out whatever you want if you want it to look like Dallas sent it or want the time to be different or something, you can fake anything you want by putting a machine on test. I remember one time when somebody proposed that we fake the time off on a correction because we were involved in a libel suit. I didn't have anything to do with the libel; it was just one of those things.
Biagi: You mean to change something afterwards?
Richards: A correction. What had happened in this particular case, it was a hearing in Topeka, and the reporter walked in the middle of a hearing and thought they were talking about one person and actually they were talking about another. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and he put on a bulletin naming the wrong guy. This got into several papers because of the time at which he sent it. Of course, we followed it within two or three minutes with a correction or a kill or something, but at issue was how long this erroneous copy stood on the wire. It was proposed that we fake the time off of the correction. That copy I showed you, every take has the time at the bottom. I remember I got on my high horse and read a riot act to a man who was many steps up the chain of command from my lowly status, and said, "Look. If we destroy the integrity of our files, we are goners." At that time, they thought the case was going to be—he backed down. I don't think he would have done it, having thought it over. I don't think he would. But I have no big sins of that kind on my conscious, if you were thinking about things like that.
Biagi: Are there any smaller sins that wouldn't exactly be sins, but mistakes you made in your reporting that you regretted later?
Richards: Oh, I'm sure there were, but I'm like Harry Truman in that regard—I never look back at my past mistakes. What's past is past. I'm sure there were lots of mistakes. Well, I do remember some that I thought—well, no, I can't use that because that turned out it wasn't a mistake. I just thought it was a mistake. I think I told that, anyway, about the time I identified one of the victims of the Kansas City massacre as Frank Nash. He had this thick black curly hair, very thick hair, high forehead. At any rate, he had this thick black hair. I identified him as Frank Nash with heavy qualifications for a considerable interval, and finally it became more and more certain—or seemed to me that it was—and we went with a flat unqualified identification of this man. A couple of hours later, they pulled me back into the office and I was walking through the Journal Post composing room, and there on a stone was a cut of Frank Nash and he was as bald as that light bulb.
Biagi: By "stone," what do you mean?
Richards: That's a workplace in a composing room where they set up pages.
Biagi: So it was a picture of him?
Richards: A picture of him, yes.
Biagi: And he was bald as could be?
Richards: Bald as could be. I thought, "Oh, my word, I'm going to be fired. I have blown it! This is not the man I saw." He was wearing a toupee which had not been dislodged by all of this. But I remember that mistake. Oh, I'm sure I made jillions of mistakes, but maybe that's why I lived so happily all my life; I forgot mistakes and remembered the happy things.
Biagi: Was there ever a time when there was a challenge to your being a lady and being a reporter? To be a reporter, you couldn't act like a lady? Was there a time when that happened?
Richards: No. I don't think so, not that exactly, because you've got to remember that in my youth, at least, it was a very different era. I was treated with great respect, both by my fellow employees and by outsiders. But I'm sorry to say I could be very arrogant, looking back on it now. I don't know whether—I think about a little story. I won't tell it.
Biagi: Why not?
Richards: May I cross it out if I decide later?
Biagi: Sure. Sure.
Richards: Well, during Greenlease, that marked a tremendous era in my career. I was on watch one night at sundown, a Sunday night, and usually there were about twenty of us, including camera equipment and all that sort of stuff lined up in the street outside the Greenlease house. But at this particular moment, the only reporters there were Bill Moore of the Kansas City Star and me. We saw a cleric, a priest, go up to the door and go into the house. So, of course, we didn't approach. We waited for him to come out. He had parked his car on the street. When he came out, we went up to engage him in conversation, and Bill climbed up on the fender of his car, thinking that surely a cleric would not drive off and throw a man off. And he didn't, but he refused to tell us who he was. All in the world we wanted to do—you cannot write, "Nothing happened today in the Greenlease case." You've got to have something to say. This was a Sunday night, which meant it was particularly dull.
At any rate, we explained all we wanted to do was to say that her spiritual mentor had called on Mrs. Greenlease today or something. He didn't even have to say how she was—nothing! Just all we wanted was his name. And he wouldn't tell us. Bill said, "Is that car yours?"
"Of course it's mine."
"Is it registered to you?"
"Yes, it's registered to me. Of course it's registered to me."
And finally we got the point where I said, "Now, look. It'll take me about ninety seconds to find out who you are because you've told us that this is your car and it's registered to your name. I'm going to walk right over to that telephone pole over there, pick up that phone (this is before the days of all the privacy enactments), and I'm going to call the highway patrol and I'll tell you what your name is, because you've told me that."
And he drew himself up to his full height and said, "Young woman, I am Monsignor Koch, and I forbid you to use my name."
I had had it up to here with Father Koch, and I said, "I'm a Methodist, and I don't care if you're the Pope." [Laughter.] See, if there ever was an arrogant thing!
That's another one of those things that this certainly was a breach of civility, of good behavior by all its measurements, but to tell the truth, I still kind of enjoy it. [Laughter.]
Biagi: I think you do! I think you do. [Laughter.] You enjoy telling the story, too, don't you?
Biagi: Were you expected to be a booster for your town, for your community, for Hallmark?
Biagi: Did you ever have a feeling that people would get angry with you if you—
Richards: If I badmouthed them?
Richards: No. Certain politicians I felt like were trying to ingratiate themselves with me, but that's just par for the course. You'd have to be terribly naive not to expect that.
Biagi: How about your sense of fairness? What thoughts do you have about fairness?
Richards: I don't think I ever sat down and analyzed it. I just played it by ear, by the circumstances of the moment. I think I tended to resent arrogance very much.
Biagi: You just told me you were! [Laughter.]
Richards: I know! I know. But this was my—see, he was being arrogant to me. No pastor of my acquaintance would forbid me to do anything. Pastors just don't do that. Who is he to think he can forbid me to do anything? It was sort of that way.
I remember one time when a train got snowbound in a cut near Liberal, Kansas, which is the extreme southwest corner of the state. There was concern for the oxygen supply, because the snow was clear up over the windows, and food. The train had been there—I don't know that this is the correct time, but let's say it had been stalled there for forty-eight hours. People were supposed to be sick or not in the best of health, at any rate. The governor ordered a national guard troop to take jeeps or whatever and cut a way through to this train and take them, I think, oxygen and food supplies, medicine. It made quite a little story, this marooned train, couple of hundred people aboard.
But the most arrogant man in the world, aside from clerics and military people, are railroad men. They are really very bossy. At any rate, I kept hounding the Rock Island people for details, and they just denied the whole thing. Finally, I ran across this man who said, "You can't publish this. We're not going to permit publication of any of this material. You don't have anybody to quote, and I'm not going to give you anything."
I said, "How does the governor of Kansas strike you? I've already got him." Then I called him back and read him the copy that had already moved. And I was wont to take tear sheets when they came in and mail them back to offensive people who told me what I could and could not do. So I was arrogant about a lot of things and greatly aggravated by arrogance.
Biagi: Did you find that among a lot of the people you reported on or just a few?
Richards: I think just a few. But I think, also, this attitude within me, which was wrong, resulted in part because the chain of command in the United Press was so well concealed.
There was, of course, a chain of command, but it better not show up. I mean, I never saw the president of the company do it, but I have seen the division manager do it. If he walked into a newsroom at a moment of crisis and the floor was covered with miles of perforator tape, he would pick up a broom and sweep the floor if he thought this was the thing to do. I think having grown up professionally in that sort of atmosphere, it might have made me more vulnerable to people who I thought were exhibiting authority or what they conceived as authority.
Biagi: Why did it make you more vulnerable?
Richards: Well, because I had been taught, indirectly, or I perceived the display of rank as being offensive, if you want to call it rank. And arrogance, whether there is a rank directly involved or not, is, in a sense, an exercise or an attempt to exercise rank.
Biagi: Let's go to another subject. In your reporting, did you distinguish in your mind how you would treat public people or public officials, and how you would treat private people, individual citizens? Did you feel that you had any special responsibility to private people, to explain to them more about how the press works?
Richards: Oh, yes, I think probably I did.
Biagi: Do you feel they were more vulnerable to the press or to reporters, that they didn't understand? I think about private cases.
Richards: I think that old saying of Truman's, "If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen," I feel like very politician asks for it. If he doesn't understand it, he better quick do something about learning about it. But the other people, that's a different matter. I don't think I ever deliberately invaded people's private. Like every other reporter, I've had some very unhappy experiences of assuming people knew about some tragedy when, actually, they did not yet know. I've run into that several times, which is miserable.
Biagi: Do you remember specific incidents?
Richards: Yes. It wasn't an important story at all. A little boy had drowned at a school function, I think it was. At any rate, there was an accidental drowning. I wanted to confirm, I think, the last name or something. At any rate, I called this child's home. Enough time had elapsed that I felt sure that the family had been notified. They didn't know a thing about it. And that's awful, just awful.
Biagi: What did you do?
Richards: Well, I don't remember, except I do remember that the boy's father was not at home and I said, "I really don't know what these circumstances are, but I believe if I were you, I'd call his father and have him come home."
Biagi: What makes a good journalist? Can you expound a little bit about what makes a good journalist?
Richards: Well, innate characteristics. To me there are two very primary ones: one is just plain old curiosity about everything, and the other is skepticism.
Biagi: Why do you say skepticism?
Richards: Because if you take seriously every—we've got a sample of that going on right now. There is a television station here—and I don't mean to tee off on the reporter involved, because, generally speaking, he is quite competent, but he is off on a UFO kick and he is—
well, I won't go into that, because I am so content—he is either a fool himself or he is deliberately foisting off something on the public. It's a matter of integrity or ignorance or incompetence or something. I can find no excuse. I am embarrassed for my trade every time I watch that stuff, and he revives it. He lets weeks elapse, and here he comes. His chief source is a man who has been totally discredited. He told some story about how he worked for CIA—I don't know; I've forgotten the details. The background of this man's chief source has been so thoroughly discredited, nobody can believe it. Either this reporter I'm talking about is deliberately promoting what he believes in his heart is not true, or else he is incredibly credulous. That's what I mean about skepticism.
There was a woman in Kansas City for many years, sort of a fringe politician. She knew everything that was going on, although she had very little input in what was going on.
Biagi: Excuse me. I need to change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Richards: Her name was Polly something or other. At any rate, she claimed to be privy to everything that was going on in local politics, and she'd call up several times a week with these wild tales. Well, of course, not only I, but every other reporter in town, finally, if not quickly, realized that she was just not to be paid any attention to at all. But unless you do have a degree of skepticism, you're going to either print or broadcast (or whatever) improbable copy or—I don't know quite how to say it—if you accept everything that's told you, even to the point of chasing it down, you had better get your skepticism up front quickly or you're going to be out on a wild goose chase. Half the time you're going to be chasing down nebulous reports that you should never have heard in the first place. I personally feel like liars or fanciful people tend to have some personality trait that raises your suspicions often.
Biagi: Has your skepticism served you well, do you think?
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: Do you remember a specific time when it did?
Richards: I don't think of anything specifically, but things. I'm talking about, to get down to current things, this man who is off on this UFO kick, he's in desperate need of skepticism.
When my own served me well, well, Tom Pendergast, for example, was in declining health and maybe near death, certainly ill, for, let's say, nearly a year in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Well, about three times a week we'd get a call from somebody who had heard that Tom Pendergast had died. Well, you never can totally ignore those rumors, so you go through the business of calling up to make sure it wasn't true. But without skepticism, at what point might you have raised a report, might you have said, "There was an unconfirmed report that Pendergast has died"? In fact, I think some reporters do this habitually. I think Jack Anderson used to be in that category. I don't know whether he still is or not. But I was told a good many years ago that he was being fed copy by a lot of other reporters whose employers would not use what they had learned or found out with some degree of certainty, and that they were all feeding Jack Anderson. Now, whether that was true, I was not there and I don't know, but I heard that years ago.
Biagi: But to question, in other words, it's important for a reporter to remember to question things.
Biagi: As a larger overall question, then, how important is the press in America, do you think? What is their role as you see it? How important is it?
Richards: My goodness! That's hard to find words to express, isn't it, if you stop to think about it? Without the press—and, of course, we mean both the print and the electronic—without it, we're in complete ignorance. It's inconceivable! I don't think I could deal with that question at all.
Biagi: Why don't you try.
Richards: Well, you're right back at square one. Even the White House handouts, if you eliminate the press, there's no communication anywhere between public figures and the public, between science and the public. Oh, well, it's an inconceivable situation. To me—and I don't think I'm prejudiced—probably the press is—well, what is the press, the Fourth Estate? I think it's every bit as important, if not more so, than the courts.
Biagi: Why? What makes it important? What does it do that's important?
Richards: It informs. Without it, you're going to descend to complete ignorance on every score, it seems to me, unless you want to say that books are not included in the press and magazines are not part of the press. If you wipe out the press, you have no structure left for the transfer of information. I don't think I got the thrust of your question.
Biagi: Yes, you did. In a free society, as we call ourselves, what role would the press play? What does it do that's important?
Richards: It seeks to sort out fact from fiction. I don't say it does sort fact from fiction. By fiction I mean the perpetual handouts that emanate from every level of government, whether you're talking about the City Council or the Oval Office. But its mission is to seek out fact from fiction. It's an evaluating process, among other things. It should—it doesn't—but it should try to evaluate scientific developments, in which I think it makes a rather poor showing. It's not really, I think, the fault of the press, this taking off of every industry that sees the prospect of a few more bucks if they sell enough oat bran, this sort of thing that touches off tidal waves in the business world when there's really nothing scientific to back it up.
Biagi: If the press weren't there, what would happen, do you think?
Richards: Well, I don't know that it would ever simmer down to the—it depends on how much you include our scientific journals as part of the press. Then you'd just as well forget the whole thing!
Biagi: Do you think, overall, the press does a good job today?
Richards: That, too, is a very difficult question. I think you're trying to trap me—
Biagi: No, I'm not!
Richards: —into an old lady's view that everything has gone to hell. [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] You wouldn't say that. I don't think you would.
Richards: No. No, not really.
Biagi: Let's talk about this. What does the press do well and what could it improve? What could it do better, as you see it?
Richards: Well, for one thing, it can learn to spell, punctuate, and put both the subject and the verb in the same sentence! That's one thing they can do.
Biagi: [Laughter.] That's good. What else? What do they do well, do you think?
Richards: It's pretty hard to assess a judgment where you see only one side of the situation. I mean, how can I judge how good the reporting out of the Persian Gulf is? There's no way for me to judge that. Of course, I get very rankled by these people who say, "Oh, you can't believe what's in the newspaper." A lot of the onus that's put on the press is a failure to read or to listen. As far as I'm concerned, the most important words in any story, oral or printed, are the source. I don't mean to condemn. I think there are lots of times when the source is not identified by name when it's perfectly legitimate to assume that it's a reliable source, because people can't afford to be quoted on so many issues, especially politicians. But people will say, "Well, the paper said so and so yesterday," and that's not what the paper said. The paper said that Joe Blow said this had happened. But the press is under such heavy attack these days, but everything is under [attack].
There's not a single profession that I can think of that isn't under extremely heavy [attack]. Medicine? Terrible. The law? My word! Politicians? Please quit. Everybody is under attack. The clergy, even. Not only the clergy, but the church as an entity.
Biagi: So if you had to defend the press against those kinds of attacks, what would you say? Would you defend the press?
Richards: Shirley, I make a career of jumping down people's throats when they take off on the sins of the press. But how you defend them depends on the nature of the criticism. It depends on what they're being criticized for. Those people who think that the "editors" go around tapping reporters' shoulders and say, "Slant it this way," that's unspeakable. It's so naive it's unbelievable. Do you know any reporter that was ever told to take a certain direction in his copy?
Biagi: I haven't talked to one, no. Have you?
Richards: No. Never have.
Biagi: Did it ever happen to you?
Richards: Oh, no! No. I have known—and this troubles me greatly—I think I mentioned it to you once before that I have known, in this case, young reporters, in fact, specifically a young reporter who deliberately omitted facts about a story which he considered tore down the force of the story. Now, this, to me, is unforgivable. But he did that at great lengths. I think maybe I told you this. We went over to Fort Leavenworth to the disciplinary barracks over there on the request of Congressman Dellums. Didn't I tell you about that?
Richards: At any rate, he had received two letters from prisoners in the disciplinary barracks, and one was from a young man who was a graduate of Yale, both black, and the other a nineteen-year-old boy from rural Georgia. This boy from rural Georgia, his literacy level was so low and his speech so marked by accent that neither I nor this other reporter could really understand everything he said. But at any rate, they had leveled—specifically my conclusion was, and even Dellums' conclusion was that the Yale graduate had written both letters.
Biagi: Yes, we talked about that.
Richards: We talked about that. He wanted to kill out all that stuff because it detracted from the story. He would have loved to have guards stepping on this kid's fingers and all these things that he told about, and he wanted to kill out everything. That's terrible. I think that's really threatening.
Biagi: Just a last question, another reflective question. What has journalism given you? You've given a lot to journalism, but what has journalism give you over the years?
Richards: A lot of interest in life, a lot of interesting things have happened. A lot of great memories. As I told you, I have just had a ball with all this [interview series] because I've gone through that box of tear sheets and other things and thought of people and events and circumstances that I hadn't thought of for forty years. It's been a real joy, a real joy.
Biagi: Thank you.
Richards: Thank you. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: There was something you wanted to add as a footnote.
Richards: This is only addressed to any old-time Unipresser who might some day stumble across this. It's not important to them, but it's very important to me. [Richards crying.] I just wanted to say, "It's GN all, 73s, MPR KP" [It's good night all, best regards, Margaret Plummer Richards, Kansas City].
Biagi: Thank you.
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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