I am deeply appreciative of the courtesies and honor that I have received here at Colby. These ceremonies, dedicated to the spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, have a special significance to all who cherish the American traditions of freedom and I am proud to take part in them.On this occasion–as on so many others–I stand in the limelight only as the representative of my associates at The New York Times, a nerve end of that great body. I was in Russia in 1943 representing the American Red Cross, and in that capacity I was the guest of honor at a dinner. I don’t know if you realize it or not but the Russians have one very nice custom. They don’t make speeches. They merely propose toasts and with each toast that you make, you drink a glass of vodka. It’s remarkable how sympathetic the audience becomes as the evening moves along. At any rate, at this particular dinner, in talking about the Red Cross I said, “We know that institutions are larger than men, that we who represent our respective organizations are somewhat similar to nerve ends in their great bodies, and that, small as we are, we nonetheless are the means of contact, of receiving and conveying the sensations that chill or warm, that depress or that inspire the body to greater action.”
It is the achievement of these associates of mine which is really being recognized, and I accept this generous award and citation in their behalf as well as my own. I am eligible to represent them because I do serve as a regular member of the team, acting frequently as quarterback and, once in a while, even carrying the ball. However, it is the combined thinking and action of the whole staff that makes The New York Times what it is, and gives its policies strength and continuity of purpose. The members of the staff, therefore, share fully in your praise. I am only glad that the duties and prerogatives of the publisher single me out as the one through whom your generous recognition is transmitted.
When Dr. Bixler notified me last spring that he and the distinguished Committee of Selection–consisting of Mr. Canham, Mr. Brucker, Mr. Sargent and Mr. Leonard–had voted to assign the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award this year to The New York Times, we were highly flattered. The general basis of the award was quite clear, and we were gratified to be identified with it. Hence my prompt acceptance of Dr. Bixler’s invitation to come to Waterville on November ninth to receive the tendered honor.
However, it was not until I dug a little more deeply into the facts of Elijah Lovejoy’s life in preparation for this talk that I fully realized how proud a publisher should be to receive an award for “perpetuating the spirit of Lovejoy.” I am sure you all know the story of his unyielding fight against slavery. What impressed me the most was the fact that Lovejoy had several easy opportunities along the way to retreat from the battle, but he rejected them all, because his conscience told him that his principles were more important than his safety.
Lovejoy, loving freedom and hating slavery, might still have excused himself from doing anything vigorous on the ground that it really wasn’t his responsibility.
He might have dropped his support of abolition when his press was dumped into the river at Alton.
He might have quit his crusade and kept out of trouble when his neighbors bought him another press by popular subscription and gave him a chance to start anew.
He might have stilled his cry for freedom, and without reproach, confined himself to writing about church matters after mobs had successively destroyed several more of his presses.
Finally, on that fateful night of November 7, 1837, two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, he might have stood by as most men would have while the mobs burned the warehouse containing his latest press. But to Lovejoy, a printing press was a precious voice–a voice of freedom–and he rushed to save it with no thought of consequences for himself. Thus he met death and martyrdom.
Elijah Lovejoy believed in liberty. Elijah Lovejoy believed that an editor can make no compromise with his principles. Elijah Lovejoy scorned the easy way out. He knew that to preserve freedom a man must fight for it whenever and wherever he sees it threatened. Ladies and gentlemen, no higher compliment can be paid to a newspaper than to say that it carries on this glorious spirit.
The New York Times was not in existence when Elijah Lovejoy died. It was established fourteen years later and from its earliest days championed the cause of liberty and freedom. The founder and first editor, Henry J. Raymond, inveighed against the moral crime of slavery; and I think it fair to add that The Times has never faltered in its concern for the preservation of fundamental liberties or in its advocacy of full equality in the rights of citizenship for all citizens of our country irrespective of color, race or creed.
We claim no special credit for thus supporting the Constitution of the United States. Our own freedom, independence and self-respect as a newspaper are all imbedded in the Constitution and it would be foolish for us to fail to fight vigorously every encroachment on constitutional rights we detect anywhere. One invasion on liberty unopposed only invites another. If we doze–and by “we” I mean not only The New York Times but all of us who value freedom–if we doze, we may awaken one day to find the precious fabric of constitutional protection nibbled away. It may then be too late to repair and restore what has been lost.
This can happen without the change or deletion of a single syllable or comma in the Constitution itself. We are much more likely to lose portions of our liberty through the side door of apathy and complacence than through the front door of constitutional amendment.
Just recently Mrs. Sulzberger and I saw the play, “Inherit the Wind,” which is based on the famous Scopes trial of 1925, with Paul Muni cast in the role of Clarence Darrow. It, so impressed me that I wanted to re-read some of the accounts of the original trial. So I asked our reference department to make photo stats of the principal reports as they appeared in The Times.
It was all fascinating reading, particularly Mr. Darrow’s opening address to the court. In it was a sentence which Darrow evidently paraphrased from memory from the writings of George Bancroft, the historian. I jotted it down because it was so close to the basic theme I had in mind for my own remarks here at Colby. It went: “it is all right to preserve freedom in constitutions, but when the spirit of freedom has fled from the hearts of the people, then its matter is easily sacrificed under law.”
Let’s turn that final thought around from negative to positive and say, “. . . when the spirit of freedom dwells in the hearts of the people, it can withstand every attempted assault whether through law, subversion or external aggression.” The essential task is to keep the spirit vital and alive, and not to let it be smothered under the agreeable blanket of prosperity, general comfort and assumption of impregnable security. In fact, it is precisely when the people are seized by this sense of well-being–euphoria I think one calls it–that the need is greatest for both vigilance and leadership. That, I believe, is our situation today.
There are many sources of active leadership in our nation. The lamp of liberty has a host of devoted attendants–schools and universities , churches, civic organizations, foundations, the press and many others. Each has its indispensable role, but one of the most powerful (and therefore most heavily charged with responsibility) is the press.
Last month, in behalf of The Times, I had the pleasure of receiving an award presented “in recognition of the uniform excellence of its editorial and news policy on the subject of civil rights and civil liberties and because it has articulated the function of a free press in a free society.” In accepting it, I emphasized that the excellence of editorial policy is entirely separate and distinct from excellence of news policy. Except for the fact that we strive in every department to achieve the highest standard we can, the “excellence” of these two areas has no organic connection of the one with the other.
Our editorial policy represents the opinion of the newspaper as an institution, an opinion formulated by an editor and editorial board, an opinion for which as publisher must and do take ultimate responsibility. Editorial policy, you might say, belongs to us and is confined to the editorial page.
News, on the other hand, belongs not to us but to the reader. It must be reported fairly, impartially and without distortion whether or not we like the content of the news or whether or not it supports the opinions we editorially express. We owe it to our readers to print the important, the significant and the interesting facts of our lives, our times and our civilization, irrespective of the views we set forth on our editorial page. We try to conduct our news department in such a way that if this editorial page were torn out of The New York Times, the news columns would not reveal which side of a public issue we were advocating or which political candidate we were supporting.
I hope and I firmly believe, no matter what might have been our editorial position on the subject of segregation, that we would have covered as fully as we did the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954. I hope and I firmly believe, no matter what our editorial position on civil rights, that we would have run the eight-page survey on the progress of integration that we published on March 13,1956.
Also, I hope and I firmly believe, no matter what our position on civil liberties, that we would have covered in our news columns all the information that was available–and a great deal that was not available but had to be blasted out–on the subject of the “numbers game” in the Federal employees security program, and the numerous causes of injustice and absurdity that followed from it.
Now, so far as editorial policy is concerned, The Times is a fundamentalist and conservative newspaper–fundamentalist in the sense that we adhere to the fundamental ideas of Jeffersonian democracy as woven, into the Constitution, conservative in the sense that we want to conserve and defend them against all comers. In the decade since the Second World War, some of these principles have been under particularly vicious attack from demagogues willing to play upon the genuine fears of honest citizens whose timorousness far exceeded their good judgment. The Times stood up against those demagogues, and did so when it was considered neither popular nor healthy. Moreover, we find it necessary to stand up because all too frequently the public does not, either because of lack of interest or because of a sense of helplessness.
It should hardly be necessary to add that at the same time we have fought and will continue to fight Communism or any other type of totalitarianism in all its forms. But we believe that the way to fight Communism as well as demagogy is not to imitate it, but to remain true to our own democratic principles. Defensive steps have to be taken to guard against subversives, but so many of the steps taken in recent years have been so absurd and so extreme and so reminiscent of Communist doctrine that they have tended to injure the very thing they have been trying to protect–namely, the integrity of American democracy. It was wise old Benjamin Franklin who said that those who “give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
There are those who think the expression of editorial policy is essentially an ivory tower matter, a sort of spectator sport for publishers and editors shielded from the arena of action. I can tell you this is not so. Sound editorial policy cannot be an empty verbal exercise. It must be a sincere, uncompromising commitment to a set of principles.
Once in a while these policies are put to a real test, by a direct attack or by subtle pressure which requires the newspaper to take a public, position: to stand for what it believes to be right or to avoid trouble by giving in.
Elijah Lovejoy knew which course to take. I think The New York Times does also. I would like to have it say, in the words of Dean Alfange, a living American:
“I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me . . . I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence . . . I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself . . . All this is what it means to be an American.”
It might be appropriate to illustrate this point by saying a few words here about the inquiry conducted by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. This subcommittee, headed by Senator Eastland of Mississippi, summoned several members of The Times staff to appear at hearings in Washington in the summer of 1955 and again in December and January.
As this pattern developed, there came to be no doubt in our minds that the subcommittee was singling out Times employees as an indirect attack against the newspaper itself. Therefore, when open hearings were resumed in January of this year, we expressed our views as forcefully as we could in an editorial entitled, “The Voice of a Free Press.”
This editorial found warm support, both from newspapers throughout the country and from many hundreds of readers who wrote to us about it. I might add that the inquiry failed to disclose a single present Communist in any of our news or editorial departments.
I should like to read to you the three concluding paragraphs of this editorial which I suspect Elijah Lovejoy, if he were here, would approve:
“It seems to us to be an . . . obvious conclusion that The Times has been singled out for this attack precisely because of the vigor of its opposition to many of the things for which Mr. Eastland, his colleague Mr. Jenner, and the subcommittee’s counsel stand–that is, because we have condemned segregation in the Southern schools; because we have challenged the high-handed and abusive methods employed by various Congressional committees; because we have denounced McCarthyism and all its works; because we have attacked the narrow and bigoted restrictions of the McCarran Immigration Act; because we have criticized a ‘security system’ which conceals the accuser from his victim; because we have insisted that the true spirit of American democracy demands a scrupulous respect for the rights of even the lowliest individual and a high standard of fair play.
“If this is the tactic of any member of the Eastland subcommittee, and if further evidence reveals that the real purpose of the present inquiry is to demonstrate that a free newspaper’s policies can be swayed by Congressional pressure, then we say to Mr. Eastland and his counsel that they are wasting their time. This newspaper will continue to determine its own policies. It will continue to condemn discrimination, whether in the South or in the North. It will continue to defend civil liberties. It will continue to challenge the unbridled power of governmental authority. It will continue to enlist goodwill against prejudice and confidence against fear.
“We cannot speak unequivocally for the long future. But we can have faith. And our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are forgotten, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned that it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will still be speaking for the men who make it, and only for the men who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it.”
We did not require extended consultation or discussion before that editorial was written. We knew what we wanted to say–what we must say–almost without conference. This is because some things are just bred in one’s bones.
Some fifty years ago, Charles R. Miller, then editor of The New York Times, described a newspaper as “not what men make it from day to day. There is a genius of continuance that guides their pens and policies, and through the rolling years throws a steady light of individual character and consistent purpose upon the printed page.”
Now we have “consistent purpose” at The New York Times about many subjects, but none has been more unwavering than our ideas concerning the freedom and responsibility of the press. We speak our minds strongly on this subject because it lies at the core of liberty and because, unless they are reminded of its place in democratic society, most of our fellow citizens are inclined to take the press for granted.
I should, therefore, like to devote the last few minutes of this talk to a brief summary of my own thoughts on the subject. Not that I set myself up as a philosopher or expert, but I have pondered these problems of the press for a good many years and have arrived at a few conclusions which I hope you will find of some interest.
Let me start with a favorite figure of speech which I often use in discussing freedom of the press.
Imagine just for a moment the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the freedoms we enjoy under the Constitution. But think of her as standing on four columns instead of her great stone base, and imagine each column as one of the four fundamental freedoms of our Bill of Rights. About the base of three of these pillars huge crowds are gathered ready to protect-with their lives if need be-the columns which represent freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. But about the base of the fourth column there is but a handful–not all newspaper men, but only those who know the full function of a free and responsible press.
Liberty cannot rest on but three of the four columns–she distributes her weight evenly upon the four. The crowds apparently do not understand that. But Hitler knew it–Mussolini knew it–Lenin and Stalin knew it–and before they destroyed liberty, each in his own way, they first of all attacked the column of freedom of the press. They crushed its few defenders–toppled the column and gleefully watched as Liberty smashed into a thousand pieces.
Our freedoms are indivisible. When the most vulnerable of them is destroyed, the others do not long survive. It is not hard to perceive why this is so. When the sources of information are cut off from the people, when truth is stifled and the official line takes its place, enlightened public opinion becomes impossible. And without an enlightened public opinion, democracy cannot function. That is why freedom of the press must be upheld against every threat and invasion.
Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves now just what freedom of the press really is. First, it is a press entirely independent of censorship or government control of supervision. But whose freedom is it? Does it merely guarantee the right of the publisher or broadcaster to do and say whatever he wishes, limited only by the laws of libel and decency? Is it only a special license to those who manage the units of the press? The answer, of course, is no. Freedom of the press–or to be more precise, the benefit of freedom of the press–belongs to everyone: to the citizens as well as the publisher. The publisher is not granted the privilege of independence simply to provide him with a more favored position in the community than is accorded to other citizens. He enjoys an explicitly defined independence because it is the only condition under which he can fulfill his role, which is to inform fully, fairly and comprehensively. The crux is not the publisher’s “freedom to print”; it is rather the citizen’s “right to know.” What I would point out is that freedom of the press is your right as citizens and not mine as a publisher.
In 1946 the United States Supreme Court handed down an interesting decision on this very point. Although the press, as such, was not involved, the principle we are examining was the focus of the decision. The case concerned two members of the religious sect called “Jehovah’s Witnesses” who promulgated the doctrines of the sect through the distribution of pamphlets and magazines. One of them stood in a business block in a company town in Alabama. The very pavement was owned by the company and the distributor was warned that she could not pass out her material without a permit and that no permit would be issued. When she refused to leave, she was arrested and convicted for remaining on the premises of another after being warned not to do so.
The other member of the sect pursued his mission in a village located in Texas. The United States Government owned the entire village and used it to provide housing for workers in national defense projects. An order was issued by the village manager for the “Jehovah’s Witness” to discontinue all religious activity in the village, but he refused on the ground that this was an unwarranted restraint on the exercise of religion. He was arrested and convicted under a law that obliges a peddler to leave the premises when the owner tells him to.
On appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed and set aside both convictions as unconstitutional. In his recent book, “The Moral Decision,” Edmond Cahn calls the reasoning in the case “incandescent” and it is that reasoning which interests us most tonight. Legal title to the town or streets is not the decisive matter, said the Court. Regardless of technical ownership, the public has a paramount interest in keeping the channels of communication free and open. The people who live in towns such as these must, like all other citizens, “make decisions which affect the welfare of community and nation. To act as good citizens, they must be informed . . . their information must be uncensored.”
In his book, Professor Cahn says, “There have been many other occasions when the Supreme Court has vindicated an individual who claimed that his freedom of speech or religion had been infringed, so the actual outcome of the litigations was not their extraordinary feature. They are remarkable rather because of the reasons assigned for the outcome. Justice Black made it clear that in reversing the convictions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . the Court meant to uphold the basic rights of the people they addressed.” In other words, although the people in either the Alabama or the Texas town did not appear before the Court nor make any claim, the Court nevertheless said that it was they whose rights were at stake, and whose access to information must not be cut off.
It is not customary to think of the press in these terms, that is, in terms of the reader or listener or viewer whom the press serves. However, once we understand that this is the proper concept, we realize that the phrase “free press” is shorthand, a convenient label which tells only part of the story. When we examine the subject from the point of view of the public rather than that of the publisher, we realize that what democracy must have is a duality–a free and responsible press. To justify its cherished freedom our press must be a lot more than a happy-go-lucky purveyor of the printed word. The press has the obligation to fulfill its true purpose by bringing the people the information they need for effective citizenship It must present the news without fear or favor of any party, sect or interest, and must admit that the manner in which it presents the news is a matter of legitimate public concern.
This responsibility has two aspects. First, the facts must be reported fully, accurately and in proper balance. Then, because the bare facts are usually complex and many-sided, readers must be given expert interpretation to guide them through the maze. On the whole, I think the press has been meeting this double challenge well.
However, this business of responsibility is a two-faced coin, one side of which represents the duty of the press and the other the duty of the citizen. The torrent of enlightening words that pours from the presses and floods the air can do no good unless the average American is willing to read and to listen. If he uses the great institution of the press merely as an instrument of thrill, and entertainment, the prime mission of the press is nullified and democracy is weakened–perhaps fatally.
The privilege of citizenship in this blessed land is no frivolous matter. We have the right to govern ourselves as free men through the exercise of the collective will. We are offered the capacity to govern ourselves well by solemn guarantees of our right to be informed. No people could ask for more. But these precious liberties, won for us by centuries of struggle and devotion, are not self-perpetuating. We can lose them in the space of a generation if, as citizens, we fail to keep them strong. This involves the double duty of conscientious self-equipment and intelligent political participation. We have the obligation to utilize the resources of information that are so abundantly available to us.
We must demonstrate that freedom is not just a passing phase in the history of mankind, not merely a light that was kindled for a few hundred years only to be blotted out by brute force and tyranny. Knowledge released man from the original yoke of oppression. Knowledge can keep that yoke from pressing him back to bondage.
There are many sources of knowledge but a responsible press is certainly one of the most important. It is by means of this kind of press that democracy can invest itself with the only impregnable armor–a universal comprehension of the issues, objectives and principles that distinguish free men from slaves.
Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.
Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.
Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.
For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy