It’s little wonder that I feel at home here tonight and am so thrilled to be this year’s recipient of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. I came here several years ago when Colby College gave me an honorary degree. I have returned about this time nearly every year over the last fifteen years or so to watch, and to listen to, my publisher and editor friends who have received the award they most liked to receive in the field of journalism.
It is the highest rung on the ladder, because it salutes Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the first martyr of the free press in this country. We all know of his legendary integrity and bravery.
I wish brother Lovejoy were sitting at his newspaper desk today, for we need him like we never did before. The press in America is again under siege, even more pervasively than fourteen years ago when Spiro Agnew carried the torch against the media.
There have been times in this election season, when some of us felt our newspaper, not the candidate, was on the ballot. In Massachusetts, candidate Ray Shamie spent more time running against the Globe than against his real opponent.
Newsweek, three weeks ago, summed up this litany against the press. It said: “Like it or not, the news media are all in this together. The Westmoreland vs. CBS is at once … in the public mind … a trial of all the charges against the press in general: Too big, too insensitive, too biased, too negative, too distant, too intrusive, too arrogant, and most of all, too unaccountable.”
From my experience as an editor the past twenty-five years, I can add a few more stated criticisms of the press. We are too activist, too politically liberal, too crusading, too self-righteous and much too cynical, they say.
Spiro Agnew stepped up with his “nattering nabobs of negativism”. He pummeled away until his financial indiscretion forced him to quit as Vice President in 1973.
The press did not blink. It met the Nixon-Agnew criticism with brass knuckles, several dashes of arrogance and a pinch of self-righteousness. It was right to be tough, but not to be arrogant. The vigor was useful. We pushed forward, and, led by The Washington Post, Richard Nixon became the first President in United States history to resign under fire. Agnew went too far in his rhetorical binge, but we never examined ourselves thoughtfully enough to see if any of his criticism was valid.
We became too powerful, after Watergate. We shaped the nation’s conscience, first during the civil rights struggles of the ’60s, then in the anti-war protests of the late ’60s and early ’70s. We took on Nixon, and Agnew took on the media.
Right now we in the media business are in the same relative position occupied ten or fifteen years ago by top executives of the biggest oil companies, the biggest chemical firms, the auto makers, the smokestack industries, all the giants that had trouble with pollution and public policy. Like them, we are having trouble with the public.
The present anti-press wave was spawned by the extremists of the right wing. It really doesn’t matter where it came from. It does matter that we take a very critical look at what our critics are saying about the media. I do not think our response should be the same this time.
I want to talk tonight about what I think it should be. I know this.
We in the press are our own worst public relations problem. Too often our publishers, network executives and editors refuse to be interviewed when other news outlets rightfully request a comment or an explanation on a touchy subject.
We take refuge in ducking, the same path we scorn politicians for taking.
We like to claim that we are quasi-public utilities, in the sense that we deliver the news like others deliver the electricity or water or gas.
But, too often we just say, “we stand by our story”. That is not enough.
With CBS getting sued by General Westmoreland, with The Washington Post getting sued by the man from Mobil Oil Corp., with various politicians and political factions trying to undermine our credibility every day, we have to do better than that.
Let us take the charges against the press one by one:
We are too biased, too negative, too activist and too crusading, our critics say.
I say, if fighting rampant corruption in public places at the expense of taxpayers is all or part of the above, we should plead guilty.
If it is fighting to close down an unwinnable war in the South Pacific jungles; or campaigning on the editorial pages and writing many stories on the pros and cons of a state bottle bill to clean up filthy streets and highways; or highlighting extreme housing shortages in city neighborhoods; or fighting for a healthy state economy and excessive government spending; we stand accused.
If it is standing editorially behind a United States Federal Court order directing the integration of a segregated public school system to give minority students a fair deal – I personally plead guilty – and, if that constitutes an activist liberal bias, I am happy to walk the plank. Elijah Lovejoy did.
I could go on and on, on the kind of basic injustices most newspapers and television regularly target to prod corrective action. That is what the First Amendment is all about; why our founding fathers gave us the protection to help make an elected government work better for its people.
On the matter of basic fairness in society there must be no trimming of sails in the American press. Yet, we are seeing it everywhere, and this is a more serious trend than our public relations problem.
For instance, it is hard to imagine a New York Times-Washington Post vs. the Pentagon case ever being filed today, to say nothing of winning in the Supreme Court. Instead, we are witnessing just the opposite in the $500 million libel suit, the Westmoreland vs. CBS drama in a New York court room, with defeatist press running scared.
And, on the West Coast, the McClatchy newspapers are fighting a $200 million suit brought by U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt, President Reagan’s campaign manager and confidant. The papers had written a series of investigative articles on Senator Laxalt’s business relationship with several controversial friends in the Reno, Nevada, gambling world – a story also heavily reported in the respected Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the face of today’s savage and mean attitude toward the press, the chilling effect has indeed set in. For too many papers are playing it safe. The volume of serious, Lovejoy-caliber efforts to right wrongs is on the decline. I know this is true from serving on national press award panels. Yet, unlike the Nixon-Agnew days where we fought back fiercely for the right to protect the public, I fear too many in the media today are rolling over and playing dead.
When an institution is on the run, it usually is an invitation for others to pounce on it. This has happened to the press over the past few years. A brief look at the record:
The present administration has been more dedicated to the secrecy of its actions than to informing the public, or to allowing the press to perform its task.
Even in the conduct of a government’s most awesome responsibility, the conduct of war, the Reagan administration opted for secrecy in the invasion of Grenada. For the first time in American history, when troops of this country were committed to combat, the American press was barred.
Indeed not just barred, but American reporters were actually fired upon by American warships to prevent them from bringing first-hand and uncensored information to the American people.
The Reagan government said the press was barred for its own safety and for the safety of American troops. But the American press was at the Marne and Verdun, it was on the beaches on D Day at Normandy, Iwo Jima and Tarawa, at Inchon and in Da Nang and in the Mekong Delta.
In Grenada during the first few days, the only information the American people got was what came from the government, from those who planned and carried out the invasion. Americans died in this action and to this day doubt continues to exist on how some of them met their deaths. So much for sanitized, government-authorized information.
This administration also has sought to make it a criminal offense for people in government, who feel it’s the only way to reach the American public, by talking to a trusted reporter. It would impose a prison term upon these individuals who speak out, even as they seek anonymity for fear of retribution. The administration would mock the Freedom of Information Act by seeking curbs on the flow of information coming from government agencies. It’s incongruous in a democracy for the government to know more about its people than the people know about their government. Yet this pattern has been established. I fear that news from the White House will continue to be manipulated and distorted as in a Hollywood script.
For the sake of the survival of our open government, as ordained by our remarkable constitution no less, we must re-concern ourselves with justice, full throttle ahead.
We must serve up more hard news, not less. We must do more investigative work, not less. Even in today’s climate, the recent opinion polls tell us a majority – not an overwhelming one – say they want us and need US. And, always we must balance the right of free expression with the public’s right of privacy.
So, let us not flag in our mission to inform and to protect ourselves from public and private excesses.
Now, for the other side of the coin. I am not an all-out press apologist, and never have been. I know the press in general has bad breath. We must deal with it. That is my chief concern these days. I want to suggest some specifics on how I believe we should deal with our social problem.
The operative words in my prescription are “openness”, “tone”, and “restraint”. Let’s take our alleged ailments, one at a time.
Accountability: Too many perceive the press as a snobbish institution, which airily sticks its nose in everybody’s business, but won’t answer candidly questions about its own peculiar ways. We all run a closed shop pretty much in regard to how we gather news, why we gather it and how we process it, on the blanket grounds of the First Amendment. So our critics are generally correct about our lack of accountability to the public.
The press traditionally has criticized businessmen for their aloofness and hostility toward the press. I’d level the same charge at editors and publishers. If we explain ourselves better in a continuing way, I know we would dispel much of the distrust of us. How to do it?
For starters, news executives should answer queries from the outside press. I confess I’ve been a prime offender through the years. Metropolitan newspapers and television all should have a regular media reporter who covers trends and controversies., who analyzes constantly the performance of newspapers, including his or her own paper. About twenty newspapers today have ombudsmen whose primary function is to be the readers’ agent or friend. They take readers’ complaints. They write periodic columns on the opinion page explaining their paper’s handling of a controversy. Though there is division in the trade of their effectiveness, I support them. But this is not enough. We need a reporter specialist on the media, just as we have experts on science, medicine, education or arms control.
Still under the heading of accountability, the media needs a much better and different kind of promotion of itself. Most news promotion today still shouts from the roof tops of the great up-coming exclusive: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it.” We try too hard to titillate the public about hot news, rather than promote and explain our own institution and mission. we should introduce and expose our writers to the readers. Why shouldn’t the public know the background, qualifications and interests of the folks who write the stories? Most writers on most newspapers are hidden behind cold masks of anonymity. Readers are just as curious as reporters are. And, what’s wrong with running once a year the names, faces and backgrounds of the writers of those unsigned editorials, which tell us what we are supposed to think on every conceivable issue every day? It just might help if we started putting seasoned editors in news promotion rather than advertising whizzes, which is the norm today.
We suffer, too, from lack of serious daily press criticism from the outside. Oh, we have plenty of second guesses, who dabble in personality chit-chat and newsroom power politics. I can think of only five or six bonafide press critics in the entire industry. They include: David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, Eleanor Randolph of The Washington Post, Tom Collins of Newsday, Geoffrey Stokes of The Village Voice, and Alexander Cockburn of The Nation. All do substantial criticism. That’s about it. An institution whose daily business is to challenge others needs more thoughtful outside help.
A final thought on accountability: More newspapers should follow the lead of the Wall Street Journal. Every year, its Chief Executive Officer, Warren Phillips, gives a full page report to its readers on the editorial highs and lows of the year; its goals and aspirations. It’s the newspaper’s stockholders report to its readers. David Broder’s tally sheet on his hits and misses of the year is another attractive example.
We shall continue to be castigated unless we figure out ways to get our side of the story out. The public does not understand the press, in part because the press does such a lousy job of covering itself.
Let us open our doors and let the fresh air pour in. Let us start to come clean with the public. Communications is a two-way street.
The press is too negative, our critics say: This is perhaps the most complicated charge facing the media. I come down on both sides of this constant criticism. For many it is a code word which translated means that the press spends too much time challenging the status .quo. It is too anti-business or it does too much investigative reporting. I understand but reject that interpretation. The press is too negative for its own good, but for different reasons.
The chief reason, I guess is a practical one: I really think an overabundance of negative news does affect the sale of newspapers. People like a little change of pace, a touch of hope, a little compassion, with their coffee. If people don’t enjoy the paper, they won’t buy it.
I am thinking of many, many people including my thoughtful wife, who simply does not find it a barrel of laughs to have a kaleidoscope of horror stories thrust under her nose every morning at the breakfast table. It turns her off so strongly she sometimes refuses some days to read the front page. The daily fix of disaster unlimited is, I am convinced, too depressing for many. We must ease up on the drumbeat. There are intellectual and honorable ways of doing it.
Is the cure more “good” news stories? No! Not as such. I do not subscribe to forcing “good” news stories on the front page at the expense of distorting the news of the day. Sometimes it just can’t be done. The “good” news must earn its place of prominence through its sheer human interest value. Most days there is room for a regular off-the-news feature such as The Globe‘s “In This Corner” and the Wall Street Journal‘s similar page one feature. They are always read.
Legitimate, positive news comes in many forms: Good news can be about a small business success. For instance, did you know that Inc Magazine today is the single fastest growing publication in the country, and it consists almost entirely of cottage industry success stories?
Good news can be a useful consumer story — positive information important to everyone feeling the pinch. I sometimes wonder why the media have such difficulty producing strong consumer coverage.
Good news can be an adventure story — new discoveries and ventures are the most untapped source of general interest in daily journalism. I wish city editors would make the search for good adventure yearns a permanent assignment.
Architectural critiques of new local landmarks or a significant sports yarn or an exceptionally beautifully written story about almost anything are the kinds of “good” news stories I would like to see on more front pages. How often do you hear readers rave about great writing in their papers? How often do we reward rich prose by prominent display? Too seldom, I fear.
Yes, we are too unrelenting on the grim news. There are creative ways of making breakfast reading more palatable. Certainly newspapers must reflect the real world, not a make believe world seen through rose colored glasses. But there are ways of making newspapers more fun without distorting the news or giving away any seriousness of purpose or intellectual integrity.
And, that other charge – Papers are too arrogant:
I agree with this most frequent of all complaints about the press. The word “arrogance”, like “negativism” also is a code word used by people who are upset by sensitive stories. The word has an unpleasant edge and press critics mean it to hurt. (Webster’s definition of arrogance is “unwarranted claims to superior importance, haughty or overbearing.”) There is not an honest editor in America who will not plead guilty to too many streaks of arrogance slipping into his or her columns, news stories and editorials. And, there are other comments we have been hearing too often recently – “That was a snide piece today” or “You guys in the press are too big for your britches” or “You think you’re so smart”. Sometimes these expresses are thrown at the press by someone who was tagged out in a newspaper news story. Often, though, the complaints are legitimate. One example is the use of anonymous quotes to bring out a negative side of a person in a profile. This practice should be banned when dealing with people. But the anonymous quote, doubly confirmed, often is necessary in major investigative stories.
For myself, a deliberate display of arrogance should be a fireable offense. I feel that strongly about it.
The mainstream print press has no reason to take all the blame for its low Hooper ratings. I would argue that the new blood and guts, circus journalism television have played a far greater role in turning the public against the press. When television is great – as in the presidential debates – nothing can touch it as a beneficial force in a democracy. More often over recent years it has almost eliminated serious discussion of serious issues.
Television too often legitimizes superficiality.
Television too often fosters conflicts for conflicts sake.
Television too often gives the one-liner more importance to a politician’s success than knowledge of star wars technology.
Television has elevated reporters to star status. It has made the Washington press corps a shouting support cast of characters on prime time. Yes, television has taught reporters to strut.
And I know television has done more to shatter the right of privacy than any other single force.
By its very nature, television has raised the arrogance factor higher than the Hearst police reporter of the ’30s ever did.
I conclude: we cannot compromise on covering the news but we must have restraint. We won the assignment from the constitution to protect and to improve the well-being of all, more skillfully and precisely than ever before. But we will lose everything unless we take to heart the public’s complaints about our tone of arrogance, negativism, snideness and Daddy-knows-best.
We can clean up our act, and do it fast, with some stiff editing and an active black pencil.
The partner of any democracy is a free press.
But, the American press needs right now a semester at charm school.
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