Elijah Lovejoy fought battles for two fundamental causes for which we remember him: freedom of the press and civil rights for all people. Those two causes still need champions today. Let me discuss each briefly.
The threat to freedom of the press comes not from a government that threatens to close newspapers. It does not come from someone like Illinois Attorney General Usher Linder who told Lovejoy he could escape with his life if he just quit printing views that were rejected by the majority of people in the Alton community.
The threats to freedom of the press are more subtle and more sophisticated. And dealing with them is not as easy and requires less courage than was demanded of Lovejoy.
For the press to be free today requires not only restraint from the long arm of government in telling newspapers and magazines what they can publish and what they cannot publish; it also requires that government be open in its dealings with the public and the press, except in those rare cases where national security requires secrecy. The comfortable, lazy, indefensible habit of classifying material to keep it from the public simply because it may be embarrassing to officialdom should stop.
If I am elected as your president I will make mistakes. I shall strive to make few. But those I make you should know about. A much greater error than making mistakes is trying to cover then up–and we have had far too much of that under administrations in both political parties.
You also need access, to public officials as well as to their documents. I pledge to have a press conference at least every two weeks, and to have a town meeting somewhere in the nation at least once a month where not only reporters but farmers and nurses, housewives and hotel managers, bus drivers and business people can have access to their president. I will not be able to answer every question, and when I do not know I shall tell you. But these regular meetings between the president and the people help keep the public informed about the problems the president faces and equally important keep the President informed on the needs and wants of the people.
Freedom of the press is not only threatened by government. It is also threatened today by greater and greater concentration of ownership. I do not know the answer for this. But with more and more newspapers operated with the bottom financial line as the main aim rather than the public good, the service rendered by a press that is in danger of being less free, less responsive, and more subservient is a cause of concern.
I am also concerned that we sometimes cover the trivial with much greater stress than the substantial.
While in the state legislature in Illinois I received a phone call from a man whom I held in the greatest of reverence: Senator Paul Douglas. He asked me to introduce a bill to call upon him to introduce a resolution in the United States Senate to make the corn tassle the national flower. I told him I would do it. But all day it bothered me as a green, young legislator, and that night I called him and asked, “Paul, are you sure you want me to introduce a resolution to make the corn tassle the national flower?” He laughed and then the old professor came out in him. He told me, “You must remember this, Paul. The substantial things you do in politics get very little coverage. The insubstantial things you do sometimes get great coverage. You introduce your resolution and I will introduce it at the federal level. it will make every newspaper in the state. No one will be angry with us. And the resolution will never carry. But essential to survival in politics is getting some publicity.”
It happened exactly as he told me. And I learned something about both politics and journalism in the process.
I am also concerned that we are coming dangerously close to trivializing the presidential campaigns. You have to ask enough questions to be able to answer a basic question, “can I trust Paul Simon?” But do not expect sainthood from any of us. And do not conduct your inquiries in such a way that people who in the future consider the possibility of public service will decide that because twenty years ago they may have committed some indiscretion that public life is forever removed as a possibility.
The fact that Pat Robertson’s son’s birth date happened to come within weeks of his parents’ wedding date seems to me much less significant and deserving of attention than what the candidates are saying about the future of a child born today. Yet the former receives far more ink and attention than the latter.
Lovejoy fought for a free press. Let us join in that battle. Lovejoy also fought for a more sensitive and just society. Let us also join in that battle, not with pious phrases that applaud the victories for justice of yesterday, but with your editorials and stories that pursue greater justice in the future.
The struggle for civil rights today involves three stands which I believe Lovejoy would have supported:
First, equal opportunity in our society will be virtually impossible to achieve so long as we deny much of urban America and some of rural America a chance for a quality education. In the City of Chicago, for example, the dropout rate for Hispanics is 46%, for blacks 44%, for whites 34%, for Asian-Americans 46%. The dropout rate in Louisiana, which I visited earlier this week, is 46.8%. The average high school dropout makes 44% less than the average person who completes high school. And when you couple those statistics with the fact that today 18% of the nation’s work force is made up of minorities today and by the end of the century it will be 29%, we will begin to realize that not only are we depriving minorities and others of a chance for a good educational base for a productive life, we are also depriving this nation of the chance for moving ahead and becoming more competitive.
Education is also the key to jobs, the absolute essential ingredient to a sense of self-worth. As Lovejoy fought for a better chance for blacks in slavery in the 1830’s, so we should fight for opening the door of opportunity for the less fortunate of our generation.
Those who are deigned full opportunity today are not only minorities, but the majority: women.
I do not need to remind this audience of the statistics. You know them. We are making progress, but the trite phrase holds the truth: much remains to be done. And it should be done, with the news media of the nation joining public leaders in mounting change.
Finally, South Africa represents the closest thing to old-fashioned slavery that exists in our world today. Change will come to South Africa. The only question is whether it will come peacefully or through unbelievable violence. This nation should stand on the side of peaceful change–and that is what we claim we are doing–but we are regarded around the world as siding with the dominant white faction that governs that nation.
We should be standing firmly against apartheid–in the United Nations, in Angola, in the other front-line states, and before the court of world opinion. We do not stand for the ideals of our nation when we “play footsie” with forces of repression. The lesson of history is clear. Change will come to South Africa. The only question is whether it will come peacefully or whether to attain some dignity and honor thousands–perhaps millions–must die first before change comes.
I want our nation to be a catalyst for peaceful change and for justice.
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