I am highly pleased and honored to be here this evening to accept the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. I am complimented to have been selected for this prestigious recognition, to join the company of former distinguished recipients, and to be a guest of beautiful and famed Colby College. I come from another university town where the name “Colby College” is held in highest esteem.
Your confidence in me and in the news staff with whom I work, is deeply appreciated. I am surprised with your recognition, I am grateful, and I will make an earnest effort in the future to try and live up to the guidelines of the award. Thank you, very much.
Before presenting my talk, I would like to report the reactions of my secretary who typed the manuscript, and the response of an esteemed friend whom I asked to read the copy.
My secretary, understandably, was not too critical, but she made the observation that the talk might seem more suitable to a newspaper-oriented group rather than for a general college audience. The other reader commented that he wondered if my treatment of the subject was more in the style of “shop talk” instead of a discussion for lay people.
These probably are two valid observations but I was not deterred as I think it is desirable for those who read newspapers to have a better understanding of our major problems. We should not confine discussion of these problems solely to press meetings because we need the understanding and cooperation from the reading public if we are to attain worthy goals.
If I engage in too much “shop talk,” please excuse me; my only purpose is to try to give you a better understanding of what I think is the effective role of the press in today’s society.
I would like to begin my formal remarks by reading a statement which was made in Kansas City last August 29th at a small discussion meeting I attended:
“The business of newspapers is not reportage, the business of newspapers is selling girdles and heads of lettuce. The guy that is making the decision as to what is to appear where, and in what emphasis, is in the business of selling girdles, not in selling truth.” This appraisal of the American press was made by a man who is well educated and well traveled; supposedly a bright, intelligent and alert scientist-engineer-researcher. He currently is being paid a rather handsome salary in his government job in Washington.
If a man of such supposed intellect and good judgment, and in a position to influence others, is so confused in his thoughts and generalizations about the American press, it is no wonder the press finds itself in trouble today with public acceptability and the target of many attacks.
I said to the critical gentleman I was shocked by his statements and that I disagreed 100 percent. I must admit, however, that many people probably agree with him to some extent. The more than 1,700 daily newspapers in the United States obviously do not have the confidence and respect of former years. A steady expression of criticism, and poor performance of too many writers and editors have taken their toll.
It is this criticism, some of which is sound and other which is largely diversionary, unfair or retaliatory that prompts me to ask this question: “What is the role of the daily newspaper in the United States?” Is it to sell girdles, heads of lettuce, automobiles, vacation plans, air travel packages, grass seed, snowmobiles and air conditioners, or, is it to report what is going on in the community, state, nation and the world, to the best ability of each individual newspaper?
I am convinced the primary role and responsibility of the American press is to report what is going on as honestly and as accurately as possible; to inform the public of the good, the bad, the interesting as well as the not too interesting, and, by doing so, to play a definite and constructive role in bringing about a better informed and more alert, interested citizenry.
I am a firm believer that if an editor or publisher strives to put out as complete a news product as he can, advertising and circulation support probably will follow–but if an individual gets into this business for the primary purpose of espousing a specific political philosophy, being vindictive or abusive, or structuring his publication primarily as an advertising service, he will not have proper readership or business success. He might as well be printing pamphlets or handbills.
It is my earnest belief the great majority of daily newspapers in the U.S. are dedicated to reporting the truth. Because of human inadequacies and financial limitations, they may not accomplish all that they want to do, but I believe practically every editor wants to e represented as an honest and truthful newsman, rather than as an advertising salesman.
If this is the case, why is it that the press so often now finds itself in a defensive position? Why does the American press have so many critics? Current charges about the press include bias, lack of believability, lack of objectivity, pro-establishment, and that the editorial position of a newspaper determines and influences news policy.
We seem to be hearing these charges more often in recent months. We cannot take them lightly, and if we are to gain added respect, we must do all we can to eliminate grounds for such charges.
A prominent United States Senator told me last month he considers the general attitude of his fellow congressmen toward the press to be more hostile now than at any time in his memory, and he expects it to become worse. This same attitude probably is prevalent in many city halls, state houses, school offices, hospitals and other public offices throughout the country.
A big part of the problem is that people in public life resent anyone poking into their affairs. A good newspaper must have reporters who will delve into affairs of public bodies and tax supported organizations. The poor performance and dishonesty of some public officials would be magnified ten times over if we did not have alert, investigative reporters, but officials who brush up against such reporters are usually loudest in criticism of the press. If the press is to continue to play a meaningful role, newspaper men and women must conduct themselves in a manner which will merit the respect and confidence of the public they serve. This applies to the believability of our writing by school-age children, adults, public office holders, school teachers, college presidents, business leaders, members of minority groups, labor officials, Supreme Court justices, Pentagon officials, the poor, the rich, the black and the white.
The country needs and depends upon a strong, viable free press–a press that merits the public’s respect. We should never forget that one of the first actions of any would-be dictator is to silence or hobble the news media.
A weak, poorly managed and financially struggling press, a press doing a poor, ineffective job and one which encourages increased government regulations is shortchanging the business itself, the public and the country.
Unfortunately, we have too many instances where reporters are not being as honest and factual as they should be. They allow personal bias to enter their stories and, some lazy or uninspired editors are lax in not exercising a proper degree of leadership and direction. Carelessness is far too prevalent.
I am afraid that in some cases, editors have almost lost control of their newspapers’ news presentation and content. I do not believe in allowing reporters to determine how stories should be played, which stories are important and what the editorial policy of the newspaper should be. I realize the importance of reporters and editors visiting about how news reports should be handled, but the editor must have the final authority.
There needs to be strong and honorable leadership and direction from editorial management. Control by a committee is not good. One strong news executive can be much more effective than having day to day news and editorial policies determined by a mediocre board of directors which might give primary consideration to reader and advertiser reaction rather than to the most accurate and objective way to present the news.
In cases where a newspaper is not reporting as honestly and factually as possible, and where there is lack of leadership, the public has a right to complain about the performance of the press, and it behooves management to shape up, or lose the reader support and confidence which is essential to any successful operation.
When an individual sees shabby performance by his hometown newspaper day after day, it is natural to assume the same situation exists in other communities. Consequently, when he reads about complaints of the press, he is likely to think, “based on what I know about our paper, I suppose these complaints about the press in general are justified and factual.”
Newspaper editors and publishers have the responsibility and obligation to demand accuracy and honesty in all reporting. A newspaper cannot be treated as a toy or plaything by a publisher or the owner. A newspaper, to give proper service, should be sound financially so that it does not have distracting worries about meeting payrolls, paying good salaries or buying modern equipment. It must not be afraid to speak out editorially on matters which might run counter to major advertisers, mortgage holders, or powerful individuals within a community.
I am deeply concerned about too many instances of editorializing in so-called straight news stories. The writer who makes little or no attempt to hide his own likes and dislikes and tries to pass his biased story off to readers as being an objective, honest and balanced price of writing is a disgrace to our business. Editors need to crack down in such instances rather than to turn their heads.
I believe in a strong, vigorous and courageous editorial policy but the editorial page, or the opinion page, is the place to express personal opinions-not in an area where the reader expects to find an unbiased factual report.
“Freedom of the press” and “freedom of information” are phrases being tossed around so loosely and carelessly and in such a generalized manner these days that they have lost a great deal of their meaning and importance. Too many writers are using these “rights” to justify shoddy performances and as a crutch.
Freedom of the press does not mean merely the freedom or right of a reporter to be privy to secret and confidential information. It is the freedom and the right of the public, through the press, to know what is happening. Freedom of the press means much more to the general public than it does to any individual reporter or editor.
An alert, free press calls for honest and complete reporting of school boards, county governmental bodies, city commissions, state supported boards of regents, the White House, Pentagon, hospital boards and other public bodies.
The general public should be concerned about this freedom and the right-to-know, and citizens should be indignant over any attempts to curb responsible freedom of expression. The public too often may think the press deserves to be rapped and “put in its place,” when actually the public suffers most whenever freedoms are curbed.
Perhaps the individual with the government job whom I mentioned at the outset, who said the primary purpose and role of the press is to sell heads of lettuce, is hopeful he can get an increasing number of persons to believe this generalization in order to discredit newspapers. Perhaps many of those holding public office, who do not want reporters asking embarrassing or penetrating questions, would like nothing better than to have the public continue to lose confidence and respect for the media. Some of these individuals undoubtedly have a definite, selfish purpose in trying to discredit the press and slow the flow of information to the public.
People should not lull themselves into thinking government censorship could not happen in the U.S. History has shown it can happen in any country where the public doesn’t care and the press does not measure up in its performance. More often it comes as creeping paralysis rather than from an abrupt edict.
The Nixon administration apparently is opposed to free dissemination of news, insofar as it crosses with administration plans and policy, and it has harassed and contributed to undermining the credibility of the press. White House Press conferences have almost been eliminated, secrecy and threats prevail, and numerous Washington correspondents are aware of an increased effort to manage government news. Recently I asked the editor of one of the nation’s best-known newspapers what he thought was the biggest problem facing our business today and he replied with firmness, “It is obvious to me that not enough editors and publishers are sufficiently concerned about the inroads and infringements of the Nixon administration on freedom of the press.”
Last week I asked one of the nation’s most experienced and capable newsmen if he agreed with this statement and he said, “I concur, there is no doubt about it. And, there are likely to be more inroads in the future.
“The credibility of our business is the number one problem we face today and the present administration, because it is Republican, has thought they could get by with attempts to discredit the press easier and with less fuss than a Democratic administration might be able to do.
“There are attacks on the media by the government, demands to see copy and many other harassments. This isn’t too different than it has been in the past, however, it is just becoming more frequent and it is likely to get worse. This is big government and bureaucracy.
“We are the carriers of news, we report controversial issues and we will continue to have our credibility challenged.”
Those who are addicted to criticizing newspapers should be mindful that a free press is the one principal guarantee for democracy and freedom of information. Residents of Chile, South Korea and Philippines recently have learned how quickly criticism of government can be silenced by censorship.
Those in the newspaper business probably can prevent such a news blackout more effectively than anyone else. Editors must exercise a proper degree of control over their editorial staff, demanding honest reporting; and, publishers must be willing to provide the money to attract top flight men and women into the newsrooms across the country.
Our primary effort at this time should be centered on the people we have in our newsrooms, the people writing news reports and headlines, those who edit news copy, who make assignments, deciding what wire copy to use and making up the paper day after day.
We need to check the intellectual honesty and integrity of these people, and to determine if they are properly prepared and skilled.
Are they dedicated to telling the truth? Are they coming into our newsrooms with realization of the importance of being factual and honest? Do they realize news is not something to be played with?
Have these men and women been sufficiently indoctrinated in journalism schools on the importance of accuracy? I fear in too many cases those working on school papers, whether at the high school or college level, are allowed to play with the news, distort it however they wish, and get by with this kind of performance on the excuse “it really doesn’t matter on a school paper.”
Accuracy matters everywhere, and young reporters should learn about responsibility, honesty and factual reporting from the very beginning.
It also is important to employ top-flight teachers in journalism classes, particularly at the high school level. It is better to have no course in journalism, than to have a poor teacher. Those teaching in our colleges usually are skilled and well educated in the field, but too often, those at the high school level are individuals with little if any practical experience in journalism, and quite often they have been given the job of “high school journalism teacher” as a left-over assignment.
They are not trained, they do not have any experience, and they certainly do not do justice to the course of the students. In some cases I know of, such teachers are a detriment rather than a help in proper training.
Employees coming into our newsrooms must be dedicated to reporting the truth. If they cannot measure up to this responsibility, they should be replaced without delay.
New technical advances are providing better presses, better photography and reproduction, computerized type setting, optical scanners and fantastic news transmission facilities. Some news stories now are sent from New York to Los Angeles at a rate of more than 2,000 words a minute.
While all of these mechanical advances are of benefit the survival of our business will depend upon the quality and ability of our writers and editors. The human element is of prime importance.
I am selfish for the newspaper business. I think it is a most rewarding and satisfying occupation.
The sky is the limit for young men and women who are highly motivated, interested in working hard and who would hope to leave their community in somewhat better condition than it was when they came upon the journalistic scene. We need more bright, alert, enthusiastic young men and women if we are to meet our potential and our obligation.
To me, the primary role of the newspaper business is to inform, enlighten, stimulate a desire for improvement, and to help bring about constructive changes in our society through a well-informed and interesting citizenry.
Perhaps newspaper men should think more often about the role of the newspaper. Perhaps we need to do more frequent soul-searching about our goals and our performance. If we in the business have fuzzy thoughts about our role, how can we expect the lay person to understand what we are trying to accomplish? We need to speak out more frequently about our purposes and goals, and to remind the reading public that we do not generate or manufacture news; we have the primary obligation to report it – honestly, clearly, fairly, completely and decently.
We can do all this, we can do a better job than we have been doing in the past, and we can achieve an enviable record of performance IF we set our sights high, maintain worthy standards and expect top performance from our reporters and editors.
Please understand — I am proud of the role of the American newspaper in the present scheme of things but, I want it to be better. For, if it is better, life in general in the United States should be better.
We can succeed only if we have superior, well educated people to gather the news and prepare factual reports. Our schools and colleges which rely on the guarantee of freedom of expression, must help in stimulating and guiding bright young people into the field of news communications. A good reporter must have the broad knowledge and understanding that can come from skilled teaching and with use of the many tools of higher education.
In closing, may I make this observation:
We should not expect our readers to love us, but by good performance we can force them to respect us.
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