Clark R. Mollenhoff

Owners and Publishers, The Mountain Eagle

1959 Convocation Address

On the surface it would appear there are few threats to the free press today. Those who are critical of governmental officials or of the great institutions of our nation do not have their presses smashed, nor are they likely to be subjected to the continuous personal harassment that resulted in the death of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. Today there is the tendency in America to take our freedoms for granted. We assume that freedom of the press is so well established that it will always be with us. Our daily newspapers are filled with columns of print exposing wrong doing, and criticizing the mistakes of judgment by our public officials, our labor leaders, our television performers and television executives. Many newspapers pride themselves on finding room for all points of view, and have demonstrated it by carrying columnists who are as far apart as the conservative David Lawrence and such a liberal as Marquis Childs.

Today there is the tendency in America to take our freedoms for granted.

Members of the public and many newspapermen are inclined to accept the idea that the American people are so steeped in the traditions of a free press and its part in a democracy that no public official would dare to attack our idealistic concept of an uncensored and independent press. There is the view that Americans, born and reared in this tradition, would rise in fury to strike down the government officials who would seek to control or suppress the nation’s newspapers. We often hear it said that Americans, reared in an atmosphere of freedom, would not put up with the encroachments on liberty that have been forced on people behind the Iron Curtain. We are told that they would not put up with the kind of conditions that have stifled many freedoms in our own hemisphere.

It seems to me that this philosophy of the indomitable American presupposes that Americans are somehow braver, stronger, wiser and more valiant than people living in other parts of the world. I would think that the present stage in the space race would teach us that Americans have no monopoly on wisdom, enterprise, strength, or know-how. For years we kidded ourselves into thinking, simply because we are Americans, with many advantages over the Russians, that we were guaranteed a long lead in the fields of nuclear weapons, aircraft, and space exploration. In recent years we have seen our lead dwindle and vanish while many of our leading scientists have complained that nonsensical security on many matters interfered with our scientific progress.

Now, many realists are willing to admit that we Americans have no guaranteed superiority in scientific areas. We have been forced to learn the hard way that the rate of accomplishment in scientific areas is tied pretty closely to our willingness to work, to study and make sacrifices.

There is little in our lazy, well-fed, luxury-loving attitudes of the present to make me believe that any great number of Americans have awakened to the recognition that we are not a super race. There is little to indicate that any large segment of the American people recognize that we must work and study to recognize when there are encroachments on our freedoms, or risk seeing these freedoms go down the drain as has our lead in the scientific field.

My concern today is over the apathy that exists toward serious encroachments on the right of access to information. It is an apathy that covers not only the general public but a good many representatives of the press. This lack of concern is either the result of a lack of knowledge of what a free press means to a democracy, lack of enough interest to dig in and learn where some arbitrary governmental secrecy policies can take us, or lack of guts to speak out.

It is time that more Americans recognize that we are no brighter, stronger, or more courageous than many people who have been crushed by totalitarian governments. We are only luckier–luckier because we are fortunate enough to be living in a free nation.

We are fortunate that the slogans of a free press are deeply enough rooted in our history that few American political figures would take the risk of any direct attack on the institution of the free press. I have no doubt that a direct attack on the free press would result in a loud outcry from the press itself, and from a few citizens. There is a recognition of the possibility of political repercussions from a direct assault on the press, and public officials are almost unanimous in giving at least lip service to the concept of an uncensored press. But, many of these same public officials find indirect ways to control the information available to the press.

They also find subtle ways to influence or coerce reporters or columnists who are too aggressive and too critical.

What are the subtle methods used to influence the press?

There are the smooth public relations operators who are helpful to the point where some newsmen lean on them too much, and forget how to do their own digging and thinking.

It is time that more Americans recognize that we are no brighter, stronger, or more courageous than many people who have been crushed by totalitarian governments.

There is the misuse of security classifications-top secret, secret and confidential-to withhold information that should not be classified. This is a particularly effective means for officials in the Pentagon to cover up mistakes as well as improprieties. This overclassification is expensive from a standpoint of the extra cost to the government where there is misuse of government property or the rigging of government contracts.

There are efforts to give the impression that material is being withheld for security reasons, when it is actually being withheld for political purposes. There is the practice of officials being unavailable or slow in responding to calls from reporters who are regarded as critical of the administration in power.

There is the practice of granting special interviews or other privileges (such as invitations to the White House dinners) to reporters who are regarded as basically friendly.

Most important, there are the efforts to hide arbitrarily the records of executive agencies on grounds that some vague “national interest” unconnected with security is involved in refusing to divulge “confidential executive communications.”

We of the press must accept the fact that an aggressive press will always be faced with some obstructions or harassment. Regardless of which political party is in power, there will always be some men in the administration who will adopt the attitude that public business is not the public’s business.

I would like to emphasis at this point that I do not believe the press is entitled to any special access to information. We should be entitled to the same access that every citizen should have in a democracy if the citizen is to inform himself on how officials are handling his government.

I would also like to warn that the freedom of the press and the rights of citizens in a democracy are not an issue when a woman columnist refuses to tell a court the source of her hearsay information on the temperament or excessive weight of a movie and television actress. Gossip columns, comics and a good many other features in our newspapers are mainly froth to attract readers, and have little connection with the real purpose of a free press — the informing of the public on the conduct of government and on other matters that are vital to the general welfare.

Labor organizations operate under the privileges of special laws. The steel industry is a basic industry, tied to our national defense and to the public welfare. Television channels operate on government licenses, and represent a powerful force in moulding public opinion. These are areas in which the press and the public have an interest second only to the conduct of public affairs by government officials.

Government secrecy represents our major reason for concern today.

A few of these secrecy-minded officials are malicious and tyrannical despots with no real concept of the responsibility to the public that is inherent in the operation of a true democracy. Such figures can grow even in a democracy. But, I would say that a majority of those who erect secrecy barriers are well-meaning, but misguided and shortsighted.

These secrecy fanatics include men who believe a near totalitarian type of censorship is needed to protect U.S. secrets from the Kremlin. Read the testimony before the congressional committees and you will see who they are. There are other secrecy fiends who rationalize the hiding of matters that have no connection with military secrecy on grounds that information released by the government will be slanted or twisted by political enemies. They rationalize their own slanting of government press releases on grounds it is really “in the national interest.”

There is also the secrecy group that argues that secret discussions of governmental problems result in greater efficiency, and more frank discussions of different viewpoints.

Each of these groups overlooks the long documented record of how secrecy has been used to cover up corruption in government. They disregard the basic right of the public to know the arguments involved in a decision to award contracts or dispense other rights, unless some real military security problem is involved.

There are some reporters and editors who will tell you that there is no real problem in obtaining information in Washington.

It may be true that some reporters and editors have run into no secrecy barriers. There is no problem of obtaining information that is favorable to an administration that is in power. There is usually no problem of obtaining access even to the busiest individuals if they are reasonably sure they are to be the subject of articles puffing their importance.

The problem of access to information arises when officials know (or suspect) that the inquiring reporter may unearth facts that are not wholly complimentary to the administration, or when the reporter is known to have been critical of the administration.

Point out the newsman who says he has no trouble obtaining information, and it is likely the subject will fit one of these patterns:

1. A reporter or editor who has been largely a patsy for the administration.
2. A reporter or editor who lacks either the imagination or the energy to go behind the self-serving declarations of agency press releases.

Government secrecy represents our major reason for concern today.

Reporters who are considered “friends” of the administration in power may have a few exclusive stories dropped in their laps in return for understanding and uncritical treatment.

By contrast, there are often efforts at retaliation against those who are critical of the administration in power. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went so far as to summon Lyle Wilson, United Press Bureau chief, to the White House in a direct effort to kill a story. Roosevelt also threatened reprisal against the United Press if Wilson did not give in to his demands, but Wilson refused. Occasionally, presidents since then have been equally blunt.

But, it is seldom that a president will take such direct action as to summon a reporter or editor to the White House. More common are the subtle efforts of lesser officials to interfere with the reporter, to ridicule or undermine his work, to erect barriers that interfere with him on even routine assignments. The New York Times occupies a unique position that makes its reporters less susceptible to the pressures of federal officials than other newspapers. It is a paper read in Washington and in the embassies all over the world. It has a voice that is loud as well as respected and feared by official Washington. Yet, some reporters for this mighty newspaper find themselves subjected to subtle pressures when they are critical of the administration. Bureau Chief James Reston has been highly critical of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy, and its conduct of other matters. Although Reston was highly critical of the foreign policy of the late John Foster Dulles, the New York Times Bureau chief praises Dulles for “never taking any step to cut off my sources of information.”

However, there were others in the administration who were not so understanding of the role of a critical press in a democracy. Reston’s critical comments were met with hostility in some quarters, and with subtle harassment by officials who were unavailable for interviews and dilatory or unavailable on telephone calls.

Columnist Walter Lippmann, speaking from the experience of his 70 years, commented before the National Press Club this fall on the tendency of government “insiders” to ridicule criticism from outside government as coming from ignoramuses — persons who don’t have access to the conferences and secret files of the government.

Lippmann declares that formidable as this criticism is, he has no trouble getting the better of it:

“I tell the critic, you be careful. You will be denouncing the principle of democracy itself, which asserts that the outsiders shall be sovereign over the insiders. For you will be showing that the people themselves, since they are ignoramuses because they are outsiders, are therefore incapable of governing themselves.”

Furthermore, Lippmann declared that as far as the affairs of the world are concerned, those who regard themselves as insiders are actually outsiders since none of them read all of the U.S. papers and they have no access to the records of foreign governments that are equally important if one is to have the total wisdom the insiders indicate they have.

Columnists Drew Pearson and Joseph Alsop report that when they were critical of government policies and personalities, they found themselves subjected to investigations by agents of the F.B.I. and other government bureaus. They contended that no breach of security was involved but that they were subjected to probes to dry up their sources of information.

On the local level, the Arkansas Gazette found itself the target of the barbs of Governor Orval Faubus for aggressive opposition to Faubus on the explosive issue of the Little Rock schools. Despite the fact that the paper found its circulation cut and its advertising revenue off sharply, the publisher and editor stuck with their position to win an expensive victory.

Executive editor Harry Ashmore left the Gazette this fall. He had won his battle, but he was aware that the bitterness of the integration fight had left scars that would remain as long as he directed the editorial policy of the newspaper.

Wallace Turner and William Lambert, reporters for the Portland Oregonian, tackled the corruption in local politics and the mighty Teamsters Union. They found themselves and their newspaper subject to immediate attacks and a series of libel actions that might have terrorized a less courageous editorial department.

Vance Trimble, reporter for the Scripps-Howard syndicate, had no more than started his series on the nepotism on Congressional payrolls when he was subjected to vicious attacks from Congress. Fortunately, many newspaper groups rallied behind Trimble’s effort, and an atmosphere was created that forced many members of Congress to drop relatives from the payroll or to cut their salaries. The impact of public opinion also forced the Senate to adopt new rules opening Senate office payrolls for public inspection.

As head of Sigma Delta Chi Freedom of Information Committee, V. M. (Red) Newton, managing editor of the Tampa Tribune, lashed out at the secrecy that covered ending of counterpart funds. He was immediately subjected to a personal attack by members of the House Administration Committee. That crusade to open these spending records has been unsuccessful so far, but Newton and others are still pushing for open records on this Congressional spending.

The term “managing the news” was used by James B. Reston in explaining to the Moss subcommittee his complaint about government information practices. Reston, whose work has been largely in the foreign affairs field, was objecting to the practice of releasing selective facts to present the favorable picture the administration wanted to get across to the public. He complained that barriers were erected to block those who sought further facts that were inconsistent with the picture presented in the “managed news.” In the foreign affairs field and in some other areas, the “managing of the news” can be accomplished by misusing security classifications to cover part of the facts. In fields where national security cannot be used to hide the facts, a new device has come into wide use for “managing the news.” It is the claim by the executive branch of government that it has some inherent right to refuse arbitrarily to produce any records or give any testimony that includes advice or recommendations in the executive agencies.

The Eisenhower administration has pressed this broad secrecy doctrine with the argument that all communications containing advice or recommendations are “confidential executive business.” The administration claims some inherent “executive privilege” to hide such communications from the press, the public, committees of Congress and even from auditors of the General Accounting Office. Leonard J. Saccio, acting International Cooperation Administration Director, testified before the Hennings Subcommittee that he believed this so-called “executive privilege” gave the I.C.A. the authority to withhold practically every document in the agency from the Government Accounting Office auditors. “If I.C.A. wanted to apply the executive privilege, G.A.O. would not see one thing because practically every document in our agency has an opinion or a piece of advice,” Saccio testified.

If you are a Democrat, ask yourself if you want the administration of a Richard Nixon to have such a total arbitrary power to withhold records of government actions.

No agency in the executive branch has carried this arbitrary executive secrecy to the extreme point Saccio says it could be carried. However, the testimony by Saccio was an admission from within the executive department of the danger inherent in a doctrine that any executive department official can withhold any document that includes advice or recommendations.

It may be that some have such faith in the present administration that they feel quite content to have that administration exercise an arbitrary power to refuse to produce records for the Congress, the G.A.O., the press and the public. However, it would be well to question whether they want such unchecked power to conceal records lodged in the hands of some other administration. If you are a Republican, ask yourself if you would feel comfortable in letting the administration of a Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy or Hubert Humphrey put up such a barrier to Congressional investigators or the G.A.O.

If you are a Democrat, ask yourself if you want the administration of a Richard Nixon to have such a total arbitrary power to withhold records of government actions.

It is only by viewing the power of arbitrary executive secrecy in the hands of the other political party that many can test their true reaction to such a broad claim of a right to refuse to produce records.

Apply the doctrine of arbitrary executive secrecy to the Teapot Dome scandals of the Harding administration. Then you will see how the claim of arbitrary executive secrecy could have been used to conceal these notorious scandals.

The oil scandals of the Harding administration involved communications between Secretary of Navy Denby and Secretary of Interior Fall. Had a claim of arbitrary secrecy been invoked, it would have been impossible for Senator Thomas Walsh, the Montana Democrat, to establish the fact that eventually sent Secretary of Interior Fall to prison.

Assume that the Truman administration officials had claimed a precedent of executive privilege and refused to give testimony or produce records on the tax scandals. The communications between top officials in the White House, justice Department and Treasury would have remained buried, along with the crimes involving some of the highest officials of the huge tax-collecting agency.

In 1948 there were some restricted efforts by the Truman administration to bar Congressional investigations from some executive department records. The personnel records of William Remington were withheld under a general executive order placing loyalty files outside of the reach of Congressional committees. William P. Rogers, now the Attorney General, was then the chief counsel for the Senate committee investigating Remington. Rogers presided over the preparation of a report that was highly critical of this executive secrecy.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon, then a young Congressman from California, had some sharp comments to make about this limited withholding of records by the Truman administration. Nixon said:

“The point has been made that the President of the United States has issued an order that none of this information (on Remington) can be released and therefore the Congress has no right to question the judgment of the President. I say that that proposition cannot stand from a constitutional standpoint or on the basis of the merit for this very good reason. That would mean that the President could have arbitrarily issued an executive order in the Meyers case, the Teapot Dome case, or in any other case denying the Congress information it needed to conduct an investigation of the executive department and the Congress would have no right to question his decision.”

Nixon was only one of many prominent Republicans who attacked this executive secrecy at the time. By contrast, a good many high-ranking Democrats-including House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas-were defending the secrecy of the Truman administration. Many Democrats who were inclined to defend the secrecy in the Truman administration are now highly critical of the Eisenhower administration for merely extending the same basic principle. It demonstrates that political expediency has a tendency to encroach on the views of our elected representatives and to color their thinking. The press and the public cannot depend on either political party to be the beacon of right where their freedoms are involved.

After the Truman administration was so severely criticized by Republicans for imposing unjustified secrecy, it was amazing to see a Republican administration lay down a claim to a right of arbitrary executive secrecy that is broader than any similar claim in our history.

The new secrecy doctrine was made public in connection with the Army-McCarthy hearings on May 17, 1954 — the same day the United States Supreme Court pronounced its historic ruling against racial segregation in public schools. The fact that the Supreme Court ruled on segregation on that day did not bury the colorful Army-McCarthy hearings or the fact that officials of the executive branch were refusing to give testimony before a committee of Congress.

President Eisenhower, in a letter to Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson, authorized Army Counsel John Adams to refuse to relate conversations with Presidential Assistant Sherman Adams and William P. Rogers, then the Deputy Attorney General. The President wrote that in his view members of the executive branch should not be required to testify on conversations and communications with other members of the executive branch where recommendations and advice were involved.

Many large newspapers–still hysterical with the fear of the McCarthy era–saw this letter only as a blow at Senator Joseph McCarthy. If McCarthy wanted the testimony, then these newspapers were opposed to it. Unthinking editorial writers praised the Eisenhower letter as some new and brilliant statement of the separation of powers doctrine. Only a few looked behind the minor inconvenience it presented to McCarthy in his television battle with the Army and saw the full claim of arbitrary executive secrecy it embodied. Since then, many have changed their views.

The full threat inherent in Eisenhower’s May 17, 1954, letter did not become apparent immediately. It took months and even years before it became clear that the administration would use that letter as a precedent for refusing a wide variety of information to the press, to a dozen Congressional committees, and to the General Accounting Office.

Sherman Adams refused to testify in a Congressional hearing on the Dixon-Yates case on grounds that his activities were all confidential executive business. His action was to set the pattern for officials of more than a dozen agencies of government to inform Congress and the G.A.O. that important records and testimony would not be produced. A half dozen committees of Congress prepared reports castigating this arbitrary withholding of testimony and documents.

The refusal of the executive branch to mike certain evaluation reports and inspectors general reports available to the G.A.O. and committees of Congress has become a major barrier to investigations of the Defense Department and Foreign Aid spending.

Comptroller General Joseph Campbell, an appointee of the Eisenhower administration, has declared that the withholding of documents was hindering the G.A.O. in the performance of its statutory duties and “could be almost fatal” to the G.A.O.’s effectiveness.

The Moss Government Operations Subcommittee on Government Information has lashed out at the withholding from G.A.O. as being a violation of the law since the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 provides that all agencies must turn over all records requested by the G.A.O. auditors.

In recent months, liberals as well as conservatives in Congress have become concerned over evidence indicating that the executive secrecy has covered up fraud and mismanagement in the foreign aid program. Even a rider tied to the foreign aid appropriations bill has not changed the administration’s position. The President has continued to provide a blanket secrecy shield to evaluation reports and inspectors general reports with a vague comment that the withholding is “in the national interest.”

Some members of Congress are so concerned that they are proposing to tighten the law and withhold all funds from those agencies that do not make full reports to the G.A.O. on their spending and activities. This is a serious step but many members of Congress feel that this matter has reached a serious stage. The concern of Congress is not so much over what has been withheld as it is worry over where this broad claim of a right to withhold records may lead at some future time. Members of Congress recognize that in the wrong hands the precedent could become a major tool in forming an executive dictatorship. They know that it has been necessary to keep a constant surveillance over military spending-now 60 per cent of our budget-to expose corruption and force action against officials involved in the corruption.

As we have greater expenditures and more complex operations of our government, we need more Congressional investigations to burrow constantly into the activities of our public officials. The press needs the skill and the power of Congressional committees to spotlight the big problem areas in our society. Congress and the G.A.O. need the power to obtain records and testimony from those public officials in the executive departments who are responsible for administration and enforcement of laws.

This is a great issue of freedom in our time. It goes to the question of the right of Congress to serve as a check on the Executive department’s activities. It goes to the question of whether a free people are entitled to information on the activities of government when no question of national security is involved. This year, in this administration, it may represent only an inconvenience to the press, an irritant to Congressional investigators and an impediment to efficient work by the G.A.O. auditors.

But, what could such a precedent of arbitrary executive secrecy do under some later administration that may be less kindly in its basic outlook? This problem may pass quickly. I hope it does. But it is the type of problem that you, as citizens, will be asked to face many times in the years ahead. As graduates of a fine liberal arts college, you will be expected to give some leadership when arguments arise over whether projected government activity is a threat to freedom and the operation of a democracy. Some of you may be reporters, editors or public officials deeply involved in grappling with the problem of whether certain practices are good for the nation in the long run. Or you may be the voters–the great American jury that must ultimately decide whether officials will be allowed to appropriate certain powers to themselves. You may not be asked to defend your printing presses or your life, but in many ways you will undergo tests that will determine whether you have what it takes to carry on in the spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy.

After college, will you have the perseverance and the industry to continue to work at the job of knowing about public affairs? Or will you follow the mass that takes the position that this responsibility belongs to others? Will you have the interest and moral indignation to fight against injustice or encroachment on freedom?

Will you have the integrity to disregard partisan politics and measure an issue or a man on things that are in keeping with his true worth? Will you have the courage–the pure guts–to fly in the face of the currently popular view to do battle for what solid and serious study leads you to believe is right?

I am sure a certain percentage of this group will have the industry, the integrity and the courage to face the large issues. But the real test of whether the spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy lives–at Colby College and in the United States–will be based on how large a percentage learn that democracy is not something that can be taken for granted.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Lovejoy Award

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