John Hay Whitney

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The New York Herald Tribune

1964 Convocation Address

In some cultures it is believed possible to gain merit by sleeping on beds of nails or tattooing the body. In ours, possibly as the result of confining religion to Sunday sermons, there seems to be a belief that merit attaches to the occasional public address. The teacher is neglected, the haranguer from street corners is ignored. But the man who speaks to the testimonial dinner or delivers the memorial lecture, and the audience that settles quietly to listen to him, both take deep draughts of comfort in doing good. Oddly, there may be some truth in it. It forces people like me to come to grips with the ideas that lie behind our daily actions and if the audience can rise to a decent skepticism about the whole process, it can use the opportunity to judge those ideas. Let us begin with the skepticism. A lot of nonsense is talked about newspapers and publishing — not least by newspapermen and publishers. Quite simply, I am proud to be here. My predecessors at these lectures have been eminent men who have all worked long at their profession. But I think it is clear that though I have worked at journalism, I am here today primarily because I am a millionaire.

It is not polite to go into this sort of thing. Heaven knows it is not comfortable. This was brought home recently when I read about my wealth, my homes and my possessions in Fortune magazine. But in all honesty, I know, as you should, that I am the fourteenth annual Elijah Parish Lovejoy lecturer here today because five years ago I was able to buy the New York Herald Tribune and I have since been able to finance it and help it find new paths in American journalism.

But I think it is clear that though I have worked at journalism, I am here today primarily because I am a millionaire.

I did not do so in hopes of finding fame and fortune. Nor did I do it, as Lord Beaverbrook used to claim on his own behalf, in order to find a vehicle for political propaganda — although my newspaper and I share a view of life we like to call Independent Republican. As for business reasons, well, it may be that there are worse investments in this country than running a competitive morning newspaper in a busy, bitterly competitive, sophisticated town, but I have never run across one.

I did it because I had to. I did it because all my life, in one way and another, I have been involved in — horrible word — “communications”. I did it because we live in a time when there are challenges only a newspaper can meet and excellences only a newspaper can set and because I believe we cannot let the world go by default to the dullards. In short, I did it because when the opportunity arose to buy the Herald Tribune, I looked back on my life and found that I was an apprentice journalist.

The process has been a long one and I could have spoken on some other occasion — indeed, I have spoken — as a man from another career.

I made movies once, with David O. Selznick, when there was fun and adventure in the enterprise. We made “Gone with the Wind” and other films, talking about them as “only entertainment”, and looked back to discover that we helped shape an art form not only reflecting but in a way influencing our times.

After the war, with J. H. Whitney and Company, I started a venture capital enterprise that tried to turn ideas into industries. What we found, instead of the post-war slump and recession that everyone had predicted, was an eagerness to translate the new technology into new products. In a small way, we were creating the physical face of the world you and I now live in.

It is also proper to ask whether, perhaps, the newspaper’s day has come and gone and television and news magazines are here to bury it

And I was an ambassador. In a part of the world I love, where my education was shaped and many of my closest friendships made, I was charged with interpreting to Britain what was best in America. There I found that you can so hold the values of your life, like playing cards, so close to your chest, that in working out the game you forget exactly what they are; you don’t see them; they are part of you. But asked to explain the hand, you can look again and name them — values and cards.

By that path, I came here today, to talk about journalism. And where are we?

We are, I think, at a point where to venture into a competitive market requires a great deal of money or a great variety of resources. And the profit still lies in monopoly situations where, too often, there is more income than excellence. It becomes proper to ask whether newspapers are not, perhaps, old fashioned squares in a life which is bewilderingly complex. It is also proper to ask whether, perhaps, the newspaper’s day has come and gone and television and news magazines are here to bury it; whether age has not made it infirm and challenge timid; whether there is any excuse for anyone bothering any more with the craft of journalism except as an aid for the professional few who need technical information and the bored many who need a hiding place on the commuter trains and a handy place to find the department store ads.

Consider that we are gathered here as survivors of the recent political campaign. To some — indeed as I read the reports from around the country, to a very great many — its chief characteristic was that it was boring. In the hurried reporters’ great cliche, it was full of sound and fury signifying little.

Not so.

For our history and our future, it was historic almost to the pitch of high tragedy. To see nothing but its boredom is to confuse lack of suspense with lack of meaning. Lacking suspense, lacking also the sharp definition of great issues we had been told to expect from the man who was going to provide a choice not an echo, it seemed pointless.

But throughout the early fall we were dealing with the temporary, we hope, disintegration of a great party. In the broad sweep before us any citizen could sense the nation was at a political watershed. And we saw a vote not for but against — against Senator Goldwater and occasionally against President Johnson.

This was the reality behind the daily appearance of press conferences and Midwest swings, television appearances and behind-the-scenes briefings. This is the reality that will make the stuff of history books.

Journalism’s pride is to call itself the annotator of instant history, the source material for later interpretation. But what newspapers in the United States printed the reality instead of only the appearance? Which headlines are not headed for the forgotten addenda of some future doctoral thesis?

Again, we had a campaign remarkable in the volume of its reporting, an election night remarkable in the speed of that reporting. We had more statistics more quickly available for more interpretation than at any time in our history. In some instances, there were barely fifteen minutes between the close of the polls and the announcement of who won. And who did all this? The newspapers? Hardly. The New York Times allied itself with CBS for the night; the Herald Tribune allied itself with NBC and the wire services pooled with both.

And almost uniformly, using the computers that television brought and the speed that television demanded; faced with the drama that television could produce for a new generation of Americans, the newspapers of this country — with a few minor typographical innovations — produced the same morning-after papers they produced a generation ago.

In some instances, there were barely fifteen minutes between the close of the polls and the announcement of who won.

Indeed, we seem to have lost something: a spirit of independence, a spirit of our own ferocity, that has made us captive to the press release and the gentlemanly code of going to great lengths to avoid embarrassing anyone.

In one way, life has been made incomparably easier for today’s reporter than it was a generation ago. There is no corporation that does not strive to produce news about itself. There are few bureaus that do not employ a briefing officer. There is no reporter who could not produce enough copy simply by collecting what is given away.

But the privileges we claim for ourselves at every step are based on the old conception of ourselves as the public’s watchdog, as the men a little outside our society, measuring it with a pinch of skepticism. If the press conferences become less productive because they are more polite, the fault may be ours. And it’s a fault that cuts across the whole of newspaper life. Reporters who don’t believe it is right to compete for news; editors who hesitate to offend an administration or take issue with it because to do so may be uncomfortable; publishers whose political friends become sacred items of news.

To be fair is not enough any more. We must be ferociously fair, the way a computer can be on election night when it tells you facts you would rather not know — but tells them nevertheless, with the emphasis they deserve. I am a man involved in more directorships and enterprises than many of my fellow citizens. I have political as well as other friendships. But the day my newspaper begins to cease troubling my non-journalistic life, I will know something is wrong with it.

Yet all this said, I feel there is a good bit right with the press. The questions we raise point to the answers we can be proud of. And it was never more necessary than now to seek and be certain of those answers.

Consider our situation. World War II stirred forces and made realignments on a world scale that are hard to comprehend and harder still to measure.

We are told that America has enormous power to lead, but no one seems to have enormous will to follow. We cannot translate atomic power into jungle victory.

If the press conferences become less productive because they are more polite, the fault may be ours. And it’s a fault that cuts across the whole of newspaper life.

And on this vast scene lives modern American man, affluent beyond the imagining of Croesus, but not understanding the economics of it — in other words, not knowing where the wealth really came from or how long it will last. Mobile beyond the capacity of any previous people to move, but not really sure where he wants to go. The object of a bombardment of information more intense and more insistent than at any conceivable time in history, but always unsure of what really happened. Needing more and more to know in order to choose his way of government best, able less and less to understand.

We have a public mind, a popular consensus composed of the biggest hit songs and the highest-rated shows, the best comic strips and the latest fashions, the newest auto styles and the fattest best-sellers.

Smaller countries and older civilizations might take accepted ideas of life and, translating them into terms shared by all, make them applicable to each citizen so that every man roughly understood what his neighbor was like. But we are a huge nation, a continent wide but sometimes incredibly narrow. Our common denominators seem to get lower and more common as time passes so that the public mind, the generalities that help us understand each other, is full of trivia, impersonal and cold. It deals with masses, not with men. It doesn’t enlighten, it just communicates.

The creative arts of our day are experimenting now with a way of dealing with this scene. The Picasso that hangs on my library wall is not a generation ahead of the painting we saw when I was a boy. It is a century ahead. Our music began leaping forward years ago. The drama that was once contained in neat settings and careful plots is shifting into new forms. We are testing out ways of the novel today that didn’t exist in 1940.

And where these things have gone, newspapers as a creative craft must follow, but in a special course.

A newspaper is as various as the men and the community it serves. It comes into the world new each morning, yet still the same. The challenge it faces is the same as that which faces the men and women who read it — to take a stand in an embattled culture and make sense of it all. Our task is to cut through the junk in the public mind by seeking the order that underlies the clutter of small events; to winnow out of the apparent what is the real; to cede to television and radio the mere repetition, of activities and to look behind the, bare event for meanings.

Increasingly, those meanings are personal. A newspaper is no longer the only chronicle of events. It is a guide and an interpreter for the reader. It daily grasps the whole cultural kaleidoscope and brings it into focus in terms that will interest him, be meaningful to him — talk to him, like a human being talking to another human being.

Our task is to cut through the junk in the public mind by seeking the order that underlies the clutter of small events.

Fifty years ago our industry fell in love with a convention of objectivity that was to lay a dead hand of pattern on our news pages and freeze us into “good form”. But the reporter who writes “objectively” still selects the items he puts into the story, the editor still selects the stories that make up the page and the publisher still selects the men. And in the spaces between their several objectivities — in what they leave out — may lie the real life of our time, the real color, the grainy detail that mean the difference between the clear ring of life on the printed page and just another newspaper story.

What we should worry about more is whether we are using the freedom we have and which no bureaucrat has yet denied us, to report the way we should; Whether we are organizing the material at hand so that the obvious question is not merely implied but asked outright; so that the story about an anti-Welfare town manager in some New York community — the one that points up a general trend in our society through a specific man in a real setting — is not hidden in the background because the main stories of the day are dreary repetitions of previous handouts. This is the real excellence of editing.

We all speak a language of marvelous flexibility and great precision that has become tortured through the usages of haste and headline writing into a cliché form that seems comfortable because it is old but has become almost un-noticed, ugly. Maybe it is only new clichés we need. I trust not. But certainly there is a modern idiom that has largely passed the newspapers by, just as there is a grace and precision that seldom seems quite translated into their pages.

It is not good enough to look at the readers and say they are happy with what they have. We are supposed to lead; we must challenge them to move ahead with us or neither of us will move at all. We will slide, as a craft, as a profession and as readers, too, into the stagnation of shopping sheets, throwaways and the junior partner of television.

The role we can play every day, if we try, is to take the whole experience of every day and shape it to involve American man. It is our job to interest him in his community and to give his ideas the excitement they should have. These are the excellences of our craft.

They are produced by men who are truly engaged in producing the poetry of everyday life. The task of poetry remains the old calling: To take the language and using the matter at hand, speak to the mind and the heart of individual men. It is the calling of newspapers also; it is their challenge. The excellence of publishers lies in recognizing this and in providing the opportunity and the goad for men of varying talents to reach out beyond their best to meet the challenge.

Perhaps it would be hard for someone for a lifetime associated only with newspapers to recognize or then to boast that newspapers have within them the capability to write the real poetry of everyday life.

Hold the cards of your values away from your chest for a moment to see them clearly. Some, like loyalty and honor have a schoolboy look about them and get praised dutifully – even automatically. Some, like taste and appreciation of what’s fun in life, get neglected. Some, like involvement in life and the necessity for individual response are actively challenged by everything around us and are in the greatest need of repair.

Then look back 100 years when this industrial society was being shaped and Matthew Arnold made it personal. The world, he said, “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Is it true? Are the Mods and Rockers who fight now on Dover Beach a mockery of history, a cheap jest to show how low the truth has fallen from that cry of poetry?

No, I think that the ignorant armies have always been with us and I believe, as a passionate, personal thing, that joy and love and light exist here. Perhaps it would be hard for someone for a lifetime associated only with newspapers to recognize or then to boast that newspapers have within them the capability to write the real poetry of everyday life. Perhaps, too, I am a square in a hip world. But I think that in our present problems lies future greatness. I know that I have a newspaper reaching slowly forward along this path. I believe that together we see a profession that can accept its challenges and make them excellences.

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