John S. Knight

Editorial Chairman, Knight Newspapers

1969 Convocation Address: Democracy and the Press

Dr. Strider, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am honored indeed to have been named the Elijah Parish Lovejoy fellow of the year.

No higher tribute can be given to any working member of the press. “Integrity, craftsmanship, character, intelligence and courage” are requisites for the Lovejoy Award—a demanding job description for any member of my profession.

Thus I welcome your confidence with gratitude and humility. The pride I feel in joining the distinguished company of past recipients is flavored by the fact that I have personally known all of them.

I pray that I may be worthy of the association.

* * * * * *

What Governor Richard B. Ogilvie of Illinois said last September 25 at the Lovejoy Monument rededication ceremonies in Alton is incontestable. The governor rightly observed that “to truly honor the Lovejoy heritage demands a renewed dedication to the principles he espoused and to the land which he loved.”

Which properly invites the question as to how well the press of America is meeting this test. Are we as vigorous and dedicated as we might be? Or, as a now departed Washington politician once put it, “do we duck, dodge and slide” when confronted with the gut decisions?

* * * * * *

I can speak only as one recently described by Hugh Sidey of Life as “that old curmudgeon,” a term which in Webster’s New International Dictionary means “an avaricious, grasping fellow; a miser, niggard, churl.”

While reeling from the impact of this low blow to my dignity, Mr. Sidey soothed my feelings with another definition from William Safire’s “The New Language of Politics.” According to Safire, “a curmudgeon is a likeably irascible old man.”

Well, that was better. But along came a letter from a self-styled devoted reader who said that through the years he had found me “stubborn, exasperating, frequently wrong, unpredictably right, liberal, conservative, drastic and moderate.”

And to the New York Times, I am invariably “crusty.”

Having thus been dissected in public, a common occurrence in nearly 40 years as a regular writer of commentary and opinion, I beg your indulgence to proceed with some thoughts and observations.

* * * * * *

As with the late Ralph McGill, I am a sentimentalist about newspapers. And I have always shared McGill’s view that newspapers ought to believe in the journalistic relevance of moral principle.

Philosophy, broadly construed, is the love of wisdom. In application, says the dictionary, it is the science which investigates general facts and principles of reality and of human nature and conduct.

The philosophy of newspaper publishing centers upon these basic points:

The Knight newspapers strive to meet the highest standards of journalism. We try to keep our news columns factual and unbiased, reserving our opinions for the editorial page where they belong.

We have no entangling alliances. We are not beholden to any political party, faction or special interest.

Our editors and officers studiously avoid conflicts of interest. They serve on no corporate boards or committees other than appropriate civic organizations or committees in the fields of education and communications.

It is our publishing judgment that business and general managers should conduct the managerial functions of our newspaper group; that the editors be responsible for the news, feature and editorial quality.

We believe in making a profit through efficient production and modern business procedures, but we do not sacrifice the quality of our newspapers on the altar of the counting house.

True, we have our critics who take issue with aggressive editorial performance. But the truly distinguished newspapers in this country are those which have dared to face public wrath and displeasure.

As responsible purveyors of information and opinion, our newspapers are committed to the philosophy that journalism is likewise a public trust, an institution which serves, protects and advances the public welfare.

* * * * * *

For me to maintain that we have consistently achieved perfection in the pursuit of these goals would be an impertinence.

But they stand, nevertheless, as guidelines and inspiration for the officers and editors who direct our policies. And they make us believable to the thousands of men and women in our organization who hold to high ideals of ethical journalism.

* * * * * *

The charges most generally directed against the press—and I refer specifically in this instance to newspapers—include the following:

  • The American press is not to be believed.
  • Newspapers are not objective in their coverage of people and events. Bias and sensationalism show through their columns.
  • The press is pro-establishment and cares nothing about the rights of minority groups.
  • Newspapers have shown little or no appreciation or understanding of the motivations of youth in their reporting of campus demonstrations or the incidents at Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic convention.
  • Editorial position dictates everything that appears in the news columns.

These allegations are by no means all inclusive. But they will suffice for the purposes of this dissertation.

* * * * * *

Newspapers, unlike the ordinary run of magazines and much of the electronic media, are sitting ducks for the unbelievability charge since they dare to take strong positions on public men and issues.

The politician whose integrity is challenged by the press resorts to cries that he has been misquoted and to threats of libel.

His friends and supporters naturally tend to side with him and cast aspersions on the ancestry of the editor.

We come under criticism if we misspell a reader’s name or err in the reporting of a news event. Some accept our voluntary corrections but many prefer to grouse about not being able to believe anything you see in the newspapers.

Since it is more satisfying to berate the press than to praise it, credibility suffers.

* * * * * *

Let me cite one personal example of 15 years standing.

President Johnson came to be distrusted because he misled the people on the war in Vietnam. Reams of official dispatches poured forth from Washington and Saigon to prove that we were actually winning the war.

Years ago, I maintained that these overly optimistic pronouncements were a mendacious mélange of misinformation.

On April 25, 1954, I warned that the United States was headed toward another war through the pattern of gradual involvement.

“Intervention in Indochina,” I wrote, “would find us fighting another dead-end war with virtually no support from our allies.”

I said further that, “if the President, the Vice President and Secretary Dulles are to be believed, the United States will be irretrievably involved before the year is out.”

For my pains, I was assailed as an un-American appeaser and a pro-Communist sympathizer. The drumbeat of criticism swelled in volume and sound for the next 12 years.

So my believability suffered steady erosion until the Fulbright hearings of 1966-67 when the American people came to the shocking realization that they had been duped.

* * * * * *

On the subject of objectivity, there are many diverse views.

If dictionaries have not gone out of style, objectivity means “involving the use of facts without distortion by personal feelings or prejudices.”

Objective reporting to old-time newspapermen meant an unbiased and accurate account of the event being covered. “Ideally,” says journalist Herbert Brucker, “the reader should not be able to tell, from reading a news story, which side the reporter is on.” That is precisely what it was—and still is.

“But today,” laments Mr. Brucker, “objective news has become anathema to young activists in journalism, to some of the rising generation of university intellectuals, and to others who should know better.”

It is indeed a fact that many of the younger journalists are more intent upon reforming the world than in reporting it accurately. They find nothing unethical in attempting to use the news columns for what they consider to be the vastly more important issues of progress and betterment of mankind.

The doubters say there is no such thing as absolute objectivity.

Kerry Gruson, daughter of a New York Times news executive, declares that objectivity is a myth. “There comes a point,” avers Miss Gruson, “when you have to take a stand. … After that you try to be fair.”

I disagree. If a newspaper did not pursue the quest for objectivity—while confining its opinions to the editorial page—the bewildered reader would be even further bogged down in the morass of unbelievability.

* * * * * *

In my years—both as reporter and author of a column of opinion—I have sought first to ascertain the facts and then offer reasoned comment based upon these findings.

It is not our purpose to fix policy in advance and then set out to prove it correct? In the Grant Park melee of 1968 I entered the area and talked with dozens of young people.

Admittedly, the hard-core troublemakers were there. They did indeed provoke attacks upon the police, shouted obscenities and generally behaved in unseemly manner before the television cameras.

But others, the large majority, were there, too. The young people with whom I talked included idealistic students and married couples for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, opposed to the war and easily stirred by the excitement and commotion.

These were not the rabble rousers but youth involved in matters of tremendous import to their own futures. Their activity was to be commended, not scorned.

My opinion was, of course, not widely shared by the nation’s editorialists. Most lumped together all of the kids in the Grant Park with the radicals in the New Left.

In my humble judgment, too much of the opinion offered on the Grant Park ruckus was based upon observations from the safety of a high Conrad Hilton window directly across Michigan Avenue.

* * * * * *

To the accusation that press is pro-establishment I would agree—if by “establishment” we mean faith in democracy under constitutional processes as opposed to anarchy and destruction.

For one to assert that the press has no interest in minorities is to be convinced that the press is blind to the nagging problems which beset our country.

I have detected no such myopia, and certainly not in recent years.

And to those who aver that news coverage is colored and influenced by editorial policy, I concede that the practice is not unknown.

I have had some experience with newspapers where ownership largely dictated policies consistent with their personal holdings in commerce and industry; where the poorest candidate was usually a Democrat and in times when “the good of the nation” editorials were strongly influenced by the publisher’s personal and political philosophy.

Today’s press is infinitely superior to that of any other era.

Admittedly, it is not as colorful as the journalism practiced in the early part of this century nor as savagely personal in carrying out the owner’s mandates. But prejudice, passion and partisanship have all been tempered by the passage of time.

No self-respecting editor or reporter of this age would long remain with a publication which deliberately distorted the news. The putrefaction of dishonest journalism has put a pox upon the “polecat press.”

There is today an increasing awareness and understanding of the vast changes taking place in our social, economic and political lives.

Moreover, the press no longer underestimates the intelligence of its audience which, with the alertness of youth, can make a ready distinction between candor and claptrap.

* * * * * *

What I do find encouraging about the press, and newspapers in particular, is a mounting sense of responsibility to the public which it serves.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara may have misled President Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam, but not so that courageous band of mature reporters who pierced the fog of fallacy and brought light and truth to the American people.

It is the press which audits government, exposes wrongdoing and prods the sluggards and papsuckers into action.

It is the press which turns up corruption, both in public and private affairs. It is the press which sheds the spotlight on the private world of a man nominated to the Supreme Court.

It is the press which must interpret social change—fearlessly and honestly.

The press, and the press alone, has the resources and determination to uproot crime and corruption and reveal the extent to which the mobsters have gained control of respectable business institutions.

Our best Washington correspondents are never satisfied with government press releases but keep digging for more information to which the public is entitled. The loudest cries of “foul” come from bureaucrats who have been singed in the journalistic fires.

Former President Lyndon Johnson once expressed surprise “that any citizen would feel toward his country in a way that is not consistent with the national interest.”

I would agree, but I would also ask, “Whose national interest?” The national interest is not the President’s alone to decide. It comes from dialogue and debate not only at the White House and on Capitol Hill, but in every place in the land where two citizens can meet to speak freely.

* * * * * *

In Elijah’s Lovejoy’s day, Judge Luke E. Lawless proclaimed that he favored freedom of the press while at the same time believing that the law should protect society from abuses of the press “which perverse and misguided men can wield for the purpose of harm either to the individual or to the mass.”

Editors no longer face the brutalizing forces which murdered Elijah Parish Lovejoy. Yet the elements of ignorance we still have with us.

We have seen misguided men in high offices urging silence in the name of patriotism.

Gen. Hershey sought to use the draft laws to punish those who exercised their constitutional rights of free speech. In support of the general, now happily removed, Rep. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina said, “college deferments may become a thing of the past and this is fair warning to every college student.”

Quite overlooked by these unestimable gentleman is the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and the right of peaceable assembly while petitioning for redress of grievances.

But when you try to tell an ultraconservative that the exercise of dissent is a conservative rather than a radical procedure, he shrugs his shoulders in disbelief.

The far right should hearken to Judge Harold Medina, who says that “of all constitutional rights, the freedoms of speech and assembly are the most perishable, yet the most vital, to the preservation of American democracy.”

History has been filled with attacks upon dissenters, but also with moments when dissent led to change, and where speaking out in an unpopular cause has shifted the nation’s course by changing the persuasion of its citizens.

Yet despite the examples of history, including the influence of Lovejoy, we find today, as other Americans before us have found, that dissent is being equated with sedition.

* * * * * *

If the debate between the dissenters and their government has been more acrimonious than normal, in large part it is because the first casualty of war is truth.

To the normal frustrations of war with all its costs, and mistaken optimism, the people learned they were not told the truth during the Johnson administration. And they have suffered since from the frustration of credibility. As the critics became more vocal —and more critical—the past administration escalated its attempts to wrap controversial policies in the American flag and demand conformity in the name of patriotism.

Those who would suspend democratic freedoms in critical times might also yearn to suspend them at any time they felt so inclined. It is the duty of dissent to preserve those freedoms, an exercise of patriotism which belongs to the people. It is a duty which cannot be delegated.

* * * * * *

During the period of our gradual involvement in the tragic mess that is Vietnam, there were ample indications that the course on which we were embarked could result only in misfortune and misery.

While President Johnson and Secretary Rusk talked solemnly of our “sacred commitments” in Southeast Asia, a careful reading of the language adopted by the Southeast Asia Treat Organization clearly indicates that the United States was in no wise bound to commit troops in defense of South Vietnam.

In other words, SEATO called for no automatic participation on our part as in the case of NATO, where our treaty pledges are indeed binding instruments of action.

As Arthur M. Schlesinger has pointed out in “The Bitter Heritage,” Secretary Rusk’s proposition that SEATO commits the United States to military intervention “can only be regarded as an exercise in historical and legal distortion.”

Yet members of the Senate lost their tongues at a time when full and searching debate might have altered the course of history. With a mere handful of notable exceptions—including Fulbright, Morse, Gruening, Church, Eugene McCarthy and McGovern—they waved the flag and pledged full support to the President for a bloody conflict having uncertain and unattainable objectives.

And other Americans, while respecting the right of dissent but not the duty, remained silent when the times cried out for opposition to the most tragic war in our history.

* * * * * *

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that I hold no brief for those willful violators of the law who cannot draw the line between dissent and disobedience.

Further, they seem to forget that as violence begets violence, irrationality and intemperance beget further irrationality and intemperance.

If those such as the defendants in Conspiracy Eight, the professional peaceniks and the Black Panthers feel they have the right to take the law into their own hands, they can hardly deny the same right to their opponents.

Thus a meeting of the militants to plan violence must expect to be challenged by equally militant and tyrannical organizations which use their liberty of free speech as a license to deny it to others.

* * * * * *

The fact that the first Moratorium Day constituted orderly dissent lent credibility and persuasiveness to the antiwar protests.

But no one, other than the extreme militants and their misguided camp followers, is willing to give credence to the type of dissent which marches through the streets waving Viet Cong flags and mocks our traditional American institutions.

No, this is not the way. The imperiousness of the rabble defiles our democratic system and disgusts every freedom-loving citizen.

And, ironically, the anarchists who abuse our Constitutional liberties would find themselves prisoners of the police state in the authoritarian world to which they give such frenetic devotion.

* * * * * *

Yet it is grossly unfair, as so many are doing, to brand today’s youth generation as a mass of irresponsibility.

Quite to the contrary, today’s youth is not only better educated and more perceptive than their elders but put the graybeard generation to shame in their concerns over the strains and stresses of our society.

Race relations, poverty and slums, crime, lawlessness and the avoidance of future wars rank high on their list of youth priorities.

When parents and grandparents attempt to judge the youth of today by their own standards of yesteryear, we have an immediate generation gap.

In turn, the inability to understand the motivations, sensitivities and convictions of our younger people only widens the chasm of misunderstanding. For nothing is as simple to them as it was to us. This new generation cannot grasp, nor will it accept the notion that the war in Vietnam is a holy crusade against Communism.

Within the year, I have had the rare privilege of talking with groups of students at Cornell, Harvard, Oberlin and Michigan.

Whereas their elders often succumb to the rigidity of thought, the students in our colleges and universities refuse to swallow the dogmas of the past. The educated young man or woman of today is searching for a better tomorrow, not only for himself or herself alone but for the world and its peoples.

And even from those who brought about so much turmoil may emerge the strongest and the most thoughtful leaders of tomorrow as they acquire a balance of individual freedom and social responsibility.

In the search for participatory democracy, no finer example can be found than the recent Colby Constitutional Convention. While the plan under consideration may have its imperfections, it nevertheless represents a serious and intelligent approach to desired reforms.

* * * * * *

Finally, the role of the press in a free democratic society demands total involvement in and dedication to the problems which beset that society.

This means both the right and the duty to point out governmental sins of omission as well as commission, to turn the light of publicity on the government’s house itself.

Unlike the press in too many other parts of the world, from Sao Paulo to Saigon, this the press of the United States is well able to do, without undue concern about governmental reprisal or recriminations. It is one of the factors which sets the United States apart, and which has helped to prove groundless the fear expressed more than a century ago by Alexis de Toqueville.

Then, he wrote, what he found “most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there, but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.”

This observation has led modern-day alarmists to warn that the press—both print and electronic—must show more concern for the “right of those persons and parties representing less than the majority opinion.”

I submit that the press has been showing precisely that concern, with the result that we have frequently witnessed the transformation of a powerful majority into a minority at the polls.

No, there is no danger from the “overpowering omnipotence of the majority” so long as we have a free and unshackled press.

The greatest of all government documents—the United States Constitution—provides ample safeguards against tyranny and injustice. With the responsible and unfettered use of our First Amendment rights, what more can we ask?

* * * * * *

Unlike Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the editor of today seldom faces a choice between principle and the wrath of a murderous mob.

The pressures put upon us are more subtle and infinitely less dangerous to human survival.

Yet there are those among us—and especially in the deep South—whose voices have been stilled by the antagonistic application of overwhelming economic power.

Men of courage such as the revered and beloved John N. Heiskell of the Arkansas Gazette—an early recipient of the Lovejoy Award—have endured the slings and arrows of public disapproval only to rise again to win acclaim and confound their tormentors.

“Ned” Heiskell would have stood with Lovejoy at Alton, stout of heart and serene in conscience.

The honor you do me tonight in the Lovejoy heritage of “fearlessness and freedom” will provide support and encouragement for further efforts in the pursuit of truth and its prompt dissemination thereof.

For I shall always hold with the great Winston Churchill that “a free press is the unsleeping guardian of every right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.”

I thank you.

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