It is a special honor to receive a Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College today. And it is also a great honor to accept the Lovejoy Award from a college with such a fine reputation and such a firm commitment to excellence in learning. Though Waterville and Washington may seem to be worlds apart, I really think that you and I are in the same business: the business of education. The Lovejoy Award, for instance, encourages qualities which are as vital to your academic inquiries as to the efforts of the press–the qualities of integrity, craftsmanship, character, intelligence and courage. Those are demanding goals, which we may seldom reach but which we must never stop reaching for. The challenges facing the press today are great. It is true that presses are not sacked and burned, or thrown in rivers, as they were in Elijah Lovejoy’s day. And nowadays reporters, editors and publishers are rarely forced to defend their first amendment freedoms with their lives.
But while modern day assaults may be less physical, they are no less real. To an extent, that is a consequence of the kind of work in which we are engaged. For any news organization which really does its job is bound to be a target of complaint from people in the news, people with an obvious interest in the way their words and deeds are transmitted to the public.
There is, however, one category of complaint which is especially troubling to me. That is the criticism which comes from individuals who are disinterested, whose achievements we respect and whose comments therefore carry special weight.
One in this category is the former special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. In a recent speech, according to a wire service report, Mr. Cox said that “the media certainly is turning gradually to a more active role in shaping the course of events . . . the selection of the news items emphasized often reflects the sort of notion that the press is the fourth branch of government, and it should play a major role in government.”
Such complaints are as old as the republic, but have acquired a new currency because of Watergate. So I would like to address myself to them this evening.
Consider first the charge that the press has become a “fourth branch of government.” As far as being a fourth branch of government is concerned, I’m sure the other three wouldn’t have us — nor would we want to be counted among them. The label, “The Fourth Estate,” which was first used by Edmund Burke, is much more accurate, for it reflects the true role of the press as a vital institution of democracy — but an institution kept apart from government, endowed with a singular status and entrusted with a singular role.
The constitution makes the difference plain. The powers of each of the three branches of government are generally, and in some cases quite specifically, defined. Their limits and relationships are carefully arranged. Qualifications for holding office are prescribed. The basic source of all authority — the people and their representatives — is emphasized throughout. All this was done to avoid the accumulation and abuse of power.
The press, in contrast, is mentioned in the Constitution only once and then as an institution whose freedom may not be abridged. The term, “the press,” is not even defined. No limits are placed on its membership, its methods or its reach. Nothing illustrates better that the founding fathers sought to keep the forces of inquiry, the transmitters of information, the instruments of free debate as varied, numerous and independent as possible. Freedom of speech and of the press was the essential counterweight to government, the basic check against abuses of official power. And what the founders feared — and so sought to prevent — was not that government might be inconvenienced by the press, but that the press might be harassed and regulated by the government.
So in a very real sense, it is a gross inversion of the constitutional scheme to complain that the press is too probing or too independent now. Yet there are many who make that argument, with the best of intentions; many who make the ritual bow in the direction of the Bill of Rights, and then go on to say, “Yes, but the press is overdoing it.” We should be more respectful, they assert. We ought to be less questioning. We ought to serve more as bulletin boards for those in power, and be content simply to pass along the news which officials and agencies volunteer.
This notion of a passive, cooperative press reminds me somewhat of the notion of two-party government which was once propounded by a great legislator from Maine, Thomas Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 19th century. The proper scheme of things, Speaker Reed once said, was for one party to govern and the other one to watch.
The press, however, is not supposed to watch in any docile or passive sense. It is meant to be a watchdog, informing the public of what is really going on and thus keeping those who govern perhaps more honest, certainly more accountable — and thus dishonest only at some peril to their tenure and their power.
This is hardly an easy task. For one thing, the sheer bulk and complexity of modern government makes it hard: much of what is really important is obscured in the great streams of chaff blown out each day by agencies, departments, offices and bureaus. One fiercely independent journalist, I. F. Stone, made much of his reputation by digging up and putting together facts which had been buried — in the public records of the government.
For another thing, the government — and especially the president — has come to enjoy awesome powers of communication which can be employed at will. As we have seen recently, a president can command live coverage on all television and radio networks, on virtually any subject, at short notice. He can choose his forum and select the live audience to applaud or ask him questions. His remarks will not only be carried across the airwaves; they will also be reprinted, at least in large part, in the daily newspapers of the land. Presidential pronouncements thus enjoy a weight and circulation which no other view or version of the facts is likely to attain.
This gives the government enormous power to reveal what it wants when it wants, to give the people only the authorized version of events — and, equally important, to conceal that which is unfavorable, untimely or embarrassing. And that power to conceal, to keep information bottled up, is a kind of license to abuse the public trust.
Nothing illustrates this better than Watergate. Toward the beginning of the first Nixon administration, John Mitchell once warned the press that we would be better advised to watch what the administration did rather than what it said.
So, with the hindsight we have now gained so painfully, let’s look back at what was being said — and what we now know was being done — on a few specific days.
Let’s take, for instance, June 25, 1970. What was being said? President Nixon addressed the Jaycees in St. Louis, and he said, “Some believe the nation is coming apart at the seams; that we are gripped with fear and repression and even panic . . . it is time to stand up and speak about what is right in America.” And he said: “If we ask people to respect the laws, we must have laws and those who enforce the laws who deserve respect.”
What was being done on that same day? Tom Charles Huston, a White House aide, was giving Mr. Nixon a top-secret domestic security plan which authorized illegal breaking and entering, mail covers, wiretapping and other covert operations. That plan, as we now know, was approved by the President and was in effect for five days.
Or take another day, March 22, 1971. What was being said? in a live television interview with Howard K. Smith, Mr. Nixon expressed great concern about the cost of political campaigns. The problem, he said, was how to devise curbs on campaign spending ” which will … be comprehensive and … not give an advantage to incumbents over challengers.”
What was being done? On that same day the milk producers delivered one of their large gifts to the Republican campaign chests. The next day, Mr. Nixon met with them, and then decided to raise milk price supports — a decision which only an incumbent could make.
Or consider a third day, September 3, 1971. What was being said? Mr. Nixon spoke to the nation’s dairy farmers and praised them because, as he put it, “You haven’t whimpered helplessly about uncontrollable economic forces, now waited passively for government to bail you out.”
What was being done? Shortly thereafter, on September 11, White House aide Gordon Strachan, in a memo to H. R. Haldeman, noted that the dairy industry had promised campaign contributions of $90,000 a month but had only paid about half that amount.
Of course, after the Watergate break-in, when the cover-up was under way, the contrast between words and deeds became even sharper. Take for instance, September 19, 1972 — four days after the seven original Watergate conspirators had been indicted. What was being said? Vice President Agnew was letting it be known that he suspected — and I quote — “Someone set up these people and encouraged them to undertake this caper to embarrass them and to embarrass the Republican party.”
What was being done? According to the recent indictment, on that same day Anthony Ulasewicz delivered $53,000 to Dorothy Hunt, while Fred Larue arranged a payment of about $20,000 to William Bittman.
Take another day, November 13, 1972. What was being said? Charles Colson was attacking the Washington Post. “The charge of subverting a whole political process,” he declared, “that is a fantasy, a work of fiction rivaling only ‘Gone With the Wind’ in circulation and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ for indecency.” Mr. Colson went on to upbraid the Post’s executive editor, saying that “Mr. Bradlee now sees himself as the self-appointed leader of … the tiny fringe of arrogant elitists who infect the healthy mainstream of American journalism with their own peculiar view of the world.”
And what was being done? Two days later, according to the more recent Watergate indictment, Mr. Colson had a telephone conversation with Howard Hunt about the need for more payments to the defendants.
Take one more day, January 14, 1973. What was being said then? John Mitchell, through his attorney, was reacting to reports that the seven original Watergate defendants were being paid. That, he said, and I quote, was “outrageously false and preposterous.”
And what was being done? Fred Larue was arranging another payment this time to Gordon Liddy’s representative.
What do all these discrepancies show? In some cases, the contrast between words and deeds may have been a matter of expediency; in other cases, part of the cover-up; in others, the product of ignorance about what one’s colleagues were up to; in some, part of an effort to shift attention from the news to the media.
But they all point to one conclusion: the inadequacy, and indeed the danger, of relying only or even principally on what those in government say as a measure of what those in government do.
By now, of course, the nation has found out abut the Huston Plan, the milk money, the payments, the cover-up, and the other illegal and improper acts which go under the heading of “Watergate.” The people know in large part because they have found out through the medium of the press and/or because the press generated other forms of inquiry.
Does this make the press “activist”? In a way, it does, but I would argue that it is the proper way. And, to go back to where I began, this whole painful experience points up the flaw in Mr. Cox’s argument against so-called press “activism.”
On this matter of activism, I would note two things. First, if the media have been paramount in uncovering pieces of the scandal, it is because at the beginning the other agencies of inquiry were not doing their jobs. The Congress, the Justice Department and the courts were all thwarted or blocked or delayed, especially at the time when an airing of events might have had the most impact — before the election in November 1972.
House hearings were delayed after the Justice Department turned on the pressure and argued that public probes might prejudice the pending criminal case. A federal judge ruled, for the same reason, that the civil suit brought by the Democratic National Committee had to be delayed. And the criminal case, in turn, was limited and delayed, in part because some officials were playing games with the evidence and trying hard to frustrate the official investigation.
So that left the press. But if Watergate shows how essential it is for the press to be vigorous, persistent and free, the experience also points up the limits of what we can do.
In saying this, I don’t mean to take away anything from the superb performance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the team of experienced editors who guided and checked their work during those months of hard, lonely digging. But the fact is that their work was productive only because a number of people, many inside government and mostly Republicans, were willing to talk with them to tell them pieces of the truth, often at great peril to their jobs.
And it’s also worth reflecting on that, even after their stories about secret funds and political sabotage had appeared, a great deal remained hidden. Many of the key revelations came from elsewhere – from James McCord, as a result of judge Sirica’s pressure, from John Dean, from the hearings on L. Patrick Gray’s nomination to be head of the F.B.I., from the work of the Senate committee, from the lawsuits of the Democrats, common cause and Ralph Nader, from the work of the special prosecution team arid the grand juries. And what may have been the crucial event – the discovery that a voice-activated tape system had been installed in the White House – came not from the work of the press, but from a Senate staff question put to a man, Alexander Butterfield, who had been thought of as a peripheral figure.
When you consider everything that has flowed from that one interview – the court suits over executive privilege, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the missing tapes and the 18 1/2-minute gap, the arguments about what Mr. Nixon said on March 21, the impeachment investigation — one thing becomes evident. It is that what has finally given Watergate such scope and momentum has not been the press but the force of events and the ultimate determination of responsible people to make our system of justice work. What has sustained and enlarged the scandal has not been the press, but the facts which emerged and the way those involved have reacted to each new disclosure.
To paraphrase Mr. Cox, events have shaped events. There would, after all, have been no stories if there had been nothing to report.
This leaves the final point: whether by reporting events, the press has somehow exceeded its charter or abused its liberty, and by so doing has damaged the nation.
The question is whether the country would be better off if the Watergate story had stayed in the Post’s local section, where it spent its early days; if Woodward and Bernstein had gone back to other stories after the White House called the matter an isolated, third-rate burglary; if the press had given up after the first month of denials or the second or the tenth; and if, now, the press should stop telling the country about each new twist and turn in the arguments and investigations.
Would the country be better off if we had never learned about the secret funds, the burglary of Dr. Fielding’s office, the enemies’ lists, the tapes, and all the other dispiriting facts of Watergate?
This is not just a question the President’s supporters ask. I hear it often, from troubled citizens who look at all of the national urgencies that face us, and look at the cost of Watergate in terms of national unity and governmental strength, and wonder whether it is worth the price for these particular offenses to be exposed.
This is a serious question, and one which we at the Post have thought about a great deal. But finally, I think, one can only accept the implied answer if one is willing to concede too much about the strength and resiliency of this country — things that I, for one, am not willing to concede.
I am not willing to concede, for instance, that we can and should tolerate serious breaches of the Constitution and the laws, because disclosure would be disruptive. I am not willing to concede that American people can only stand a limited number of shocks and a measured amount of disillusionment. Or that we can best serve ourselves and our heritage by running away from our troubles. Or that national stability rests on national ignorance.
This is hardly the faith of a free people. For to say that the press ought to suppress some news, if we deem it too bad or too unsettling, is to make the press into the censor or the nursemaid of a weak and immature society. And to argue that the press ought to be censored or suppressed, or limited in its inquiries, is to shred the first amendment and dam up the flow of ideas and information.
Writing of federalism and the separation of powers in the Federalist Papers, James Madison said, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
For all the safeguards built into our system of government, each branch cannot properly exercise its controls without knowing what the others are doing; and the people cannot properly exert their will without the knowledge on which to base their decisions.
Precisely because it is not a fourth branch of government, the press plays an essential role in “obliging the government to control itself.” And if we do not serve in this way, the rest of the rights guaranteed by our Constitution cannot be sustained.
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