James Reston

The New York Times Company

1974 Convocation Address

I thank you for asking me to speak here in the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. I don’t know about you, but I find this a startling and even intimidating name. Elijah was a biblical prophet, who fought against the permissive weaknesses of human nature—sort of a Bill Buckley without television. Lovejoy’s middle name, Parish, means an administrative unit of the church. I can only assume that his Mother and Father named him Elijah Parish because, with a last name of Love-Joy, they were a little worried and were trying to hold him back. Anyway, he was faithful to his name. He was a “great helper” to people in need and “herald” or reporter of a better age. He was not only a reporter and teacher, but an ordained Presbyterian minister—an ominous combination bound to lead to trouble. He used the school-room, the press, and the pulpit to abolish slavery and stamp out sin. It’s funny to hear young people talk these days about the “New Journalism”—meaning reporting with a moral purpose—for this was what Elijah Parish Lovejoy was doing when he was murdered in Alton, Illinois in 1837, two days before his 35th birthday.

So such for history. But what does Lovejoy have to say to us today? Is his crusading spirit still alive in American journalism now, and is it relevant to the present age?

I prefer reporters and editors who keep digging for the facts and who chip away day by day and year by year at human folly rather than young heroes who get themselves killed at 35.

I believe it is very much alive and very relevant. I am not an enthusiastic cheerleader for heroic personal journalism. The great danger for journalists as well as politicians where I work is that they take themselves too seriously and begin to think they are what they merely represent. Also, I don’t especially recommend martyr journalism. I prefer reporters and editors who keep digging for the facts and who chip away day by day and year by year at human folly rather than young heroes who get themselves killed at 35. Even so, the rising generation of American reporters is now writing one of the great chapters of American journalism.

It was not the Congress or the courts that first brought the facts of Vietnam, Watergate and the abuses of Presidential power to the front of the American mind in the last decade but the press—and not the press in general but a few papers and a few reporters, some of whom, like Lovejoy, lost their lives in the struggle.

It may be, however, that we need intellectual vigilance now more than barricade journalism, and particularly the gift of seeing, and seeing in time, trends that may affect the life of the world.

For example, we were comparatively fore-handed about Vietnam and Watergate, but woefully slow about the energy crisis. All the facts were available to us months and even years before the Arab oil embargo. They were published in the official reports of the Federal Government, the United Nations and even the Petroleum Institute every month. With seven percent of the world’s population in the United States, we were consuming over 30 percent of the world’s gas and oil. We knew something about the law of supply and demand, but were insisting on selling our products to the highest bidder while assuming that the oil producers wouldn’t do the same.

After all, the United States and Canada control more of the world’s surplus food than the Arabs do of the world’s surplus oil, but for years we assumed that there would be plenty of cheap food and fossil fuel, even when we know that the population of the world was increasing at an alarming rate and learning that malnutrition and starvation were not inevitable but intolerable.

This was a problem not for heroic editors who could confront the mobs, but for thoughtful editors who could read and analyze the facts and trends, but we didn’t really pay much attention to the problem until the Arab embargo forced us to line up at the corner gas station.

Maybe we were running after the wrong thing. Pascal once said that most of the evils of life arose “from man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” Walter Bagehot, editor of the Economist of London, and one of the truly great journalists of his time, also suggested 100 years ago that reflection was often more important than hasty action.

“Civilized ages,” he said, “inherit the human nature which was victorious in barbarous ages, and that nature is, in many respects, not at all suited to civilized circumstances.” A main and principal excellence in the early times of the human races was the impulse to action.

The problems before men then were plain and simple. The man who worked hardest, the man who killed the most deer was the man who succeeded; the nation which was quickest to kill its enemies was the nation which survived.

“But the issues of life are plain no longer,” Bagehot thought. “To act rightly in modern society requires a great deal of previous study, a great deal of assimilated information, a great deal of sharpened imagination.” Be careful of this “excessive activity,” he suggested, this “passion for action,” this impulse to “do something—anything” to avoid the tedious complication of thinking in advance.

“Old things need not be therefore true,
O brother men, nor yet the new;
Ah, still awhile the old thought retain,
And yet consider it again.”

Mr. President, I don’t believe, like Lovejoy, that our main job is to preach, but to report, and by reporting, to teach. And not merely to report the events that are most interesting or dramatic, but the events that are most important to the lives of our readers and of the nation and the world. These events are often very complicated and boring, and while a newspaper can easily go broke by reporting what is significant rather than what’s personal, or spicy, this is the primary responsibility of a serious newspaper.

Mr. President, I don’t believe, like Lovejoy, that our main job is to preach, but to report, and by reporting, to teach.

On The New York Times, we put two million words a day through our hands and we print 100,000. We struggle and differ over what these 100,000 should be. Every time the cost of newsprint goes up $5 a ton, it costs The Times almost a million and a half dollars a year. The cost of newsprint has gone up $73.75 a ton in the last two years—from $170 a ton to $243.75 a ton—or $21,387,000 a year in the cost of paper alone, not to mention cost of ink, which has risen like the cost of oil, heating, transportation and wages.

It is unfortunate, but it’s a fact, that most of the privately-owned newspapers in the big cities of the capitalist world are in economic trouble. They can make more money by manufacturing newsprint with no words on it than by organizing a world-wide staff to produce and distribute a modern newspaper. So their first duty is to survive in a savagely competitive world. Only thus can they grapple effectively with the philosophy of news and opinion.

The intellectual demands on the modern newspaper, like the economic demands, are far greater than in Lovejoy’s time. The issues of industrial societies are far more complicated. The scope of their responsibilities is far wider. The dangers of inaccuracy are more incessant and the consequences of inaccuracy more serious.

The men and women covering the present economic crisis today have to be far more knowledgeable than their predecessors of my generation who covered the economic depression of the Thirties. In a world of almost instantaneous communication, where the economy of one country affects the economies of many other countries, the errors of reporters are not only easier to make but harder to retrieve.

My generation of reporters was trained in the county court-houses and police courts of an isolated country. It seemed enough then on the average paper to publish the official record of what happened—which was usually the news of conflict and contention, of what went wrong in the community. Now, when the price of oil in the Persian Gulf affects every household and business down the street, and when conflicts in Southeast Asia take the lives of 55,000 young Americans, we have to see news in a much wider perspective.

Modern inventions have also added greatly to the intellectual responsibilities of the modern press. For example, the invention of the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile required that the President of the United States be given powers never imagined by the Founding Fathers. For the Republic could be destroyed in less time than it would take to get the members of Congress through the downtown traffic in Washington.

It followed from this, however, that if the President had the power to save or risk the life of the nation, or to order an atomic counter-attack that might even risk the future of the human race, the health, judgment, character, and emotional balance of any President had to be watched with the utmost vigilance.

Even a generation ago, we did not pay all that much attention to such questions. Woodrow Wilson was paralyzed and incapacitated for-months in the White House without the American people really knowing what had happened. We know, now, just from looking at the photographs that were available at the time, that Franklin Roosevelt was a dying man between Yalta and the election of 1944, but the reporters, the Congress and even his own family were deceived, and he was elected overwhelmingly for a fourth term and lived for only a few short months thereafter.

The moral questions before the press now are certainly no less pressing than in the age of Lovejoy. He regarded slavery as an abomination in America and a rebuke to the nation’s proclaimed ideals, but every age has its own form of slavery. Most of the human race lives today under authoritarian governments of one sort or another, which is a form of political slavery. Most of the human family suffers from malnutrition today, which is a form of physical slavery. Most women in the world today are bearing more children than they can nourish or educate, which is a form of sexual slavery. And even in our own and other advanced societies, the cry for “women’s liberation” implies not only inequality but a kind of intellectual and economic slavery.

Lovejoy had a simpler problem but a clearer mind. He thought we had to abolish slavery or be weakened and maybe even destroyed by it, but the problem still exists in different and more subtle forms in the world, many of them beyond our control, but it seems to me we could do with some of Lovejoy’s moral fervor today and even with a more abolitionist spirit about modern slavery in the American press today.

I am not proposing here that we form tonight a world abolitionist society and take to the barricades to impose population control, cheap gas, limitless supplies of food and redistribution of wealth on the world, for these things are obviously beyond our control.

But I am suggesting that economic isolation in the last quarter of the 20th Century could be as dangerous for America as political isolation was during the first two world wars of the first half of the century, and that, even if the press cannot abolish over-population and malnutrition in the world, we should be paying more attention to it than we are.

What we are beginning to see since the oil crisis is that, for the first time in history, a truly global economic system is coming into being. It has long been true that the life of the advanced industrial nations affected the life of the poor nations that depended on our products and bought them at our prices.

Now the poor nations, having learned the simple lesson of supply and demand, are organizing cartels and demanding the highest possible price not only for oil but for other essential raw materials. Thus while it is clear that no nation—not even the United States—can solve the problems of peace, population,, pollution, safety in the skies, trade and monetary stability—-by itself we have not yet adjusted our minds to this emerging interdependent global economic system.

On The New York Times, we put two million words a day through our hands and we print 100,000.

This creates a special problem for newspapers. Hiring and keeping trained people capable of reducing all this complicated diversity to some kind of identity is an expensive business. Also, the news and explanation of those complex matters is often precisely the news people don’t want to read. In fact, probably the most prosperous newspapers today are those who are concentrating on local news in monopoly situations where they can use all the machines of the modern printing revolution without interference by the unions. The big papers worrying about global issues and union conflicts are certainly not encouraged by their earnings to concentrate more money and time on the coming problems of the world.

The press has come through a difficult period in the last few years in fairly good shape, but this in an age of disbelief when all institutions from the church and the university to the press are under attack. In this atmosphere, it will probably be wise for us to be as critical of ourselves as we are of many others.

Let me be more specific. We are very conscious of our rights under the first article of the bill of rights but we have not yet sorted out what to do when the freedom of the press and the freedom or privacy of the individual conflict. In the last few years of the political scandals, for example, we have often been almost reckless in publishing information out of the properly secret proceedings of grand juries. This is bringing us into increasing difficulty with the courts, and one of our shortcomings is that we have no adequate or accepted forum where we can hammer out our own code of ethics. Either we must reach some professional consensus on this or the Congress and the courts will do it for us.

Second, this is not only an age of disbelief and mistrust, but an age of ambiguity, and we are not very good at handling ambiguity. I rather envy Lovejoy. When he was around here, the population of the United States was less than 13 million, now we are over 210 million. It in not easy, even in prosperous times, to find 2 million now jobs every year just to keep up with an expanding work force, or to find houses., schools and other essentials for such an expanding population, or to know exactly what to do when we have inflation, recession, social turmoil and a violent world all at the same time.

In our comments on these intractable problems, I sometimes think we could do with a little more perspective and a little more generosity. For example, we are now in the last year of the third quarter of the 20th century, or the first year of the last quarter, depending on how you read the calendar. In the first quarter of the century, we had to endure the first great world war; in the second quarter, a second world war and a savage world-wide depression, which destroyed the old empires and whatever political order there was. In the third quarter, we had the Korean and Vietnam wars, the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance, and the emergence of Japan and the European Common Market.

But while there were only twenty years between the two world wars that almost wrecked Western Civilization, that civilization has survived and despite the Cold War, we have avoided a world war or catastrophe for more than 30 years. It is right that we should concentrate on our problems, but these positive developments are also news. I am not arguing for journalistic cheerleaders, but editors and commentators are not baseball umpires either, They cannot just shout “ball” or “strike” after each pitch by the President. The problems are too complicated for that.

Your neighbor and my friend and colleague Russ Wiggins has recently pointed out to the Maine State Bar Association that, between 1950 and 1973, the people with civilian jobs in this country increased from 62,208,000 to 83,299,000; median income rose from $5,757 to $11,116; Federal expenditures on education soared from $7 billion annually to $18 billion, home ownership in the fifties and sixties increased from 57 percent to 65 percent.

Now we are in the worst economic recession and perhaps more important, the worst spiritual depression since the second world war, but the record of this country demonstrates that it can solve problems. More than that,, the record shows that its greatest periods of progress have come out of intense conflict. The abolition of slavery which Lovejoy gave his life for came only after a terrible civil war, the abolition of American isolation only after two disastrous world wars, the abolition of a reckless form or capitalism only after the depression of the Thirties, and the abolition Presidential arrogance and defiance of the Constitution only after Vietnam and Watergate. It is, I think, critically important that temporary set-backs at home and abroad do not impair the self-confidence of the American people, and the historical perspective of the American press, radio and television are critical to that confidence.

It is one of the odd paradoxes of America that our people have been the most confident of any in the world, but have always had a weakness for pessimistic predictions. I suppose Walt Whitman was our most confident and hopeful poet, yet over 100 years ago, he wrote the following:

“Never was there perhaps,” he said, “more hollowness at heart than at present and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the states are not believed inŠThe spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women nor the women in the men. The great cities reek with scoundrelism. It is as if we were somehow endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.”

So much for the good old days. The only difference between that and the present mood of pessimism is that the old boys wrote better. In closing I want to concede that we have made many mistakes in the press and have many weaknesses. I think, however, that if Lovejoy were alive today he would be rather proud of the press of America. Our main problem, like that of most institutions, is to gain or regain the confidence of the people. They do not believe in much of anything these days, but they believe in believing. My hope in that in your generation, if not in mine, we can win their trust.

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 colby.edu/lovejoy