W. E. Chilton III

President and Publisher, The Charleston Gazette

1982 Convocation Address

As my presence on this stage demonstrates, I accept the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award. I accept it gladly, and am most grateful to those who selected me. Were it in my power to do so, their fullface likenesses would now be chiseled on a mountainside in South Dakota, near those other great Americans. I also accept this award for the newspaper of which I am publisher. I don’t know how old an enterprise has to be to become an institution but the Charleston Gazette is 110 years old and by doing me honor you do it honor as well as its reporters, editors and other staff members, both past and present. Finally, let’s not forget the Gazette‘s reading public who have all these years put up with our failures, our follies and our flippancies in relatively good humor.

I speak to you tonight as a working newsman. My experience, save for the occasional television appearance and for one year as a weekly two-to-three minute commentator about the passing scene on a local television station, has been wholly newspaper. When I use the word press I mean newspaper, not radio or television. I’m not disparaging either of those, but the broadcasting media are in their infancy and still exploring how best to present news and opinion to listeners and to viewers.

When I use the word press I mean newspaper, not radio or television.

My comments tonight will focus first on the eventual absorption of newspapers by television and then on what believe the press, as keeper of the tablets, must do to assure that first amendment freedoms are passed intact to those who will inherit its responsibilities to keep this society informed and free, reading, as we know it today, I’m convinced, will become a lost skill — not unlike some skills that once flourished in Europe and are lost to the modern world: skills that gave us Flemish tapestries, the stained glass windows in the cathedral at Chartres and Pompeii red.

When Colby College’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy was publishing his newspaper and surrendering his life for his principles, the world was, by today’s yardstick, uncomplicated. Our world becomes increasingly complicated with each tick of the clock. The sum of human knowledge, measured by a library’s reference material, doubles each decade, and this rate of acquiring knowledge won’t slacken. It is much more likely that during your lifetime it will be doubling every five, perhaps even every three years.

One development helping to produce the knowledge explosion is the cybernetic revolution, with which the western world is having to cope. When I first worked at the Gazette our most automated pieces of equipment were a linotype, a press, and a typewriter. Today the Gazette is wholly dependent upon a computer plus a back-up computer. If both developed terminal terminosis, our newspaper couldn’t publish the next morning.

Linked to the cybernetic revolution has been the gradual aging of television. I was twenty-six years old and had circled the world as an Air Force enlisted man before encountering my first television set. I’m not a TV addict, but more and more Americans are watching television. Moreover, more and more Americans are hearing it first on television, and, if not there, on radio. If the research of Belden Associates and other firms is accurate, 25 percent of the American public doesn’t read a newspaper.

The newspaper industry is changing. The product is changing. Advertising clearly plays a more important role in a newspaper than it ever did. Many subscribers buy a newspaper for the advertising, especially on days food coupons appear and retail grocer advertising is heavy. This is an unpalatable fact for those occupying editorial offices, when was the last time anybody in this audience heard of a newspaper putting out an extra? The cost is too great, and when drama justifying an extra occurs, people are huddled about their television set or listening to radio. By the time the extra is on the streets, its news is stale and other elements of the drama have developed and been seen on television. The immediacy of television can’t be surpassed. To counter broadcasting’s impact newspapers have changed the editorial product and mix: less hard news, more features, more photographs more prominently displayed, more graphics, more question and answer interviews, more interpretative stories. Yet, I’m convinced that ultimately the newspaper that we know today will be absorbed by television. The absorption process will be slow and gradual but relentless. Many people don’t agree with this forecast. Ruth Clark of the Yankelovich polling and public relations firm says that the print medium has many good years ahead. Some newspaper defenders point to the proliferation of cable television as a great blessing. For the immediate future the multiplication of cable television outlets well may hurt establishment television, particularly network television, more than newspapers. Market fragmentation doubtless does benefit newspaper advertising departments. For the long term however, the multiplicity of television outlets means that video is bringing to viewers data and information from myriad fields and sources never previously covered. How this can be interpreted as good news for newspapers eludes me. How many of you saw the announcement from officials at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh that by 1985 the school’s 8,000 to 9,000 students and teachers will be required to own their own terminals that will be plugged into the university’s main computer and library? After graduation, students will have access all their lives to their alma mater’s computer from anywhere in the United States. Carnegie-Mellon’s president said his university’s computer system should offer student 50 percent more information throughout a four year period than is offered today, and thus a student’s productivity is certain to improve.

Technology is unyielding. Additionally, technology moves in accord with its own laws and momentum, which human beings adapt to whether we want to or not. An aside: if we don’t adapt to nuclear power and eschew nuclear war, our species, if not our world, may become extinct. Indeed, I have often wondered if a predecessor to pre-historic man invented nuclear power and proceeded to do what our world keeps threatening to do.

Yet, I’m convinced that ultimately the newspaper that we know today will be absorbed by television.

Television’s revolutionary properties, predicted by Marshall McLuhan, are changing the western world. Words of another prophet are provoking wrenching re-adjustments throughout American industry. Two decades ago Robert Theobald said that automation shortly would disturb this nation’s work force and habits. His message received much publicity and then promptly was forgotten because it didn’t happen instantaneously. Twenty years in the continuum of time doesn’t constitute a blip, and what Theobald said would happen is happening. During prosperous times industries ignore some featherbedding and retain loyal workers, but with the arrival or a recession, depression, whatever, a ruthless pruning ensues. Today, this pruning is being achieved, and no matter to what height the economy rebounds numberless industrial jobs have vanished forever.

Currently newspapers are the nation’s largest industrial employers — an appropriate circumstance for a society supposedly on the threshold of an information-service economy. But the same technology that has yielded this circumstance will, if I’m correct, merge us with television. It’s essential that newspapers bring to television the first amendment freedoms newspapers have cultivated to assure that these freedoms aren’t eroded or through disuse disappear.

Meanwhile, newspapers have some substantial problems they must combat. Last year’s Lovejoy fellow, A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, detailed the press’s difficulties with the judiciary. Those difficulties haven’t improved in the past year. This spring, William Ketter of the Quincy Patriot-Ledger interviewed judges attending a school in Reno run by the judicial council to upgrade that profession. Ketter was not struck by the judges’ dedication to first amendment principles. To the contrary many judges couldn’t wait to get a case to stick it to the press.

The burger court, it is manifest, doesn’t have the passionate commitment to Sullivan versus Times that the Warren court had. Stare decisis, as the Warren court itself established in some of its decisions, only is as strong as the court referring to the principle or upsetting it on grounds perhaps arcane but easily located in musty legal tomes by law school graduates who are judges’ clerks.

I have a hunch newspapers will witness an upsurge in libel suits. Fortunately no evidence confirms my hunch. In the 1970s the gross number of libel actions rose smartly above the total of the 1960s but the early years of the 80s reveal no untoward increase.

What to do about libel? Wish I knew, I’m a Blackian, but my society decrees otherwise. To avert libel suits isn’t difficult, but to do so doesn’t comport with a newspaper’s duty to watch government and governors. I long have advocated that newspapers sued frivolously or to silence them should strike back, not against the individual bringing the suit — he doesn’t know the law — but against the lawyer, who in many cases doesn’t know libel law either but should know it. Too few lawyers are skilled in libel. Why should newspapers have to pay the cost of training ignorant attorneys? Newspapers’ legal fees are high enough as is. If lawyers accustomed to taking libel cases contingent upon winning believe that they or their firms may be sued in the event they don’t win, these lawyers might spend more time researching the law and thereby learn they have no case, lawyers don’t enjoy being sued, neither do they relish suing another lawyer, as I have learned. But suits can be initiated. The Gazettehas a suit against a former president of the American Trial Lawyer’s Association. And earlier in the year I demanded that our lawyer bring suit against a lawyer if that lawyer prosecuted a suit he had brought against us.

The details are these: the Gazette published a story about a politically appointed county probation officer who had been indicted for, but not convicted of, vote fraud. The story wasn’t complimentary but was documented by governmental actions. The politician sued us for libel. Three months later he was indicted again on a charge of falsifying civil service examinations for deputy sheriffs who were political friends of his. The county is 75 miles away. To answer the libel complaint necessitated that our lawyer and the reporter who wrote the story travel to the county in which we were sued. Such travel costs us money and time and the politician nothing if the lawyer has the case on a contingency fee basis.

This is unfair. I insisted that we sue the politician’s lawyer in our county, were we forced to show up in his county to answer the libel accusation. Our lawyer called the other lawyer and delivered this message. The initial hearing date was canceled and no new one has been set. When I called our libel lawyer to check details of the case last week, he informed that me that the lawyer for the politician is now seeking permission from his client to drop the case, if we agree not to sue lawyer and client for abuse of process. One mitigating factor is that the lawyer was one-and-a-half years out of law school when he brought the suit, had he known libel law or researched it before suing us, he very likely wouldn’t have sued, and I’m positive if he had thought he might be sued, he would have been even less likely to waste our time and his.

Another problem with the judiciary is worsening: when should a reporter testify? Our present policy — one i’ll quickly concede is far from satisfactory — is to fight every subpoena on the theory that if we don’t our reporters will spend more time in courtrooms or at a lawyer’s beck and call than on their beats. But isn’t fighting every subpoena arrogance?

Another problem for newspapers certain to worsen before improving is privacy.

Our former policy allowed reporters to determine the paper’s policy. The reporter wishing to answer a subpoena did so; the reporter who didn’t fought the subpoena with Gazette assistance. The policy could and did meet itself coming and going, and that’s bad policy for newspapers who don’t hesitate to criticize government, institutions and individuals for their inconsistencies.

Another problem for newspapers certain to worsen before improving is privacy. In a free society, one of whose principal tenets is that justice should be equal for all, how far does the right of privacy extend to the private citizen? This is an issue still in dispute and still being hammered out by judicial decree.

In these matters newspapers sometimes are their own worst enemies. Too many newspapers think that acknowledging a mistake is to sign a pact with Mephistopheles. Why not acknowledge error? Realize that if a libel is involved acknowledgment of a mistake doesn’t mitigate the libel.

Yet from the practical standpoint won’t most American juries be more inclined to deal sympathetically with a newspaper admitting error than one that doesn’t? A Ben Bagdikian, veteran press critic who today teaches on the University of California campus at Berkeley, years ago predicted that newspapers would publish correction columns. In fact, he envisioned the day when these columns would be followed by correction columns that corrected booboos and blunders cropping up in the original correction column. Does Bagdikian’s crystal ball need cleaning or are most newspapers declining to carry out his recommendation? For what it’s worth the gazette corrects all errors brought to our attention on the front page under a one word heading: correction. More papers are adopting this policy, but the nation’s leading newspapers are loath to do so. In my opinion they err not to lead this parade, not only is admitting a mistake the decent act but also is it an excellent way to tell the public our hearts are pure. Americans like sinners who confess sins.

All freedoms, even those of a free society, rest ultimately with the people. One of the frightening contradictions forever confronting a free people is the freedom to abolish their own freedom. Freedom of the press as spelled out in the first amendment, depends finally upon the people and their willingness to suffer it. The press has contributed hugely to America’s freedoms. Contributions resulting from publishing the Pentagon papers and the Watergate exposé are but two spectacular examples. Hundreds, no, thousands, of less sensational but nevertheless important examples can be cited: because of an appeal by Richmond newspapers Chief Justice Burger for the majority said the right of the people to attend criminal trials is absolute; because of Idaho’s Twin Falls Gazette a sizable insurance scandal was made public. Because of the work of aMiami Herald reporter the scheduled execution of two men was postponed and the men later freed; because of Baton Rouge’s Morning Advocate the public learned that a police chief accepted payoffs from bar owners, gamblers and prostitutes.

It isn’t just giant newspapers that fight the good fight. In each of the fifty states examples can be unearthed of crusades waged by small newspapers who, like village hampdens, the little tyrants of their fields withstand. These newspapers expose public corruption, tell taxpayers how their money is misspent, open for public inspection public documents, inhibit by their presence the machinations of elected officials–in short make a nuisance of themselves to the bureaucracy and to officialdom, which is exactly what the forefathers had in mind when they put the first amendment five amendments ahead of the sixth amendment — which the judiciary, not surprisingly puts ahead of the first amendment when these two amendments clash. Say not surprisingly, because were I charged with interpreting law, would be tempted to favor my profession over the legal profession and its clients.

The list of what newspapers have done to retain and to expand public freedoms has no end, but the role of public censuring agent can be dangerous, as Lovejoy learned with his life. Despite its contributions to the public wealth, the press today doesn’t enjoy the public good will it basked in a decade ago. Is the press at fault for its own loss of luster with the American people?

Of course it is. The same two newspapers who gave their compatriots Watergate and the Pentagon papers more recently have given them Janet Cooke and a superb story about Cambodia, except the reporter neglected to visit the country whence came his on-the-scene report. Are newspapers as willing to accept criticism and print criticism about themselves as they are to dish it out? I think not. In addition, newspapers aren’t as eager or as quick to mix it up with other newspapers as they are other institutions in their society. Why? No newspaper is always correct. Last may, Michael J. O’Neill in his talk — “The Power of the Press” — to the American Society of Newspaper Editors dared to think the unthinkable about his peers. A month hence, at a symposium sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, O’Neill and his peers, led by Gene Patterson, will engage in a frank and open exchange of ideas. I want a transcript of the proceedings, and I hope the transcript receives broad dissemination. Meanwhile, I commend this advice from O’Neill to all newspapers, big and small, and I quote: “Our best defense against opponents, our best bet for strengthening reader credibility, is an openness of mind that encourages both self-examination and outside criticism. With this psychic base, we can expect editors–miracle of miracles–to respond more constructively to complaints, reporters to be more accepting of direction and correction. We can expect a more aggressive pursuit of fairness and a willingness to provide a more effective right of reply than letters to the editor or an occasional op-ed piece.”

The list of what newspapers have done to retain and to expand public freedoms has no end, but the role of public censuring agent can be dangerous, as Lovejoy learned with his life.

How many of us plead guilty–don a cloak of righteousness when either defending the first amendment or attacking others in pursuit of first amendment rights? True, the press is often caught foul regardless of what it does or doesn’t do in these matters. If the press won’t stand up and fight for its own rights, as declared in the first amendment, who will? But the press must be ever vigilant not to be arrogant. And the press never, never should exploit the first amendment to avoid legitimate taxes or to amass unholy profit. No, profit isn’t an obscene term, but exploiting the first amendment for the sake of money is to profane what authors of this article had in mind.

To publish a good newspaper requires good reporters, good editors, good photographers, good designers, and good equipment, which in turn demand that a newspaper be profitable. It worries me, however, to read that media stocks are among the nation’s hottest growth and profit properties, keepers of the tablets shouldn’t have to go around in sackcloth but neither should they be wrapped in ermine.

Newspapers are selling for higher prices that an attic full of fine paintings these days and usually to chain operations. An industry characterized by small, family owned companies is now the chattel of big corporations. A Rand Corporation study released two weeks ago said that 70 percent of all newspaper firms are subsidiaries of larger corporations and 70 percent of the daily newspaper circulation is shared by 155 chains. This concentration continues, and i see nothing on the horizon to brake it.

Is concentration of the media bad? Emphatically yes.

The abiding sadness of American newspapers is that too frequently the local newspaper acquired by the large chain is improved. But chain journalism leads to a stilling of voices, and a free society need its voices to inform, to preach, to criticize, to float good ideas — bad ideas, too, since how will we recognize a good idea if we can’t test it against a bad one? — To amuse, to recommend–all of which is done to prevent softening of the brain and a withering of freedoms. Since 1978, 32 dailies have merged with their rivals, and invariably the merging is presented to the public as a wondrous journalistic advancement, but the truth is that 32 voices have been silenced.

The silencing, I fear, has just started.

Newspapers are an endangered species whose heritage and whose final days can serve to keep alive this nation’s most important asset: its freedom. Without quibble, the United States is the freest society in the world. Possibly not the most civilized, but assuredly the freest. Newspapers have helped extend and protect this happy condition and in so doing have continued the tradition that Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Colby’s famous alumnus, helped create. Picking the Charleston Gazette and me as symbols of that tradition is a rare honor and one, i hope, that we both will do our best always to be worthy of.

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