Well, there are problems. First of all, there are fewer and fewer speeches in political campaigns in part because we in the press have gotten out of the habit of reporting speeches even when they are made. And there is less and less said about the subjects that people really care about. We have to do what we can to remedy that situation, recognizing in advance, that it is not going to be much. The agenda setting function of the press is limited, and that is probably a healthy thing for a society that it is limited. But the fact that we have limited power does not excuse us from trying to use that influence to the extent that we can-in ways that help move the dialogue back to the public concern. I think we ought to start each election cycle as reporters, in the precincts with the voters themselves. Talking to them face-to-face, finding out what is on their mind, we then ought, to the extent possible, let their concerns set our agenda, influence the questions that we take to the candidates in the press conferences, and help determine how we use the space in our newspaper and the air time on our broadcasts.
Now that is far easier said than done. But at the moment, I’m still engaged in a pretty active argument even within the newspaper business about trying to get people to think differently. This is something that we might even try to do. It may come as a surprise to you, it certainly came as a surprise to me, that editors are surprised at the suggestion that it would be a healthy thing to get reporters out into the neighborhoods talking to people.
Let me tell you finally why I think that kind of exercise would have some very healthy side-benefits for the field of journalism. It is an uncomfortable fact for those of us in that field, that the gap, the distrusts, the credibility problem is not simply a problem between elected officials and citizens. It is every bit as big between the press in all its forms and its audience, its readers, its viewers, its listeners. That gap between journalism and readers has grown because as income and education standards have improved in our profession we have gotten away from our working-class roots. I am not going to stand here at Colby College and make a foolish argument that all of us would be better off if newsrooms were once again filled with itinerant drunks who couldn’t get any other kind of job and stayed in that town or that paper only until they’d been drunk so often that they got laid off and moved on to the next town. That is not the model which I would hope to see us go back to.
I do think that all of us in our business could benefit from getting back into closer touch with the people in our audience. And that is something that would come as a side effect of the kind of reporting I’m talking about. I know that this is a particular danger in Washington where we are in fact much too clubby with the people that we cover. But I suspect that it’s a threat elsewhere–even perhaps in Augusta or Portland or Bangor or Waterville. And here by this circuitous route I come-back to the man whose name we honor in this ceremony tonight. Because the Lovejoy story really has two dimensions to it which fit I hope with the point I’ve tried, in this vague and rambling way, to make here this evening. Elijah Parish Lovejoy was of vital importance to American journalism and American society for two reasons. First, because he demonstrated, in the most difficult circumstances possible, his readiness to engage himself in the great issue of his time. But equally important, he showed his understanding and his readiness to stand apart, to remove himself a little bit from the dominant view and value of his community. [And by showing that community itself, through his critical eye, to help that community come to grips with the moral crisis that slavery presented to it and we should not delude ours elves that the legacy of slavery presents every bit as much to American society today. sic] That’s why I was so pleased and honored to be part of this and that is why I want to commend all of you at Colby and all of you in this community for what you do to keep the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy alive in America today. Thank you very much.