James Risen

Investigative Reporter for the New York Times

2014 Convocation Address

Thank you very much. I’m deeply honored. It’s an amazing experience to be up here in front of all of you, and so I have to take a deep breath here, take it in for a minute, and think about it. I haven’t gotten a degree since I actually had to take finals. It’s much better this way, believe me.

I’m really not sure I deserve all of the kind things that have been said about me lately, but it’s a great pleasure to be here at Colby, and I’m deeply honored to receive the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. Frankly, I’m not sure I deserve it, but I will try to live up to it.

This is my first time at Colby, but I feel at home, because I have heard about it so often over the last few years from my editor and friend Rebecca Corbett, who is one of the finest editors in journalism working today, and I owe a great deal to her. Also, I’ve heard a lot about Colby from my colleague Matt Apuzzo, who I think anyone in journalism would tell you is one of the best young reporters in America. He’s regaled me with a lot of his stories about Colby, including today. I got to see the school newspaper offices, which look like every other school newspaper office I’ve ever been in. I know it is a small sample size, but if all your graduates are like Rebecca and Matt, then you’re doing okay.

I also have a soft spot in my heart for Maine, because I remember the first time I came to Maine when I was a little boy and my family was driving through Maine on vacation. My father stopped the car in Augusta. I’m not quite sure why we stopped in Augusta, but my mother, who was very curious about everything, decided that we should all go into the state capital building. I remember it was very empty, and we just started walking around. There was this man walking around and my mother went up to him, as was her wont — she should have been a reporter, actually. She started buttonholing him and asking him all kinds of questions about where to go and what to see in the building. He just decided to take us around, and after a few minutes we realized that he was the governor. It was Kenneth Curtis, and he took us into his office, and he let me sit in his chair. I don’t know whether that meant he was a really nice guy or he was bored, but that was my first-ever encounter with a politician. As far as my experiences with politicians go, it’s been downhill ever since.

I’m really proud to receive this award, not only because of the legendary figures in journalism who have received it before, but because of its namesake, Elijah Lovejoy. I think as both a journalist and someone who likes to study American history, I’ve long considered Lovejoy to be one of my heroes. And today, I think that his story is particularly instructive because it can provide so many parallels to the challenges that we face today, both as journalists and citizens in the post-9/11 world. In fact, I would argue that a study of the pressures that Lovejoy and other abolitionist writers and thinkers faced can help us step back and see more clearly what we are dealing with today in the post-9/11 world.

This may be the one audience in the United States that already knows a lot about Elijah Lovejoy, but I am going to talk about him anyway. He is really underappreciated in American history classes. I doubt very many history students are asked to write term papers about him. But I think that is because he was such an early pioneer. He was a disruptive force; that’s the language that we would use today. He became an abolitionist decades before abolitionism had any impact in the broader society, long before the Civil War overshadowed such early pioneers as Lovejoy. After he graduated from what was then called Waterville College, in 1826, he moved to St. Louis, then returned briefly to Princeton to study at a seminary, and became a minister in St. Louis. As a minister he decided to publish a religious newspaper called the St. Louis Observer. He started out as a religious publisher but his hatred of slavery, which was all around him in St. Louis at the time, led him to begin to write about the need to abolish this institution in the 1830s. Just stand back and think about this. He was openly opposing slavery, publishing articles opposed to slavery three decades before the Civil War.

By doing so, he was committing the dangerous sin of challenging the conventional wisdom of his day.

Missouri was a slave state. It is hard for us, in the twenty-first century, to get back into the mindset of antebellum America, but at the time the acceptance of slavery as a legally protected institution was the mainstream view, not just in the South but in the North as well. While there were political debates about how far into the new western territories and states slavery should be allowed to extend, there was virtually no debate at the time in mainstream political circles about the outright abolition of slavery in the states in which it already existed.

Remember, even in 1860, thirty years after Lovejoy, when Abraham Lincoln ran for president, he did not oppose or call for the abolition of slavery. His position was that slavery should be allowed to continue in the South. His argument — which was enough at the time, thirty years after Lovejoy was writing, enough to send the South to secession — was only to say that slavery should not be allowed to be extended into the west. And so in the 1830s, when Elijah Lovejoy began to speak out against slavery in his newspaper, the mainstream press in America was never questioning slavery. And certainly not in Missouri, which had been the subject, a decade earlier, of a bitter congressional debate that led to the Missouri compromise, which allowed slavery to exist, legally protected, in the state in which Lovejoy lived.

When he was beginning to advocate for the freeing of the slaves, the abolitionist movement had not yet become a significant political force, certainly not what it became in subsequent decades. The handful of people in the country like Lovejoy who advocated for abolition were considered dangerous radicals, so far outside the mainstream of political and intellectual thought of their time that their mental stability was questioned.

By calling for an end to slavery, they were challenging a bedrock political assumption of the United States. The American economy, both north and south, including merchants in Boston as well as the planters in South Carolina, was dependent on slavery, either directly or indirectly, and so a basic prerequisite to being taken seriously in American politics at the time was to accept the continuation of state-supported slavery. To print attacks on slavery meant you were attacking the laws of the United States, and by publicly attacking the laws of the United States you were nothing more than a criminal. And if you were a criminal, you were exposed to the whims of the crowd.

In the 1830s, the conventional wisdom in support of slavery was just as strong in the North as in the South, and Elijah Lovejoy was not the only radical abolitionist facing danger. In 1838 in Philadelphia, an abolitionist building called Liberty Hall was burned down by a mob, and the city’s fire department refused to put out the fire. In 1836 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a mob destroyed the printing presses of an abolitionist newspaper, triggering riots throughout the city for several days by pro-slavery mobs.

Even religious groups long considered to be progressive were at the time fully supportive of slavery. In 1836, Sarah Grimke, of Charleston, S.C., was rebuked by her Quaker community when she sought to discuss abolitionism at a Quaker meeting.

And so, by challenging slavery in a slave state like Missouri, Elijah Lovejoy showed special courage. If it was dangerous to be an open abolitionist in the North in the 1830s, it was lethal to do so in a slave state. In fact as late as the early twentieth century it is said that some schoolteachers in South Carolina made their students swear that they had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1836, his newspaper’s presses, while he was still trying to publish in St. Louis, were wrecked by pro-slavery mobs in St. Louis. Elijah Lovejoy was at a crossroads. What should he do now? Should he continue down this path of openly challenging the conventional wisdom and the law of the land?

Years before she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe knew and respected Elijah Lovejoy, and it was her brother, Edward, who was the head, then, of Illinois College, who encouraged Elijah Lovejoy to leave St. Louis and the pressures he was facing from the angry public and move across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, so that he could continue to publish his abolitionist newspaper in a free state.

In November 1837, Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton while he was trying to protect his newspaper’s new printing press. After he was killed, the mob broke his press into pieces and scattered the pieces in the Mississippi River.

Of course we now know that Elijah Lovejoy was on the right side of history; in 1897 Alton, Illinois, erected a monument to him.

But today, I think it is important to study Lovejoy and the other early abolitionist writers like William Lloyd Garrison and see what it’s really like to challenge the cement-like certainty of the conventional wisdom of the day, especially when it is constantly being reinforced by a mainstream press.

Today, we have a wonderful, glowing image of Elijah Lovejoy. But I would ask you to stop and think about our own times. Whatever your political persuasion or religious or cultural beliefs, think for a moment about the writer or blogger or television pundit or political activist that you hate the most. Somebody who really makes your blood boil every time you see them on television. Somebody you think is so outrageous in what they say that they must hate everything about contemporary America society.

That’s Elijah Lovejoy.

I can very easily imagine Elijah Lovejoy engaging in bitter Twitter feuds with his adversaries today.

It is difficult to recognize the limits a society places on accepted thought at the time it is doing it. When everyone accepts basic assumptions, they don’t seem to be constraints on ideas. That truth often only reveals itself in hindsight.

And so today, those who really challenge the basic assumptions of the modern American society are often considered just as dangerous, just as criminal, as the abolitionists.

The conventional wisdom of our day is the belief that we have had to change the nature of our society to accommodate the global war on terror. Incrementally over the last thirteen years, Americans have easily accepted a transformation of their way of life because they have been told that it is necessary to keep them safe. Americans now slip off their shoes on command at airports, have accepted the secret targeted killings of other Americans without due process, have accepted the use of torture and the creation of secret offshore prisons, have accepted mass surveillance of their personal communications, and accepted the longest continual period of war in American history. Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistleblowers who try to bring any of the government’s actions to light.

Americans have accepted this new reality with hardly a murmur. Today, the basic prerequisite to being taken seriously in American politics is to accept the legitimacy of the new national security state that has been created since 9/11. The new basic American assumption is that there really is a need for a global war on terror. Anyone who doesn’t accept that basic assumption is considered dangerous and maybe even a traitor.

Today, the U.S. government treats whistleblowers as criminals, much like Elijah Lovejoy, because they want to reveal uncomfortable truths about the government’s actions. And the public and the mainstream press often accept and champion the government’s approach, viewing whistleblowers as dangerous fringe characters because they are not willing to follow orders and remain silent.

The crackdown on leaks by first the Bush administration and more aggressively by the Obama administration, targeting both whistleblowers and journalists, has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror. This government campaign of censorship has come with the veneer of the law. Instead of mobs throwing printing presses in the Mississippi River, instead of the creation of the kind of “enemies lists” that President Richard Nixon kept, the Bush and Obama administrations have used the Department of Justice to do their bidding. But the effect is the same — the attorney general of the United States has been turned into the nation’s chief censorship officer. Whenever the White House or the intelligence community get angry about a story in the press, they turn to the Justice Department and the FBI and get them to start a criminal leak investigation, to make sure everybody shuts up.

What the White House wants is to establish limits on accepted reporting on national security and on the war on terror. By launching criminal investigations of stories that are outside the mainstream coverage, they are trying to, in effect, build a pathway on which journalism can be conducted. Stay on the interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems. Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.

Journalists have no choice but to fight back, because if they don’t they will become irrelevant.

I know what Elijah Lovejoy would do.

Thank you.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Fellow

James Risen
James Risen

James Risen, an investigative reporter for the New York Times who said he’d sooner go to jail than divulge confidential sources, praised abolitionist and newspaper editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy as a “disruptive force,” and he criticized the Obama administration for its crackdown on journalists and whistleblowers as he received Colby’s Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism Oct. 5.

Risen reviewed Lovejoy’s career and martyrdom, praising him for rejecting deeply ingrained conventional wisdom to criticize slavery three decades before the Civil War—at a time when abolitionism was at the fringe of American discourse.

“The conventional wisdom of our day is the belief that we have had to change the nature of our society to accommodate the global war on terror,” Risen said. Americans have accepted a transformation and have accepted secret targeted killings of other Americans, the use of torture, the creation of secret offshore prisons, mass surveillance of personal communications, and the longest continuous period of war in American history, he said.

“Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistleblowers who try to bring any of the government’s actions to light,” Risen said. “The crackdown on leaks by first the Bush administration and more aggressively by the Obama administration, targeting both whistleblowers and journalists, has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror.”

The convocation, where Risen received the award and an honorary doctor of laws degree, followed a daylong Goldfarb Center conference for college and university journalists from across New England.

A panel discussion in the afternoon discussed how the absence of a federal shield law protecting journalists, coupled with escalating prosecutions, has placed enormous pressures on reporters and news outlets. Panelists included Siobhan Gorman, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal; Thomas Drake, a whistleblower fired from the NSA; and Fritz Byers, a lawyer who advises newspapers and is a lecturer at the University of Toledo. Rebecca Corbett ’74, assistant managing editor for the New York Times and a member of the Lovejoy Award selection committee, served as moderator.

In a Q&A following his address, Risen defended leaks and journalists’ use of confidential sources: “Since 9/11, virtually everything that you now know about the war on terror was originally classified. This is the first war we’ve ever fought that was classified.” He credited journalists and whistleblowers who revealed the use of Predator drones, secret prisons, and abuse at Abu Graib.

“There’s virtually nothing in the whole history of the last thirteen years that came out of an official government press release,” he said. “It all came out through the press and through whistleblowers. If you go back and if you took away all of the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the last thirteen years. If you would rather live in a society in which you don’t know anything, then that’s the alternative.”

James Risen
James Risen

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