Chuck Plunkett

Denver Post Editorial Page Editor

2018 Convocation Address

PUTTING THE VULTURES ON NOTICE: What if Elijah Parish Lovejoy ran his newspaper merely to get rich?

Good evening. Thank you all so very much for coming out tonight, and for supporting quality journalism over corporate greed. Particularly local journalism, as will be our focus. This may sound like a grateful exaggeration, but it shouldn’t: My life has been forever changed for the better since I got the call from David Shribman that Colby College would bestow an award and honorary degree in the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. I’d known about Lovejoy. I was told of his astonishingly high-bar example during the fraught aftermath of our News-matters Perspective, the special Denver Post section that gathers us here. Thinking about Lovejoy’s completely selfless service to truth, to freedom and to the profession, to all that’s right and good about America’s grand democratic experiment, can’t help but deepen one’s thinking about what’s important in life. Thinking about Elijah Lovejoy can get you through the hard times.

Humblest appreciations, David, and heartfelt thanks also to the members of the selection committee and trustees. Thank you for all you are doing President Greene. Thank you Colby College. Thanks to Patrice Franko, Sherry Berard and the Goldfarb Center.

Had those interested in seeing the advancement of a strong, vigorous and independent press not responded so positively to what we did from The Denver Post editorial pages, our clarion call would have fizzled to the raw equivalent of a career-ruining “never mind.” It means the world that an institution like Colby would bestow this unparalleled tribute to help advance our effort.

Thank you.

Earlier this summer, I became certain it would be possible to structure this entire lecture as one long list of thanks.

Thanks to The Denver Post. Thanks to the journalists I’ve worked with. The newsrooms I’ve been lucky enough to write for.

My wife, Genine. She stood with me. She said it was the right thing to do. She gave it her blessing. Thank you Genine!

The writers who joined our News-matters mutiny, the Denver Rebellion as it is now known, obviously deserve praise. So do those who worked more secretly.

My parents were so pleased they came up all the way from Little Rock. (By the way, my father, an accountant by trade, particularly appreciates the honorary degree!)

Thank you Mom and Dad, for demanding that I keep in mind the biblical advice all my formative years that to whom much is given, much is expected.

So many good people to thank. Could I manage such a lecture? A long list of thanks?

Don’t worry! Listicles never caught on with me.

My goal tonight is to inspire you to attempt the seemingly impossible. As an editor, that was always part of the job. The responsibility continues now that I’ve become Professor Plunkett to students of journalism. (Thank you University of Colorado Boulder!) I hope to inspire each of you to think seriously about the challenges facing our communities as so many of our local newsrooms face neglect and abuse. While we focus on the damage wrought by vulture capitalists, there are also the social media companies who benefit from our work but soak up most of the revenue. And this continued belief in too many quarters that the news ought to be thought of as free must change. What’s to be done? What is a community’s responsibility to making sure it is being properly informed? How can you support local journalism and demand better?

So if I may, and I do apologize, given that we are in a chapel, I’d like to capture a slice of the kind of energy that’s needed here. I’d like you to turn to your neighbor and say, and say it newsroom-style.

“Let’s kick some ass!”

Now wasn’t that fun? Let’s say it together.

What if you learned that the pricey craft brew down the street was skimping on its hops? If the nearby coffee roaster charged top dollar for generic beans?

Or this one from Mike Littwin, a legendary columnist in Colorado. To be the owner of a professional sports team, you have to commit to at least the basic number of players. And if you’re going to profit from being considered the paper of record, you ought to be responsible enough, at the bare minimum, to provide the staffing it takes to attempt the job. (After our News-matters Perspective ran, Littwin published a column that called me a journalistic superhero, and I’d always thought he considered me a snot-nosed neophyte. Thank you Mike Littwin!)

But somewhere along the way hedge funds like Alden Global Capital started buying up newsrooms, and they’ve not proven to be the kinds of business people who try to improve or even sustain the quality of the product.

Now many local newspapers are skimpy things, full of “content” instead of serious journalism, and less and less from actual newsroom employees. They say their digital offerings are

better. And newsrooms like The Denver Post do continue to punch above their weight. But the quality is diminished online, too. And we see the direction this is going.

Lots of single-source or thinly reported articles. Too many promising young journalists turned to desk jockeys barely able to dig in, put on quotas for clicks. Seasoned journalists fed up and quitting. Diminishment across all departments. Insiders at the top levels of Denver and Colorado government tell me elected officials, political appointees and bureaucrats are getting lazy. They’re making mistakes and not getting caught, and it’s feeding an awfully negative feedback loop indeed.

Let’s look at what’s happening in Colorado. It’s happening across the land.

The Denver Post newsroom held nearly 300 journalists when I started in 2003. It sure looked like a destination paper. The now-defunct Rocky Mountain News remained a fierce competitor with more than 200 journalists. By the time Alden Global Capital took control of one of the largest newspaper chains in the country – of which The Post served as a flagship – the Rocky was long gone and The Post had dwindled below 200. Not to worry, the chain’s management company, Digital First Media, told us. We would retool. We would become a newsroom of the 21st century.

We went through the process. We did it well.

Then weird things began to happen. An editorial cartoonist won a Pulitzer Prize. He was gone in a year, along with several others during an Alden-ordered buyout. The newsroom won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting. It also was a finalist for its coverage of massive forest fires. We were thanked with the loss of 20 more positions. The cuts came no matter that we hit the page-view targets. Targets set impossibly high.

Greg Moore, a champion The Post’s former owner lured from The Boston Globe, resigned. Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor, soon followed.

We consolidated space to reduce our lease. We did it again, and brought the advertising department into the newsroom, once a serious no-no in our profession. We left downtown Denver and most of us moved into the printing plant.

Our managing editor resigned. The publisher to whom I reported directly also left.

Almost immediately word came we would cut 30 more positions from the 100 remaining.

To paraphrase The New York Times’ Dean Baquet, asking a newsroom of 70 folks to cover a city the size of Denver, a state

the size of Colorado, is ridiculous. A profound example of the crisis facing local newsrooms today.

Alden Global Capital sits atop the Lipstick Building in Manhattan. Its CEO, Heath Freeman, expanded a mansion in East Hampton during our preparations for the News-matters Perspective. He once bought a famous basketball player’s jersey for nearly $120,000. Alden’s Randall D. Smith owns 16 mansions in Palm Beach.

They’ve slashed the size of their newsrooms at twice the national rate, and reap profits approaching 20 percent, well above those enjoyed by other owners. And they’ve been subsidizing investments in entities that have nothing to do with journalism with their newsroom profits and pension funds. (Thank you to the media reporters, like Ken Doctor, Margaret Sullivan and Julie Reynolds, who have documented these abuses.)

To me it is a moral issue. If you own a newsroom, you own a quasi-public institution vital to the maintenance of society. You own a piece of the American democratic experiment. You must invest in that newsroom for the public good. That’s the price of admission. That saying about money being the best way to keep score is all wrong. Success as a human being should be

about so much more than mansions and sports memorabilia worth more than most families make in a year.

The consequences of breaking the public’s trust for fast profits are considerable. When you constantly degrade the quality of your offerings, your readers see what’s happening. They feel it, and they feel betrayed. Not only have you insulted your core readers, you’ve poisoned the well for the next generation, who see no reason to ever take you seriously again. Meanwhile, you’ve left a community without a paper of record, and fueled the flames of the disasters that come with a poorly informed and therefore easily misled populace.

Does anyone think that the enemy-of-the-people hostility directed against journalists these days is absent hurt feelings from that betrayal?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the university mission. A few weeks after our special section, the student paper at Heath Freeman’s alma mater, Duke University, published an editorial titled “Shame on Freeman,” to welcome a visit to campus. The student journalists suggested Freeman re-read the university’s honor code. They reminded him, much as my parents might have, that to whom much is given, much is expected. That the goal of a higher education – the whole point of it – is to use your many privileges not just to better your situation, but to benefit

society. Not to become the worst example of excess money can buy.

But didn’t I say I wanted to be inspiring? Well, a good editor summarizes the challenges ahead.

Many people I’ve talked to since we pulled off the Denver Rebellion want to know how in the world we secretly assembled a package of nine columns centered around a tell-it-from-the-mountain editorial that called out the owners. How did we manage to publish the section not only online, but in the actual newspaper. How did we force Alden Global Capital to deliver the News-matters Perspective right to readers’ doorsteps, or at least somewhere on the front lawn.

They want to understand it, given the checks and balances that news organizations construct to prevent non-authorized publication from occurring. What did it take to break the heavy chain of command?

(Without doubt, that story is an exhilarating cliffhanger. So if any of you are interested, please ask in the Q&A.)

But for now I want to talk about the deeper question of how. It’s the question thinking about Lovejoy raises. When you know you will face serious and difficult consequences, how do you summon the courage it will take to move forward?

If our overarching goal as professionals, as scholars, as good citizens, is to act boldly to advance the mission of serving humanity, then we must know how to overcome the fears that stand in the way.

What I learned is that overcoming fear meant fulfilling an obligation. Our responsibility is to the truth and to the readers, not to the special interests or elected officials, not the powerful who run things in our community, not even to the people who sign our paychecks.

A proud tradition of the editorial page, especially, is that we call out anyone or any institution we consider a bad actor, or threat.

Another motivator, we wanted to avenge the victims. To make the plea forcefully and publicly while there was still a chance to save the newsroom. We published the weekend before the first round of the 30 layoffs took place.

You feel loyal to all the editors and producers, reporters and photographers, videographers and graphic artists, the designers and the copy editors, the researchers, the editorial assistants, that newsroom in your mind filled with the people past and present you learned from and worked with all these years (like a family to you, and all that that means) who so helped create the journalist you turned out to be. You know

they would want you to take the unique opportunity you see before you, and sound the alarm.

Here’s a fun story about our interaction with those atop the Lipstick Building. (And you know, you can put lipstick on a pig.) Woody Paige, an ESPN commentator, and then a Denver Post sports columnist, was in New York on business with Digital First Media. In the neighborhood, he thought he would stop by and meet the new owners. Shake hands like professionals. Alden’s receptionist rang up security. A guard ushered Paige down to the street.

Paige would later reflect: “That was my first indication that this was not a newspaper-centric company.”

Yes, billionaires are busy people. No, Paige didn’t have an appointment. But here was a marquee name for a property from which they wished to profit. A brand name in Colorado. A huge draw for our subscribers. Ushered out by security for wanting to say a friendly hello.

Maybe I’ve got something against rich people? Not a bit. I wish I had more money all the time. One of my favorite people in all the world is William Dean Singleton, the billionaire former owner of the MediaNews Group chain Alden now controls. During my days as editorial page editor, Dean served as an

important member of our editorial board. Though officially retired, he also remained as chairman of The Denver Post, and his name figured prominently on the masthead. (Still, he was no friend of the kind of owners Alden turned out to be, and there was bad blood.) He lives in and loves Denver and all of Colorado, where he also has a ranch. The Post was his baby. All I had to do was call. His interest in our work practically oozed from his pores.

In Dean’s mind, a community and state will never reach their full potential without a strong paper of record.

Yes, as owner he was called Lean Dean, and had a reputation for running a tight ship to make his fortune. But as mentioned earlier, Dean spent big bucks to lure Greg Moore from The Boston Globe. He so loved the photography of a then unknown Craig Walker he brought him to The Post, where the photojournalist would win not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. He so cared about the quality of the editorials he spent hours talking about them – whether I liked it, or not.

When I told Dean what I was planning with the News-matters Perspective, I knew he had the power to derail the scheme. Not only did he stand back and let us move forward, he said it was the right thing to do. When publication led to my resignation, Dean joined me out the door. (Thank you Dean Singleton!)

Like Jeff Bezos in Washington and Patrick Soon-Shiong in Los Angeles, Glen Taylor in Minneapolis, the late Gerry Lenfest in Philadelphia, Reade Brower in Maine and Walter Hussman in my home state of Arkansas. Rich folks willing to make a little less because they so appreciate the responsibility of owning a newsroom, and supporting its mission.

Heady stuff, talking about billionaires. But in summoning the courage it took to go forward, I need to tell you about the employee I was forced to let go.

Most people think of journalists as those prominent in the public eye. But a good newsroom depends upon a staff peopled by those who rarely receive recognition.

Cohen Peart joined The Denver Post more than 20 years ago at the very bottom of the pecking order. He worked his way onto the editorial pages, then into the role of curating and editing the letters to the editor, and assisting with op-ed columnists.

He is a quiet person who avoids the spotlight. Material trappings aren’t his thing. Even through the snows of winter and the heat and rains of summer, most days, Cohen commutes several miles by bicycle.

Like a lot of us in newsroom, Cohen has his idiosyncrasies, and working with him was not always the happiest of times. If he thought an idea I had was lame, he made his opinion clear.

The happiest times of Cohen’s career meant working with our writers, helping to craft and improve. He believed that every email and call deserved a response, no matter how impossible that became. He zealously protected our decades-long practice of featuring a free-marketplace of ideas, with the richest variety of voices fit to print.

I not-so-secretly believed that Cohen took special pleasure in publishing letters that called me out for editorials or columns, and allowing the writers their maximum derision. (Hopefully, the fact that we routinely published such anti-Plunkett content gives special resonance to the circumstances of my resignation.) Giving readers their voice meant far more to Cohen than pleasing a boss.

What I’m describing is a commodity you can’t find in the spreadsheets. This quiet signal to readers – in print and digital formats – that we have their back doesn’t neatly register as page views, no matter that its influence in reader participation is mission critical.

When Alden instructed in March that the newsroom be cut again – by almost a third – only three of us worked on the editorial pages. At the peak we had more than a dozen. And so it was that the week we put the News-matters Perspective together would be Cohen’s last at The Denver Post. The other

member of the team, editorial writer and columnist Megan Schrader, now The Post’s editorial page editor (and she is so fantastic), was on maternity leave. In addition to our daily workload, Cohen and I had to fill that six-page Sunday section, while maintaining the coolest of professional attitudes so that others wouldn’t suspect we were up to anything.

Cohen stayed late most days. It was his idea to arrange the package so that we broke tradition and started the editorial on the cover, above the fold. The package needed that unifying voice, he said. He quietly worked with the right people to deliver that now-iconic photo showing former Post employees as if blacked out of existence.

At a critical point, while I privately debated whether we should go through with the barrage, Cohen said: I’m so glad we’re doing this, because our readers don’t know this information. We never write about the owners and what’s going on behind the cuts. The readers ought to know these things.

If that Sunday’s paper landed on Cohen’s doorstep without the News-matters Perspective, I would’ve blamed myself until and upon my dying day.

Cohen texted that Sunday. He’d planned to come in the next day and clean out his desk. But he’d logged in and looked at the hundreds of letters-to-the-editor submissions.

He stayed late his last day at The Denver Post, building an entire page of letters for the next Perspective. He did his job as always. He tallied the responses so that the package contained the correct proportion of negative and positive reaction.

This is the kind of journalist that makes a newsroom matter. This is the kind of professional the business must have to succeed. This is the kind of human being that helps a community find its voice and rise above the petty distractions and serious challenges that threaten democracy.

Elijah Lovejoy would’ve loved Cohen Peart.

Any respectable newsroom owner would.

Thank you.

The will to hold fellow beings in bondage was weakening and the day of emancipation was becoming inevitable because of the valor, the logic, the articulate spirit of men like Elijah Lovejoy.

Lovejoy died, not only for the freedom of human beings and the freedom of the press, but because deep in him was a dynamic concept of Freedom itself, the longsighted certainty that men would lose everything if they surrendered or compromised their personal dignity and self-respect.

As the editor of a religious publication he did not have to espouse abolition against the sentiments of his community. His church did not require him to do it. As one of his presses after another was destroyed by angry mobs, he could in all reason have bowed to the weight of public feeling and tempered his condemnations.

Few utterances in all the literature of freedom have expressed so clearly, with such calm passion, the compulsion of the martyr as did his speech to a hostile mass meeting just before his second press arrived in Alton. He said: “If I leave here and go elsewhere, violence may overtake me in my retreat, and I have no more claim upon the protection of any other community than I have upon this. I have concluded, after consultation with my friends, and earnestly seeking counsel of God, to remain at Alton and here to insist on protection in the exercise of my rights.

“If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God; and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton. I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery and by the blessing of God I will never turn back.

“I can die at my post but I can never desert it.”

Three presses later a mob set fire to the building in which his new machinery was housed, and when he attempted to protect it himself he was shot to death.

Irving Dilliard the distinguished editor of the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has recorded all these events dramatically and authentically in the October issue of the Quill, the magazine of the journalistic fraternity Sigma Delta Chi. Mr. Dilliard, adopting the technique of his craft, has told Elijah Lovejoy’s story in the form of a contemporary news dispatch, with the dateline, “Alton, Ill., Nov. 9, 1837,”–the day of his funeral.

On Sunday, to complete the Lovejoy cycle which once more begins in Maine and ends in Illinois, Sigma Delta Chi will place a bronze plaque on the spot in Alton where he died for freedom of the press.

Today, freedom of the press in our country has become almost an invulnerable institution. It has grown slowly, with but minor setbacks, into an indispensable concept, an essential of the relationship between citizen and government so deeply imbedded in our minds as to be taken largely for granted. Not even the boldest politician would attack it openly, and only a few here and there continue any serious efforts to undermine it.

Since it is a peculiar and unqualified right guaranteed in our Constitution, it has come to be the chief ingredient, along with freedom of speech and religion, of the very atmosphere of our national life. If it were reduced our citizens would react as violently as if their oxygen were drained away.

Anybody has the right to print a handbill, a book, a circular, a pamphlet, or a 500-page Sunday paper and say in it what he pleases.

In a case brought by the Corona Daily Independent, the California Supreme court said:

“The Four Freedoms–of speech, of religious worship, of the press and of assembly–are to be considered as a class of rights apart from and above any and all other rights an individual might have. They are placed upon a pedestal above the power of any governmental agency to require a license before they might be exercised.”

Anybody has the right to print a handbill, a book, a circular, a pamphlet, or a 500-page Sunday paper and say in it what he pleases. The right to do this is guaranteed, not to protect an industry but to insure that all citizens (who in a democracy possess original power) will have access to a variety of information and opinion free of influence by any public official temporarily exercising some of this power by assignment.

This is a majestic right–so majestic that for much too long most of us in the newspaper field were blinded by it. When I became chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I found we had another fight on our hands. I suspect it is historically true that whenever a basic human right is dedicated, frontal attacks upon it cease and flanking movements begin.

In this case the flanking movement was a far-flung denial within all our governments–national, state and local–that the people had inalienable rights of access to the news of these governments. Almost undetected there had emerged a doctrine that public information belongs not to the public but to the custodians of public office, and that it is dangerous for the people to get information about the actions of their servants in any direct, unprocessed, uncolored form.

My committee’s reports to our Society are filled with case-studies, with details of instances of suppression we had permitted to multiply without any united challenge. At long last we realized a sobering truth: the authors of the American Bill of Rights, conceiving only of a small and fairly open national governmental establishment as against one that employs 2,500,000 civilians today, had spelled out freedom of the press while its twin, freedom of information, they had taken for granted. They must have, for neither is self-sufficient. If government by and for the people requires the right to speak out and to publish, it requires implicitly the right to know. We may be sure the founders of our republic had heard these words, already over a century old:

Give us liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all other liberties.

It was not by chance that John Milton had put first the liberty to know. Of what value is the right to criticize and to vote if based on false or flimsy knowledge? If people are the real source of power, how can this power be exercised wisely out of ignorance or part-truth?

Surely if the First Amendment means anything it means that all the news at every level of government belongs to the people; and it can never be a broad privilege of their elected and appointed agents to determine how much the people shall know.

Our committee soon reached the conclusion that the right to publish, existing alone, can become an empty one. To fulfill the true concept of this freedom, the government must keep its hands not only off of the press but off of the springs and channels of information that feed the press. We learned that vast areas of public information were being hidden behind a red-tape curtain. And it was at this point that we realized our fight could have no ending. You can never establish freedom of information as a functioning principle in any nation as firmly as you can establish freedom of the press. When you get the right to publish an important phase of the battle is over. But what you then face is the perpetual cold war waged by these public officials who from timidity or for personal or political gain do not want the voters to know just exactly what they are doing.

Thus you have the spectacle — which surely would surprise Elijah Lovejoy because it surprises us — of editors in the United States, enjoying a degree of freedom of the press so enormous that to others it sometimes seems excessive, engaged now in a major and continuing struggle for the raw material without which free publication becomes a mockery.

For our fresh insight into the psychology of suppression and its legal pretexts, we have to thank a neighbor of yours, a distinguished newspaper lawyer of New York City who had retired to live in Skowhegan — Harold L. Cross. At least he thought he had retired, until we drafted him back into the front lines.

It was Harold Cross who discovered for us the innocent federal statutes upon which the pretense of official ownership of information was being based. As he said:

“In the early days of the Republic, Congress, apparently as a sort of housekeeping measure for safety and preservation, authorized the executive departments to make regulations . . . for the custody, use and safekeeping of their records, papers and property. . . . Regulations have so tortured the statutes that, in the absence of a general or specific statute creating a clear legal right to inspect a particular record, there is no legal right to inspect any record of any executive department.”

Another statute–the Administrative Procedure Act–is so cluttered with “ifs” that its practical effect, says Harold Cross, is to bar access to records of administrative agencies. As the American Law action of the Library of Congress aptly puts it, these qualifications “have enabled the agencies to assert the power to withhold practically all information they do not see fit to disclose.”

Thanks to warnings such as these, Congress has bestirred itself. There is a Senate committee appointed to study the information policies in the administrative departments, and a group of Washington newspapermen headed by Roscoe Drummond, of the Christian Science Monitor, is advising this committee.

It has dawned on members of Congress that they live in a goldfish bowl as compared with their administrative colleagues. Individual senators and representatives are writing legislation to restore to the people some of their lost right to know. To one of these Harold Cross wrote: “Determination of public interest has become, in effect, an official monopoly.”

This democratic phenomenon was manifested most clearly, perhaps, when the U. S. Board of Parole first refused, and then under pressure released to the Courier-Journal, the names of the endorsers of a parole for a notorious tax-dodger in Louisville. The head of the Board wrote our committee: “In the future . . . desired information will be supplied if, in our opinion, such information would be compatible with the welfare of society.”

This condescending concept we challenged immediately. There are many countries, we pointed out, where the State decides what is compatible with the welfare of society. This is not one of them.

What are the results of secrecy in government. We have only to look at the Department of justice and the Bureau of Internal Revenue under its former leadership to find an answer.

The motives of secrecy vary; they are not always bad. But the effects are almost invariable–incompetence, corruption, and some degree of despotism. Within recent weeks we have heard members of a St. Louis grand jury charge that Justice Department officials duped them into releasing a report that whitewashed St. Louis tax scandals. (This is the department voted most sphinx-like by a group of Washington correspondents.) We have heard a sworn deposition by a Missouri federal judge that the Department of Justice obstructed a grand jury investigation of income-tax cases. We have even heard the official integrity of a former Attorney General, who now is a Supreme Court justice, questioned by a Congressional committee.

You can never establish freedom of information as a functioning principle in any nation as firmly as you can establish freedom of the press.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue was shaken by scandals. Under Commissioner James B. Dunlap it has greatly liberalized its regulations. Those citizens who pay all their taxes honestly now for the first time can read the names of those who do not. Under this new policy, for which Mr. Dunlap deserves full credit, we learned that “Greasy Thumb” Gusik settled $900,000 in federal tax claims and penalties for $100,000. Many similar cases, of which the public knew nothing, now are coming into the open.

In our files are the records of an appalling number of cases where official bodies, with great power or controlling huge sums of public monies, said to the public, “You shall not know a school board in Connecticut and a tax abatement authority in Rhode Island; a city council in Maryland and a county commission in Georgia; a highway patrol in California and a sheriff in Texas.” In all these cases publicity was the weapon that routed secrecy, as light always destroys darkness.

Naturally, no sensible American wants access to information kept secret to protect our nation from its enemies. Herbert Bayard Swope revealed a profound misunderstanding of our committee’s work in a letter to the New York Times which questioned whether freedom of information might not jeopardize security. The press proved its capacity to safeguard national security by effectively operating a completely voluntary censorship in World War II.

But this does not mean that all military and diplomatic intelligence should be kept secret. Many thoughtful Americans — including Senator Benton and Stuart Symington — have pointed to dangerous abuses of the privilege of classification, which simply means the power to suppress government information. These abuses exist on an absurd scale even in the offices which classify constantly and should be able to draw a reasonable line–the Departments of State and Defense.

There probably are thousands of documents in the files of those departments containing information the public needs, and which have lost any security value.

President Truman himself demonstrated this in somewhat startling fashion two days before the elections. Because he thought it had a political bearing, he declassified a “top secret” document. Now “top secret” is defined officially as “Information and material, the security of which is paramount to the interest of national security, and the unauthorized disclosure of which would cause exceptionally grave damage to the nation.”

Did President Truman for political reasons put the security of this nation in jeopardy? We cannot think so. We must assume that he declassified a document which bore the stamp “top secret” because it no longer contained any military dangers.

But what does this suggest? That we will never know what is hidden away under classification stamps until some high official of government finds it expedient to declassify? If there are documents with the sacred “top secret” legend on them which have lost their potency, how many uncounted nameless papers are there in the three lower classifications which are sealed away from the people of the United States for no reason except that perhaps they have no political value?

The truth is that classification is a vast continuous movement of suppression, and declassification is a sluggish, or indeed almost a non-existent process.

How can our people be expected to judge the prudence and necessity of military measures, or indeed be expected to understand their own unfolding history when the bulk of its documentation is buried in the deep-freeze of official inscrutability?

Now what does this battle between governmental light and darkness mean to you?

I want to suggest to you that for all our new military alertness, for all our ripening maturity as a nation which until 1940 had no more than a child’s concept of world relationships (and not too bright a child at that), for all our fierce defensiveness and pride–despite all these I am afraid we have not yet recognized our chief, most dangerous enemy.

It is not Soviet military gangsterism. It is not the loss of a gadget to spies now and then. It is not, despite the impassioned warnings of the past few months, either of our major political parties.

Our first and fateful enemy is ignorance.

We still are essentially, as democratic citizens charged with the fearful responsibility of controlling our mushrooming governments, an ignorant people. We learn fragments of facts and we catch momentary glimpses of truth. But truth remains a flying saucer uncaptured and unrevealed.

We hear savage snarls from our great leaders about the defects of their political opponents, but how many of our staggering riddles of national and international policy have they really mastered?

Even on the highest levels, the basic necessity for freedom of information to implement our great natural wealth of popular judgment, to discourage graft in government, is little understood. One clear evidence of this was the contention in the recent political campaign that corruption is a result, not of official complacence, but of public apathy and indifference.

That simply is not true. What could have been said was that public apathy (paced for many years I am afraid by newspaper apathy) has been to blame for enduring secrecy in government. And secrecy breeds corruption.

But the people manifestly are not apathetic to corruption once they learn of it. They cannot be charged with indifference to conditions that were unknown to them. To prove this you have only to look at what happened when the mess in Washington became public knowledge–the hurried efforts to dismiss some culprits and to show a cleaner face to the voters.

Newspapers have sometimes been apathetic about corruption, to the extent that they let it remain in the vague realm of rumor and conjecture, giving the people nothing tangible upon which to form an opinion. But they are never insensitive to exposed corruption. If they are, public officials certainly are confused about it, as witness their prompt reaction to any story on page one. To me it seems foolish to deny that knowledge is the nemesis of corruption. And no office-holder, from the President of the United States down, can guarantee clean government unless he recognizes this.

In a Gallup poll taken after the two conventions, only 45 per cent of our citizens could name the Republican candidate for vice president, and only 32 per cent the Democratic candidate. Many other polls have revealed a widespread ignorance about the leaders upon whom we have blandly relied to solve our problems.

We are fighting not only brute force, but the weaknesses, the muddle-headedness of our own society, our own leaders. We are controlled to a shocking extent by shibboleths, by catch-phrases, by distorted words, by false gospels–and the educated have seemed as hopeless as any other group to repel these mental bullets.

We are spoken to in riddles; we are trapped into debating them as if they were radiant statements of principle, thereby compounding confusion.

From far-away India, from the mind of one of our great thinkers, Prime Minister Nehru, comes this warning:

“Slogans are apt to petrify man’s thinking . . . every slogan, every word almost, that is used by the socialist, the communist, the capitalist. People hardly think now adays. They throw words at each other.”

Our hope of finding truth, it seems to me, lies chiefly in two allied forces of education: an alert and fully informing press to bring understanding of the world of today, and the truly liberal college which equips the mind to understand the world of yesterday and of tomorrow.

In your Colby College Bulletin I found these words:

“According to the best authorities, the “liberal” arts are those worthy of the free man. Colby is a college of liberal arts in the sense that it tries to provide an education worthy of the man or woman who is free from the narrowing effects of provincialism and prejudice. It is dedicated without reservation to the aims of unrestricted inquiry and to the task of seeking the truth wherever it may be found.”

“Seeking the truth wherever it may be found.” There is the plan of battle for the triumph of all the freedoms. And it is a battle that belongs not to the leaders or even to the martyrs; it belongs to you, and you cannot escape it. But the fruits belong to you also. If you acknowledge the danger of ignorance then you will win your share of information, knowledge, truth. Freedom is never easy, either to win or to hold. That’s why the words in your bulletin are bold words.

Trying to make the dream of a democratic society come true is not a soft and intermittent task. Citizens of a democracy are supposed to be a hardy lot. And from what do these hardy citizens have to be shielded by the man they place in office? Why is knowing the truth a threat to the public welfare?

Edward Livingston said:
“No nation ever yet found any inconvenience from too close an inspection into the conduct of its officers, but many have been brought to ruin and reduced to slavery by suffering gradual impositions and abuses.”

That was the truth discovered anew by Elijah Lovejoy. He might have lived to see the slaves go free if he had suffered a gradual imposition on his own freedom of conscience. But that surrender would have put him in slavery. So he gave his life to illuminate the principle that freedom is indivisible, that if you break it into fractions you are on your way to zero.

The least we can do for him is never to forget that principle, because while most of us talk of our freedoms not many of us die for them.

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.

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