Elijah Lovejoy Convocation Address

John F. Burns

 
September 30, 2007
Listen to John Burns's address (84.8 MB)

President Adams, distinguished members of the faculty, visitors, editors, reporters, and people from the city of Waterville and elsewhere, no doubt, in Maine.

" For all the differences between Lovejoy's day and ours, there is much that we journalists in our time can remember and learn from his short but epic life. I'd summarize it as being three things: courage, conscience, and commitment."
Let’s deal with first things first. The president, over dinner, gave me a hooded Colby sweatshirt, and now he’s given me another hood. And I rather took it from the way he spoke at dinner that this has something to do with a desire to see less of my haircut, or lack of same. I fear that whatever may be said tonight, that any imprint I may have made on American society, not so much through the pages of The New York Times but from American television, may in fact be vested in that.

I was walking down the street in New York quite recently and a fellow, who I like to think came from the heart of Brooklyn or Queens, stopped about ten feet short of me and pointed his finger sort of accusingly at me and said, “You the Iraq guy.”

And I said, “Can I have a minute of your time? In what sense am I ‘the Iraq guy’?”

He said, “Well, I’ve seen you on television.”

I said, “Do you remember what I do in Iraq?”

“No I don’t remember that.”

I said, “What do you remember?”

He said, (and I’ll have to censor this in a place of worship), “I remember that you needed a ... haircut.” He put it a little more bluntly than that.

I went to the White House on an invitation from the President a few months ago, based on a relationship really with his father and with him going back to the 1970s when we were living in China together and I was the rather appalling doubles tennis partner of the first President Bush. When I walked into the White House—I’d seen the present President Bush in Baghdad last year, where we sat and talked for awhile about the war—and I walked into the White House. And to tell you the truth my knees were shaking, as I think they properly should be regardless of who occupies that office. And as I stepped into the Oval Office he said, “You still didn’t get a goddamn haircut.” I did get a haircut, but apparently he didn’t notice.

Standing here before you tonight is more frightening, believe me, than the airport road in Baghdad. We journalists, I think, do best when we are anonymous and unheard, and that’s possible to be for 30 years on front page, and other pages, of The New York Times. It’s not possible once you start appearing on television. We are not naturally gifted speakers. It may say something about life in general that you can spend a lifetime listening to people talk, as I have done, and thinking how poorly so many of them do it, and learn absolutely nothing about it.

Yesterday I was in Aspen, Colorado, and was addressing—over a panel, which is a little easier—a group of rather distinguished Americans. And as we sat down on the panel I realized that in front of me were two former secretaries of state and, much more inhibiting, one former secretary of defense—the immediate past secretary of defense, who is not noted for his patience with journalists. And he did a very gracious thing. When the panel was over he invited me to have lunch with him. And we got along famously. So time heals all wounds.

I feel a little of an imposter standing up here before you, because we are here to commemorate the death, 170 years ago in November, of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an icon in American life who changed history and who set a standard for courage, conscience, and commitment that are unrivaled in American journalism or indeed any other journalism. I’m also daunted by the fact, reading the names of the other recipients over 55 years of this award, who read like a roll call of the titans of American journalism in our age, including, if I counted it right, five colleagues of mine at The New York Times, nine if you count people who worked at The New York Times and went on to do other things.

Amongst those, three people who had a decisive influence on my career: Scotty Reston, who I met when he fell ill in China. It's one of those chances of history. I was a young  correspondent for a Canadian newspaper in China. Scotty Reston arrived and fell into the anti-imperialist hospital with appendicitis. I was the only Western journalist in China at the time and used to visit him every afternoon and had, in fact, a two-week seminar on journalism, for which I am eternally grateful.

Tony Lewis, who I’m sure many of you know, who has been, in many ways, the conscience of American journalism and the guardian of First Amendment rights for the past 30 or 40 years from his seat in Cambridge, at Harvard. And Abe Rosenthal, who hired me at the Times. All previous recipients.

Lovejoy’s experience and mine could hardly be more different, and I appreciate President Adams’s remarks. But his was a solitary struggle. A struggle against the tide of opinion and the weight of authority and in the face of enormous danger and the likelihood, indeed the virtual certainty, of injury and death. For him there was no institution like The New York Times, no awards, and no faux celebrity. So I will accept this award as a metaphor, as a badge of honor for all in my profession who travel to distant wars, especially for those who have died or come home grievously wounded, but above all, for the Iraqis, who have been overwhelmingly the principal victims of the conflict in Iraq.

I would like to dedicate the award, in particular, to Khalid W. Hassan, who was a reporter and interpreter for The New York Times. Twenty-three years old, and if there was any Iraqi who represented, to me, the promise of the American intervention in Iraq it was Khalid. A boy of 14 when he left school to support his broken family—his mother and three younger sisters—who never took an English lesson in his life, who learnt his impeccable American English from movies, who had a natural curiosity and energy and a willingness to make fun of himself. He was a heavy chap, he weighed probably over 300 pounds, and designated himself “Fat Khalid” to distinguish himself from the thin Khalid we had on our staff. We decided that “Solid Khalid” was a more appropriate name for him.

In the face of all that went wrong in Iraq, Khalid continued to believe that America had brought opportunity, as it had brought it to him. He craved, above all, the opportunity to come to America. We had talked about our trying to find him a fellowship in America. On July the 13th, this year, Khalid set out for work from one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad. About nine o’clock in the morning he sent us a text message saying that his route was blocked and that he would try to find another route. Common experience in Baghdad.

Sometime in the next ten or 15 minutes, a black Mercedes Benz pulled up alongside him, in an adjacent and very dangerous neighborhood , and he was hit by fusillade of machine gunfire, which did not kill him. Khalid was a passionate user, somewhat to our frustration, of his cell phone. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket to call his mother, and said, “Mom, they shot me but I’m okay,” forgetting that the assassins in Iraq almost always come in numbers and almost always in two vehicles. And the second vehicle, seeing him using his cell phone, a man jumped out, ran up to the driver’s side window, and shot Khalid dead.

I thought I would be able to complete my five years in Iraq and be able to say, proudly, that we had survived and avoided the worst of the tragedies of Iraq as an institution, The New York Times. It was a terrible shock to us—a shock which reminded us that for all the efforts that we take to protect ourselves—in the end we rely on God’s good grace and good luck. And we ran out of the good luck that day. So I would like to dedicate tonight this award, in particular, to the memory of Khalid Hassan.

I should say, because I’m sure many of you would like to talk about the war and where it is carrying America and Iraq, that I think it is right that I should speak tonight about Iraq and the press and leave that—questions that probably weigh most heavily on your minds—to a question-and-answer period afterward, if you’ll bear with me, and I’m sure we’ll have much to exchange on that issue.

I’ve been reading about Elijah Lovejoy and measuring the difference between his life and the life of journalists in my time, even the best of us, the best of the journalists of our time. A crusader, a martyr for his cause, he would have found himself puzzled by the manner in which we journalists now operate. Indeed, he might very well have found it impossible to operate under the constraints that we—and I speak here as a New York Times reporter but I could speak for a reporter for any great American media organization—under which we operate, some nearly two centuries after his death.

For him, there was no firewall between opinion and reporting, between observation and chronicling of injustice and action to end it. Not for him the careful equivocation, not for him the forensic examination of all contending points of view. Like Teddy Roosevelt 70 years after his death, he might very well have found fault with our conflicted, pusillanimous approaches, considering us as timid souls, condemning us as those who are forever in the bleachers, never in the arena, and who are not called upon to shed our blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

And yet, for all the differences between Lovejoy’s day and ours, there is much that we journalists, in our time, can remember and learn from his short but epic life. I’d summarize it as being three things: courage, conscience, and commitment.

It’s been my fortune, over the last ten years, to have been awarded plaques to hang on my office wall, some of which speak of courage. But after nearly 40 years in places of conflict, my conclusion is that, whatever courage we are called upon to show, is as nothing against the courage of others in places of conflict where we go. I’m not personally a subscriber to any theory of the journalist as hero. There are journalists, some of whom you might recognize on your television screens, who I sometimes think fall into that  mistake. But the fact is that, wherever we go, there are people more in danger then we are. They include the civilian populations who are subject to the brunt of the violence. In Iraq, as you know, and it’s an estimate, but it’s probably 100- to 200-thousand people who have died and possibly twice as many who have been injured. There are the American and Iraqi troops, who are in harm's way every day, and who, when we go out on embeds, protect us. And of course there are the Iraqi journalists.

You all know that many journalist have died in this war. I think figures range from somewhat over 100 to somewhat close 200, and it depends on who you define as a journalist. But the bald fact is that over 90 percent of those have been Iraqis. There have been Americans killed, there have been Americans grievously wounded, including two distinguished American television journalists of whom you’ll be aware. But the overwhelming brunt of the violence borne by journalists has been borne by Iraqis. They have been shot at their door, they have been bombed in their television stations and their newspapers, they have been kidnapped and beheaded. And I think it is of them we should think when we think of the real hero journalists of this war.

I did meet a hero journalist once, an American. His name was Kurt Schork. Kurt Schork was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a contemporary of President Clinton’s. He ran the New York metropolitan transit system in his early 40s. He became a journalist at the age of 42. He was killed in Sierra Leone at the age of 52. He was a good friend of mine. He was a hero, but he was not a hero simply because he was a great journalist who went to wars. He was a hero because he, more than anybody I ever met in our profession, never forgot that, before he was a journalist, he was an American and a citizen. And he behaved in places of war in a way that bore witness to that.

I remember in Sarajevo one day, and I had already been there a couple of years, Kurt came to my room, and he said, “Do you know about the old folks’ home?” He was talking about an old folks’ home caught on the front lines between the besieged city of Sarajevo, the principally Muslim city, and the Serbs who were surrounding and destroying the city. The old folks’ home had had 310 occupants when the war began in April of 1991, and, by the time Kurt came to my room and recruited me to his squad of volunteers, over 120 of them were dead, mostly from starvation and from lack of medical treatment. Kurt came and he said, “It’s not enough for us to write about it this, we’ve got to do something about it.” And he organized us, and we went with pots and pails and wood for the fires, and Kurt Schork saved the lives of the remaining people in that old folks’ home. He shamed the United Nations into taking them out of the conflict zone and putting them in a hospital outside of Sarajevo. That was heroism.

Another reason, I think, that we have to moderate a sense of the courage shown by we journalists who go to war is we have so many privileges. We have flak jackets, we have armored cars, we have employers who are prepared to spend millions of dollars in a very bleak economic climate for the newspapers of America on keeping us safe. I’d like to pay a tribute here to my employers, Arthur Sulzberger, to Bill Keller, the editor of the paper, but also to the boards of directors, publishers, and editors of our rival newspapers, the Chicago Tribune, as represented by Christine Spolar here tonight, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, all of whom have done, likewise, at enormous pain.

I was talking yesterday in terms of finances to Barry Diller, who sits on the board of The Washington Post, who was telling me how the financing of their bureau in Baghdad has been a board issue at The Washington Post. And I cannot understate how important this has been.

"Before I left Iraq, I asked at a farewell party for our Iraqi staff, how many of the people present-and there were about 100 people there-would leave Iraq were they given the opportunity to do so. One hundred percent of the hands went up. If I have a particular wound in my heart, having left Iraq, it's having left those people behind, to what fate we do not know."
When I went onto the streets of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and emerged from a period of running and hiding from Saddam’s secret police, we calculated that there were 1,500 journalists in Baghdad. Quite recently I asked the American officer who’s in charge of the accreditation process in the Green Zone, who would probably have the best read-out of this, because you can’t function without having American military accreditation, and he said they reckoned that there was a rotating presence of about 35 journalists left there. The decision to keep a significant bureau—a bureau in our case of The New York Times with a rotating staff of four, five, six, seven reporters at a time, two or three photographers, security people, perhaps 15 expatriates, and 100 or more Iraqis—has been extremely difficult. And I would like to think here, on this occasion, that that is really in the tradition that Elijah Parish Lovejoy set. And I am extremely grateful to them for having made it possible for us to operate as we have.

I have to speak one last word about courage. We have armored cars, we live in a blast-walled compound behind machine guns, we go nowhere without armed guards. We have the rewards of the front page, occasions like this. We have dollars in our pockets and we have tickets to leave. All of which distinguish us from all of those Iraqis who work for us, as it distinguishes us from most Iraqi journalists, saving a handful who I’m pleased to say have found, at least for a season, sanctuary at American universities. One of The New York Times’s best Iraqi reporters is presently a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University, thanks to Bob Giles, who is here tonight, and the people at the Neiman Foundation who make those choices. Another of them is at Ann Arbor. But that’s two—we’ve found safe berths for two of our staff.

Before I left Iraq I asked, at a farewell party for our Iraqi staff, how many of the people present—and there were about 100 people there—would leave Iraq were they given the opportunity to do so. One-hundred percent of the hands went up. If I have a particular wound in my heart, having left Iraq, it’s having left those people behind, to what fate we do not know.

I spoke yesterday with some senior people from the government who were in Aspen for this conference, and it is now an issue, an issue pressed by Ryan Crocker, the ambassador  of the United States in Iraq, on behalf of his embassy employees and other Iraqis, and there are several thousands, maybe as many as 20,000, who have worked for the United States government and its agencies in Iraq and for whom, at the moment, there is only the narrowest of windows to leave Iraq.

There are moves afoot to widen that window, and I would ask any of you who care about this to think about this and perhaps write letters to your congressmen or your senators and see if this issue cannot be pressed. It will relate not only to the Iraqis who work for the United States government but for Iraqis who work for NGOs, who work for reconstruction projects, and who work for organizations like The New York Times.

Conscience and commitment. In our age, we journalists are not, or should not be, advocates, partisans, or missionaries. We cannot in our age be the like of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, appropriating our pages and our presses to causes, however noble, whether it be global warming, justice for the deprived, or victory or withdrawal from Iraq. Advocacy at The New York Times and most of America’s great newspapers, and I’m inclined to say all of them, belongs to the editorial and op-ed pages, not in the news pages. If you are in search of a writer with a cause, you’re looking for a Tom Friedman, for a Frank Rich, or a Maureen Dowd. You are most assuredly not looking for a David Sanger, a Dexter Filkins, or a John Burns.

This is not to say that we are without a conscience or a moral code. We are, you might say, what the Taliban claimed to be but never were in Afghanistan—seekers after truth. It is an imperfect craft, to be sure, but, properly pursued, a noble one. I’d like to think our craft is similar in many ways to the academic disciplines that have earned this college its place of distinction in American life. The pursuit of truth, objectively determined, and from it, knowledge.

But in this, too, there is much to be learned from the life of the man  we have met here to commemorate this evening. The reporter’s craft at its best need not sacrifice passion to objectivity, because without passion, without a moral code, without an active conscience, a reporter risks becoming not much more than an over-rewarded stenographer.

My thoughts on this matter began to form with my first foreign assignment in China, now 37 years ago. When I traveled across America and I spoke to some of the great sinologists of the day who’d said to me in effect, very politely, “You are an ignorant foreign boy. You are going to a great civilization (this was the height of the Cultural Revolution) and do not judge China by your own standards, judge China by China’s standards.”

On my first night in China I was on an island in the Pearl River in Canton when a body came floating down. I was with the first of many minders I was to come to know over the last 40 years. The body floating in the river had a severe wound to the skull, floating face down. And I said to the minder, “Somebody killed him.” And he said, “No, perhaps he fell backwards into the river.”

I should have known then where I was. But, for some considerable time, I followed the advice that had been given to me by the sinologists—I apologize to any sinologists who are here tonight—and I subordinated my own conscience, and indeed what I saw with my own eyes and ears, to that dictate: judge China by China’s values. Of course the only Chinese voices that were readily accessible to me were the voices of Mao Zedong’s government. And it took some time for me to learn that, actually, the most valuable thing I had were my eyes, my ears, and my own moral conscience. And after the first year I began to realize that, though I could never gather more than perhaps 20 or 30 pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that might  have two or three thousand pieces, that I had enough of the jigsaw to be able to understand rather broadly what we were seeing. I had one piece of the jigsaw that had a black and yellow tail, and another had an amber eye. It was pretty clear what we were looking at was a tiger. And that gave me courage over the years not to suppress my own moral conscience, and not to suppress my own experiences.

Moral conscience is a very important part of this. There is good and evil in the world, and our task, like Lovejoy’s, is to distinguish the two where they are distinguishable. Was Ernie Pyle indifferent to the outcome on Omaha Beach on D-Day? Was Ernest Hemingway indifferent to the horrors of Guernica? Could I be indifferent to the face of the carnage in Iraq, the suicide bombings, the beheadings, and, yes, the deaths of far too many innocent Iraqis from ill-judged use of American high-technology weapons? Of course not.

Our charter, like Lovejoy’s, is not to be impartial between good and evil, not to be neutral in a time of moral crisis—a posture for which Dante reserved the hottest place in hell—but to be fair. And, for me, the greatest accolade that I could win would be, when my days in this business are over, if my peers and those who have read or followed what I have written would say of me not that I was impartial or neutral, but that I was fair.

Thank you very much.

After answering one question, Mr. Burns initiated this analysis of the choices facing America in Iraq:

I could initiate, if you will, maybe provoke a question or two, with some thoughts, which I approach with some trepidation because, as you’ll understand, especially with television cameras recording this, I have to be very careful not to venture into advocacy on the great decisions facing the Congress and the people of the United States. I wouldn’t be much use to my newspaper if I did.

But essentially, I think, this reduces to the question of stay or go. And in reaching that calculation, of course, we have to think about the quite terrible price that is being paid. I’m talking now the American price in Iraq. You know the figures. Three-thousand eight-hundred troops dead, close to 30,000 wounded, amongst them many grievously, who in previous wars would have not survived, a bill that is now upwards of 600 billion dollars, and by the end of 2008, we now know, is likely to be up towards 900 billion dollars. And we know that there is a political paralysis in Baghdad, and that there is no evident end in sight.
 
On the other side there is the price of going. And I do believe that those who advocate, at least those who advocate an accelerated withdrawal, owe it to the American public to give as honest accounting as they can of that price, and that price is very high, too. And the price is one which will be paid, of course, by United States troops. If they were to stay there another three to five years, we could see this becoming a trillion dollar, two trillion dollar, war, we could see thousands  more American troops dead and wounded. And it seems most improbable to me, from my travels in America, that America is prepared to pay that price.

But to go, to remove the stabilizing influence that American troops have, and it may seem elusive from this far away but they do have a stabilizing influence. The remarkable change that has taken place in Anbar province, the desert province to the west of Baghdad, was not solely a matter of tribal leaders coming together to resolve, to join the American coalition forces in the fight against Al Qaeda. That only occurred after American troops, the Army and the Marines, beginning last November, conducted, finally—it wasn’t the first time they tried—but they conducted a campaign, at great cost in life, with Iraqi forces to clear the city of Ramadi and other cities and towns up the Euphrates Valley to Syria. And having changed the tide of the war, then they created the space into which emerged the tribal awakening  in Anbar. In other words, in order for there to be a change in Iraqi attitudes, you need first of all to relieve the factor of intimidation. That was done in Anbar. There are some signs of the same thing happening on other approaches to Baghdad in the Sunni heartland, in the area south and southeast of Baghdad, even in the very troubled province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad. 

The surge troops, 30,000 of them, most of whom went to Baghdad, by establishing joint security stations in the neighborhoods of Baghdad, have made a difference. Not enough of a difference, that’s for sure, but they have made a difference. Where you have American boots on the ground, you begin to see a stabilizing effect.

The reversal of this will, of course, likely have the opposite effect, at least in the short term. There is the potential for a violent cataclysm in Iraq, bad as things are, that could be very, very much worse than anything we’ve seen to date. Some figures that are talked about in the Republican Palace, now the seat of American power in Iraq, formerly the seat of Saddam Hussein’s government, are very high indeed.

I think people who experienced the Lebanese civil war, and other civil wars, which ran on unabated for, in the case of Lebanon, 15 years—they foresee the possibility of hundreds of thousands dead. This too is something with which America would have to reckon. There’s the possibility of regional conflict—a very high possibility in the vacuum that would be left by the withdrawal of American troops. There’s the security of the state of Israel, which could hardly be left unaffected by an even worse collapse in Iraq that we’ve already seen, and the threat that that would pose at least to the government of King Abdullah in Jordan.  

I should say, having said all of this, that those of us who have worked there and experienced this war firsthand, are of course obliged in public places not to advocate which of these two choices we would favor. But I think it’s probably fair to say, too, that we don’t see an obvious choice. I thank God that I am not a member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives and having to cast a vote on this. It’s a fateful thing.

Whatever you make of the decision to go to war, we have created the most perfect storm in Iraq. You could hardly imagine, and I’m sure you’d agree with this, any public policy issue in our lifetimes more vexed, more unyielding of any acceptable solution, than this one.

General George Casey in his travels across Iraq (and I spent a good deal of time traveling with him), used to say to his divisional brigade battalion commanders— he was speaking then about near-term issues and the fighting of the war—“If it was easy, we would have already done it.”

Well, you could say the same about this larger issue. If there were an obvious solution to this, if there were a solution that obviously met the American interest, or obviously met the American and the Iraqi interest, you can be sure it would have been advocated. Unfortunately there is no such choice. Not any that I could see, not any that most of my colleagues could see. And I think this is going to be extremely difficult and extremely painful to resolve, whichever way the decision is made.

And I suppose we might hope that some of these positive developments in the past nine months do gather pace. We in our business, the business of journalism, are not much given to what you Americans call Pollyanna-ish thinking. But when you experience this war at firsthand and the pain of it, I think it’s natural that you harbor a wish that somehow or other this should turn around. So it may be that in seeing these sprouts of hope, and embracing them, it’s because, as they used to say of apartheid in South Africa and a potential of cataclysm there: “The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.” It really is too ghastly to contemplate.

And we now know that this course is set in Iraq. The American course is set in Iraq through next spring, when, as a matter of logistical necessity and troop numbers, the President is going to have to bring those surge troops home over next summer. And I think whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, British or American, we should all hope that these positive developments do gather pace and present some other course than the two stark alternatives which have dominated the public debate here in the United States for the past year or 18 months.