2000 Fellow Bill Kovach

Chair, Committee of Concerned Journalists
 
 
Convocation Address
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine, on November 9, 1802, 198 years ago this day.

Five slugs from a double barrel shotgun ended his life in Alton, Illinois, in 1837. He was buried on what would have been his 35 birthday.

They killed Lovejoy because he believed in the promise of democracy, in human freedom and dignity. After he saw a slave burned at the stake, he said so, persistently and forcefully.

And here is one of the things that Lovejoy said:
"The truth is, my fellow-citizens, if you give ground a single inch, there is no stopping place. I deem it, therefore, my duty to take my stand upon the Constitution. Here is firm ground...we have slaves, it is true, but I am not one. I am a citizen of these United States...free-born; and having never forfeited the inestimable privileges attached to such condition, I cannot consent to surrender them...I am ready, not to fight, but to suffer, and if need be, to die for them."

"Journalists are the strangers on whom we all depend. We are all at the mercy of their courage, their integrity, and their reliability."

A mob destroyed the press on which that was printed. As mobs destroyed three other presses on which similar editorials were written. His body lies beneath a stone of New England granite with this inscription: "Here lies Lovejoy, spare him now the grave."

We are here tonight as part of his alma mater's continuing effort to heed that admonition to assure that while the mob could still his voice, what Elijah Parish Lovejoy believed cannot be allowed to become dead or extinct.

It is with a sense of inadequacy that I receive an award in Elijah Parish Lovejoy's name. But if my career in any measure deserves this award, it is not mine alone. I am surrounded here tonight not only by the ghost of Elijah Parish Lovejoy but by ghosts of others who directed and shaped my career.

People like:
Two Albanian immigrants, my parents, who taught me the meaning of responsibility and the value of learning.

Lila Rose Denton, the teacher who ignited in me a love of words and convinced me that even I might be able to learn to use them effectively.

And Nat Caldwell, a reporter who drilled into me the journalist's obligation to those betrayed by people in power and pointed me to some of them trapped in the black ghettos of my home state of Tennessee.

There is one person here tonight in the flesh who shaped my career every step of the way and who I hope will stand up so you can see what a great sounding-board/editor/ and friend looks like, my wife, Lynne.

These and others helped shape me and helped me understand the obligation each journalist assumes when choosing a life as public witness. All our lives are shaped by a world that we can neither touch nor see--a world, which we only know, as virtual reality. Like Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" we are all, in the end, dependent on strangers. Journalists are the strangers on whom we all depend. We are all at the mercy of their courage, their integrity, and their reliability.

Journalism does more than inform us. Journalism engages us and allows us to moderate those forces, which shape our lives. Lovejoy used a cast-iron, hand-cranked flat bed press to try to shape and moderate the forces, which distorted the life in slaveholding America. It was a crude instrument, limited in production and distribution, for such an important task.

Journalists today are equipped with a communications technology, which has the power to recapture Plato's sense of the best path to the truth by recreating person-to-person communication between the eyewitness of an event or the originator of an idea in a venue that allows challenges and questions.

Journalists today routinely interact with their readers or their viewers around the world as I did several days ago by e-mail recently after an appearance on Jim Lehrer's News Hour. Doubters could challenge my views and I had the opportunity to sharpen or modify my own ideas.

But for all that the means of journalism have changed since Lovejoy's time its purpose has remained constant, if not always well served. For all that the speed and the techniques and the character of news delivery have changed, there is a clear theory and philosophy of journalism which Lovejoy knew and which flows out of the function of news and it is this: the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self governing.

We entered the 21st century with a communications web with over 200 million people connected by the Internet worldwide. It is abundantly clear that the technology permits the creation of endless communities of interests.

Yet despite the potential it is far from clear whether the communications revolution will fully realize the possibilities of the democratizing power that it has made available.

This is so, in part, because of a coincidence of three events: the end of the cold war; the opening of the Internet; and the globalization of commerce. In combination these forces dramatically change the political and economic forces that shape today’s press. Beginning as early as Lyndon Johnson's great society and continuing at an accelerated pace after the end of the cold war, political power has significantly shifted from the federal to the state government level.

But the organization of the press as a tool for democratic engagement has not shifted accordingly. The national focus of the most powerful news media—the national newspapers and broadcast television—keep the American people much better informed about the activities of their federal government than of state governments. Local television, in fact, does not even cover state government on a daily basis in most states.

The effect of this unequal shift of power and the press's ability to monitor that power on the citizen's behalf is exacerbated by the global nature of commercial organization. The promise of monumental world markets drives the technology to an international connectedness that not only disassociates commerce from geography but disassociates citizens from the voting precinct.

This bias away from the local political community is so profound that the whole concept of a sales tax on Internet commerce—something that all other retailers collect to support community infrastructure and services—is seen as an impediment to the "logical" development of the Internet.

"These forces may gradually shape the First Amendment as less the protector of the citizen's right of free speech than as a private economic right."

Globalization places news organizations inside conglomerates without borders for whom the notion of citizenship and traditional community is obsolete. For these market-driven organizations their news divisions are valued for their ability to attract a mass audience; for the sale of the corporation's other products such as nuclear power generators or entertainment; and for the political access and influence they can command. They are among the richest and most active special interest groups, which lobby government at all levels in the United States. Their power became starkly apparent when their lobby in Washington shaped the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first major revision of the laws since 1934, and essentially turned over control of the public air waves to private forces for an international competition which favors monopoly power.

We are seeing for the first time the rise of a market-based journalism divorced from the idea of civic responsibility. Consider the words of Rupert Murdoch talking about his company winning television rights in Singapore.

"Singapore is not liberal, but it's clean and free of drug addicts. Not so long ago it was an impoverished, exploited colony with famines, diseases and other problems. Now people find themselves in three-room apartments with jobs and clean sheets. Material incentives create business and the free market economy. If politicians try it the other way around with Democracy first, the Russian model is the result. Ninety percent of the Chinese are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote."

These words by a modern publisher advocating capitalism without democracy have no meaningful precedent in American journalism history. Yet there is a growing list of examples of ownership subordinating journalism to commercial interests. The day Time magazine was acquired by America Online, Time-Warner chairman Gerald Levin called the move "a natural fit." The fact that one company had a journalistic mission and the other had none, or that the journalists at Time magazine, CNN or Fortune might now have conflicting loyalties when trying to cover the Internet, cable and a host of other areas of commercial activity, all seemed incidental.

Similarly, Michael Eisner, head of a media empire, which includes ABC News, says he does not think it appropriate that "Disney cover Disney." In the mind of the man who runs the conglomerate ABC News has not only lost its distinctive identity but now has to struggle with whether and how it can cover its parent $23 billion corporation whose global operations range from sports teams and theme parks to cable channels and Internet portals.

Thus private interest is elevated above public interest. These forces may gradually shape the First Amendment as less the protector of the citizen's right of free speech than as a private economic right.

Michael Sandel, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University has wondered if, "there should be a nagging voice in us all asking: is democracy going to be bought up too?"

This rapid globalization of private economic markets has occurred without a similarly efficient globalization of public power. As Benjamin R. Barber wrote in the American Prospect,

"Liberty itself is redefined as the absence of governmental authority...power shifted from authorities that were hierarchical but also public, transparent and accountable, to authorities that remain hierarchical but are private, opaque, and undemocratic."<BR

These uses of the technology not only change the universe with which the institutions are concerned; they also change the content the companies provide. You can see this impact most dramatically on entertainment companies as they utilize the power of computers to produce more dramatic and violent action movies—movies that need no translation and generate worldwide sales and income.

News decisions based on the same goal of mass appeal tend to filter out important complex social and political stories, which might draw only limited audiences.

So we've come to this: after struggling for centuries to remain free of government control and censorship public interest journalism now finds itself struggling with similar pressures from private ownership. Independent journalism may in the end be dissolved in the solvent of commercial communication and synergistic self-promotion. The real meaning of the First Amendment—that a free press means an independent press—is threatened for the first time in our history even without government meddling.

Technology may be neutral. But the ultimate impact of technology depends upon how its power is directed. The telephone had no inherent power to centralize or decentralize a society but the telephone extended the decentralization of power in the United States at the same time it enhanced the concentration of the central power of government in Russia. The difference lay not in the technology but in the way the prevailing power structure organized its use.

"For, in the end, if the life and death of Elijah Parish Lovejoy teaches us anything, it teaches us that freedom and democracy do not depend upon technology or organization so much as they depend upon individuals who invest themselves in a belief in freedom and human dignity."

Finally, there is the fragmentation along class lines already visible in the new world of the Internet. In the U.S., while 75 percent of households with an annual income of over $75,000 own computers, only ten percent of the poorest families do. Such a divide between the information-rich and the information-poor opens the possibility of a frozen society of those trapped inside a world of distraction and entertainment, which has been designed to keep them content while they provide for the personal needs of the information-elite—just the sort of inequality of individuals which fired Elijah Parish Lovejoy's passions.

But it does not have to be this way. What is needed is to realize the democratic renewal that the technology makes available. And what’s needed are web sites dedicated to local social and economic issues that will foster political communities to moderate the de-democratization inherent in the devolution of power through privatization.

Sites like that of a young man named Omar Wasow, a self-described "garage entrepreneur" who founded a web site called New York online to help citizens who are "consumers, devourers and debunkers of media...an audience who have engaged the product and can respond accordingly." Omar wanted to start his own newspaper in New York City to help his generation cope with a changing world. But he found the cost of entry far too high, so he started a web page and has begun to build his community.

This potential for democratic renewal from the new technology was seen in its early stages by Richard Neustadt as he described in Politics and The New Media. The community cable television station in Reading, Pa., was one of the earliest in the country to provide live coverage of city council meetings and its impact was early apparent. By organizing a political community among those who "attended" council meetings on cable, an insurgent council member was able to beat the political machine and win the mayoral seat.

In community after community, cable systems have opened local government action to the public in a way never possible before, "creating a novel kind of television news [bringing] events directly to the people, 'gavel-to-gavel' without editing or interpretation. The audiences are small...but they are huge compared to the numbers who actually show up at a city council meeting or a house debate."

The key, then, lies not with the technology but with how the technology is organized. The Internet is a powerful tool for mobilizing people who are already motivated to seek out specific information. This power was clearly demonstrated by the rise of a new generation of protestors who showed up in Seattle to attack the policies of the World Trade Organization, and the international monetary fund, and other "anonymous institutions of economic power." It was seen in the ability of a woman named Jody Williams and an assortment of non-government organizations to force reluctant national governments around the world to accept an international treaty to ban the use of land mines in warfare.

Toward the end of the last century Larry Grossman, former president of the public television system and NBC television, looked ahead to the impact of the new technology on the democratic process and sounded this warning:

"As we go about the complicated task of reshaping representative government and redistributing political power in the electronic republic, we must retain the delicate constitutional balance between local and national, between private interests and the public good, and between minority freedom and majority rule. Those will not be easy tasks. But we cannot afford to miss the opportunity to use these new means of communication for the public benefit."

To accomplish that the theory of journalism that we have inherited from Elijah Parish Lovejoy must inform the basis of journalism for a new century—a journalism of sense making based on synthesis, verification, and a fierce independence. These are the values that hold the only protection against the forces that threaten to subsume journalism inside a world of commercialized speech.

History has taught us by bloody experience what happens to a society in which the citizens act on the basis of self-interested information, whether that be the propaganda of a despotic state or the edicts of a sybaritic leisure class substituting bread and circus for sovereignty.

No less an economic thinker than James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, agrees. In a speech in 1999 to the World Press Council, Wolfensohn said that corruption is the largest single inhibitor of equitable economic distribution in the world and that a free press is "absolutely at the core of equitable development." He also noted with despair that 6 billion people had no access to a free press and that the 1.2 billion who did were increasingly being served by a press in service more to private profit than public interest.

Civilization has produced one idea more powerful than any other, the notion that people can govern themselves. And it has created a largely unarticulated theory of information to sustain that idea called journalism. The two rise and fall together.

Our freedom in a digital century depends upon not forgetting the past, or the theory of news it produced ,in a surge of faith in technological and corporate rebirth.

For, in the end, if the life and death of Elijah Parish Lovejoy teaches us anything, it teaches us that freedom and democracy do not depend upon technology or organization so much as they depend upon individuals who invest themselves in a belief in freedom and human dignity.