1993 Fellow Eileen Shanahan

Washington bureau chief, <i>The St. Petersburg Times </i>
 
 
Convocation Address
President Cotter, students and faculty of the Colby College community, my fellow journalists in the audience, and all of the rest of you good folks who have come here tonight:

I am honored, quite literally beyond my ability to express it, at being chosen as the 41st recipient of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award.

I feel the honor intensely when I study the names, and recall the accomplishments, of those who have preceded me, many of whom I have known personally.

"I think the gravest threat to a free press in America today is the erosion of the public's belief in the value of what we journalists do."

But I am most affected - and truly humbled - when I contemplate the three women among my predecessors: Mary McGrory, a writer of unparalleled insight and grace, whom I am proud to call friend; Katharine Graham, a publisher whose courage in the face of threats from a dishonorable president is known to the entire nation; and Katherine Fanning, an editor and publisher who guided a newspaper with tiny resources to a Pulitzer, and then went on, as the first woman to head the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to rededicate that organization to the issues of ethics in journalism. What exalted company you have placed me in. I will try to deserve it.

In honoring me tonight, you honor a free press. That's what this award is all about. Many of the Lovejoy recipients, over the decades, have spoken here about the forces they perceived as threats to that freedom, the particular forces in their own particular times.

And that is what I plan to do, too.

It is the natural tendency of any profession to show a unified and self-praising face to the world -- saving any expressions of concern about itself for conversations among its fellow practitioners. I have followed that course myself for most of my career.

But there are things in journalism today -- some new, and some old but intensifying -- that worry me so much that I felt I could not pass up this extraordinary opportunity to speak of what I really think, and feel.

I believe that the greatest threat to a free press in this country today is not from government at any level, nor from the radicals of the religious right or the "politically correct" left (though both are, in fact, enemies of freedom of expression in all its forms).

No. I think the gravest threat to a free press in America today is the erosion of the public's belief in the value of what we journalists do.

I see many causes of that erosion and I am by no means the first to comment on them. Our perceived arrogance and self-serving pursuit of "insider" status with the mighty, rather than with the concerns of our readers -- a particularly prevalent disease in Washington, where I have spent most of my career.

Our lack of respect for the feelings of ordinary people, especially in times of grief: the front page picture of the young policeman's widow collapsing into her father's arms at the funeral. They hate for us for that.

And -- in our desperate attempt to stem the decline in our readership -- the greatly increasing amounts of space we devote to what we call "news you can use": features on how to deal with your sweetheart, your divorce, your in-laws, your teens and your younger kids; when to refinance your mortgage; what to do this weekend; where to vacation; how to cook healthy. I don't have to go through the whole list.

Now without a doubt much of this is very well done and it does have value for the readers. I read a lot of it myself and surveys show that many people do.

Furthermore, I am certainly not one to scorn efforts to bring in more readers, and with them, more advertisers. My husband was on a newspaper that died, in 1972, a lively, scrappy tabloid, the Washington Daily News. I still miss it. And I was on a newspaper that died in 1981, the Washington Star, which was almost universally considered the nation's finest afternoon newspaper. I know we have to make a profit.

But is "news you can use" central to what journalism is, or ought to be? While much of it is, indeed, a service to the readers, does all of it together add up to something of such precious value that they would rally around in defense of a free press if that freedom came under serious attack again -- as it undoubtedly will, some day. I think not.

We need to display a more serious purpose more often than we do today.

And what shall that serious purpose be? I think I know the exact words with which to state it. They are found in my favorite of all the excellent mottoes that different newspapers carry on their front pages or editorial pages. They are the words of the Scripps-Howard motto:

Give light and the people will find their own way.

That should be our creed, I believe, and our daily purpose. But I'm afraid that today, the light we journalists shine is, most often, of some hideous greenish-yellow hue that makes everything it touches look sick.

Yes, there is sickness a-plenty in our society. I am at one with Hillary Clinton who said she thought she could not bear to pick up her newspaper in the morning one more time to read that a small child had been the victim of a random bullet. Yet three more little children have died in Washington, D.C., in just that way, since she spoke, less than three weeks ago.

Of course, we must cover that. If the day comes when we do not consider such killings news we will know that we have lost our souls as well as our minds.

But what I am increasingly concerned about is my sense that we, in journalism, print and broadcast alike, seldom cover anything but the horror and the failures, fostering in our readers and viewers the conviction that there is no hope - no point in even trying to fix any of the things that are so terribly wrong in our country, or even improve them a little.

That is not to say there are never any pieces about community leaders or -- more rarely, I think -- government programs that accomplish something. We have, indeed, occasionally read of the tough welfare mother who organized the residents and drove the drug dealers out of her housing project. And got the trash cleaned up. And created a neighborhood watch that kept the kids mostly out of trouble.

We have even occasionally read of successful governmental programs, like the one in Oregon that paid unmarried teens who had had one baby a weekly stipend for not getting pregnant a second time. It is the second baby that almost always means the absolute end of any schooling--and of a self-reliant future for the mother.

"With diminished local coverage, we in journalism do not give the public sufficient information about either success or failure."

But there are many small, important success stories like these that never get reported, even in the communities where they are happening and many more that are reported only in the communities where they are happening, because editors and broadcasters do not think to look for them, even at home, let alone seek out models and lessons from elsewhere.

One reason for this is the appalling decline in local news coverage. Travel around this country a bit and read the local papers. At first, you may be impressed with the amount of serious national and international news they carry. But then, as you go through the pages, you often will see very little local coverage. Those newspapers are saving money, and short-changing their readers, by running wire copy. You can buy a lot of wires for what one reporter costs.

Naturally, there are exceptions, and my newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times is an outstanding exception. We cover the national and international news thoroughly and well with a number of wires, but also with a Washington bureau that includes a full-time foreign policy reporter and three of our own foreign correspondents. But is it the local coverage that is our hallmark. Daily zoned editions and a "B" section packed with staff-originated state news and the top of the local news.

Some might say the St. Pete Times can do this because we're a profitable paper. I say we're a profitable paper, in substantial measure, because we do this.

With diminished local coverage, we in journalism do not give the public sufficient information about either success or failure. And yes, I do recognize the existence of some areas in which the nation is failing, which need more coverage than we are giving them.

One in particular must be mentioned: racial injustice. We cover today's pathologies in our minority communities, especially the black ones, but not the causes that foster their perpetuation. Education in this country is still mostly separate and unequal. How often do we go look at the copyright dates of the textbooks, library books and encyclopedias in the ghetto schools and compare them with those in schools that serve the middle class and upper middle class? Or the equipment in the science labs?

And I am very sorry to say that I think there is still much unconscious prejudice in our coverage. When is the last time you saw a story or a TV program about welfare that included a white mother on AFDC? Yet the vast majority of those on welfare in this country are white.

And why is it that we carry piece after piece, filled with African-American faces, about drug use and its horrifying consequences for the whole society, and most acutely in our minority communities. But we hardly ever do the difficult, urgent investigative stories that would finger the banks and other respectable businesses, run by locally prominent white men, who are laundering the money so it can make its way back to the murderous Colombian drug cartel and its major distributors.

Race is still what Gunnar Myrdal called it half a century ago: the American dilemma. I do not suggest that there are easy answers, but is journalism even asking the right questions about racial injustice any more, as I think we once did, in the exciting early days of the civil rights movement, before we found out just how hard it was to reach to equality--or even desegregation.

If journalism asked the right questions, we might find some answers, or prod others into finding them. In journalism, as elsewhere in life, we seldom find anything unless we look for it.

What we mostly look for, and find, now are the twice-told and thrice-told and a thousand times told "ain't it awful" stories that contain nothing very new.

Let no one misunderstand me. I am not proposing a journalism of "happy talk," just the upbeat stuff.

Nor am I in any way suggesting that we abandon the search for wrongdoing and failure.

If a member of the Public Utilities Commission is taking expensive meals and golfing weekends and Patriots tickets from a utility official, and we can prove it, I say "Nail his pelt to the wall."

"If journalism asked the right questions, we might find some answers, or prod others into finding them."

If the mayor has appointed a relative or an old buddy to a position for which he has no visible qualifications, let us by all means monitor his performance and if we find he really cannot or does not do the job, that goes into the newspaper and on the air, too.

And what about the cases of failure without wrongdoing? A government inaugurates a new program but it becomes clear, after a time, that it hasn't accomplished much and it's cost a lot. That is, in fact, a pretty good description of most of the federal government's worker retraining programs.

Should we journalists just yell for the scalps of those who wasted the taxpayers' money? Or do we try something much harder: to determine why a program started in good faith by people who were honorable, and probably pretty smart, as well, produced so little at such cost? Are there lessons to be learned for another program, another time?

Perhaps no such thing should ever be attempted again; that can be a valid lesson, heaven knows. But perhaps this year's failure, if examined by us in some depth, points the way toward next year's success.

Yes, I am arguing that we need more success stories in the papers and on the air.

Aha! I hear my colleagues in journalism saying. She wants us to be advocates.

She thinks we have to run stories that say 8,000 children in this community walked to and from elementary school today and all returned home alive and unmolested. No. I agree that such a story is not how we properly define news.

What I am saying is that in our lopsided choices of what we cover today, we are already advocates. Advocates of the view that nothing works. Advocates of despair.

In particular, I think, our coverage discourages public officials from experimenting, from taking risks.

There are public programs that work. For 10 years, the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School at Harvard have been identifying successful, innovative programs at the state and local government level, 10 winners, each year, of their carefully researched Innovations Award and 15 runners up. I am astonished at how relatively little publicity those awards receive.

Lisbeth Schorr wrote a book five years ago, Within Our Reach, about community-based and governmental programs for children that succeed. And a new book I haven't read yet, by Jonathan Freedman, who used to be an editorial writer for the now-defunct San Diego Tribune, I'm told similarly details success stories.

"The voters will know to demand it only if those of us in journalism tell them that everything doesn't have to be sick and futile, that some efforts to make things better do work.

In social policy areas, in particular, success is usually a long time in coming. We see the payoff from everybody's favorite social program, Head Start, only after 15 or 20 years when fewer of its graduates are in jail or mothers-too-early on welfare.

We do know some things work and we also know that the tough ones can be--or seem--hellish expensive.

How do we persuade politicians, who must make the decisions to attempt them, to do that when the payoff will come only years after they are no longer running for re-election? And the penalty may come much sooner. I think that is one of the most important and difficult questions before this country today.

What is clear to me is that politicians will be emboldened to try only if the voters demand it.

And the voters will know to demand it only if those of us in journalism tell them that everything doesn't have to be sick and futile, that some efforts to make things better do work.

I think most of us in journalism do believe that our highest calling is to provide the information, and the analysis and the insights that will help our American democracy work better. Isn't that what we really do believe we're about?

To give light, so the people can find their own way.