1994 Fellow Eugene Patterson

Editor Emeritus,<i> St. Petersburg Times</i>
 
Convocation Address
With a late bow to George Orwell, 1994 seems a pretty apt moment to reflect on what's going on in America, and to examine the part the press is playing in it. After all, the voters to whom journalists communicate our sense of events decided in this month's elections to drive the Democrats out of control of Congress and hand command of both houses to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

Columnist Howard Troxler asked himself rhetorically in the St. Petersburg Times what the election losers are doing now.

"Answer: Losers blame the liberal media."

"Q: How is the liberal media to blame?"

"A. The liberal media brainwash the voters."

"Q. You mean the liberal media brainwashed Americans into electing the first Republican Congress in four decades?"

"A. Hey, I didn't say they were GOOD at it."

Whether the press is good or bad at what it does, it was laboring to keep up with many challenges well before the nation surprised it with this political U-turn. Consider the press's general state:

-- A few corporate chains have long been agglomerating ownership of the means of communication across the land, with a resultant drift toward cash flow and caution as the better part of journalist valor.

-- Electronic technology is changing the way news is gathered and processed and delivered and doing it so rapidly that no news person can be sure of staying astride the horse he came in on.

-- Definition of news itself is getting slippery when you consider the hold being taken on the public mind by radio gabble shows and television talk-fests, sensations in the tabloids, pseudo-news on the tube and flamings in cyberspace, topped off by those mud-slinging attack commercials that made this year's election contest the campaign from hell.

-- Meanwhile, back at the bean counter, the free marketplace's advertising expenditures, which pay for a free press are also in flux while the stores themselves are affected by a wave of corporate restructuring.

"Definition of news itself is getting slippery when you consider the hold being taken on the public mind by radio gabble shows and television talk-fests, sensations in the tabloids, pseudo-news on the tube and flamings in cyberspace, topped off by those mud-slinging attack commercials that made this year's election contest the campaign from hell."

There is a faith to be kept through all of this. A young reporter recently asked me, "Mr. Patterson, is the newspaper a dinosaur?" I told him I do not know how long we will go on inking our words on paper and throwing them on your wet grass in the mornings. But I did confidently assure him that the written word itself, no matter how printed or delivered, will endure and prevail. It is as essential now as it was when our antecedents scratched their hieroglyphs on cavern walls. Not everybody could read back then, or can read now, or will read in the future. Not everybody even cares to know what's going on. Witness the age group that advertisers have long been trying to reach on the fading television network newscasts: targets of the commercials are users of denture cleansers, analgesics, antacids and adult diapers.

Good for the old folks. But where do the young get their electronic news? MTV? Oprah? Rush Limbaugh? I don't know. I do know this: I know the written word that conveys accurate facts and intelligent analysis sufficient to illuminate events will be required as long as democratic self-government exists. That's because the educated and reflective people who must lead such a society are dependent on the written word, which may be held and pondered. They appreciate its presence and its permanence. And these thinking people give a free country its vision. No sound bite suffices for them, no printed factoid is adequate. No frantic technology, no entertainment, no mindless nattering on endlessly open microphones can supplant the necessity of considered fact and reasoned thought, unhurriedly expressed in writing, as the essential armor of human freedom.

In fact, the infinite volume of unfocused information flooding up from the bottomless computer spring has heightened the value of the guiding editor who is experienced enough in language and judgment to help us paddle onto the shores of meaning.

So somebody is going to have to be the keeper of the word, and the fighter of its battles. If that falls to journalists in 1994 as it did in 1837 to that brave son of Colby, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, then we have to keep our skirts clean. This stricture reaches beyond the obvious housekeeping requirements that a few seem loath to honor in the news business: To pay money to a news source taints the worth of anything he says; to take money, as a journalist, for anything, including speechmaking honoraria, from any person or pressure group whose interests one may be expected to cover, is indefensible.

But a larger problem was raised in a Los Angeles Times poll. It found that 71 percent of Americans think the press "gets in the way of society solving its problems." I think there are two main reasons for that melancholy impression.

The first is going to be hard for journalists to do anything about. Everybody at some point finds something in the press that offends him. It may be no more than misspelling your daughter's name under her wedding picture. A newspaper that does its job will inevitably irk some bully who expects to force an editor's fear, or some friend who seeks to curry her favor, or some believer who demands agreement with his prejudice. A newspaper that wavers from its convictions under such tests in search of popularity will only lose respect. It will not be loved, in any case. And when it is doing its job, which includes raising inconvenient questions and exposing unhappy facts, those offended will often see it as getting in the way of their pet solutions to society's problems.

Less obvious and more dangerous elements may be present. Look no further than the impending murder trial of the football player O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles. Who has not heard the assumption that the months of news coverage will somehow affect the fairness of the defendant's trial? Note how zealously the lawyers have played for public sympathy in the search for a jury unhaunted by a specter called pretrial publicity. The judge goes along. He must. The judiciary up to the Supreme Court has long accepted the notion that exposure to news taints the mind's capacity to the judge evidence fairly.

Why?

When we speculate that pretrial publicity prejudices jurors, where is the empirical evidence that most judges and lawyers would expect to undergird an assumption? The scattering of research I've found on that subject is more superficial in its form and suspect in its sponsorship than judges I know would admit into evidence in their courts. Yet the judiciary has embraced the unproven assumption and forced the law to follow lockstep behind its precedents. Am I unsound for believing the original point of the jury system was to assure an accused a verdict from peers who probably knew him in the village, knew his accuser, knew his record, knew the village gossip about the case, and thus came into the jury box pretty well aware of the rumors and the hearsay, and far from being prejudiced by the publicity, were entrusted because of it to be sure the prosecutor proved his own charges on the basis of evidence convincingly established? When and why did we depart from the original belief that a jury of one's peers who know most will serve best? I have served on enough criminal court juries to have convinced myself that the informed juror is likely to be the fair juror, and that most jurors are exacting in their insistence on a verdict based solely on the evidence presented in court. Yet the judiciary's untested assumption to the contrary prevails. So the lawyers calculatedly berate the press in search of advantage for their clients. The public understandably comes to believe the press's coverage of a case gets in the way of a fair jury trial. How much worse it would be to leave trials unwatched. But as I said, this is an element of the press's unpopularity that we can't do much about, except to ask you to think about it.

What can we do something about it suggested in a recent comment by the economist Herbert Stein in The New York Times. One of the reasons that citizens are aimless and disappointed, he wrote, is that "media pundits, who should be our sages and philosophers, are nit pickers."

"I have served on enough criminal court juries to have convinced myself that the informed juror is likely to be the fair juror, and that most jurors are exacting in their insistence on a verdict based solely on the evidence presented in court."

That one stings. Every sage and philosopher in the news business will instantly know who he is, of course, and all of us will swell with righteousness. It's the nit pickers who will have difficulty identifying themselves. You can help them; they're the ones you see seeking reputations for toughness at televised news conferences by insulting the official at bay. Their toughest questions can be asked civilly, and ought to be.

In pursuit of villains, nit pickers often miss the hero stories. In preoccupation with the press's vital watchdog role, they neglect its companion, the explanatory journalism that today's complex issues require. In their zeal to send the sheriff to jail (where some sheriffs do richly deserve to be doing their public service) the nit pickers fail to illuminate such larger stories as the building up to the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s and such under-reported present stories as the waste in agricultural subsidies, the advance of the African-American middle class, the full sweep of market-driven reforms in health care that aren't waiting for government action, and the fall--yes, fall--in the crime rate.

Which brings us back finally to the election campaign.

Judging from the mendacious din of paid-up commercial television that dominated the campaign and fed on the millions of dollars that indentured many of the candidates, the great issues before the nation were crime, welfare, immigration and illegitimacy. Well? Were they really?

A visitor from Mars might have concluded that America's unhappiness could be blamed on mendicants, migrants, miscreants and the misbegotten.

The press reported the electorate was angry. Angry over what? The candidates' insistence on pressing the hot buttons of scapegoating, which happened to encode an unspoken racial tinge, distracted the news media from fully exploring the deeper causes of the general anger. Americans, white collar and blue, saw an economic recovery rewarding mainly the top quarter of the society where they didn't rank. They felt international competition pressing down on their wages. They saw technology eating away at their jobs. They watched down-sizing lift corporate earnings up while sending jobs down then chute. America's economy and its schools were supposed to promise their children more than they'd had. They saw instead their children may be downwardly mobile. Against this insecure start to each day, Americans struggled to pay taxes to the government wrestled with the bureaucrats and paperwork of government, and resented government's open-handedness with people they saw as freeloaders on their struggles. These angry voters searched the media for explanations of what had hold of them. In a place of finding clarity and insight, they too often blinked at a bedlam of talk show babble, witnessed shouting matches between journalists turned television hams, puzzled over shallow printed squibs and, finally, fell victim to those sleazy campaign commercials. Have I got a scapegoat for you! many candidates assured their angry constituents. Blame that fellow behind the tree!

And that's the real danger here, isn't it. The election itself may have had a wise result. In its deeper wisdom the electorate may have sensed it was time to shake out the leadership of a Congress the Democrats themselves had helped to gridlock, and to try a change in political philosophies, whether for better or for worse. In the fine tradition of free men and women, voters unhappy with their masters threw the rascals out. The danger lay not in the election's destination, it lay in the route the bandwagon took. By meanness and mendacity, many anti-crime, anti-immigrant candidates channeled the electorate's anger toward scapegoats. And when the voters looked to their sources of information for guidance, the media were too often content to dignify the candidates definition of issues.

Such a black authority as Julian Bond discerned in the 1994 elections what he called "an American discontent with some important issues, like crime and immigration, that have a. . . . .racial cast to them." So does welfare.

Minority leaders are, and need be, speaking to remedies within.

But among whites there should be recollection that the cause of racial justice has called forth the better angels of the American nature heretofore. To change that commitment to our history would jeopardize the constitutional foundation of the republic.

Elijah Lovejoy knew the patient commitment to justice for all would not be an easy one. To banish slavery, that editor gave his life. To that end, his nation went on to decimate a generation in a calamitous civil war in the 19th century. In the 20th, Americans together survived a great economic depression, endured the trauma of global wars, absorbed vast protest movements in the streets and, in acts of historic conscience-cleansing, extended equal protection of the laws to their minority countrymen.

At every step, from Lovejoy's martyrdom in the 1830s to Ralph McGill's heroism at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s, American journalists spoke clearly and directly to the people's needs for knowledge in their time, though the truth was often unpopular. Their healthy skepticism of power did not descend into cynicism about the promise of self-government to serve American needs. The press should be the last sap that faith. Its own freedom flows from it. The promise of democracy must remain an article of American faith.

Now on the eve of the 21st century, Americans have seen a collapse abroad of the opposing ideology whose threat had concentrated our energies and unified our aims for a generation. Suddenly the capitalist system stands safe from external challenge. We are free to identify other dangers to stand against, and invited to look within. It is not likely the 1994 election campaign accurately spotted the priority menace when it pointed to the poor, the huddled masses, the illegitimate and the unimprisoned. Surely larger visions than that beckon to us. And larger dangers threaten our freedoms if we yield to our darker tempers.

"The promise of democracy must remain an article of American faith."

"There is the danger," Harvard professor of government Michael Sandel told The New York Times on the day after these elections, "that the politics of protest may find its next expression in the 'man on horseback,' an authoritarian figure who offers a way beyond impasse, above politics, and beyond the messy and often frustrating restraints of constitutional government."

That is some danger. With a late bow to George Orwell, the people of 1994, and their press, need to think on it.