1996 Fellow John Seigenthaler

Columnist, <i>New York Newsday </i>
 
 
Convocation Address
President Cotter, members of the faculty, students, invited guests: I am extremely honored to receive the Elijah Lovejoy award--it's a singular honor named after a heroic figure of the American press; I'm proud to be part of the long and distinguished list of journalists who have received it. As we sit here tonight, a hundred and sixty years after his death, we remember his name but not the names of those who were in that mob.
"Where indeed did it come from--that conviction that he by exercising a nation's precious right of press freedom could help break the chains that enslaved a human race."

I'm really impressed by the loyalty of the alumni of Colby College. I can't tell you how many calls I've received since The Tennessean ran a small item saying that I was going to be this recipient. One lady called me on the phone and said "What is it you're going to do at Colby." And I said, "Well, President Cotter called me on the phone and said `do you really believe in free speech,' and I said, `Of course I believe in free speech,' and he said, `well, how about coming up to Colby and giving one?'" I said I would be honored. . . .

To begin, let me state regrettably that I do not possess a gift of eloquence adequate to express this honor I feel in receiving this award in the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy here at his school, Colby College. If it is true, as we read in Proverbs, that "pride goeth before a fall," I must watch my step this evening, for I acknowledge bald and unabashed pride in having my name linked with that of Lovejoy: the journalist and editor whose transcendent strength of character gave him the vivid insight to expose the evil of his time--the evil of all time.

If you think of him, as I have in these recent days since I learned that I was to receive this award, you must wonder where it came from--that commitment to stand against the depraved institution of slavery that had poisoned the soul of our nation and mocked our Constitutional commitment to the spirit of human liberty.

Where indeed did it come from--that conviction that he by exercising a nation's precious right of press freedom could help break the chains that enslaved a human race.

Where did it come from--that courage to face the armed Alton mob, whose barbarous notion was that by murdering a man and destroying his machine, a printing press, they could kill an idea. I hope and believe that you here at Colby fully appreciate that with this award in his name you make certain there is, in this still-imperfect land where racism still resides, a place where once each year we are reminded that the five bullets that snuffed out the life of Parish Lovejoy at age 34 could not murder the cause of racial justice for which he stood, nor destroy the concept of free expression for which he died.

For that I thank you and tell you--remembering Proverbs, remembering also that fall without pride Bob Dole took from a campaign platform--that I will step carefully and pridefully from this stage this evening.

It seems to me, given my own long years as a journalist and editor, that it would be a profanation of all Parish Lovejoy was about in his brief years as an editor not to devote the burden of my remarks this evening to some thoughts about what currently is the state of the institution of the press--its changing culture and its unchanging challenge in the face of society's changing nature.

0f course no longer is it possible to speak of the press with an image of the machine the mob came to destroy that night 160 years ago at the river-front warehouse in Illinois. The institution generically called the press has changed and today embodies and embraces an electronic wonder-world which is a vital and indeed dominant part now of the news media. This press, this news media in its present permutation and all its parts, are distinctly different from the traditional printing world Lovejoy knew--but certainly the "press" institution and all its parts are entitled to every protection ensured by those 45 words of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Protection. Protection is a hollow word when we think of Parish Lovejoy. But his death gave it meaning--meaning that still has vibrant life for all media more than a century and a half later. And the challenge for those professional journalists who work inside this now multi-faceted institution of the press is this: To inform and enlighten themselves so that they might inform and enlighten citizens in this democratic society on matters that affect their lives and at times even their liberty.

That challenge to inform and enlighten is so basic, so obvious, so elemental, as to beg discussion, much less argument. But the change in the culture of news and the change in the nature of society as we approach a new century have made the basic, fragile: the obvious, obscure; the elemental, complex. These changes in society's nature are visible and dramatic and must present journalists with questions as to how they can meet the challenge to inform and enlighten.

"Protection is a hollow word when we think of Parish Lovejoy. But his death gave it meaning--meaning that still has vibrant life for all media more than a century and a half later."

It seems to me that the most profound change in this country is the movement by women away from the hearth and homeplace into the market and workplace. It is a change that alters the long-accepted habits of the gender that makes up a majority of our population. The alterations in their way of life intimately affect how they spend their time, which includes how they spend the time to have the press inform and enlighten them. More than ever before their time is limited. And their information needs are different as they assume new societal roles. Many of them are sole breadwinners and parents as well. Many of them continue to be homemakers as well as salaried workers.

I do not suggest that this change, which obviously will continue as the glass ceiling shatters, should lead any editor or news director to totally revamp the content of the newspaper or the newscast. On the other hand, to ignore the news and information needs, the changing needs, of this growing group of the populace is to callously invite them to cancel the subscription, tune out the news program or to turn it off. In weighing that, we should remember that every demographic report on the outcome of the recent election suggests that President Clinton's success was tied to the votes of women. The gender gap was palpable, and the decision of women was clearly discriminating. They are interested and involved in the democratic process and the role--the challenge--is to enlighten and inform as their needs of news and information change.

Perhaps less demanding as part of the editorial challenge is the change affecting those citizens who are older. For those in print journalism, these are the most faithful and loyal constituents of all. Still, they should not be taken for granted. Like women in the workplace, many of their news and information needs are unique to the changes in their lives. As their life cycle continues to extend, their interests will change again and it would be a mistake for the media to ignore those changes and abdicate the challenge to enlighten and inform. It is not unlikely that there will be a social conflict in our country in the next decade as the political needs of those older citizens intensify and as the burden of supporting those political needs falls to those who remain in the workplace. And that potential conflict must not be ignored as the news media face the challenge to inform and enlighten.

In another direction, the expansion of new media technology must remind us of the changing information needs of the enlarged and enlarging group that now seems destined to become a permanent, vulnerable underclass caught in circumstances that portend marginal education, portend marginal opportunity, portend marginally productive lives. Many of those trapped already in that underclass have long since canceled their subscriptions (if they ever had them), tuned out the program and turned it off. Among them, illiteracy and semi-literacy is highest, and the psychological barriers presented them by the new technologies raise those obstacles compounding the economic limitations that bar them access to the news and information highway. And while there is a definable growing African-American middle class, still an unfair and unfortunate number of the underclass are people of color.

Yes, many of their news and information needs are unique, and it is difficult to interface with those who find irrelevant much of what they read and see and hear from the media. But they, of all the rest, need to be enlightened and informed about matters that affect their lives and liberty, and this presents the news media with the largest measure of its challenge.

And then I would speak of that group of citizens whose news and information needs are crucial to the future of a democratic society--those who never have subscribed, have never tuned in or turned on the news--the young. The changes in the life of that generation are constantly in the news. You know the litany. Drugs, pregnancy, permissiveness, parental neglect, academic pressures--a poll out just this week reports that 25 percent of those in their teens have considered suicide. I heard of that poll only a few days after reading a poem Elijah Parish Lovejoy wrote of himself and his youth. It went:
"Of all that knew him, few but judged him wrong
He was of silent and unsocial mood
Unloving and unloved he passed along."

I wonder had he grown up in this generation, of that mood, how he would have responded to that poll. I fear for an answer.

"Drugs, pregnancy, permissiveness, parental neglect, academic pressures--a poll out just this week reports that 25 percent of those in their teens have considered suicide."

And so the news media report about this generation but barely and rarely have an opportunity to report to them. They are a visual generation, addicted to the tube. But they are discerning and disinterested--and they are channel surfers. Routinely, they pass the news media right on by. For two decades, editors, and I for most of that time was one of them, struggled with strategies to attract their attention. It has been and is a frustrating exercise. It is possible that their fascination, often their preoccupation, with the new technology--the wonder of exploring the web, the fascination of interacting on the net--will provoke a new interest in the written word and will provide a new chance to devise a workable strategy for the press to reach them and meet the challenge. In any case, we ignore their news and information needs at society's peril and at the media's own.

Now I am aware that it is impossible, and more than that unwise, to turn the newspaper or the newscast into segmented parts that cater to the news and information needs of demographic groups, whatever affect their lives. I am not suggesting 30 column inches for women, 30 column inches for seniors, 30 more for the underclass, 30 more for the rising Black middle class, 30 more for the young anymore than I suggest 30 column inches for the cops and 30 more for the robbers.

In truth, many of the news and information needs of all those affected by the changes in society's nature are the same. Some overlap, most are identical to the general population, but many are unique. I know that there are intelligent reporters, editors, news directors and producers who are aware of the trends and change of which I speak and seek to address them. Some of them acknowledge that they are late in meeting changes that have subtly crept up on society. The problem is that each demographic, trendline projects further change and the problem for the news media in meeting its challenge is not how to catch up but how to get ahead.

Now just a few thoughts about changes in the culture of the news media--a distinctly different problem.

At the top of that agenda is the reality of changing media ownership by corporate interests with no background or history or interest in news as a business or a profession. Obviously, here I am focusing on the television industry with ABC now owned by Disney, CBS by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric and CNN by Time Warner. Such mega-mergers obviously mean cultural changes at the top level of management.

Every poll of corporate executives outside of the news media in the last decade and a half has reflected disenchantment and even dislike of the news media. So what does that cultural change in the boardroom mean? And what are the implications for the newsroom?

One thing it has not yet meant and hopefully will not mean is a change in the culture of the newsroom or the studio. Those venues remain inhabited by professional journalists whose commitment to news values is part of the very core of their being. Their careers are committed to traditional news standards.

It is impossible to tell when or if there will be clashes between these two cultures--one corporate the other journalistic. I would not hazard a guess for fear I would be right. Twice in the last year we have seen networks cave in in the face of legal threats or actions by tobacco companies. The most disturbing, in my view, came as the ABC/Disney merger was pending at the same time a multi-million dollar defamation suit was pending. There came a certain moment when I had agreed to testify as an expert witness for the network. I remember the pain in the voice of a confident First Amendment lawyer for the network when he called to say that his client had folded, and I know that professional journalists with that network who had worked that story suffered and were committed to it and suffer still.

"Every poll of corporate executives outside of the news media in the last decade and a half has reflected disenchantment and even dislike of the news media."

Now an occasional incident does not make a habit. It may be that managers of these merged media giants will learn and not force a clash of cultures between the boardroom and the newsroom. But we must worry, because some of these particular corporations have various holdings. Some are involved in defense contracting, some in the nuclear industry, some in entertainment. These areas of corporate enterprise have frequently been criticized by the networks. What happens now when such a critical story is on the news budget? Must it be cleared "upstairs?" Must it be edited by a non-editor and lawyered by a corporate rather than First Amendment lawyer? Or will the mere reality of what the merger means chill the news process through self-censorship?

Chris Wallace, the ABC correspondent, said as that merger was taking place, that the story he had reported critically on Disney before the merger, might not have been reported after the merger.

Now most of the large newspaper chains remain in the hands of managers whose careers have been built around involvement in the news as a business--and many of them in news as a profession. Those news media corporations are publicly owned with stocks traded on Wall Street. They are in no sense immune to the same danger of takeovers through mergers that have touched all four networks--mergers with corporations that have no background or history in the news business. And because those corporations are now traded on the big board, newsrooms have been and are affected by pressures from the bottom line. Journalists who saw budgets shrink during years of recession know what that means for the challenge to enlighten and inform.

And there is other cultural change in the press of grave concern. Thoughtful critics of the news media point with grave concern, to the growing penchant for entertainment as news. It must I think concern us all. Still other critics are gravely concerned with the growing fascination of gossip as news. That too should concern us all. Others worry about something called civic journalism. And so should we all. It is the practice which includes encouraging journalists and editors to involve themselves in the work and decision making of civic institutions, civic projects, civic programs, even political events and campaigns--events on which the news media must report.

The conflict to me is obvious, but not to those caught up in what civic journalism is about. This new movement, civic journalism, includes the suggestion that journalists poll their communities to determine what readers want to read and see and hear--and then follow the graph lines. I favor strongly the idea that journalists must work and research to understand for themselves the changing news needs of their communities--and act to meet those needs. But I do not favor the abdication of the journalistic responsibility of the reporter and editor to decide on the basis of that study and research and understanding what the news needs are of that community.

I shudder to think what the public response would have been had Parish Lovejoy conducted a poll on the question of abolition and adhered to the graph findings of the Alton, Illinois, community.

One more concern that touches the change in the culture of the news media is occurring not in the business itself but in institutions called journalism and mass communications schools all across the country. In too many cases they are schools of communications only. They are forfeiting interest in--and in fact demeaning--journalism as a profession and a business. The theory practiced in these schools is that it is sufficient to train all students to become communicators for the new information age. The faculties there reject the traditional theory that society needs a core of professional information gatherers, newswriters and broadcaster, editors and news producers to meet the challenge to enlighten and inform.

This trend toward something we now call "communicology" is documented in a recent report called "Winds of Change," by Betty Medsgar, the veteran journalist and immediate past chair of the journalism department of San Francisco State University. Fortunately there remain some schools, a shrinking number, where journalism is still the outcome of education, institutions still dedicated to the ideal that standards and values and ethics are important to those who commit their careers to the challenge of the news media. But the news organizations now must be aware of the need to reach out to liberal arts institutions beyond those who teach "communicology" for in those liberal-arts institutions they will find talented, informed, prospective journalists with broad academic backgrounds, whose careers will be committed to the challenge to enlighten and inform.

As I consider the sum of what I have said over the last 20 minutes, it strikes me that I sound like the cranky old critic, the newspaper editor too long past his time, who holds out little hope for the future of journalism, and I must put down that idea.

On the contrary, as I look at newsrooms around the country today, both print and electronic, I find there a wealth of talent--young men and women diverse in background, better educated, better trained, more independent minded, more dedicated to fairness and accuracy in reporting, more committed to the challenge to enlighten and inform than any group of journalists I have seen at any time in the 45 years I have been associated with the news media. I am proud to say my son is one of those.

"I sound like the cranky old critic, the newspaper editor too long past his time, who holds out little hope for the future of journalism, and I must put down that idea."

I am encouraged by the presence of three national networks--two of them, MSNBC and Fox, now competing with CNN and attempting to compete with the three giant networks to enlighten and inform a democratic society. These entries into the marketplace of ideas promise great competition. And I am encouraged as I talk with editors and responsible news executives from all elements of the media who understand the challenge presented by change and who will never surrender their integrity to fads or whims or trivial media pursuits. They competent enough, smart enough and caring enough to meet the challenge.

But one last word of caution--in all of this change in the nature of society and in the culture of the press, there remains always present the threat of government regulation. New technology with all of its mystique intimidates and frightens those in government who do not understand it and seemingly will not learn. Not since the first Congress wrote five words has there been a subsequent Congress that understood what those words meant: "Congress shall make no law..."

The last Congress was and the one to come will be promoting and even pushing laws to regulate and to censor. They forget, but Elijah Parish Lovejoy never did, and we never should, the words of James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, who said: "Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power and withhold from them information without which power is abused." He added: "a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or both."

How lucky we are that there are journalists in the country that represent the means of acquiring that information, who are willing and committed to meet that challenge.

Nor did Lovejoy forget and we should not the words of Madison's mentor, Thomas Jefferson, who said: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and what never will be."

Thank you very much.