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By Stephen Collins '74
Bill Kovach, a staunch defender of press freedom and a crusader for integrity in journalism, received the 48th Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award on November 9, the anniversary of the birth and the burial of Lovejoy, an 1826 Colby graduate who became America's first martyr to press freedom.
In this year's Lovejoy address, Kovach described a brave new world of communications where corporate conglomerates force their news divisions to put profits before the public interest and where media scramble to be the first to report news with insufficient regard for whether it's true.
"So we've come to this," he told about 200 people in Lorimer Chapel: "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 Amendmentthat a free press means an independent pressis threatened for the first time in our history, even without government meddling."
Addressing the formal Lovejoy convocation just two days after the historic presidential election of November, with recounts just getting under way, Kovach was harshly critical of the media's election coverage. "I think election night was stunning in its uselessness to citizens," he said, criticizing the mentality that prompted television networks to call states, prematurely and sometimes incorrectly, for one candidate or another. "It was strictly driven by commercial pressure and not by journalism at all," he said.
"The idea that the purpose of the press is to tell you who's ahead and who's behind is a disservice to the process," he told a government class earlier in the day."
The Lovejoy Selection Committee unanimously chose Kovach for the 2000 Lovejoy Award earlier this year, and Kovach told those assembled for the November convocation, "There is no other award, including the Pulitzer Prize, that I would rather have than this one."
Kovach quit his first job as a reporter at the Johnson City (Tennessee) Press-Chronicle because the publisher wouldn't let him cover civil rights in the early 1960s. He quit his last newspaper job, as editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when his principles clashed with the publisher's business interests. In between he had a remarkable career, at the Tennessean, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Working in the Times's Boston bureau he helped photocopy the Pentagon papers and paid for the copies with a personal check. In Nashville he refused to leave the senate chamber when ordered, and an ensuing court case led to the nation's sunshine laws that require decisions to be made in public. In Washington he worked on the story about Wilbur Mills driving drunk with a stripper into the Tidal Basin, a story that broke the Times's policy of ignoring stories about the private lives of public figures.
After leaving daily journalism, Kovach led The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which strives to elevate journalism standards through publications, seminars, conferences and fellowships. After 11 years at Harvard he retired last year to chairthe Committee of Concerned Journalists, whose mission is to uphold the best practices of journalism. He served for 12 years, from 1988 to 1999, on Colby's Lovejoy Selection Committee.
Colby established the Lovejoy Award in 1952 for an editor, reporter or publisher who has contributed to the nation's journalistic achievement. Lovejoy was martyred on November 7, 1837, when he was killed defending his abolitionist newspaper from a pro-slavery mob.
For the full text of Kovach's speech, visit www.colby.edu/communications/lovejoy/fellows.html
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