Editor and publisher, Santa Barbara News-Press
I accept the award with deep and sincere humility. In only one respect do I count myself qualified for it: Although I have not been called upon to test my willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice made by Elijah Lovejoy, I share his deep conviction that a newspaper must be dedicated to the public welfare. It must have a conscience and speak from that conscience, in a strong and reasoned voice, whenever an issue presents itself. In short, it must earn and re-earn its right to protection under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“I am a product of the West, steeped in the tradition of fighting for what is right.”
Elijah Lovejoy lighted the way 125 years ago when he chose personal danger and death to surrender of his principles. The battle he helped lead against human slavery has been won. But never won is the battle against slavery of the human soul–against those who would undermine the priceless right of every human being to hold and express his own beliefs, no matter how distasteful they may be to the majority.
I am a product of the West, steeped in the tradition of fighting for what is right. My grandfather, six generations removed, was a military leader with Father Junipero Serra’s party when the padre was establishing the California missions. Jose Francisco de Ortega came to California 75 years before it joined the Union. My maternal grandfather came during the gold rush in 1849 and was murdered in cold blood defending his property rights 28 years later. My father first saw California in 1872, and later became a crusading editor.
Father was not born until ten years after Lovejoy’s tragic death. But as I read the life of Lovejoy I find almost an uncanny similarity to my father’s experiences. In 1864 at the age of sixteen father lied his way into the Union Army, enlisting from Madison, Wisconsin. He was captured at the second battle of Bull Run and was in Andersonville prison for 11 months. It was a fight against tremendous odds to survive. There were 11 members of his company captured at the same time and he helped bury 8 of them who died from starvation in prison. Two of his comrades who died were from the state of Maine.
All these forefathers came to California in days when a man had to be a fighter to survive. I learned about liberty and freedom from actual participants in the never-ending battle to preserve them. I learned firsthand about outspoken newspapermen who–like Elijah Lovejoy–lost their lives battling for causes in which they believed.
I learned first-hand the story of James King of William, as he called himself to make his name distinctive; an editor, who like Lovejoy, became a martyr to freedom of the press. His crusade as editor of the San Francisco Bulletin was against the gamblers, politicians and gangsters who ruled early San Francisco. His blood cleansed the crime-ridden city, for when he was shot to death at the Bulletin office by James Casey, ruler of the underworld, the wild young settlement gave birth to the committee known as the Vigilantes. Casey’s body dangled from a rope in front of the Bulletin building, and the Bulletin, as a continuing memorial to King, carried on his work against corruption for years.
I saw Americans robbed of their freedom and franchise by corrupt political machines. Fresh in my young mind was the murder of a member of the State Supreme Court who died because he carried out his judicial duties with integrity. Coming closer to home, I was made familiar with the foul murder of the editor of the newspaper that I acquired some years later –a brave man shot in the back because he criticized a politician during an election campaign.
It was with this heritage and background that I became an editor at the age of 24, on the first day of the century, 62 years ago. I did not lie awake nights reading the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. But I knew the value of freedom and liberty, and I knew that no one could wield more power than an editor in fighting to preserve them.
“I saw Americans robbed of their freedom and franchise by corrupt political machines.”
I believe with deep sincerity that the responsibility for maintaining all of the freedoms–freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assemblage and freedom of the press–rests on the shoulders of the men and women who ARE the press. I believe that the greatest threat to those freedoms lies in our failure to be true to our convictions–our failure to speak out when we see freedom jeopardized, even in what may seem to be a small way.
I have frequently read that newspapers have had to resist pressures, or have been threatened by some governmental action to curb their stand for freedoms. To me this is all sheer nonsense.
Let me make one point perfectly clear tonight: During my 62 years as an editor, no one has ever questioned my right to stand up for justice or freedom whenever they were under attack, either directly or indirectly. No one has ever attempted to bring pressure against me, commercial or otherwise, in an effort to silence me on any issue. No governmental or legislative action has ever been a threat to the press so far as I could discern.
I believe that the greatest sin of the American press is the sin of omission rather than the sin of commission–the sin of refusing to take a stand on issues that might become too “hot” to handle.
There would be little reason for apprehension if all of our newspapers were as forthright and conscious of their responsibilities as the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Louisville Courier Journal, Milwaukee Journal, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, McClatchy’s Bees, and some others. But too many newspapers, large and small, do not meet the standards of those newspapers, I regret to say. Too many newspapers do not speak out on the vital issues with clarity and conviction. Too many men in journalism pay too little heed to the precepts of such leaders as Louis Lyons of the Nieman Foundation, Ed Barrett of the Columbia School of Journalism, Charles Morton of Atlantic Monthly, and Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution.
There is nothing that should have seemed remarkable about my own clash with the leader of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch. I did only what any other newspaperman would or should do in the same circumstance. I took a close look at what the Birch Society was doing to my own community and I told my readers what I thought about it.
“I believe that the greatest sin of the American press is the sin of omission rather than the sin of commission—the sin of refusing to take a stand on issues that might become too “hot” to handle.”
I saw a steady pattern of undercover attack against school officials, against churchmen, against governmental leaders, against university professors and administrators. With rising anger I read Robert Welch’s charges of Communist conspiracy, directed against a former President and one whom I consider to be a great Chief Justice of the United States. I read such undiluted Welch poison as this, and I quote: “While I too think that Milton Eisenhower is a Communist, and has been for 30 years, this opinion is based largely on general circumstances of his conduct. But my firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt . . . There is only one word to describe his purposes and actions. That word is ‘treason’.” Unquote.
After my newspaper–a relatively small newspaper of 35,000 circulation–disclosed in a dispassionate series of articles what was going on in our community, I spoke my editorial mind. My opening statement may have been more forceful and less eloquent than was called for, but it did give me a platform from which to direct my fire in the weeks to come. This is what I said: Quote.
“The editor and publisher of the News-Press is in his 85th year. His entire life has been spent in this community. His memory takes him back many years and his reading even further. He lived when conditions were rugged. When West was West and men were men. He lived during periods when if a man or a group of men openly by word of mouth, or the printed word, called our president, our vice president, our secretary of state, the president’s brother, members of the Supreme Court, and others at the head of our government, traitors, they were made to answer. Such slanders often called for a visit from a courageous and irate group which brought with them a barrel of tar and a few feathers . . . It is in the light of this background that the News-Press tells where it stands on the John Birch Society.” Unquote.
The results were amazing. An outpouring of support for my position came from the moderates in the community, both liberal and conservative–the people in the middle who are heard from too rarely. Community leaders who had been attacked stood up and fought back, realizing that the newspaper was behind them.
But most amazing–and in many instances distressing–was the reaction around the country as word of my editorials spread. It was amazing to me that within a few weeks requests came for almost 20,000 reprints of my editorials.
These requests came principally from educational and religious organizations. One church organization asked for permission to make a 10,000 reprint issue for distribution among its membership, Many school boards used these reprints for their school board elections to combat campaigns directed against the schools by the Birchers.
It was distressing that among the hundreds of letters I received were many that read like this: Quote.
“Whatever position newspapers choose to take on an issue, they MUST speak out if they are to continue to deserve the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
“The Birchers are moving into our community. Already they are making life miserable for our teachers and preachers. They are dividing our town. What can we do to combat their activities? We have appealed to our local newspaper, but it won’t take a stand. It is helping the Birchers by its silence.” Unquote.
It is distressing that even now I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of major newspapers that have come to my attention that have taken a position on the Birch issue. I am not saying what position other newspapers should have taken. I am only saying that they should not have ducked the issue, sensitive though it may have been or may be today.
Whatever position newspapers choose to take on an issue, they MUST speak out if they are to continue to deserve the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The greatest threat to freedom of the press lies within ourselves–the press. We are truly the custodians. Freedom can survive only if we newspapermen fulfill well the responsibilities the Founding Fathers had in mind when they singled us out for the protection of the First Amendment. Freedom can survive only if newspapers, first, inform their readers fully and fairly about the issues that affect their lives, and, second, take vigorous, honest stands on those issues. Both information and comment contribute to informed, lively discussion of issues–discussion which is an essential ingredient of the democratic decision-making process.
It matters, of course, which side of an issue a newspaper takes. But what matters more is that it take a stand–a firm editorial position which it proclaims clearly. From the clash of ideas and opinions on an issue, we can expect that human decency and democratic principles will prevail in the end. From silence and evasion we can expect only public confusion and apathy.
A newspaper is a mighty weapon. It must be wielded wisely–but it must be wielded vigorously, too, if it is to be effective against the attackers of human decency that rear their heads in every generation. An editor must be willing to “fire up” and engage controversial issues–particularly local issues in the case of a newspaper as small as mine. He must search his soul when he finds himself saying that it is better, for economic or other reasons, to say nothing about a matter–that “it will just stir things up.”
The First Amendment does not guarantee the press the right to say nothing because “it might stir things up.” The spirit of the guarantee implies that we newspapermen will question and probe and dig and–on the basis of our honest search for the truth–take a forthright stand on the issues of the times, no matter how challenging.
We all harvest knowledge and experience along the way if we are astute. Conviction is another matter; and enlightened conviction –that quality which leads us to advocate what we consider to be the greatest good for the greatest number–is a treasure that we aspire to until our editorial labors end.
This quality, so manifest in Lovejoy, is the “mother lode” of the press freedom that our forefathers were talking about. They sensed the difficulties involved. They gave us a guarantee to help us help others to increase their knowledge, broaden their thinking and deepen their understanding. They realized that a good newspaperman, doing the job he should do, would have to look into himself, assess what he was and where he came from, test his own honest beliefs and come up with convictions strong enough and responsible enough to warrant his mention in the First Amendment.
I do not mean, in all of this, to exalt the editor’s position unduly. I do not mean to suggest that even the best of editors cannot go wrong or do not go wrong on occasion.
But I do say this: The editor worth his salt will have conviction and a regard for human decency and he will be articulate about it.