Herb Block
The Washington Post
1986 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Recipient
Nov. 7, 1986

I’m delighted and honored to receive the Elijah Lovejoy Award. To be tapped for it is kind of an awesome and happy surprise.

It’s also a special honor for me because of my great respect for the members of the committee who make it—and because it commemorates Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who gave his life fighting for freedom of the press, and—at a time of slavery—for human freedom.

Opponents of Elijah Lovejoy destroyed his presses four times, and each time he started over with new printing equipment but the same principles—until a mob once more destroyed his press and killed him.

We are all his beneficiaries, and we can best honor him by carrying on his battles.

Today there are dangers from government itself—including threats of criminal prosecution and unfavorable court decisions. The weapons of the press are still words and images. There is still power in the pen—or the computer terminal—if we use them effectively.

I’d like to say a few words about words. In my daily work, I don’t get to use many of them and so I mull them over a lot.

“National security” has a fine ring to it, but often serves as a cover for government bungles and misdeeds, and we can well be suspicious of it.

We can also be careful of the term “defense,” as in “defense spending.” It doesn’t seem like the right word for $7,000 coffee pots and $640 toilet seats. Or worse, for untested and non-working weapons that keep arms contractors busy but actually endanger our own troops.

There are better and more accurate words: Pentagon plans; military jobs programs; or, at the very least, Defense Department sending.

One of the most troublesome words is “conservative.” It might have applied, say, to President Eisenhower, but hardly to those people who considered Eisenhower and George Marshall to be communist dupes.

But such people, or their political descendants, are now described as “conservative.” If members of a group want schools to teach that the earth is flat, they are likely to be described as “conservatives”—as opposed to world-is-round people, who must be “liberals.” Except for Lyndon Larouche supporters there is hardly any group today so far over the right field wall that they wont be described as “conservatives.” They are also described as “anti-communist,” as if they were more opposed to communism than the rest of us.

Political classifications are not easy these days. But whether the alternative term is Radical Right or New Right, or Conservakooks, or something else, there have to be more-accurate words for some of the far-out people now called “conservatives.”

A word that’s come into use lately is “privatization”—the selling off of government properties. Even when government officials turn over public resources to private companies at knock-down prices, this is not called a scandal. It is “privatization.”

What we need to be even more concerned about is the privatization of government—the notion that once an administration is in office, the government belongs to the officials running it and that what they do is not the public’s business.

For the past half dozen years the Freedom of Information Act has been under attack. More and more material is now stamped secret or classified. This administration has even reversed the policies of previous presidents who worked to declassify tons of old out-of-date documents. It has even reclassified material that had already been made public—like dropping it down a memory hole. And information known to foreign governments has been kept secret here at home.

These policies have not contributed to “national security.” They have increased the number of people handling classified material and made it harder to keep legitimate secrets. As someone said, when everything is secret, nothing is secret.

In the name of national security, the present administration has tried to impose lifetime censorship of former government employees on a broad scale.

The director of the CIA, William J. Casey, has threatened newspapers and broadcast networks with criminal prosecution if they report government activities he decides to call sensitive. When a man was about to be tried for spying, Casey even went so far as to warn papers against publishing information that might come out at the public trial.

He also said in a speech that he questioned—quote—“whether a secret intelligence agency and the Freedom of Information Act can coexist for very long” and that willingness of foreign intelligence agencies to share information will dwindle unless we get rid of the Freedom of Information Act.” When I drew a cartoon showing him calling for repeal of the act, he issued a disclaimer, saying that he never advocated its total repeal. Perhaps his speeches needed to be translated with a magic decoder ring.

Only a few weeks ago we learned of a National Security advisor’s memo about Libya that described what he called a “disinformation” campaign—one that managed to disinform the American public if not our potential enemies. George Orwell might have smiled at that one, too.

Three years ago, when the invasion of Grenada was unfolding, a government official told the press that the idea of such an action was “preposterous” while at the same time the Castro government knew the facts and was reporting them.

And lately the administration has conceded the accuracy of Russian accounts of closed-door summit conversations in Iceland.

It bothers me, and I think it should bother all of us, when we cannot believe our own government—when we have to face the fact that some unfriendly government reported events more truthfully than ours. It bothers me when the government is more interested in damning the press and plugging leaks than it is in leveling with its own people. It is not a private government. It belongs to all of us.

But there is an added twist. While there has been privatizing of the public’s government, the government has made more and more intrusions into the privacy of individuals.

These have included proposals for domestic spying by the CIA—for widespread government use of so-called lie detectors—and for large-scale government tests by urinalysis, in what might be called drugnet operations. There has also been a chipping away at rules that protect us from search operations and that insure rights of suspects.

And the U.S. Supreme Court lately upheld a state law that says some sexual activities, performed in private by consenting adults, are criminal.

In our country, where there is supposed to be a presumption of innocence, Attorney General Edwin Meese said, “You don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That is contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” Despite the fact that there was a transcript of that interview, Mr. Meese first claimed that he was misquoted, and later stated he had not meant what he said.

Ironically, before he was confirmed for his present position, Meese himself had been the subject of a special investigation.

He has also maintained—despite the clear writings of Jefferson and Madison—that the founding fathers would find the Supreme Court’s view on separation of church and state “somewhat bizarre.” And he has called the American Civil Liberties Union a “criminals lobby.”

In a speech last month, Mr. Meese suggested that Supreme Court rulings are not the law of the land and found it—quote—“astonishing” that the Court’s unanimous 1954 decision for school desegregation should apply to other states besides the one in which the suit was brought. Mr. Meese is pretty astonishing himself, and seems to keep topping himself. Last week he gave a speech on drugs in which he suggested that employers conduct surveillance of employees in the work place, in locker rooms, parking lots and “nearby taverns if necessary.” This is not a sequence from a Doonesbury strip — this is the attorney general of the United States.

The commission that reported to him on pornography is the same one that sent, on official stationery, an intimidating letter to 7-Elevens and other chain stores targeting magazines that the store later removed from their shelves.

A few weeks ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided some video stores in Virginia and Maryland, because they were carrying so-called adult—or X-rated videos. This was done as part of what was called “a general investigation,” without anyone being arrested or charged.

You don’t have to be a subscriber to Playboy or Penthouse to ask if you want a government agency or commission to decide what perfectly legal publications can be sold in stores. You don’t have to be a pornographic video fan to ask what the Department of Justice’s FBI is doing raiding video stores not even accused of anything illegal.

The past month has been a busy one for many federal authorities. Patricia Lara, a woman living in Latin America who is a graduate of New York’s Columbia School of Journalism, had a visa to return to the United States to attend an honors convocation at the university. But when she arrived here, she was thrown into jail, and then sent back to Latin America—all this without any specific explanation why.

It bothers me when government officials adopt the idea that the state is supreme over the rights of individuals and that officials need not account for their actions.

Perhaps a bulldozing attitude is infectious. I see and hear broadcasts that present people with opposing views. And I notice on some of these programs that there are a few people who not only want their own time on the tube but who keep interrupting and cutting into other people’s time—sometimes crying “No No No!” or “Bah! Horsefeathers!”

Some people seem to have a kind of fanatic zeal, which makes them feel that anything goes.

I bring this up because I think it illustrates something basic. It is not just a matter of—quote—“liberals” versus “conservatives,” but between those who believe in the expression of differences and those who want freedom for themselves but not for the other guy. There are those who are not satisfied with their own freedom to worship as they please—they want to make sure that the other guy and the other guy’s kids worship.

One political evangelist recently suggested that Christians feel more strongly than others about things like “love of country.”

I think it’s obvious from any study of history that freedom has defended religion better than religion has defended freedom. The late Elmer Davis, a great commentator, said that we in America have had a national faith—a faith in freedom. But this is that faith that is today being eroded by people, in government as well as out of government, who would make religious belief a substitute for a belief in freedom.

The First Amendment, which protects religion, also provides for free speech, free assembly and a free press. There was never an expectation that free speech and free press would guarantee individual wisdom or accuracy—or proper decorum—only that they would serve to insure a free system.

Actually the press today is far more responsible than it was in the early days of our country, when outrageous accusations and slurs were common currency. Yet today the press as a whole is probably criticized more than it was many years ago.

We all find things in the papers and on television that grate on us, particularly intrusions on private grief—like when the TV cameras focus on some distraught person and keep rolling while the tears roll. There have been enough tears on news programs to short circuit my TV set.

When a newsmagazine interviewed several people for their opinions on the press, one of the most interesting comments came from Frank Mankiewicz. He said that “whenever you see a news story you were part of, it is always wrong.” I’ve talked to editors who agreed that this was too often the case. Political writers tell us that “all politics is local.” Maybe all journalism is local, too. The local speeches or garden club meetings are not as important as world summit conferences, but they are just the places where the reader can judge for himself if the paper is getting things straight.

The other day I saw one of those little signs they sell in gift shops. It said, “God loves you, and I’m trying.” Fortunately we don’t need to try to love what we see on TV or in the papers in order to care about a free press.

I think one of the reasons for a resentment against the press lies simply in the fact that there are fewer multi-newspaper cities. When there were two or several papers in a city—and when political party loyalties sere stronger than they are today—a loyal Republican could subscribe to a loyal Republican paper while Democrats subscribed to a Democratic paper. And the readers of one paper could declare that the other one was only suitable for the outhouse. Today we have many cities with single newspaper ownership and there is no way editors are going to please all their readers, even giving them a variety of views.

But there is a more timeless reason why the press can always expect to make readers and government officials unhappy. Politicians who go in for press-bashing point out that we are not elected. That’s right—and it’s important that we’re not. The founders did the electing when they decided that there should be a free press—a press which, in our system of checks and balances, would serve as a check on government itself. The fact that the press is not elected and is not subject to the same pressures as politicians, is what enables it to perform its critical role—and to say things that politicians don’t say.

And since criticism of government means criticism of people who have been elected—or of people appointed by elected officials—the press that criticizes official actions is likely to be running against current majority opinion. Complaints go with the territory. If everybody agreed with what we in the press were doing, and if the government felt we deserved a pat on the head for bringing in the daily paper and fetching its slippers, we would have real cause to worry—and so would the country.

When I talk about the press as a critic and a check on all government, I don’t forget the judiciary.

Many judges and justices today could stand more searching review than they have had. In Tennessee, only three weeks ago, a federal judge ruled in favor of religious fundamentalists who complained of public school books that included readings from The Diary of Ann Frank and The Wizard of Oz. The judge held that the school should compensate the parents of those children.

In other cases, judges have made libel suits a kind of substitute for a national lottery. File any kind of a suit and maybe hit the jackpot for a few million dollars. More exciting than the Wheel of Fortune, and almost anyone can play or at least any corporate executives.

Consumer Reports, which is in the business of giving its best opinion on consumer products, was sued by a manufacturer of an audio product for the magazine’s evaluation of it. An airplane manufacturer sued the New York Times and a book reviewer because the book reviewed was about the crash of a plane manufactured by the company. The lawsuits came to nothing, but they accomplished the purpose of helping to kill the book.

A lot of these suits should be thrown out of court.

The press can’t help but feel chilled by some of these cases. But it can get up some steam of its own. Ned Chilton, publisher of the Charleston, W. Va. Gazette, has made it clear that he would sue lawyers who took part in bringing frivolous suits against his paper. And this has had a good effect in chilling such suits.

Newspapers can also do more to let readers know what many of these court suits mean. And they can let readers know about the judges in some of these cases. Who is the judge? What is his record? And who appointed him? Even life-time appointees are not immortals. They are not gods on Olympus.

In 1985 columnist William Safire described then-judge Scalia as “the worst enemy of free speech in American today’—a view based on that judge’s opinions in First Amendment cases. It would have been useful if more public attention had been drawn to this judge’s record before the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him for the Supreme Court. In one case Judge Scalia indicated that a newspaper’s reputation for hard-hitting investigative reporting could be considered evidence of malice.

I think we need more, good investigative reporting, not less. The way to defend freedom of the press is to use it.

In the press—and particularly in broadcasting—there is some fear that if you criticize government, you might be accused of not giving both sides of the story. But everybody already gets one side of the story from government officials in all the papers, on radio and on television every day and night. And opposing politicians, looking at popularity ratings and playing it safe, don’t necessarily keep the governing party in line.

We should not be frightened by our own polls or fearful of being accused of being partisan. The press often needs to get out in front of the politicians. And its voice should add volume to what the politician hears from the still small voice of conscience.

The time when speaking up about abuses in government is most needed is when officials may be most popular and when few are pointing out their errors.

Government actions in recent years have had the “chilling effect” on the press we keep hearing about. But if anyone thinks hunkering down will help, he has only to see how the attacks upon our freedom have been stepped up. We need not just a defense, but a vigorous offensive.

Elijah Lovejoy was a fighter who did not go gently into that good night. And with all respect to the many fine people who have gone to their martyrdoms more willingly than he did, my sentiments are closer to those expressed by General George Patton when he told his wartime troops, “It’s not your job to die for your country; it’s your job to make the other sonovabich die for his country.”

When government officials would curb basic freedoms, it’s our job to put them out of their jobs.

One thing more about Elijah Lovejoy and his fight to publish: His last printing press, in Alton, Illinois, was made possible through supporters who contributed financially, morally and physically to providing that press and literally defending it as a militia. The record of events showed that one of the attackers was killed by this Lovejoy militia, before the building they defended was set afire and Lovejoy was murdered.

I would like to pay tribute to that militia—those people who were not themselves “working press” but who defended its freedom.

For those who are not members of the press: Many may not agree with any of us in it—we frequently don’t agree with each other. That’s okay, and so is criticism of the press. But we all have a common interest in the free flow of information and views.

As in Lovejoy’s time, the press can use a militia—in this case the understanding of people who are not themselves active members of the press, but who know that its rights are their rights.

I recall something that was said during the long period of McCarthyism. The speaker was Doris Fleeson, who was a great newspaper columnist. She said: “I wish I had some magic formula to suggest. There is none. There are no wonder men or wonder women. There are only you and I and others who believe in freedom.”