“Ours is a land where poverty is a constant companion, with many very low income families, and adult illiteracy rates which exceed 40 percent in almost every mountain county.”
We have had a difficult time this past four weeks with the thought of coming here tonight to talk about some of our own problems as editors and publishers of a struggling weekly newspaper in a very small town in a remote part of America. The trouble is that our thoughts have been almost all about terrible events in two of America’s biggest cities. In truth, there is no greater distance anywhere than that between Manhattan skyscrapers and the small building which houses our newspaper office in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. One is a culture of high income levels, high educational levels. Ours is a land where poverty is a constant companion, with many very low income families, and adult illiteracy rates which exceed 40 percent in almost every mountain county.
Patriotism runs deep in the mountains. No part of the country gave more sons to World War One and World War Two, and the Vietnam War, than the Appalachian mountains. There is a very deep anger in the mountains over the September 11 disaster. People demand and expect revenge for the thousands of lives lost in this great new kind of war we all face.
One of the things that lack of opportunity does is to encourage young, able people to seek jobs and other opportunities in other parts of the country. In fact, back in the 1960s when there was such extreme poverty in the mountains, our newspaper found itself with at least two or three subscribers in each of the 50 states across the country. Those who could moved away, to wherever they could find jobs–but they kept their ties with their hometown.
So when the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon we were not surprised when the phones at the Eaglebegan to ring as worried community residents called. We quickly found that there were families within our own community who were concerned about family members or friends who had jobs in the World Trade Center or who were stationed at the Pentagon. And indeed, the Pentagon dead included one mountain youth who became a sailor assigned to duty in Washington. And so it becomes one small world, one that is brought closer together by that terrible affliction, terrorism.
We are here tonight to honor the memory of another American who died at the hands of terrorists. The terrorists who took the life of Elijah Parish Lovejoy did not have today’s weapons, but the tactics really have not changed. Lovejoy for some years used his newspaper and his skills as an editorial writer to challenge slavery. He was in a part of Illinois that used slavery as the base of much of its economy. It’s not too hard to imagine a climate in which just about everyone feared that an end to slavery would cause farmers to go bankrupt. They would lose their farms and without farms and farmers with money to spend, clothing stores and food stores would be put out of business and the town would fall apart. Once this kind of thinking sets in, it’s not surprising that it produces an inevitable result. Put the newspaper out of business. Try endless episodes of threats and intimidation. If that doesn’t work, burn down the newspaper. Kill the editor.
“And so it becomes one small world, one that is brought closer together by that terrible affliction, terrorism.”
In our efforts to learn more about Elijah Parish Lovejoy we both have been struck by the similarities between the many things that happened to Mr. Lovejoy and our own adventures and misadventures over the years. There of course are differences, the most obvious being that we have been fortunate enough not to share his fate. It seems to us that we can best honor Mr. Lovejoy by giving you some of the details of some of our own experiences.
Perhaps the most important thing we share with Mr. Lovejoy is that we each have been editors of small-town newspapers that confronted harsh economic and social issues affecting the community and its residents. In small towns, you see the people affected by what you write every single day, and they see you. There is no hideaway for small town editors. Sometimes the snubs and taunts become hard to accept, especially when members of your own immediate family also become targets. Despite all kinds of pressures from friend and foe, Mr. Lovejoy did not weaken. He clung to a belief that issues could be settled with words, not bullets.
When Elijah Lovejoy moved westward to Illinois where slavery was a major issue he was moving into a center of controversy on the slavery-abolition issues. He did not stumble into a fight but was there because he felt that was where he should be. This was not the circumstance with us and our decision to purchase a newspaper deep in the Kentucky mountains. Lovejoy knew where he was going and what he would do with his newspaper. We made our move into eastern Kentucky with no particular mission in mind–an opportunity came along, and we took advantage of it. We had in fact looked in other parts of the state with the thought of settling in somewhere else, but nothing quite worked out.
Our urge to buy our own newspaper came after we each had spent a decade as reporters in central Kentucky. Pat was a general assignment reporter for the afternoon Lexington Leader. During those years we lived in Frankfort, the state capital, where I (Tom) was bureau manager and chief reporter for United Press. After a decade of day-to day coverage of state government the time came when I wanted to do something else. I turned down several transfers to other posts offered by the wire service–we wanted to remain within Kentucky.
We were visiting my parents one weekend and met the owners of the Mountain Eagle, who told us they would like to sell either the Whitesburg or the Hazard paper because two papers were more than they could keep up with. It sounded like something we should do. So, we bought the Whitesburg paper and we took over its operation on January 1, 1957.
” In small towns, you see the people affected by what you write every single day, and they see you. There is no hideaway for small town editors.”
Unlike Mr. Lovejoy, we did not have a cause to pursue. But it did not take us long to find several.
An eastern Kentucky kind of reality hit us immediately. Within a week of our assuming ownership of the paper, one of those long, cold winter rains hit the mountains. It brought the worst flooding in several decades. The Kentucky mountains are very steep; the valleys are very narrow. Houses are squeezed in between the highway, the railroad, and the ever-present creek or river. The floodwaters came, hit the grocery stores, the clothing stores, the schools and countless homes. Often the floods reached the roofs, and there was extensive damage within the coal industry, the source of most jobs.
The situation was especially bad for individual families. There was no federal emergency assistance agency rushing in to help. Months went by with no improvement. A period of boom times in the coal fields at the end of World War II changed quickly as the nation’s railroads switched from coal-burning locomotives to diesel and millions of homes across the country abandoned their coal furnaces and switched to gas or oil or sometimes electric heat–everyone was happy to get away from the mess and smells of coal as other alternatives became available. It took only a few years for the coal industry to fall apart.
As we got into the business of editing the paper, we quickly realized that it contained very little of what we regarded as news. The paper printed weekly reports of club meetings, obituaries, and information about high school sports.
And so we started making some changes. The thing to do, we thought, was to make use of some of the skills we had learned during our reporting years in Frankfort and Lexington. The county had two school systems, four city governments, and the county courthouse and numerous county officials–the judge, the fiscal court, the sheriff, the tax assessor, and so on.
Mostly, we were welcomed to the early meetings of governing bodies we attended. But we got quite a different reaction when the officials read our reporting. We did the kind of straightforward writing which simply details who said what. Turned out we were not supposed to disclose details of financial problems, or to write anything that might be considered negative or critical. If someone was complaining about the lack of road repairs or other public services, that wasn’t to be written about either. Anything that hinted at criticism was not tolerated. We had not recognized that county offices and the school systems were operated as spoils systems. Employees were mostly relatives or friends of the officeholders. There was rarely any kind of detailed accounting as to tax collections, or how the money was spent.
The county school board was charged with supervision and well-being of eight thousand pupils and teachers. Board meetings were held in a tiny office, with seats and space only for the school superintendent and the five board members. Members of the public or school system employees who had business to conduct were admitted to the presumably public meetings one or two at a time. Standing, they would state their business, and then leave the meeting. By standing her ground and not leaving, I (Pat) was able to last through maybe a half-dozen meetings until the school board and superintendent decided enough was enough, and passed a motion to ban reporters from future meetings. School officials would tell you the schools were among the best in Kentucky and mountain children were getting a fine education. They didn’t tell you that in most measures by which such things are judged, area schools were at the bottom of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and Kentucky at that time ranked last among the then 48 states.
One by one, just about every public agency passed motions condemning the paper, sometimes banning reporters from attending public meetings. The county school board chairman told teachers and other school employees they should not purchase or read the paper and he urged a county-wide boycott by all right-thinking Letcher County residents. Since he was the political boss of the county and was recognized state-wide as a political power, this was serious stuff. Incidentally, he was also the doctor who delivered Tom. An effort was made to destroy the paper’s financial base. The paper lost its county printing contracts, and was stripped of its role as the official legal publication for the county and its various functions. State law provided that legal notices were to be published in the newspaper with the largest proven circulation, but this was not a place where a state law often got in the way. Eventually, the Eagle won a court battle and regained its status as the legal publication, but it was a long and very costly experience for a publication where every dollar was needed.
“One by one, just about every public agency passed motions condemning the paper, sometimes banning reporters from attending public meetings.”
A one long-time editor of The Wall Street Journal called us recently when he heard we were to receive the Lovejoy award. He said his many travels around the country had convinced him that the place where freedom of the press is in trouble in America is in the small towns. He said he was glad the situation was being recognized and of course we agree with him.
Small-town papers do not have the budgets to withstand advertiser boycotts. It has always been something of a struggle to survive for most small papers, with or without an editorial viewpoint. One of the first battles we got into proved that point. Whitesburg has the location of one of the nine great new hospitals constructed during the 1950s by the United Mine Workers union to bring quality health care to an area where it was desperately needed. The hospitals recruited medical staff from the nation’s finest medical schools and many recent med school graduates from Columbia, Penn, Harvard and other leading campuses came into our towns to practice in one of the few places anywhere in the United States where doctors were free to provide whatever treatment was needed without having to worry about the patient’s ability to pay (these were pre-Medicare, pre-Medicaid days). Costs were borne by the union’s health fund, financed by the coal industry. Long-time doctors didn’t like this at all. They called it “socialized medicine,” and persuaded the state medical society to join them in an effort to get the Kentucky legislature to enact laws to bar group medical practice, effectively shutting down the hospitals. Some miners who knew of my Frankfort background came to me seeking help, and I went to Frankfort with them to talk to some of the state legislators. They listened, and the legislature agreed to refer the issue to a committee for study, with a report due two years away. That effectively killed the effort to shut down the hospitals.
We soon learned that the Mountain Eagle would pay a costly price for the editor’s support of the union-built hospitals. Our largest advertiser was an automobile dealer who had the oldest and one of the largest dealerships in all of eastern Kentucky. He abruptly stopped advertising. There went the Pontiac, the Buick, the GM trucks, Goodyear Tires, and Ashland Oil products ads, among others. He was a man of strong convictions. None of those products were ever advertised again in the Mountain Eagle by a local dealer and here we are, almost 50 years later. Those accounts had been a mainstay of the paper’s finances for decades.
There were other kinds of assaults. In those early 1960s years President Kennedy, and then President Johnson, assembled a study group to see how to help the Appalachian area, where social and economic problems were so acute and so widespread. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s success in lifting thousands of rural families out of poverty was well known. Why not try such a program for the Appalachian area, modified to meet the Appalachian circumstance?
The Mountain Eagle looked at the problems and opportunities through countless stories, features and editorials, and proposed a federal program similar to the TVA, but one that would build power plants, which would burn mountain coal to produce great quantities of electricity. New developments in technology had made it possible to feed the electricity into a grid of transmission lines, which could take the Kentucky-produced power directly to Florida, or New York, or wherever it was needed.
This Mountain Eagle proposal produced two results. First, the nation’s private utility industry got itself together and persuaded President Johnson and members of Congress to pass laws that prohibit use of federal funds for any kind of power production facility. The second result was that our regional power company, owned by the nation’s largest producer of electricity, sent its regional manager up and down Main Street in Whitesburg visiting every business establishment. He told one and all that the editor of their local newspaper was a communist. He urged them all to stop advertising or supporting the paper or its editor. And the power company, also an advertiser of long standing, stopped its ads in the Eagle. There are none today.
“Now I ask you, is President Bush a communist?”
We ask you to forgive us for displaying a certain amount of immodesty as we point out that the Mountain Eagle was proposing in the 1960s a coal-based energy program that is very much like that outlined only a few months ago by President Bush. He wants to see extensive development of new coal-burning power plants to lessen the nation’s reliance upon imported oil. Now I ask you, is President Bush a communist?
We had a somewhat similar encounter with the managing director of Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Kentucky operations. Bethlehem was one of the area’s biggest owners of property–it owned 40,000 acres in Letcher County, and it owned rights to coal under a lot of other property. It was one of the first companies to introduce the terrible curse of strip mining–that’s where mountains are ripped apart, and valleys are filled with fallen trees, big rocks and countless tons of dirt. Many residents found their homes threatened, sometimes destroyed, by all that dynamite and the big rocks flying everywhere.
It is serious when major business leaders start pinning labels and by so doing attempt to destroy the credibility of the newspaper and those who work for it. It is the kind of charge that gets picked up, whispered about, elaborated upon–and gets translated into countless threats and unpleasant encounters. Elijah Lovejoy must have encountered these problems every day.
The coal companies intensified their efforts. They did not hesitate to push the people aside in their determination to dig out the coal, no matter at what cost in the way of human suffering or destruction of the environment. The mountain people of the Appalachian area are known in history and in literature for their stem character, their fierce independence. But mountain people lost their independence in the early years of the 20th century when eastern financial interests decided they wanted those billions of tons of coal there beneath the hills and valleys. In came the land agents, offering hard cash for that coal that lay unseen beneath the trees. There is no question that many mountain landowners had no idea at all of the value of their coal, and were quite willing to accept the offered 50 cents per acre. For that 50 cents, they gave the coal companies the rights to all minerals, including limestone deposits, vast oil and gas deposits, and coal seam upon coal seam–three, four, six or eight coal seams. And let’s not forget about the air and the trees–they got included too. Incidentally, our local school system was asked just a couple of weeks ago to pay 36-thousand dollars an acre for rights to remaining coal under a proposed site for a new high school.
We could talk all night about coal and what it does to people and to the land. But there has been a full century of economic booms and busts–times of great prosperity, followed by prolonged periods in which coal miners might work only one or two days a month and hunger was a constant companion in almost every household. In those terrible days of the early 1960s, a doctor friend who practiced in a small mountain community came into our newspaper to tell us of patients who were dying of hunger. We learned of others who froze to death in a period of sub-zero weather. And throughout it all, there has been the ever-present fact that coal mining is an occupation that kills. Mine injuries and mine deaths remain a constant. The introduction of new kinds of mining machinery in the underground coalmines brought a new hazard. Lungs filled with coal dust produced by the new machinery and the resulting disease known as coal miner’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung, killed thousands of miners, and there are thousands of others whose lungs have been damaged and who struggled to stay alive.
Just as new technology introduced the new hazard of black lung disease for underground coal miners, new technology in the form of ever-bigger bulldozers introduced another kind of hazard–strip mining. The coal companies maintained, and the courts agreed, that those century-old deeds permitted a coal company to do anything necessary to get the coal. Mountainside graveyards were bulldozed, coffins were pushed down the hillsides. Dynamite often sent giant rocks crashing into homes, often destroying the building. Sometimes the rocks closed highways, isolating entire communities. Water supplies often were destroyed, as springs were bulldozed away, and wells were destroyed. In their hours of desperation families often called theMountain Eagle, asking us to come take a look, to bring our cameras. And we did, countless times. Our news stories gave details, our editorials expressed the outrage we shared with so many residents. Sometimes, the coal companies would back off, and go somewhere else. But often, the bulldozers went right ahead doing what they were paid to do. Something close to war broke out between the homeowners and the coal companies with their hired guards. Eventually, the state and the nation reacted to the horror that was being inflicted upon both the land and the people of the Appalachian mountains and new laws were enacted putting some controls upon mining. But it was a 20-year fight, leaving terrible scars behind.
“the Mountain Eagle itself, and everyone who worked for it, became particular targets of coal company rage.”
So long as it was just some widow living at the head of a hollow somewhere who dared challenge a bulldozer, the coal companies were free to do about anything they wanted to do. Their greatest enemy was the reporter and his camera. Public knowledge of what was going on broadened the battle to include such evil things as environmentalists and other bad influences from the outside. Many newspapers from across the country sent in the occasional reporter and photographer, and the national television newscasters came in and turned the eye of national television to what was happening. But the Mountain Eagle itself, and everyone who worked for it, became particular targets of coal company rage.
We were lucky during these days to have the great help of several young volunteer reporters and staffers who came from all over the country for periods of a couple of months or, lucky for us, several years. Many are still our friends today, and still show up to lend us a helping hand when they think it’s needed. Every newspaper editor needs to be challenged by the idealism and energy that can be found on many of our college campuses.
Our county contains about 600 miles of roads and bridges built to accommodate family cars and pickup trucks. Put a coal truck hauling 40 tons of coal on a four-ton bridge and the inevitable happens. The bridge falls. Increase the size of the trucks to 80 tons and the roads are pulverized. Communities are isolated, especially in the winter months. School buses cannot operate on many routes, and ambulances can’t go where needed. Hardship and anger fill the air. But in the usual highly competitive world of the coal industry, economic pressures to build and operate bigger trucks with more tons of coal are a constant. In most instances, both local and state officials either ignored what was happening, or they sent out sheriffs deputies and state police to clear the way for the coal trucks.
Out of this atmosphere came the flames that burned the offices and destroyed all the equipment of the Mountain Eagle in 1974. The fire followed a meeting of coal and trucking operators at the Letcher County courthouse. They met to discuss a new proposal to weaken state efforts at regulation of coal trucks. They sought new and higher weight limits with no interference from state law enforcement agencies. They talked of the need for secrecy, to keep the public from finding out about their plans. The question was asked by someone in the audience: “What if the Mountain Eagle hears about this?” The answer came: “If Tom Gish writes anything about this we will burn his paper down.” The speaker who voiced this threat was a member of a dominant political faction, and was a leading coal company owner.
We were out of town that night. But, fortunately, a reporter from the Louisville Courier Journal was present, apparently unrecognized. He wrote and the Courier-Journal published a detailed report on the meeting, including the threat to burn down the paper. The next issue of the Eagle published an account of the courthouse meeting, and the Mountain Eagle offices were torched not long after that.
Our thoughts the first few days after the fire were that it happened in an old building with old wiring. We were willing to accept the fact that fires sometimes happen. The thing that really concerned us was the question of how to get out next week’s paper. We did not suspect arson until a few days later when some former Mountain Eagle reporters and other friends took on the task of going through the rubble. They come upon stacks of partly burned newspapers that had been drenched with kerosene. It became obvious that someone had poured kerosene inside the building, then had tossed a fire-bomb through a broken doorway. Flames had not burned all the papers, apparently for lack of air. But the fire got everything else. The paper had been published since 1907, and it had built up an extensive collection of photographs, old newspapers, town records–the kinds of things which document history. There is no way to measure that kind of loss.
“The next issue of the Eagle published an account of the courthouse meeting, and the Mountain Eagle offices were torched not long after that.”
There followed several terrible weeks of investigation without much progress; We found ourselves and then one of our children under suspicion. Fortunately, the fire attracted a lot of state attention, and state police assigned an experienced arson team. They were able to establish that the fire had been set by five young men from the community. They had been hired by a Whitesburg city policeman to burn the paper. State police presented evidence to a Letcher County Grand Jury and all were indicted. When the case came to trial, the youths turned state’s evidence against the policeman, and he was convicted on a charge of procuring arson. He received a one-year prison sentence, but he was probated on condition that he leave the county for two years. He never spent a night in jail.
We relate all of this to emphasize the simple fact that free speech and freedom of the press is not an absolute–they all can vanish tomorrow if society makes the decision that there are some truths too terrible to be told, or too terrible to hear. Elijah Lovejoy’s presses were destroyed and he was shot to death because he wrote of the de-humanizing horrors of slavery. It was writing about the de-humanizing results that come when industry puts company profit above and beyond all other conditions that have brought so many days of desperation our way.
If we are to honor the spirit of Elijah Lovejoy, there are some things that need to be said about the present state of free speech and free press in America. We are deeply concerned that our freedoms are in danger. The threats and the culprits are many–they include such things as declines in both newspaper circulation and advertising. There is also increasing consolidation of press, TV, radio, billboards, cable and satellite systems, book publishers, magazine publishers, music and recording companies. The way things are going, a half-dozen multi-billion dollar corporations soon will control it all.
Instead of a nation with countless numbers of voices, we may soon hear nothing but the well-disguised views of a handful of chief corporate executives. And we fear government at all levels with its all-too-common urge to keep the people from knowing what government is doing. We are concerned about an over-reaching government that seizes the notebook of an Associated Press reporter, and jails a Texas writer who tries to protect her information source. We are very much alarmed that we as a nation may surrender too many of our freedoms as we struggle with the challenge of what to do about terrorism.
You would probably be surprised how often we get into discussions with other editors and publishers and we are told they edit a friendly paper in a friendly town, which would not want and would not support a paper like the Mountain Eagle. Mostly, I think they are correct. While the Mountain Eagle enjoys strong reader support, this did not happen overnight, and it is a relationship that builds slowly as the paper earns the trust of the community through good factual reporting. It is a trust that must be earned anew every single week. It took years of careful reporting for readers to develop some acceptance of and trust in the Eagle. “Who paid you to put that in the paper?” was once a familiar taunt. Sadly, too many editors have surrendered their turf, and by default, the phrase “freedom of the press” has little or no meaning in their communities.
We stand before you as survivors of an increasingly small group–we are publishers of a privately owned newspaper. We have watched with increasing concern as just about every newspaper from the smallest to the biggest in Kentucky has been swallowed by one of those big corporations, and it has been happening all across the country and around the globe. There have been a lot of reasons. Newspapers have long been known as “cash cows,” for the simple reason that a lot of papers have been making a lot of money, especially those with monopoly situations in our big population centers. Newspapers have been seen as a low risk, high return investment, the very kind of thing that attracts major money. The pressures upon a small publisher to sell have become enormous–things like taxes and the fear that inheritance taxes would force sale of the paper. Costs continue to increase, while advertising and circulation both continue to decline. And there are experts on every corner telling editors and publishers and reporters that they will be put out of business soon by the Internet. So it is no surprise that so many owners have been willing, sometimes eager, to sell to that big corporation with lots of money to throw in their direction.
“Instead of a nation with countless numbers of voices, we may soon hear nothing but the well-disguised views of a handful of chief corporate executives.”
One of the results of all that corporate money on the lookout for newspaper or TV properties to buy is that the dream of owning your own small-town newspaper is becoming the impossible dream. It will be an American tragedy if this trend continues.
Something of an alarm bell has been sounded in recent weeks by three University of Iowa professors who took a look at the corporations, which now control so much of what most Americans can see or read about events in this country. They looked at members of the boards of directors of the holding companies that have bought up the newspapers, and often the television stations, the radio stations, the magazines. The one thing these corporate directors have in common is that incredibly, even though they control billions of dollars in newspaper investments, only about one in 10 of the members of the corporate boards have had any professional journalism experience. But it is not too much to say that they control the destiny of a free press in America.
The professors found much to be concerned about. We would like to give you a brief quotation from their book, Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company. They say: “News has become secondary, even incidental, to markets and revenues and margins and advertising and consumer preferences.” They go on to say, “At its worst, the publicly traded newspaper company, its energy entirely drawn to the financial market’s unrealistic and greedy expectations, can become indifferent to news and, thus, ultimately to the fundamental purposes served by news and the press.”
And while that control now is divided among a dozen or so billion-dollar corporations you have to wonder in this age of mergers and acquisitions and forced takeovers just how long it will be until one man, one corporation–or maybe two or three–controls it all. And let us not forget that these same corporations–this same dozen corporate chief executives–already control not only the newspapers, but most televisions stations, the radio stations, the big book publishers, the television cable companies, satellite television–they own much of the music industry and have final say as to whose music we hear–who gets recording contracts, who gets air time. This control of all forms of media and their willingness to use that control was illustrated a day or so after the Trade Center destruction by a now disputed report that headquarters of the corporation that owns more than 1,200 radio stations–more than half in the entire country–had banned stations across the country from playing a long list of more than 150 songs–including the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
Back in those days when I was a state capitol reporter I shared office space with the dean of state house reporters in Frankfort. If he saw a young reporter excited about something he was writing, he would tell the reporter to “Calm down. All you’re doing is sending them something to wrap around the ads.”
We think of him whenever we think of the corporate takeover of the nation’s front pages. For if what you are interested in is the bottom line, it is easy enough to find lots of copy to wrap around those advertisements. Every editor with an Associated Press or Reuters report can find hundreds of interesting, well-written, timely stories to fill every possible inch of space every single day. You really don’t have to have much of a news staff to get out a paper that is interesting and with great color photography. It is no surprise when the big corporations take over and start whittling down on the news staff. Do you really need 200 or more reporters and editors? Cut 25 now, another 20 in six months, another 15 later–it doesn’t take long until you can cut the news staff in half, and who is to know the difference.
Television stations around the country get a lot of deserved criticism because of the ambulance-chasing news coverage. They cover the obvious news developments, the traffic jams, the wrecks and fires and they attend the mayor’s press conference and other staged news events, but there is not very much depth or substance. This is happening far too often, not only with TV stations, but I fear, increasingly with newspapers. Really good newspaper coverage of major trends and happenings often can require months of research, sometimes involving several reporters and significant amounts of money. It is the willingness to take the time, to spend the money, that has built America’s great newspapers. Often, these kinds of expenditures could never be justified to corporate agents who decide the worthiness of a story by its expected costs.
Their eye is upon costs, not upon the paper’s obligation to its readers. We have to ask ourselves whether America’s citizens are getting enough essential details to be informed, functioning citizens of a participating democracy. If the big scandal in city hall or the state capital goes unreported who is to know? Does a tree that falls unheard deep in the forest make a noise?
” Really good newspaper coverage of major trends and happenings often can require months of research, sometimes involving several reporters and significant amounts of money.”
There has been widespread concern, with large staff reductions all across the country this past year (and going on currently) as sharp drops in advertising income has been coupled with increased newsprint costs. Our economy is in turbulent times, and many newspapers fear sharp additional declines in advertising income. Decisions as to what is to be cut most likely will not be made by a newspaper’s own editors, but by accountants in some distant office. As a nation we may value our right to know, but will we be told as much as we need to know? It is time for the billionaires who now control America’s media in all of its many forms to wake up. They need to get acquainted with the whole concept of freedom of speech, a free press, and a true, functioning democracy. Throw away that freedom, and you throw away our country.
Most regulatory changes in recent years have been to loosen controls over joint ownership of newspapers and TV stations. There appears to be little concern about what this does to freedom of the press and its constant companion, the citizen’s right to know. Congress must take another look.
Freedom of the press guarantees were not written into America’s Bill of Rights to protect the big corporation’s right to control what America sees and hears. It has always been our firm belief that press freedoms were written into the basic fabric of American life because our founding fathers knew that democracy can be triumphant and enduring only if it has informed citizens. There truly is no excuse for newspapers or other media that do not seek out and publish whatever it is that a caring citizen needs to know. Our strength as a nation lies in the power of our people to come together to resolve the day-to-day problems of living together. Throw away our freedom to know and to share information and we throw away our country. America is about a whole lot more that the corporate bottom line.
Thank you for having us here tonight. And thank you for taking time out every year for an evening to honor the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy.