Editor and Columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Convocation Address, October 16, 2005 (audio)
To Bro Adams (as I’ve learned to say since I’ve been here), faculty and students of Colby College, and supporters of the First Amendment. I am delighted –indeed I am deeply honored–to receive the Elijah Lovejoy Award. Looking at the list of distinguished recipients, I have noted two of my former editors, Gene Roberts and Bill Kovach, a mentor, Eugene Patterson, and a distinguished predecessor and my muse, Ralph McGill. I am–as we say down in Georgia–in high cotton.
I don’t remember when I first heard the name Elijah Lovejoy or learned of his history. But since that time, I have come to associate him with the highest and best principles of justice and fairness and the courage to speak those principles out loud.
In these days and times, happily, few American journalists would ever encounter the hazards Lovejoy faced; few of us would ever have to put our lives on the line to guard our presses or to protect our right to free expression. Times have changed.
“I cannot claim to face the dangers faced by Elijah Lovejoy or the women such as Shahia Sherkat or Sumi Kahn.”
Indeed, I had an annual reminder of just what privileges American journalists enjoy because of the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Every year the International Media Foundation, on whose board I serve, hands out Courage Awards to women who have risked their lives to print or broadcast the news in their respective countries.
This year the winners include Shahia Sherkat, who runs a women’s magazine in Tehran. Her publication has been attacked by fundamentalists who disagree with her politics. Indeed, she has been fined and imprisoned for publishing her magazine.
Another of this year’s winners is Sumi Khan, a reporter in Bangladesh. She has been beaten for covering the corruption that is endemic in her country.
I will travel to New York on October 25 to see these courageous women receive those awards. They always give very inspiring speeches, in which they reiterate their commitment to publishing and broadcasting the truth, regardless of the dangers they face. And I am always inspired by them.
In fact, I have a running joke with my boss, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Julia Wallace. I always tell her that she should be pleased to buy a table for the Courage Awards and send me to New York once a year. I am so awed by the bravery and sacrifice of those incredible women that I don’t whine or complain about my working conditions – low pay, long hours – for at least a month. So I figure my boss is getting a bargain sending me to the Courage Awards. I cannot claim to face the dangers faced by Elijah Lovejoy or the women such as Shahia Sherkat or Sumi Kahn.
And, yet, the Lovejoy award comes at a fortunate moment for me – a moment when I do need inspiration, courage, encouragement to go forward. For American journalists do face hazards as we attempt to bring politicians to account, to confront the conventional wisdom, and yes, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The hazards we face are certainly not life threatening. Nobody is going to burn our presses.
But, heaven knows, there is a relentless pressure from authority figures – a pressure that has grown worse of late – to kowtow to the powerful, to shave the sharp edges off the truth, to conform to conventional wisdom. The fear of speaking truth to everything from alleged ties between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda to a look at who benefits from illegal immigration.
So, for me, the Elijah Lovejoy Award comes along at just the right time. It came at a moment when I needed to be reminded of the value of a free press, of my duty to print the truth, no matter what, of the vital importance of accurate information, whether my readers want to hear it or not.
About a year ago, in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential elections, in fact, I was stunned, reeling, depressed. Those of you who read me and listen to me on Lehrer [The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer] know my politics well enough to know I’m no great fan of President Bush. But his reelection was not the source of my anguish. I wasn’t happy about it, but I’ve grown used to electoral defeats. In fact, there is a joke among my editorial colleagues that if we really want a politician to win, we should notendorse him. Our track record is miserable. So it wasn’t Bush’s re-election that put me on my couch, curled up in the fetal position.
Instead, it was the colossal misunderstandings – the utter ignorance – of so many voters that sent me reeling. A Gallup poll conducted in June 2004 revealed that 66 percent of voters believed that Saddam Hussein had long-established ties to Al-Qaeda.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at that one. President Bush had based his campaign on suggesting a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, without ever really saying so. He left that to his delusional vice president, Dick Cheney.
“In fact, there is a joke among my editorial colleagues that if we really want a politician to win, we should not endorse him. Our track record is miserable.”
But consider this: according to a Harris poll taken in October 2004, nearly 40 percent of Americans believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded. That finding nearly sent me to my sick bed. That poll was taken well after David Kay, whom Bush had personally picked to oversee ferreting out WMDs in Iraq, had come back and reported his failure to Congress. We were almost all wrong, he told Congress in public testimony in January 2004.
Still, nearly 40 percent of Americans believed that when we invaded, Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. That revelation left me demoralized. I have spent my adult lifetime in a pursuit dedicated to the notion that information – facts – are vital to the functioning of a democracy. And that poll suggested that a healthy minority of Americans were not interested in the facts.
It could not have been that they hadn’t heard we had not found WMDs. Not only was that widely reported, but John Kerry also made that a centerpiece of his opposition to President Bush. It’s one thing to decide that you trust Bush over Kerry to lead the nation in a time of crisis. It’s quite another to make the decision to support Bush because you have rejected critical facts. But some of our leading political lights are hoping that’s exactly what citizens will do – reject the facts.
Let me read to you from a New York Times magazine profile of President Bush, written by writer Ron Suskind and published last year. Suskind is recounting an encounter he, Suskind, has had with an unnamed aide to President Bush. “The aide said that guys like me” – Suskind in speaking here – “guys like me were in ‘what we call the reality-based community,’ which he identified as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re in an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'”
Well, what that White House aide seems to be saying is that discernible reality doesn’t matter. Facts are mutable things that can be folded and bent and curved to be what you want them to be.
What he would have you believe is that it doesn’t matter if the Medicare drug benefit costs $700 billion over ten years or $400 billion. It’s the same thing.
It doesn’t matter if we send 150,000 troops to Iraq or 250,000 or 500,000. It’s the same thing.
It doesn’t matter if the 9/11 attacks were carried out by men from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iraq. We create reality.
It doesn’t matter whether there are 10 billion barrels of oil underneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or 100 billion. Any number is as good as any other number.
Or, in the immortal words of George Orwell, “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”
Nonsense. Facts do matter. Indeed, access to reliable and verifiable information is one of the things that separates a rational functioning democracy from a dictatorship. In countries where there is no protection for free speech, rumors and misinformation are rife. Corrupt governments depend on ignorance and misunderstanding to perpetuate the dysfunctional climate in which they can exist.
Democracies, by contrast, thrive on information: facts. Empirical evidence and quantifiable truths do matter.
It does matter that Terri Schiavo’s physicians said she was in a permanent vegetative state from which there was no chance of recovery, and that their prognosis was confirmed by an autopsy performed after she was dead. You may agree or disagree on whether her feeding tube should have been removed, but we should be able to agree on the facts of her condition.
It does matter that condoms, used correctly, have an extremely high rate of success in preventing STDs. It does matter.
It does matter that Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, in the midst of deep-seated fears about the threat from so-called godless communism. We may agree or disagree about whether those words are appropriate to a national oath in a secular democracy. But the fact is that those words are not original to the pledge.
So, I stand accused of being a member of that so-called reality based community, and I readily plead guilty. Not only that, but I take pleasure in the fact that my profession calls me to distinguish fact from myth, to separate hard truth from easy conventional wisdom, to shine the spotlights on the inner rooms of power. Or at least that is what my profession ought to be doing. We may not always do as well as we should, but that’s what we should be doing. And winning the Lovejoy Award is occasion for me to re-dedicate myself to the task.
I think that I understand why we have entered an era when many intelligent and well-informed citizens shrink from the truth. The times grow more complicated, more difficult to comprehend. There are many, many difficult facts out there.
“Perhaps the truth doesn’t set us free, but there is little hope in ignorance or mythology either. And, so, I will continue to pay tribute to Elijah Lovejoy by writing the truths that upset so many of my readers.”
I don’t know about you, but I, for one, was stunned and disappointed to learn that among the London subway bombers was at least one Somali national who had been given refuge in Great Britain when his family escaped ethnic strife in his homeland. As a supporter of asylum for those fleeing persecution, I was devastated to learn that this young man would turn around and repay his new country by seeking to destroy it. That was a hard truth for me, but it is a truth I must come to terms with. Perhaps the truth doesn’t set us free, but there is little hope in ignorance or mythology either. And, so, I will continue to pay tribute to Elijah Lovejoy by writing the truths that upset so many of my readers.
I will continue to write about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in this country, although the subject inflames many of my readers, who denounce me with cries of “class warfare.” Actually, I’m not the one waging war on the working class in this country. But that’s the subject of another speech.
While Americans are wedded to their Horatio Alger myth that anyone can grow rich in this country, studies show – academic research, on which I depend, shows – that those most likely to end up rich are those who were born that way. And I will continue to write that truth.
I will continue to write that the vast majority of the recruits, excluding the college-educated officer class, the vast majority of the recruits going off to the war in Iraq come from households earning $40,000 a year, or less. That truth also seems to irritate my readers. But I will continue to write that truth.
I will continue to use my columns to denounce the ugliness of gay bashing, especially in black America. I will continue to point out that the very same Bible that so many ministers and deacons use to defend their homophobia was once used to defend the institution of slavery. No matter how many black churches I get put out of, I will continue to record that powerful truth.
Indeed I will continue to take on the entire, narrow-minded fundamentalist theocracy that intends to take over the instruments of power in this country. I will insist on the separation of church and state. I will point out that Thomas Jefferson would barely have been recognized as also practicing Christianity by members of the Southern Baptist Convention. I will denounce any effort to use narrow, Biblical mandates as a principle of civil law.
Blue state or red state, I don’t think most of us really want James Dobson or Pat Robertson deciding how we live or work or worship. And I will continue to use the power of my pen to counter their influence. I’m sure I will continue to win my share of critics for that. But the Elijah Lovejoy Award gives me the courage to press on.
Thank you very much.