Editorial page editor of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
It is against this background — against this heroic chapter in American history — that I want us to consider some aspects of our journalism today. Let us see how far short we are of Lovejoy’s ideal of a fearless and untrammeled press.
This means that I must criticize the profession which is my life work. It means that I must protest when I would much rather praise. But the very least we editors can do, when we stand in the long shadow of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, is to have an honest look at what we are doing and to ask ourselves whether we are being true to obligations of the free press that we so fervently profess.
Before I go any further let me say as plainly as possible that the American press, despite its failings, is the best press in all the world. I am proud of its best just as I am ashamed of its worst. Brilliant achievements stand out amid disgraceful lapses.
I want to salute a few of those editors who, in my opinion, are a genuine credit to our press.
The light of a free press burns brightly at Louisville where Barry Bingham has gathered an unusually able staff on the Courier-Journal and Times — Mark Ethridge, James S. Pope, Tom Wallace, Russell Briney, Norman Isaacs and others. Under Eugene Meyer and encouraged I like to think by the example set by Agnes E. Meyer as tireless exponent of freedom of conscience and plain speaking, the Washington Post today gives the national capitol vigorous, constructive editorial leadership. The New York Times has had a succession of great editors from Henry Jarvis Raymond to Adolph S. Ochs. Under Arthur Hays Sulzberger, it has many adornments on its staff-names that appear daily in familiar bylines. I should like to single out again for special mention one of its little-known editorial writers, John B. Oakes, who, in his quiet, unassuming way, exemplifies the vital work of the anonymous editorial writer. The Milwaukee Journal of Harry J. Grant, J. Donald Ferguson and Lindsay Hoben is courageous and strong; it puts its main trust in pickaxe digging by its own reporters and its editorial page reflects this solid enterprise. The Denver Post has come a long way under Palmer Hoyt whose standards for news column objectivity are among the highest in the country. When it comes to integrity in Washington correspondence, Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor stands in the front rank. From the Northwest comes the excellent correspondence of Richard L. Neuberger. Editors and publishers like William T. Evjue of the Madison (Wis.) Capital Times and Charles A. Sprague of the Oregon Statesman(Salem) are in the best tradition of journalism. David V. Felts, whose vigilant, pungent, informed editorials in the Decatur (Ill.)Herald also appear in the other Lindsay newspapers, would distinguish a newspaper with a dozen times the circulation of the one for which he writes. The same can be said for Houstoun Waring of the Littleton (Colo.) Independent and William F. Johnston of the Lewiston (Ida.) Morning Tribune, J. W. Gitt of the York (Pa.) Gazette and Daily, and John B. Johnson of the Watertown (N.Y.) Times. The Wall Street Journal, though aimed primarily at the business and financial community, prints a basic news summary far better than that of many standard dailies, and its realistic reports on industry, agriculture, business and national and international affairs are of a very high order. The local editor who turns through the Wall Street Journal, as directed by William H. Grimes, is apt to find that this seemingly specialized newspaper has picked up a good news feature of general interest right under the local editor’s nose. There are of course other examples of good work, including some in the South which I do not mean to ignore.
All the forces that work to improve journalism are not within journalism itself. The foundation under whose auspices we are meeting is such a force. The Nieman Foundation at Harvard is an educational enterprise which does far more to improve the standards of the press than all too many newspapers. Under the curatorship of Louis M. Lyons, who was for many years an editorial writer on the Boston Globe, the Nieman Foundation issues a quarterly publication called Nieman Reports. In my opinion Nieman Reports is easily the most valuable publication among all those devoted to the press.
The schools of journalism hold out a promise that so far as I have been able to tell is, disappointingly often, not achieved. The position of the journalism teacher, especially in a publicly-supported institution, is not an easy one. If he has opinions and speaks them out vigorously he is almost certain to offend others, including perhaps influential editors and publishers. The choice he often makes is between standing up and standing in and in all too many instances he elects to stand in. But there are rugged men on the journalism faculties, as for example, A. Gayle Waldrop of the University of Colorado.
However much I may criticize the press, there are editors and publishers whom I deeply admire.
At the risk of oversimplification let me state my present criticism of the press in terms of a double standard. That is, the press tends to have one standard when it measures the performance of officials and public figures, and another standard when it comes to measuring its own performance. Indeed many editors and publishers do not think one newspaper has any business criticizing another. Or to put it another way, the press holds other institutions up to searching scrutiny but is unwilling to have the same scrutiny applied to itself.
Let me be specific. Just a year ago this country concluded a presidential campaign. Roscoe Drummond, now head of the Washington bureau of the New York Herald Tribune, was then an esteemed Washington correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor. Describing the news coverage of the campaign — news coverage, mind you, not editorial support — Mr. Drummond wrote in the Monitor:
“The Democratic nominee is getting considerably less than an even break in the news columns of the daily newspapers across the country. My own daily observations on this matter lead me to the conclusion that much of the daily press is committing a serious offense against its readers and one against the canons of responsible journalism–in showing marked one-sidedness in covering the news of this campaign and in slanting much of the news it does cover.”
Mr. Drummond, who based his indictment of the press on alternating travels over the country with the two nominees, was not alone in his observation. Eric Sevareid, one of the fairest and ablest of radio commentators, said:
“Nearly all the great weekly publications, such as Time and Life, are not only for Eisenhower in their editorials, but some are unabashedly using their news and picture space to help his cause, by giving him the predominant play, week after week. But they are fairness itself, compared to some big Mid-West and Western dailies where Stevenson is reported as if he were a candidate for County Clerk. Little wonder that Stevenson is concentrating on radio and television to get his arguments across.”
Notice that these criticisms do not arise from editorial support for one nominee as against the other. All recognize the right of the newspaper editor to support the candidate of his own choice and to write editorials in that nominee’s behalf. But they also take the stand that the news columns ought to be fair to both sides. Mr. Drummond was so deeply disturbed by what he saw in the news columns that he proposed an inquiry into the press’ performance in reporting the campaign. He said that such an inquiry was needed for the information of the public and for the information of the press itself.
An inquiry was also proposed by Editor & Publisher, the newspaper world’s trade weekly, and the proposal was renewed after the election in an editorial entitled “Study Still Needed.” Calling for “an impartial, extensive study to reveal the exact degree of fairness or lack of it in this presidential campaign,” Editor & Publisher said:
“We feel that it is just as important to conduct a study now as it would have been if Mr. Stevenson had won against majority press opposition. The charges of bias in the news columns were widely printed. The people will not forget soon — nor will the press critics. If an impartial study reveals that the news treatment of the campaign was predominantly fair to both candidates, then the fact should be publicized. If not, our editors and publishers should take their medicine to guard against abuses in the future.”
To this splendid statement the editor of Editor & Publisher, Robert U. Brown, appended one of the Canons of Journalism of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, namely: “Partisanship in the news columns is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession.”
Let me add just one more appeal for a survey of the performance of the press in the last year’s campaign. Speaking at the dedication of the Lovejoy memorial plaque almost a year ago to the day, Barry Bingham, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal said:
“I would like to see the American press make an exhaustive study of its own performance during the political campaign, to determine whether Stevenson newspapers slanted their news toward Stevenson and Eisenhower newspapers toward Eisenhower. We have all heard these charges. If the press failed in that way, it would be far better for us to expose the failure ourselves, and try to avoid it for the future, than for the public to expose it and leave the press to a huffy defense of its virtues. Newspaper people are trained observers. It should not be impossible to get a group of journalists or journalism professors to make such a study without fear or favor.”
Now it would seem to me that anyone, whether or not he had seen a single newspaper in the 1952 campaign would conclude from these statements by Mr. Drummond, Mr. Sevareid, Mr. Brown and Mr. Bingham that a survey should be conducted, if for no other reason than to clear the press of the ugly question as to its fairness.
How do you suppose the press reacted to the idea of a survey of its fairness? Do you think that the press pursued the idea with the same resolution it would have used in demanding an inquiry into the dubious conduct of some public official?
I regret the recital of facts that I must now give in answer to these questions.
Sigma Delta Chi, national professional journalists fraternity, took up the challenge just two weeks after the election. Under the leadership of the fraternity’s then president, Charles C. Clayton, an editorial writer on the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a pro-Eisenhower newspaper, a survey resolution was carefully drawn, discussed thoroughly on the floor and adopted overwhelmingly. This resolution took notice of the “numerous and grave charges” of bias. Lee A. Hills, executive editor of theDetroit Free Press and incoming president of Sigma Delta Chi, appointed a committee to work out the details of a “thorough and objective analysis” with the help of one of the country’s major foundations. Mr. Hills appointed Barry Bingham, Benjamin M. McKelway of the Washington Star, Turner Catledge of the New York Times, J. Donald Ferguson of the Milwaukee Journal, Carson F. Lyman of U. S. News & World Report and Dean Earl English of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
To make a sad story short, this committee decided that a survey in fulfillment of the resolution was not “feasible.” With only Barry Bingham dissenting, the committee declared that it knew of “no formula that would meet the magnitude and complexities of the problem of evaluating the fairness of public information media in their news coverage of the 1952 campaign.” The committee did not concern itself with its responsibility in helping positively to clear the good name of the press. It merely washed its hands of the entire unpleasant business. The National Council of Sigma Delta Chi might then have reviewed the problem and sent new instructions to the committee. It might have proposed a limited survey in an effort to meet the committee’s objections. With only its chairman, Mr. Clayton, standing firm — and I salute him for his staunchness — the council accepted the committee’s report. Among those who agreed that the survey was “not feasible” was Robert U. Brown, editor of Editor & Publisher — the same Mr. Brown who proposed a survey before the election and later said that a survey was “still needed.”
When the Guild Reporter included Editor & Publisher in a critical comment entitled, “Sigma Delta Chi Whitewashes One-Party Press Charge,” Mr. Brown’s editorial page in Editor & Publisher said it “felt that such a study is still desirable but concurred in the basic conclusion.” Then it polished off the troublemakers with this hot shot:
“If those who are so lavish in their criticism know of any formulae or technique of study that would meet the test, let them come forward with it.”
What Editor Brown, Dean English and their colleagues on the SDX committee and council all shut their eyes to was an article in Sigma Delta Chi’s own monthly magazine, The Quill, issued the preceding month (April 1953). In that article, Kenneth P. Adler presented the case for measurement of bias. The editor of The Quill, Carl R. Kesler, in describing the article, said that Mr. Adler “thinks such a study is desirable and technically feasible.” His answer to the question, “Can Bias Be Measured?” is an emphatic “yes,” backed up by a detailed description of one possible method. As a member of the Committee on Communication at the University of Chicago, he has spent considerable time in developing and testing this method. The committee has offered technical help in any study of the press sponsored by a reputable organization of journalists.
Yet the Sigma Delta Chi committee and council found a survey “not feasible” and the trade publication, Editor & Publisher, challenged those “who are so lavish in their ‘criticism’ to come forward with a ‘technique of study!’
I am a past national president of Sigma Delta Chi — a fraternity of more than 20,000 members. I happen to believe that this record shows that the organization has been grossly misled. I hope its 34th national convention, which meets in St. Louis next week, will review this record carefully and pass a considered judgment on whether the 1952 convention’s instructions were carried out or circumvented.
I turn now to the American Society of Newspaper Editors — The A.S.N.E. in the parlance of the newspaper world of which I am also a member. Surely we may expect the national organization of the country’s editors to apply its own canon against partisanship in the news columns.
Some 400-odd members of the A.S.N.E. met in Washington last April, just after Sigma Delta Chi’s officers put the stamp of “not feasible” on the survey proposal. The chief topic among members was politics, including the new national administration, but I detected not the faintest disposition for the A.S.N.E. to take up where Sigma Delta Chi had left off. One session after another passed without a mention of the fact that two of the best-known of the United States Senators — Taft of Ohio and Morse of Oregon — had just added sharp criticisms of the press to protests still piling up from the campaign. Finally on the last day the theme was “the people’s right to know” and a major portion of a session was given over to debating the question of Judge Valenti’s barring of the press from the Jelke vice trial in New York. The printed program showed four editors, including one of the feminine editors, scheduled to discuss the case, and before the long session was over many others had intervened as anything but friends of the court. But still no mention of “the people’s right to know” whether the press was fair or biased in reporting the most discussed presidential campaign in history.
I then hunted up the chairman of the resolutions committee, Felix R. McKnight of the Dallas Morning News. From him I learned that the resolutions committee would have no resolutions. Whereupon I asked him how a member might bring up a resolution from the floor. He said it could be done after his report. At the subsequent business meeting Chairman McKnight recommended a review of the system of resolutions and paid tribute to “the democratic process of this society.” Then I asked for the floor. On being recognized by the president, Wright Bryan of the Atlanta journal, I introduced this resolution:
“In view of the serious criticism of aspects of the newspaper coverage of the 1952 presidential campaign, from within our profession as well as without, and further in view of the grave charges made against our profession by Senators Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Wayne Morse of Oregon, be it resolved that this society request its incoming president to appoint a committee to study these criticisms and charges, this committee to report by the 1954 convention its conclusions and the facts on which these conclusions are based, as a demonstration of the full belief of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the people’s right to know.”
I had discussed this resolution with a fellow editor from Ohio who had said he would be glad to second it. But before he could speak up, William Tugman of the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard seconded. I had not spoken to Mr. Tugman. In fact I had not even met him. I was both surprised and pleased. While I did not know what motivated Mr. Tugman’s act in seconding, I concluded that he wanted the subject at least discussed by those present who cared to speak on it. But as it turned out no one would get to speak for it and only one would speak against it. When President Bryan asked “Is there discussion?” Past President Walter M. Harrison of Oklahoma City rose to his feet instantly. Speaking emphatically, he said:
“This is exactly the type of situation that is suggested in the very well-considered recommendation that has been presented by the resolutions committee. The convention has now dwindled down to perhaps 150 out of 450 men. I therefore think that it would not be a fair cross-section of opinion of the vast membership of this Society.
“Now as to the sense of the resolution: As long as there are political campaigns, just as in the last 40 years I have seen these charges brought, just so they will be brought in the next 20 or 30 years. I think it is ancient history. I think the charge should be dead and buried, and I therefore move you as a substitute that the resolution be tabled.”
When Past President Harrison concluded, there was a chorus of seconds from the floor. Then President Bryan correctly announced that a motion to table was not debatable. The vote that followed was overwhelmingly in favor of tabling, and the resolution was out of the way–at least for the time being.
I know of no better way to employ this second Lovejoy convocation at Colby College than to challenge the highhanded, arbitrary procedure I have just described. And anyone who wants to check my reporting of the episode will find it set forth in stenographic record form on pages 184-5 of “Problems in journalism: Proceedings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1953.”
The American Society of Newspaper Editors professes to be devoted to the welfare of the nation’s press.
Why then should the American Society of Newspaper Editors be unwilling to have a committee assemble criticisms of the press and to make a report on these criticisms for the information of the members of the organization?
The American Society of Newspaper Editors professes to believe in “the people’s right to know” and as purported evidence of that belief it has published a book with that title by Prof. Harold L. Cross of Columbia University.
Why then should the American Society of Newspaper Editors be unwilling to give the least help toward informing the people as to the press’ role in a most important aspect of the people’s practice of self-government?
The American Society of Newspaper Editors professes to believe in the editor’s right to discuss issues freely in his newspaper.
Why then does the American Society of Newspaper Editors shut off a motion, duly made and seconded, without a word of discussion other than the denunciation that was part of the motion to table? Why does it suppress exchange of opinion? Why does it say in effect on this subject none of its members may speak?
I do not believe that the American Society of Newspaper Editors has heard the last of this issue any more than Sigma Delta Chi has heard the last of it. This question of fairness in the news columns in reporting elections of, by and for the people–this vital question is not going to be shelved.
If the editors do not face up to this question, the historians will. If the publishers will not assemble photostatic copies of comparable pages on which informed public opinion can be based, the task will fall to research scholars.
This clear duty may pass from our hands by default, but, others will take it up. “The people’s right to know” will not be denied — not even by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Now lest you think I have only criticism for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, let me be as quick to praise four of its members for a statement they have recently issued as members of a committee of the society. They are: J. Russell Wiggins, managing editor of the Washington Post; Herbert Brucker, editor of the Hartford Courant; William M. Tugman, editor of the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard; and Eugene S. Pulliam, Jr., managing editor of the Indianapolis News.
They are the four members of the special committee appointed by Basil Walters of the Chicago Daily News, now president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who recognized a bare-faced invasion of freedom of the press in the star chamber Wechsler hearings conducted by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee.
The witness who was harassed behind closed doors, with the press shut on the outside, was James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post. After the hearings Mr. Wechsler called on the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to appoint a committee to study and comment on the hearings and their implications for freedom of the press in this country. Mr. Wechsler contended that he was summoned and questioned behind closed doors in an attempt to intimidate the press. He demanded that the testimony be made public.
The American press, which had been currently exercised about suppression of journalistic opinion in Ecuador, was very slow to get interested in the Wechsler case here at home; that insistence by some newspapers continued until the testimony was made public; that many who read the transcript of questions and answers were clear in their minds that an attempt had been made to intimidate the press and that it failed only because Mr. Wechsler answered every question, including those about his youthful affiliation with a radical student group when in college — failed in short because Mr. Wechsler refused to be intimidated. How many other editors might have been intimidated in the process, although miles from the hearing room, was not recorded. There were some at least, so I judged from the retreat into Ecuadorism — which I define as “deep concern for freedom of the press in some other country.”
President Walters, acting on Mr. Wechsler’s request, appointed a special committee of 11 editors, ranging geographically from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times. It was, generally speaking, representative of the nation’s press. The essence of the committee’s report, signed by all members, is that the committee is not in agreement on the crucial issue of whether freedom of the press was invaded. The full committee said that if there was a genuine constitutional question as to whether editors should answer questions relating to their editorial or news judgments, this question “should be raised and settled.” It did not attempt to answer the question any more than it would say that the star chamber hearings had been an attempt to throttle free expression.
This was not good enough for the chairman of the committee, Mr. Wiggins, and three of his colleagues, Messrs. Brucker, Tugman, and Pulliam. They produced a four-member protest whose words are most appropriate to be included in a Lovejoy lecture. The full text of their statement is in the October issue of Nieman Reports as is the text of the inconclusive report of the full committee. I hope that many of you will read every word of both. Meantime let me quote briefly from the warning sounded by the four members:
“The people suffer some diminution of their right to know fully and comment freely upon their own government whenever a single newspaper, however worthy or unworthy, is subjected by one Senator, however worthy or unworthy, to inconvenience, expense, humiliation, ridicule, abuse, condemnation and reproach, under the auspices of governmental power.
“If the spectacle of such an ordeal raises in the mind of the most timid editorial spectator an apprehension, a fear, a doubt and anxiety as to the safety with which he may report and as to the immunity with which he may legally comment, American freedom to that degree has suffered an impairment.
“We leave to others the debate over how extensive this impairment ought to be before protest is made. We choose to protest at its very commencement.
“We would sooner suffer the criticism of having exclaimed too soon, too much and too loudly against an invasion of freedom of the press, than endure the reproach of having stood silently by when government took the first step toward the silencing of the free press of this country.
“Motives of legislators and newspapermen do not alter the principles involved in any proceeding that threatens an extension of legislative power beyond those precincts within which it has been confined by the letter of the Constitution and by the spirit of our free institutions.
“Where such an invasion of freedom occurs, other citizens may speak or remain silent without being identified with the trespass; but the silence of the press is invariably construed, and properly construed, as an indication that no trespass has occurred and its silences inevitably will be summoned to the support of like trespasses in the future.
“In our opinion, therefore, whatever inconvenience results, whatever controversy ensues, we are compelled by every command of duty to brand this and every threat to freedom of the press, from whatever source, as a peril to American freedom.”
That closes the quotation from Chairman Wiggins and his three associates on the special committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is a noble as well as far-seeing statement and I salute them for it. The American Society of Newspaper Editors can be proud of its every word. But the lamentable fact remains that only four names out of the 11 on the committee were signed to it. Could it be that some of the seven editors who did not sign had been intimidated? Could it be that some of them had been intimidated and did not know it? I leave the question for you to think about.
This leads me to my concluding thought. This is my conviction that the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution — which sets out the basic liberties of the American people could not be adopted in the United States today. On what do I base this conclusion?
I base it on the fact that no amendment to the Constitution can be adopted without a fighting campaign and I do not find the press today fighting for the causes which the Bill of Rights embodies. If the press does not fight back when the liberties of the people are eroded away — it does not fight back to protect the Bill of Rights which it now has, I find no reason to believe that the press would lead a national campaign to adopt the Bill of Rights were its list of protections and guaranties introduced in Congress today.
Take, for example, the very first of the historic ten amendments. This is the one which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I think I have demonstrated that there is widespread indifference to freedom of the press and to the responsibilities of the press to its readers. Many newspapers never have an editorial which touches the issue of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Freedom of speech is often trespassed without bringing so much as a word of protest from all too many editors.
The right of the people to be secure in their houses and their papers against unreasonable searches and seizures; the guarantee that no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by an oath or an affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized–these basic protections are trampled and a large part of the press takes no notice.
In the last decade many of these protections have been chipped away in local, state and federal courts, with the final approval, I regret to say, of the United States Supreme Court. Yet few newspapers give anything more than minimum space to Supreme Court decisions and fewer still print enough of the text of the opinions for their readers to have any notion of what is happening to our civil rights from day to day.
And so I have no choice but to conclude that the Bill of Rights, which I do not hesitate to call the greatest glory of the American people, could not be adopted today because the press would not be for it.
Fortunately, we do not need to propose and ratify the Bill of Rights today. The Bill of Rights is the heart and soul of our Constitution and has been since almost the very birth of the Republic more than a century and a half ago. We do not need to establish the Bill of Rights, we need only to preserve and apply it to our everyday lives.
This weathering away of the Bill of Rights is a dark, grim thought on which to close. Yet I do not apologize for it however much it distresses me. These are times that try men’s souls no less than the black days of Tom Paine. Let others speak platitudes elsewhere. When we gather to remember Elijah Parish Lovejoy at Colby College each November let us be as worthy of speaking his name as we can be. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts take courage from his courage. He died but his cause triumphed.
The slavery of the body that Lovejoy battled against was long ago outlawed from our land. Our battle now is against slavery over our minds. Editors today are not called on to be assassinated for freedom of the press as Lovejoy was shot down in the street. Today editors are only asked to live for freedom of the press. How, if they have any thought of being true keepers of their precious heritage, can they expect to do less?