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Bill Kovach, who has been called “a newsroom hero” for his unwavering principles as an editor and “the conscience of American journalism” for his uncompromising advocacy of high professional standards, will receive the 48th Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for journalism at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, on Thursday, November 9.
The award, established in 1952, is presented annually to honor important contributions to the nation’s journalistic achievement and to remember Lovejoy, an 1826 Colby graduate who was America’s first martyr to freedom of the press.
As the 2000 Lovejoy Fellow, Kovach will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree at 8 p.m. in Colby’s Lorimer Chapel before he delivers an address. The Lovejoy convocation is open to the public.
Kovach, the son of Albanian immigrants who settled in Tennessee (his father never learned to read or write), rose to editorial positions at The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post. For 11 years, until last June, he led The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which strives to elevate journalism standards through publications, seminars, conferences and fellowships. In 1999 Kovach published Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media with co-author Tom Rosenstiel, a study of news coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy.
He currently is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, whose mission is to uphold the best practices of journalism, he works with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and is the ombudsman for Brill’s Content magazine for two years.
Kovach quit his first job as a reporter, at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press-Chronicle, when his editors wouldn’t let him cover civil rights. He resigned from his last job as a daily newspaper editor, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, after his crusading approach to news stories led to clashes with management there. In between he helped to photocopy “The Pentagon Papers” as a New York Times reporter and covered the Watergate impeachment hearings before becoming the Times’s Washington bureau chief.
At The Tennessean, where he worked early in his career, Kovach refused to leave a legislative chamber, even under threat of arrest, when the legislature tried to go into a closed “executive” session. His disobedience led to a federal court case, which The Tennessean won and which led to the nation’s first “sunshine” or open-meeting laws. Under his leadership the Journal-Constitution published an investigative series titled “The Color of Money,” which revealed a systematic pattern of discrimination by banks against African Americans seeking home mortgages. Besides winning the 1989 Pulitzer for investigative reporting by reporter Bill Dedman, the series led to a $150-million loan pool launched by a consortium of banks to redress the injustices.
This year’s Lovejoy convocation, on November 9, falls on the 198th anniversary of Lovejoy’s birth and the 163rd anniversary of his funeral. The valedictorian of Colby’s Class of 1826, Lovejoy became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press when he was killed In Alton, Ill., defending his presses against a pro-slavery mob he had angered with his anti-slavery writings.
The Lovejoy fellow is chosen by a committee of distinguished newspaper editors chaired by Matthew Storin, editor of The Boston Globe and including William Hilliard, former executive editor of The Oregonian; Ann Marie Lipinski, managing editor of The Chicago Tribune; Rena Pederson, editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News; Colby President William D. Adams and chair of Colby’s Board of Trustees James B. Crawford.