Bill Kovach, a staunch defender of press freedom and a crusader for high standards of integrity in journalism, was honored on Thursday, November 9, at Colby College as the 48th Elijah Parish Lovejoy Fellow. In his address at the Lovejoy Convocation, Kovach said, “after struggling for centuries to remain free of government control and censorship, public interest journalism now finds itself struggling with similar pressures from private ownership. Independent journalism may be dissolved in the solvent of commercial communication and synergistic self-promotion.”
Kovach, who has held editorial positions at The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post, received an honorary doctorate from Colby before addressing students, faculty and journalists. “In reviewing highlights of Bill’s career, I get the sense that, in addition to being the pope of the press, he is the Zelig of journalism,” said Colby President William D. Adams.
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.
He resigned from 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.
For 11 years, until last June, Kovach led The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which strives to elevate journalism standards through publications, seminars, conferences and fellowships. He currently is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, whose mission is to uphold the best practices of journalism.
Colby established the Lovejoy Award in 1952 for an editor, reporter or publisher who has contributed to the nation’s journalistic achievement. Lovejoy was a Colby graduate who became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press when he was killed Nov. 7, 1837, defending his abolitionist newspaper from a pro-slavery mob.