Letter from the President

Ensuring Journalism’s Essential Role

Each of us knows where and how the horrifying news reached us on Sept. 11. That devastating day is branded into the national consciousness in a way previously reserved for the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

However each of us learned of the barbaric act of mass murder that leveled the World Trade Center, we also know where we turned thereafter: to the news media. In those anxious, panicky hours and then days after the twin towers collapsed in pyramids of rubble and death, television, newspapers, radio and the Internet were our informants, guides and alter egos, asking the questions we wanted asked, interpreting the answers and separating the wheat from the chaff with impressive — and expensive — professionalism. We were re-educated in the wisdom of the nation’s founders, who placed a premium on a free press and free speech not merely with lip service but within a powerful Bill of Rights.

Mine is not the observation of a neutral observer. Having spent much of my life in the news business, my pride in my old profession and belief in its central role in this democratic republic were dramatically rekindled by its post-attack performance. More to the point of this report, the post-attack coverage reinforced my certainty that Knight Foundation’s long concern with press performance and press freedom has and does make sense in ways that affect the functioning of our democracy — and thus each of our communities — no less than of the media.

The foundation allocates up to 25 percent of its grants every year to this general area. As a result, Knight is the largest philanthropic funder of journalism-related organizations, causes and programs within the United States. Among many other things, we support yearlong courses of university study, weeklong seminars and two-day short courses.

Knight Foundation has endowed 16 chairs at universities from Arizona to Florida, Michigan to Maryland, North Carolina to Kansas to put distinguished working journalists in close touch with those who hope to become journalists. We have invested well over $20 million in organizations working overseas to train reporters, managers and editors in newly free or newly democratic countries, to encourage institutionalization of press freedom, and to seek justice when news persons are persecuted or killed.

Increasingly, too, Knight has underwritten programs to supplement and deepen the work of news organizations seeking to beat back excessive government secrecy, improve the mass media’s inadequate coverage of foreign affairs, and train overseas reporters to recognize gross violations of the rules of war when they see them. Knight-supported programs train investigative reporters, act as the major journalistic users of the nation’s Freedom of Information Act and publish book-length studies of governmental corruption and political influence-peddling.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the press has an absolute obligation, no less than the right, to monitor government performance whether in times of stress or times of tranquility. It is a function that no government, whatever its ideology or form, actually welcomes, but it lies at the root of the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedom. In times of war, it is a right every government reflexively seeks to curtail, sometimes in justifiable ways, frequently in unacceptable ways and occasionally in reprehensible ways.

This, too, is written by someone who, as a State Department spokesman in a time of trouble, relearned a timeless reality: Governments, democratic or not, are not in the truth business. They are in the governance business, the policy implementation business. None should lie, save in the most exceptional circumstances, usually in wartime. As a matter of fact, decent ones do not routinely, or even frequently, lie. But it can be asserted without qualification that all deliberately withhold information that might politically embarrass a president, call into question aspects of policy or undermine the official version of reality, foreign or domestic.

Against that reality, the press has an obligation to act as surrogate for the people, asking the hard questions, digging beyond the surface to get at the facts, questioning the official line. It is not always a popular task, particularly in times such as these when the nation is threatened and the natural public instinct is to rally behind the government. But history shows repeatedly that to abandon that task is to weaken the foundations of a free society. Ironically, recent history also demonstrates that presidencies that relied most on secrecy and the manipulation of information were almost invariably themselves fatally weakened by the exercise.

Some 30 years ago, a great Yale Law School professor who was a legal conservative wrote something in the context of the Pentagon Papers case that reverberates today. As Alexander Bickel put it: “The press’s chief responsibility is to play its role in the contest (of government and press), for it is the contest that serves the interest of society as a whole.” Or, as the great Soviet dissident and Nobel Laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once wrote in a letter to the government-toadying Writers Union of the Russian Republic:

“Publicity and openness, honest and complete… that is the prime condition for the health of every society. The man who does not want publicity and openness for his Fatherland does not want to cleanse it of its diseases, but to drive them inside, so they may rot there.”

John S. Knight knew all this in his bones and practiced it as a journalist throughout his career, most notably during his long years of opposition to the Vietnam War when he decried the American government’s tendency “to smother the voices of dissent in the flag of patriotism.”

As stewards of his money and ideals, and those of James L. Knight, his newspaperman brother, we at Knight Foundation continue to support those who are willing to put the same ideals into action, whatever the political climate, at home and abroad. Like them, we are certain that the health of the nation and the world depend on doing no less. The new twilight struggle in which the nation finds itself has already claimed thousands of lives and two monumental buildings, symbols of our economic might. It cannot be allowed to lay waste the nation’s most fundamental values as well.

Jack Knight, speaking of his beloved newspaper business, put it clearly and directly: “We must report the world as it is and not as we would like it to be.”