To put first things first, I deeply appreciate this honor.
Jerry Sass is and was a great leader in journalism, in journalism education and in journalism’s continuing self-examination. The roster of those who preceded me in winning this award is daunting in its excellence. I am proud to be included in their number.
But let me state the obvious. This award is really in honor of the hard cash and foresight and creative philanthropy of many others. Most specifically, there were the Knight brothers themselves, Jack and Jim, whose money created Knight Foundation and whose brilliant newspapering created Knight Ridder. Without them, I don’t stand here.
Without several of my predecessors at Knight, I wouldn’t be here either. The late, magnificent newspaperman of newspapermen, Lee Hills, created our journalism initiatives program two decades ago when he was foundation chairman. He pulled together our first journalism advisory committee. And he put Creed Black on it.
The rest is history. Creed took over the foundation and, among other things, fashioned a journalism grant program second to none among American foundations. You recognized this when you gave him the Sass Award eight years ago, and he responded with a very, very funny and insightful speech. During his l0-year run at Knight, he involved the foundation in the world of journalism education in creative and deep-rooted ways that foreshadowed much of what we do today.
One of his most inspired decisions was to hire Del Brinkman, who knew first-hand the ins and outs of journalism education and guided our efforts in this field with empathetic wisdom.
The final and most current reason I have been given the Sass Award can be summed up in two words: Eric Newton. Eric runs our journalism program, and does so with a breadth and depth of creative energy that is literally awe-inspiring and more than a little exhausting – even for observers. We have been going full-bore into new dimensions of work while expanding our commitments to the old. It helps to have more money, of course, but it is absolutely required that you have intelligent understanding of journalism’s assets, needs, faults and potential. This Eric has in great abundance, as does the fine journalism advisory committee that shares responsibility for our fresh starts.
As I read through several of my predecessors’ acceptance speeches, however, there came the inevitable question: What could I possibly say that would be new, fresh, innovative or even interesting – that would go where Sass awardees had never gone before?
The answer was clear. I couldn’t.
But I was spared writer’s block when I remembered sage advice offered once upon a time in a different line of work: Always admit the obvious.
So here’s the obvious. I have been giving a variation of the same speech for a long time, and that isn’t going to change tonight. There’s just so much you can expect of an old dog.
Particularly this old dog, whose early training and professional experience were life-defining. Remember that my childhood and then the first 17 years of my post-college, post-Marines life were spent in and around a small-town newspaper in a special place, a special time and with a special heritage.
We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands – the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment – and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all.
And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town – Greenville, Mississippi – with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community’s fabric.
I say “we” because all this I learned from my father, absorbed from him and, without admitting it, copied from him.
We did not believe freedom of the press could be healthy in our time and place unless our time and place were healthy. We did not see our newspaper as isolated and apart from the larger society, but as integral to and dependent upon that society.
We practiced civic journalism, public journalism, regularly and routinely, without ever having heard the term. God knows we did so with no anticipation of the intensely vapid and frequently demagogic controversy that was to surround its articulation or of the overt attempt by certain of the journalistic elites to suffocate its resurrection three and more decades later.
For us, the journalist as citizen was not a doctrine or a debating point – it was the whole point of the enterprise. It was the fundamental reason the Founders marked us off as the only commercial enterprise deserving named constitutional protection.
As I warned you, that is a riff on a speech I have given repeatedly, including five years ago before AEJMC in Baltimore, and many of you have been there to hear it. So let’s put it aside for a moment. I’ll circle back toward the merciful end.
Now, consider the state of the civic enterprise, the civil society, in the United States today. Consider the pathetically low voter participation rates. Most particularly, consider the turnouts in local elections where – theoretically – the connection between government and citizen should be the closest and where, instead, it is the most attenuated.
Read the indices of citizen withdrawal from civic life. You don’t have to accept all the theses that Robert Putnam has repeatedly laid out, then ferociously defended, to know that virtual communities are frequently more healthy than our geographical communities.
The enthusiasm with which the young master ever more challenging video games rises in tandem with their studied indifference to the affairs of the public arena – and of the media platforms from which those affairs are professionally covered.
Note the segmentation of people into ever more rigid ghettoes, however gilded, of those who look alike, think alike and live alike.
Grieve over the polls’ mounting evidence of the separation between the people on the one hand and the institutions designed to protect and advance their interests on the other.
Gaze steadily at the decline in the public’s belief that the First Amendment should be taken at face value, embraced as the lifeblood of democracy, respected in practice under the most heated of circumstances.
And then consider the slow but steady erosion in the connection – as measured by readership and viewership – between the public on the one hand and print and television media on the other.
All are part and parcel of a mushrooming societal phenomenon, not random unrelated phenomena.
Knight Foundation spends a lot of time, attention and money (relatively speaking) trying to deal with the deterioration of the civic impulse in this country. We also spend considerable money on journalism education. And we are heavy investors in the protection of First Amendment rights and open government.
From these investments and the attendant research behind them, from our deep involvement in the 26 communities which represent our America, we have drawn certain conclusions.
Most particularly, we are convinced that the nation must reconnect the dots that were once solid strands tying together the health of the republic’s civic life and its peoples’ interest in, and understanding of, the wordings of a free press.
We have decided that for reasons of self-interest no less than of the public interest, news organizations and news people have to become public, vigorous and confessional missionaries for the Bill of Rights within their own land.
Confessional? Yes. And that means proclaiming the old time First Amendment gospel without sophisticated reticence or foot-dragging embarrassment. As believers, not stuttering apologists.
We must be about the business of encouraging and supporting citizenship education, beginning in grammar schools and progressing straight through secondary and higher education.
We should nurture and help build curricula and programs that teach the meaning and challenges of the First Amendment to the nation’s young.
Once upon a time, in a perhaps more innocent time, newspapermen routinely saw themselves in this light. Bishop Charles B. Galloway, a famous temperance leader of his day, caught their state of mind in a speech to the National Editorial Association, meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1899:
Of the press, he declared:
“Along with the family, the church and the state, and not inferior to either because affecting each, it ranks as a dominant force in all civilizations….The press is ‘the mightiest of the mighty means, on which the arms of progress leans….What the eloquent tongue of Tully was to Rome, and the impassioned periods of Demosthenes to Athenian patriotism, the modern press is to American citizenship.”
And they didn’t laugh when he concluded. They cheered.
Which reminds me of that fine book of a few years ago, How The Irish Saved Civilization, which was the best example of an accurate headline you could want. It was not just because of my gene pool that I liked it. I liked it because of its implications for my old trade … and your profession.
And I liked it because it offered solid evidence that even in the bleakest of Dark Ages, those who are the inheritors and repositories of the great ideas, the great beliefs, of a civilization or faith system can help revive them in the world outside their doors.
I am not speaking only or even primarily to the world of professional journalism. I am speaking of and to the academy, to higher education, which so many of you represent and which is one of our nation’s great success stories….
….but which, like journalism, often seems to have forgotten that its ultimate health also rests on the health of the civic venture. It, too, has been unduly influenced by people who seemed to believe – indeed, proclaimed they believe – that its separation from society is indispensable to its independence and integrity.
Until just yesterday, higher education exhalted its role as observer and dissector and analyzer and critic and recorder and teacher … and ducked its obligation as citizen.
Just like the press.
And all the while the world outside its fastidiously segregated enclaves rotted away. All while the public increasingly came to view higher education’s obsessions and needs as that of the THEM rather than of the US.
Which was not surprising, of course. Distance yourself from your taproots, from your wellspring, and you can soon enough create atrophy or a desert.
There’s an old Chinese proverb to the effect that if you continue on the course you’re headed, that’s where you’ll end up. And as John Bare, who until recently was head of evaluation and planning at Knight, once wrote me:
“You can play the game extremely well, and still fare terribly, because you’re playing the wrong game: You need to change it. Real success comes from actively shaping the game you play, from making the game you want, not taking the game you find.”
We in journalism and in the academy have been playing the wrong game, the game of separation from our own society.
We complain because “they” don’t read what we write, appreciate what we teach, understand the fundamentals of our trade and our society – but we complain at arms’ length, from on high, from the sidelines.
The solution lies somewhere in the old joke about Joe, who above all wanted to win the lottery just once before he died. Over the years, he prayed with ever-mounting fervor that the Lord should grant him his wish. Over the years, he never once won. Finally, during one dark night of the soul, he cried aloud again to God: “Let me win the lottery.”
And God replied from the closet: “Joe, meet me halfway. Buy a ticket.”
We who share a common concern about, and reliance upon, a free, vital press in a free nation of vigorous democratic institutions need to start buying tickets, plunking down cash and time and personal involvement.
Bill Kovach, that great newsman become great educator become great conscience of journalism become great trainer, shared some just-developing ideas along this line with Eric and me the other day down in Miami.
He was musing, rather than defining, and would not suggest (nor would I) that we have thought our way through to a full clear goals, clearly defined. We know that some of you, and your institutions, have already come to the same conclusion and have entered the list of public involvement long before us. We do not think we are inventing the wheel.
But some is not enough. We need most if not all. And the first missionary objective should be to re-educate the larger campus about the values that you teach your own students – and to make sure your own students connect with the best minds in history and social science and sociology and English that your institutions have to offer. In this, journalism organizations must join you as partners. Both have to reconnect directly and in mass with the students who fill our communities’ schools and colleges, then connect those students firmly to the great ideas that undergird this free society.
Then, having created new approaches to your fellow citizens of the academy, you and your journalism colleagues and your foundation partners must add to the already heavy load the task of helping to educate as citizens those who go to school in all your communities’ neighborhoods.
I said all this is for self interest as well as public interest, and it is. The gulf must be closed. Links must be re-established. The fundamentals of this free society must be reabsorbed and given new life, or we can kiss the Bill of Rights goodbye – not to mention our readers and viewers.
And none of this will happen by osmosis or blind luck. Most of the inertia of contemporary America, even before 9/11, works against us.
Disraeli, that eloquent Tory leader with a social conscience, once wrote a passage that speaks to our condition today:
“Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners and are not governed by the same law…
He spoke, of course, of the “Rich and the Poor,” but it could as easily be of Press and Public, of the Academy and the People.
Woodrow Wilson, no less a Tory in his own way, said something similar in l914: Written on the pages of history is the fact “that the nations are renewed from the bottom, not the top….A nation is as great, and only as great, as her rank and file.”
A press is as free, its offerings as valuable, as the value the “rank and file” public put on both. So, too, higher education. That means we have work to do, missionary work, the saving of a civilization work.
We are a nation in danger, President Bush said the other day while announcing his sabotage of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.
More to the point, we are a democracy in danger, expressly because of the vast gulfs that separate us from each other. Most particularly, both media and the academy stand too far apart.
This was a luxury not much given to small-town journalists of my early years. We knew we shared a common destiny with what are now termed “markets.” Folks, we still do.