John Siegenthaler Speech and Response

Speech, A Changing Culture in an Unchanging Challenge
Letter, Rebuttal to John Siegenthaler


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A Changing Culture in an Unchanging Challenge

By John Siegenthaler
The Freedom Forum

The Lovejoy Convocation -- Colby College, November 14, 1996 - To begin, let me state regrettably, that I do not possess a gift of eloquence adequate to express the honor I feel at receiving this award in the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy here at Colby College.

If it is true, as we read in Proverbs, that "pride goeth before a fall..." I must watch my step this evening for I acknowledge bald and unabashed pride in having my name linked with that of Lovejoy; minister, journalist and editor whose transcendent strength of character gave him the vivid insight to expose the evil of his time -- the evil of all time.

If you think of him as I have in recent days, you must wonder where it came from -- the commitment to stand against the depraved institution of slavery that had poisoned the soul of our nation and mocked our Constitutional commitment to the spirit of human liberty.

Where indeed did it come from -- the conviction that he by exercising a nation's right of press freedom could help break the chains that enslaved a human race.

Where did it come from -- that courage to face the armed Alton mob, whose barbarous notion was that by murdering a man and destroying his machine, a printing press, they could kill an idea?

I hope and believe you here at Colby fully appreciate that with this award in his name where racism resides, a place where once a year we are reminded that the five bullets that snuffed out Parish Lovejoy's life at age 34 could not murder the cause of racial justice for which he stood, nor destroy the concept of free expression for which he died.

For that I thank you and tell you, remembering that without pride Bob Dole fell from a campaign platform that I will step carefully and pridefully from this stage this evening.

It seems to me, given my own long years as a journalist and editor, that it would be a profanation of all Lovejoy was about in his brief years as an editor not to devote the burden of my remarks this evening to some thoughts about what currently is the state of the institution of the press -- its changing culture and its unchanging challenge in the face of society's changing nature.

Of course, no longer is it possible for us to speak of the press with an image of the machine the mob came to destroy that night almost 160 years ago at the riverfront warehouse in Illinois.

The institution generically called the press, today embodies and embraces an electronic wonder-world which is a vital and indeed dominant part of the news media. This press, this news media, and all its parts are distinctly different from the traditional printing world Lovejoy knew -- but certainly that "press" institution and all its parts are entitled to every protection insured by the 45 words of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Protection is a hollow word when we think of Parish Lovejoy. But his death gave it meaning that still has vibrant life for all the media more than a century and a half later.

And the challenge for those professional journalists who work inside this now multi-faceted institution of the press is this:

To inform and enlighten themselves so that they may inform and enlighten citizens in this democratic society on matters that affect their lives and even, at times, their liberty.

That challenge to inform and enlighten is so basic, so obvious, so elemental as to beg discussion much less argument, but the change in the culture of news and the change in the nature of society as we approach the 21st Century have made the basic, fragile; the obvious, obscure; the elemental, complex.

These changes in society's nature are visible and dramatic and must present journalists with questions as to how they must meet the challenge to inform and enlighten.

The most profound change, it seems to me, is the movement by women away from the hearth and homeplace into the market and workplace.

It is a change that alters long-accepted "habits" of the gender that makes up a majority of our population.

The alterations in their way of life intimately affects how they spend their time, which includes, of course, time to have the press inform and enlighten them.

More than ever before, their time is limited. And their information needs are different as they assume new societal roles.

Many of them are sole breadwinners and parents as well. Most of them continure to be homemakers as well as salaried workers.

Now, I do not suggest that this change, which obviously will continue as the glass ceiling shatters, should lead any editor or news director to totally revamp the content of the newspaper or the newscast.

On the other hand, to ignore the news and information needs of this growing group of the populace is to callously invite them to cancel the subscription, tune out the program or turn it off.

In weighing that, we should remember that every demographic report on the outcome of the recent election suggests that Bill Clinton's success was tied to the votes of women. The gender gap was palpable and the decision of women was clearly discriminating.

Perhaps less demanding as an editorial consideration is the change affecting those citizens who are older. For those in print journalism, these are the most faithful and loyal constituents.

Still, they should not be taken for granted. Like women in the workplace, many of their news and information needs are unique to the changes in their lives -- and as their life cycle continues to extend, their interests will change again. It would be a mistake for the news media to ignore those changes affecting them.

It is not unlikely that there will be a social conflict in our country in the next decade as the political needs of older citizens intensify and as the burden of supporting those political needs confront those who remain in the workplace. That potential conflict should not be ignored as the news media meet the challenge to inform and enlighten.

In another direction, the expansion of new media technology must remind us of the changing information needs of the enlarged and enlarging group that now seems destined to become a vulnerable underclass caught in circumstances that portend a marginal education, marginal opportunities and mraginal productive lives.

Many of those trapped already in that underclass have long since canceled subscriptions (if they ever had them), tuned the media out and turned it off.

Among them, semi-literacy is highest and the psychological barriers presented them by the new technology raise those barriers, compounding the economic limitations that bar them access to the news and information superhighway.

And while there is a definable growing African American middle class, still an unfair and unfortuna number of the underclass are people of color.

Yes, many of their news and information needs are unique. It is difficult to interface with those who find irrelevant much of what they read and see and hear from the mdeia. But they, of all the rest, need to be enlightened and informed about matters that affect their lives and liberty and this presents the news media with the largest measure of its challenge.

Finally, I would speak of that group of citizens whose news and information needs are crucial to the future of a democratic society -- those who never have subscribed already have tuned out and turned off the news -- the young.

The changes in the lives of that generation are constantly in the news. You know the litany. Drugs, pregnancy, permissiveness, parental neglect, academic pressures -- a poll out just this week reports that 25% of those in their teens have considered suicide. I heard of that poll only a few days after reading a poem Parish Lovejoy wrote of himself and his youth:

"Of all that knew him, few but judged him wrong he was of silent and unsocial mood Unloving and unloved he passed along."

I wonder had he grown up in this generation, of that mood, how he would have responded to that poll.

And so the news media report about this new generation but rarely have an opportunity to report to them. They are a visual generation, addicted to the tube.

But they are discerning and disinterested -- and they are channel surfers. Routinely, they pass the news media right on by.

For two decades, editors, and I was one of them, struggled with strategies to attract their attnetion. it has been and is a frustrating exercise.

It is possible that their fascination, often their preoccupation, with the new technology -- the wonder of exploring the web, the fascination of interacting on the net -- will provoke a new interest in the written word and will provide a new chance to devise a workable strategy for the press to reach them.

In any case, we ignore their news and information needs at society's peril.

And again, the responsibility to meet the challenge to enlighten and inform is abdicated if workable ways are not found to inform and enlighten them about matters that affect their lives and liberty.

Now I am aware that it is impossible and, more than that, unwise to turn to the newspaper or the newscast into segmented parts that cater to the news and information needs of demographic groups, whatever changes affect their lives.

I am not suggesting thirty column inches for women, thirty more for seniors, thirty more for the underclass, thirty more for the rising Black middle class, adn thirty more for the young any more than I suggest thirty column inches for the cops and thirty column inches for the robbers.

In truth, many of the news and information needs of all those affected by the changes in society's nature arethe same; some overlap; most are identical to the needs of the general population. I know that there are intelligent reporters, editors, news director and producers who are aware of nuances involved, the trends and changes and seek to address them.

Some of them acknowledge they are late in meeting changes that have subtly crept up on society. The problem is that in each demographic case, trend lines project further change and the problem for the news media in meeting its challenge is not how to catch up but how to get ahead.

Now just a few thoughts about changes in the culture of the news media.

At the top of the agenda is the reality of changing media ownership by corporate interests with no background or history or interest in news as a business or a profession.

Obviously, here I am focusing on the television industry with ABC now owned by Disney, CBS by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric and CNN by Time Warner.

Such mega-mergers obviously mean cultural change at the top level of management.

Every poll of corporate executives in the last decade-and-a-half has reflected disenchantment and even dislike of the news media.

So what does that cultural change in the boardroom mean? And what are the implications for the newsroom?

One thing it has not meant and hopefully will not mean is a change in the culture of the newsroom or the studio. Those venues remain inhabited by professional journalists whose commitment to news values is part of the very core of their being. Their careers are committed to traditional news standards.

It is impossible to tell when or if there will be clashes between these two cultures; one the corporate, the other, journalistic.

Twice in the last year we have seen networks cave-in in the face of legal threats or actions by tobacco companies. The most disturbing, in my view, came as the ABC/Disney merger was pending at the same time a multi-million dollar defamation suit was pending.

At that moment, I had agreed to testify as an expert witness for the network.

I remember the pain in the voice of a confident First Amendment lawyer for the network when he called to say that his client had folded, and I know that professional journalists who had worked that story suffered and suffer still.

Now an occasional incident does not a habit make. It may be that managers of these merged media giants will learn and will not force a clash of cultures between the boardroom and the newsroom.

But we must worry because some of these corporations have various holdings. Some, for example, are involved in defense contracting, some in the nuclear industry, some in entertainment. These areas of corporate enterprise have frequently been criticized by the networks. What happens now when such a critical story is on the news budget? Must it be cleared "upstairs?" Must it be edited by a non-editor and lawyered by a corporate rather than First Amendment lawyer? Or will the mere reality of what the merger means chill the news process through self-censorship?

Chris Wallace, the ABC correspondent who had reported critically on Disney before the merger, recently wondered whether he would have been able to do so after the merger.

Now most of the large newspaper chains remain in the hands of managers whose careers have been built around involvement in the news as a business -- and many of them as news as a profession.

Those corporations which are publicly owned with stocks traded on Wall Street, are in no sense immune to the same threat of mergers that have touched all four networks -- those by interests with no involvement in news as a business or profession.

And because they are traded on the big board, newsrooms have been and are affected by pressures from the bottom line.

Journalists who saw budgets shrink during recessions know what that means for the challenge to enlighten and inform.

And there is other cultural change of grave concern.

Thoughtful critics of the news media point with concern to the news media's growing penchant for entertainment as news. It must concern us all.

Still others are gravely concerned with the growing fascination of gossip as news. That must concern us all.

Others worry about something called civic journalism. And so should we all. It is the practice which includes encouraging journalists and editors to involve themselves in the work and decision making of civic institutions, civic projects, civic programs on which the news media must report.

The conflict to me is obvious, but not to those caught up in what civic journalism is about.

This new movement includes, for example, the suggestion that journalists poll their communities to determine what readers want to read and see and hear -- and then follow the graf lines.

I favor strongly the idea that journalists must work and research to understand for themselves the changing news needs of their communities -- an act to meet those needs. Some major news comapnies such as Gannett, Knight Ridder and Scripps Howard have formulated programs to do that very thing. That makes sense. But I do not favor abdicating the journalistic responsibility of reporter and editor. That is what civic journalism means to many news organizations. That makes no sense.

I shudder to think what the public response would have been had Parish lovejoy conducted a poll on the question of abolition and adhered to the findings of the Alton community.

One final concern that touches the change in the culture of the news media is occurring in institutions called "journalism and mass communications schools" all across the country. In too many cases, they are schools of communications and are forfeiting interest in and, in fact, demeaning journalism as a profession.

The theory practiced in these schools is that it is sufficient to train all students to become communicators for the New Information Age. They reject the traditional theory that society needs a core of professional information gatherers and newswriters and broadcasters to meet the challenge to enlighten and inform.

This trend toward "communicology" is documented by Betty Medsger, a veteran journalist and immediate past chair of the journalism department of San Francisco State University.

Fortunately, thre remain some schools of journalism still dedicated to the ideal that standards and values and ethics are important to those who commit careers to the challenge of the news media to enlighten and inform. But news organizations must be aware of the need to reach out to liberal arts institutions for talented, informed journalists whose careers will be committed to that challenge to enlighten and inform.

As I consider the sum of what I have said over the last twenty minutes, it strikes me that I seem to be the cranky old critic -- the editor whose time passed him byb -- who holds out little hope for the future of journalism.

On the contrary, as I look at newsrooms around the country today, both print and electronic, I find there a wealth of talent -- young men and women diverse in background who are better educated, better trained, more independent minded, more dedicated to fairness and accuracy in reporting, more committed to the challenge to enlighten and inform than at any time in the 45 years I have been associated with the news media. I am proud to say my son and namesake is one of those.

I am encouraged by the presence of three national news networks -- two of them new entries, MSNBC and Fox, which added to CNN promises great competition in the marketplace of ideas.

And I am encouraged as I talk with editors and responsible news executives from all elements of the media who understand the challenge presented by change and who will never surrender their integrity to fads or whims or triviality.

But one last word of caution -- in all of this change in the nature of society and in the culture of the press, there remains the always present threat of government regulation.

New technology with all of its mystique intimidates and frightens those in government who do not unnderstand it. Not since Congress wrote those five words has there been a subsequent Congerss that understood what those words meant: "Congress shall make no law."

The last Congress was, and the one to come will be, promoting and even pushing laws to regulate and to censor the mdeia. They forget, but Elijah Lovejoy never did, and we never should, the words of James Madison, the Father of the Bill of Rights:

"Nothing could be more irrational than to give people power and withhold from them information without which power is abused...a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both."

Nor did Lovejoy forget, and we should not, the words of Madisn's mentor Thomas Jefferson who said:

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

Thank you.

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Letter, Rebuttal to John Siegenthaler

By Edward M. Fouhy
Founder
Pew Center for Civic Journalism

November 25, 1996

John Siegenthaler
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave., South
Nashville, Tennessee 37212

Dear John:

Your Lovejoy speech has just reached me. I admire as always your eloquence, passion and deep commitment to the principles of journalism.

There is a passage I want to argue with, however. "[Civic journalism] is the practice which includes encouraging journalists and editors to involve themselves in the work and decision making of civic institutions, civic projects, civic programs on which the news media must report."

What that passage says is simply not consistent with the evidence. We at the Pew Center stay in touch with civic journalism projects in 34 newspapers, which we have helped to get started over the last three years, and we administer an annual prize that last year drew 101 entries from media partnerships practicing the principles of civic journalism. I have yet to see a single instance where the editors "involved themselves in the work and decision-making of civic institutions."

I was particularly taken with your description of the challenge facing the press today, "To inform and enlighten themselves so that they may inform and enlighten citizens in this democratic society on matters that affect their lives and even, at times, their liberty." Later you say that every one should worry about "something called civic journalism." Strange, because my definition of civic journalism is:

a professional attitude, an outlook that says the role of journalism in a democratic society is to provide information on which citizens may base the decisions they must make in a self-governing society about matters that affect their lives."

As George Wallace used to say, there's not a dime's worth of difference between what you say the challenge is and what I define civic journalism to be. Now I wouldn't claim that civic journalism is the answer to every one of the ills of contemporary, market-driven journalism but I think if you talk to the editors who have brought its ethic into their newsrooms you will find many who think it's helping to meet the Siegenthaler challenge.

The reason I'm writing is simply to point out that civic journalism is not what you apparently think it is. I concede that some of the early experiments weren't very good. But isn't that what experiments are for? People learn from their failures and move on. More recently there has been some sloppy reporting done that has left good people scratching their heads. As Buzz Merritt of the Wichita Eagle likes to says, "It's had journalism done to it."

You go on to say, "This new movement includes...the suggestion that journalists poll their communities to determine what readers want to see and hear -- and then follow the graph lines."

No editor I know has handed his responsibility for what goes into his paper to a pollster or a focus group, and to suggest that the editors who have brought the principles of civic journalism into their newsrooms are ceding their responsibility, is simply inaccurate.

Using the whole range of techniques that are now available to us to learn what's on the public's mind is simply good journalism. As you pointed out in your speech there are several groups that are turning away from the news media, isolating themselves; the young, the old, the underclass and working women. I believe when they do that they deepen the poverty of spirit and disrupt the sense of community so essential to the health of democracy. I am not alone in that belief. For reasons ranging from altruism to survival many journalists are trying to understand why these groups are alienated and to do that they are using the tools of opinion research -- polls and focus groups. No one questions that. It's simply a rational response to the problem of fading audiences. Yet for some reason when the same tools are used--along with others like town meetings and living room conversations -- to determine what's on the citizens' agenda, critics put on their war paint and howl for the scalps of editors who are "selling out."

For the many years I traveled the political trail for CBS, I did what many of my fellow national political reporters did, I asked the cab driver who picked me up at the airport to give me his assessment of the local political race. A crude tool, but why miss an opportunity to listen to a voter's voice? Using polling and focus groups and other means to get a better understanding of a citizen's agenda is taking a quantum next step from the taxi interview. To ignore the public's concerns isn't good journalism, it's ignorance. Charlotte Observer editor Jennie Buckner wrote recently, "We feel we're capable of being informed by polls without being slaves to them. Ignorance about citizen concerns is not bliss; it's simply ignorance. And getting the citizen's point of view into the newspaper and on the air is what civic journalism is all about."

You said you shuddered to think about the public response to Lovejoy if he had polled the citizens of Alton on the subject of abolition. I suspect he did poll the citizens of Alton every day because he faced them every day. Unfortunately most editors today don't live in towns small enough to get a sense of what people think.

Here are a couple of questions I would like to ask Parish Lovejoy even as I shudder to think how he would answer them.

What do you think of journalism that has become so market-driven, consultant-driven, homogenized, dumbed-down, arrogant and alienated from its readers that they no longer trust journalists?

What do you think of editors who edit to please this or that demographic group?

What do you think of TV news producers who pander to the public's fear of crime by sensationalizing and hyping even minor crimes?

What do you think of journalists who go on television to mud wrestle other journalists on phony "Crossfire" shows?

What's to be done about journalists who are paid big bucks to give speeches to groups they may have to cover in the future yet refuse even to disclose who the groups are and how much they pay?

What do you think of an industry that has allowed itself to be swallowed by Wall Street money managers who demand profit margins 15-20 points higher than most other industries consider a reasonable profit?

The generosity of the Pew Charitable Trusts has allowed me to spend the last three years traveling and talking to journalists--both print and broadcast--about the idea of civic journalism. It's an idea that's been well received in some quarters, skeptically received in others and greeted with open hostility in still others. I can understand the skepticism. It's the hostility that has surprised and saddened me.

To put it in pure marketing terms, an industry that is losing customers, as the news business is, usually tries to figure out what it's doing wrong, why the public has turned away. But some practitioners of the craft of journalism have decided not even to try to figure out what's wrong (which is a dumb but defensible strategy). Still others -- and I don't put you in this group -- attack the motives of the people who are trying to deal with the public's disenchantment. Jim Fallows says he feels as though he stirred up "a puff adder's nest" by writing what is really a rather mild critique of his craft.

Can it be that the people who daily report on change, who judge the ethics of others, who use words like thin-skinned, arrogant and detached to describe public officials, cannot see cope with their own problems?

I look forward to continuing this discussion because I believe that while you and I may differ on the prescription for what ails journalism, we are united in our concern for the health of our craft.

Best regards,

Edward M. Fouhy
Executive Director




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