JAN SCHAFFER: I have the privilege
of introducing Buzz Merritt who as Jay said, "Oh, you're not going to call him
the godfather of civic journalism again, are you?" But certainly he was one
of those editors at the right point in time who had his personal epiphany in
the newsroom that things were not going well. Not only was public life not going
well, but the journalism that was fueling it was not going well. And he dared
to think of another way to do it and actually tried another way of doing it
in the elections in Wichita in the first People's Voice project.
It was from the courage to do that that evolved other courageous experiments,
first with the Knight Ridder newspaper chain and then with other newspaper groups
who really started the momentum, started the process. Buzz, for many of you
who don't know, chronicled a lot of this - he's a wonderful writer - in Public
Journalism and Public Life, his book on why telling the news is not enough.
I'm very pleased to have him today to talk to us and introduce Hodding.
BUZZ MERRITT: She didn't hold it up very high.
BUZZ MERRITT: And I'm delighted that she didn't because this is the
first edition and those of you who have seen it know how awful it looks. It's
the worst cover design any publisher ever made about any book. I just wanted
to make the disclaimer that I had no authority about the cover of this book
at all. So I just wanted to put your mind at rest about my artistic inclinations.
The second edition has a much better cover.
Walker mentioned the book today at lunch and I realized I had not given him
the 800 number that you can use to order it.
BUZZ MERRITT: Jan has given me only 45 minutes to do this introduction
and I'll get to that pleasure shortly. Meantime, a few of you will be surprised
to know that I eagerly accepted her kind invitation to offer a few personal
reflections on what we've been about. Only someone of my advanced age can think
of 12 years as a short time. But even given that dubious advantage of elderly
perspective, I've struggled the last couple of weeks to clarify the essence
of this public journalism thing, the whole thing, and the essence of this weekend.
Surely, this is a celebration. Now I know they always say that at funerals
and weddings too, and this is neither. But it is a celebration of you, the journalists
and scholars who made a leap of faith, and the people in foundations and institutions
and community groups who supported your efforts. No, it's not a funeral, but
it is a transition. To what, we're not quite sure. But then 12 years ago we
didn't know what even the first step would and could and should be.
When I took a leave of absence in 1994 to write this ugly book, a friend of
mine who had written several said, you have to remember, you don't ever finish
your book; you abandon it. Even then I had to do that in 1994 because things
were moving very fast. We didn't know what the first step would and should and
could be, but we were taking it at a very fast pace. Since those first hesitant
steps we've traveled miles and miles together.
As many of you know, my particular journey began more in desperation than
inspiration 12 years ago. As with many transformational moments, the idea began
to form out of frustrations and individual concerns. How could our profession
stop being a problem and become a participant in the needed renewal of American
life and yet maintain its own most useful traditions?
Even while I was doing all of the things that journalism was supposed to do,
afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, printing the news and
raising hell, being an aggressive watchdog and chomping on a few bad guys, even
doing all of that I wasn't fulfilled. And certainly public life was not getting
better for all of our efforts. Quite the opposite. You know the numbers and
the pathologies behind those numbers.
Mine was hardly a unique experience. Many journalists and scholars were struggling
with the same frustrations and concerns. The story of how some of us came together
is for another time and place. But we did come together and began to build together.
So what did we build? Or more precisely, what are we building? A lifeboat
for print journalism just when many insidious pressures attack its foundations?
I believe so. A platform for new construction on the information highway? Yes.
A new heart for like-minded journalists who have become persuaded that just
telling the news is not enough and who need a more worthy goal? That too we've
built. An agora where citizens can become reengaged in the core business of
democracy? Certainly. A laboratory for experiments in journalism and democracy?
But what we really have built and are building is even less concrete, though
more powerful, than those abstractions. It's hope. Hope that the future of both
journalism and democracy can and will be better than the recent past. Hope that
deeper engagement by citizens in public life, including politics, will accelerate
civic renewal. And hope that journalism by recognizing that civic renewal and
participating in its growth can reestablish itself as a useful and respected
I'm sure at this point you have one more hope. That Buzz Merritt will get
on with the real business of the evening. So I shall, shortly.
BUZZ MERRITT: But before doing so, I can't let this moment pass without
asserting two points of personal privilege. The first is this, when I retired
from daily journalism two and-a-half years ago a number of people in this room,
and others not in this room, entered into a generous conspiracy fomented by
Steve Smith. The idea was to present kind letters to me at a retirement dinner
in Chicago two and-a-half years ago. At the time Steve was in the midst of a
move - a bolt really - from Colorado Springs. Delivery of the letters was a
bit delayed. I got them this morning.
BUZZ MERRITT: So it was not out of rudeness that I have not responded
to those in this room who wrote those letters. I do so now, and I thank you
very much. They were very kind.
The other point of personal privilege is to acknowledge specifically two people:
Jim Batten, who guarded the gates against the greedy and created an atmosphere
of experimentation for the company that I worked for. The second is the man
who gave both moral encouragement and scholarly legitimacy to those early thoughts
of a Midwestern editor and other striving journalists. Thank you, Jay Rosen.
BUZZ MERRITT: We could not have so easily built those things and could
not readily continue our great experiment without people like Hodding Carter
III. The foundation he now heads was a key player when in 1992 it partnered
with the Kettering Foundation to fund Jay Rosen's Project on Public Life and
This in turn encouraged other foundations to come in. One of those was The
Pew Charitable Trusts, which enabled Ed Fouhy and Jan Schaffer to mount the
Pew Center for Civic Journalism. Hodding Carter was the first chairman of its
advisory board, serving from 1993 until 1998, when he became CEO of the John
S. and James L. Knight Foundation and was able to perfect the art of giving
away large sums of money, which he had learned at the journalism project.
The Pew Center surely owes him a great debt for that early and stalwart leadership
in the face of considerable controversy and misunderstanding about the center's
role. But our entire profession, and indeed the nation, owe him a great deal
more for his service and a life that has touched many facets of our civil society.
Television: four Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for public affairs
documentaries, and a long list of production reporting credits for shows on
PBS, CBS, CNN, and the BBC. Newspapers: 18 years at his family's Delta Democrat
Times in Greenville. Working two successful presidential campaigns for Lyndon
Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and service in President Carter's State Department.
Academics: service to his alma mater, Princeton University as a trustee; to
the University of Maryland in the Knight Chair in Journalism and member of its
journalism advisory board; to Duke University and American University as adjunct
professor of public policy; to Mary Holmes College as trustees. He holds honorary
doctoral degrees from seven colleges and universities.
Military: two years as a Marine following his graduation from Princeton in
1957, which makes him older than me, which is nice to know someone is. Literature:
two books, The Reagan Years, and The South Strikes Back, and contributions
to seven others. There's much more, but it's time now to hear from him. It's
my special honor to present to you Hodding Carter III.
HODDING CARTER III: Thank you, Buzz. You really shouldn't have, but
you could have gone on.
HODDING CARTER III: I also want to say that Buzz's earlier remark before
he got down to the genius part in those last few lines reminded me of why I
shouldn't be standing here at all. In the course of this day I have heard every
single possible thing that could be said on behalf of this venture in which
all of us have taken some deep stake and said better than anything I can now
I went away this afternoon halfway into the last session to rip everything
up and try again. But I was reminded that I shouldn't really worry about it.
That if I were going to be a failure tonight it would be in keeping with what
I think is the real reason I was invited to speak. Not because I was the speaker
at the occasion of the first Batten night - a night that I will always treasure
as having had that opportunity. But in fact because my record of success in
the field of innovation in journalism is so long, so stunning, indeed my credibility
in this field is so extraordinary that you have to ask me to come simply for
HODDING CARTER III:
Let me take you back, however, before I was in the field of changing journalism
and just trying to change Mississippi. This was a place in which candidates
cried when the Delta Democrat Times endorsed them, knowing - and indeed
in a memorable campaign in 1971, the ultimate winner, Mr. Waller, upon our endorsement,
said that it was a plot by his opponent to destroy him, and said so on state
HODDING CARTER III:
But that was all right. I did indeed work somewhat later for Jimmy Carter in
the campaign of 1976, convinced by the woman who was to become my wife, Patt
Derian, and by Andy Young that he stood the best chance of blocking George Wallace
on our road toward ultimately electing somebody better. But in any case, we
were going to stop Wallace if that candidacy, which I knew to be absurd, but
I also knew that I was in love with Patt Derian and it was the only way I could
get to Atlanta to be near her.
Because of the conceit of television, which believes that when they announce
something it is when something happens, it was announced that evening that Mississippi
had put Jimmy Carter over the top to victory. That at the moment, the announcement
of our electoral votes, the last time and the first in the last 30 years before
that that we had been on the winning side - for a Democrat - that we had done
so, there was a loud cheer and I proceeded to try to drink everything in sight.
The next day we were gathered as a campaign staff and Hamilton got up and said,
"I can now reveal the secret of the Carter campaign success: We got Hodding
out of Mississippi long enough to carry the state."
HODDING CARTER III: Now
I want to come to the point of this evening, however. I have had three major
absolute enthusiasms when it comes to the reform of American journalism. The
first was in the 1960s, in the late '60s. I came back from my Nieman year consumed
with the idea that the ombudsman was going to be the way we would reconnect
Americans with their newspapers. Sure enough, here it is some 37 years later,
36 years later and for every year since I have been gone we've added one ombudsman.
We now have in all of North American journalism roughly 36 ombudsman. I think
that this is a mark of success in itself.
But the second thing is, before you had in American journalism the whipping
boy of public or civic journalism, you had something else. I was and am for
a long time on the board of what is now called the Century Foundation but was
then called the 20th Century Fund.
In the early 1970s the Century Foundation decided that American journalism
needed to find a way to communicate with an aggrieved public in ways that did
not have to do with the legal processes of our nation, and so we came up with
a task force about, something about which I knew literally nothing in Greenville,
Mississippi, called something along the lines of a news or press council. We
met for some 14 months of hearings and conferencing on it. Such well known enemies
of American journalism as the then-head of CBS News, the then-publisher of the
Louisville Courier Journal, the then-national news editor of The Washington
Post, and then others who loved American journalism such as Big Daddy Unruh,
the head of the Democratic Party machine in California, and me, a country editor,
decided that we thought a national news council was a great idea.
At which point the entire pile of crap fell upon us and did not end until
the day they had successfully ruined that genius idea. An idea, which incidentally,
guaranteed the succession of Stalin to the head of The New York Times
and the death of Jack Oakes and his possibilities as being editor since Jack
at that time was one of the endorsers of the national news council, and Abe
made it a tenet of orthodoxy that you must oppose the news council if you believed
in the freedom of press, which we all held true.
Now my friends, we are here not to bury the notion of civic journalism but
to have me commemorate it.
HODDING CARTER III: We
are in deep, deep, deep trouble.
Now I want to say something right here. That this has been advertised, I think,
as the last Batten Award. I don't know if that's true or not. I mean, one of
the nice things about being a foundation executive is that you get to pretend
that your board doesn't tell you what to do. So we'll see about that.
HODDING CARTER III:
But I want to say now a few things which are a little more serious, though
I have to repeat they are going to be absolutely repetitious. I'm sorry, that's
the price you pay for somebody who is giving what is advertised as a - what
is this supposed to be? The keynote at the end of an event. I mean, it is at
best a capstone for a module of what is a process of building, I hope, but it
is certainly not a keynote.
Let me just simply say a few things nonetheless. I am not pulling out my notes
from that first evening, Jan. I actually meant to. I meant to actually just
pull them and speak to them. Yet in the course of this day so many great things
have been said about Jim that I am not going to echo them except to say, the
truth of the matter was said by one of you, maybe Phil. I can't remember any
more. But it was Jim pulling together at the meeting of that company down in
Key West, not 1992, not 1993, not 1995, and talking about the need for our enterprise
to be better connected to its public and to have an attitude about that connection,
which was something less about they, the clods, and we, the dispensers, and
more about the connection.
I went down with Ed Fouhy to Knight Ridder toward the end of Jim's life and
we were talking through what was a great cooperative venture at that time between
what Pew had put together and what Ed was doing, that it was the most natural
fit in God's own world because it represented exactly what Jim thought that
the enterprise ought to be about. The company, growing nervous with some of
the criticisms about some of the aspects of those early days, withdrew from
that intimate relationship we had then, but it was nonetheless that relationship
which legitimized, as very few things could have, what it was that was underwritten
by Pew and run with such great grace and style and determination by Ed, and
of course, by Jan.
Jim, about whom this evening was named, would be happy, and I think perhaps
even surprised to discover that 10 years later we're still talking along these
lines. Because while he was a man of great vision and decency, he was not a
fool and he knew precisely the forces that were working against what we're trying
I have to say that nobody who's been involved with this entire enterprise
over these years could be considered some crazed - what was it she sang in South
Pacific - not an idealist, not an optimist, not a sort of crazy - thank you,
cock-eyed optimist. In fact people who knew and understood this business intimately,
knew it inside and out, and came together nonetheless to press for changes which
they found to be absolutely necessary.
Here I have to come, however, to something else which I, now being a foundation
executive, know it's not necessary for me to say. Obviously foundation executives
are universally praised because we give away the money. We are never going to
be criticized to our face.
Rebecca Rimel took a flying leap
into the unknown, doing things which foundations are supposed to do and rarely
do, which was to take a chance on an idea that had not been confirmed by the
conventional wisdom, had not been endorsed by the industry to which it was going
to be applied, and which carried with it what it has brought, the possibility
of paranoia, mean-spirited response, and utter ignorant condemnation by the
profession it was seeking to help.
She not only went into it and sustained it in the initial phase, she did the
most unnatural act of all for a foundation executive: she gave it breathing
room. Not three years, not five years, not eight years; a decade. That does
not happen in this world except occasionally. It particularly does not happen
when what it gets you from your home newspaper to some of the major organs of
American journalism, the notion that you are an enemy not quite to be defined,
but a mortal enemy of everything journalism is supposed to be all about, which
is what this venture brought her.
For all that I've heard being read in her behalf and of the good words she
got privately about this business, they were nothing compared to the bad words
that she got publicly. I have to tell you if she had been here, which she wasn't
going to be in any case because we've heard each other speak too many times,
but if she had been I would say right now would be the time for a standing ovation.
Not so much because it does our business good, but because it in fact did philanthropy
great good by proving that it could be about a business.
HODDING CARTER III:
My wife told me what I've already violated, that the best way for me
to get out of not figuring out what the hell I was going to say since you had
already said it, was to talk very short. She knew that at this point in the
evening I couldn't resist it. You can't go out the door and so I don't have
to speak short. But I'll try to be at least a little shorter from here on.
Walker Lundy today spoke of the newsroom culture of conservatism, by which
he meant, as I knew as an owner, as a publisher, as an editor, that while any
journalist can in fact call for immediate recognition of Cuba tomorrow, if you
move one chair in the newsroom they go berserk. And to ask that you do fundamental
reordering of the way you do business is to invite rebellion. He spoke truly,
of course, when he did it.
But what we know, we who are either observers of a business we once were in
and loved, or are people within it now, our business as a whole, when it is
not obsessed with the business of business, is eaten up with a form of cultural
conservatism which is truly amazing. Indeed, more often than not it is eaten
up with pure reactionary-ism. Don't bother me with a new idea. And yet we demand
it from so many places.
Philanthropy actually shares with civic journalism, public journalism, the
opportunity and the obligation to do a number of things, and like journalism
is eaten up with conservatism and the desire not to be the first. There's an
old saying in the news business which several of our friends were fond of quoting
from time to time, that in the news business, the trick is to be first, second.
To never be the actual innovator either as reporter or as publisher or as owner
or as news director. And it is true for foundations as well.
Yet we share something which is such rare opportunity; that to give it up
because of our conventions or our conventional wisdoms, or our timidity is to
give up something so precious as to be unfathomable to the vast majority of
our fellow Americans. We can be the conveners. We can be the catalysts. We can
be those who enable others to do that which they are wise enough to have thought
There are no final answers inherent in any of this. Foundations pretend too
often, as do newspapers, that they know final answers. But we have this opportunity,
this rare opportunity in both media and foundations, to be the people who can
make other people make it work.
I wish that I thought that we were going to sustain this opportunity indefinitely,
and surely in newspapering, in television, in radio. I wish in fact that I thought
that in the world of foundations we would rediscover what I can only think of
in old Mississippi terms, which would just be called guts, or a little plain
willingness to put something on the line besides our conceit that the growth
of our corpus is what defines our genius. But I'm not sure that's true.
But I think that when I've been asked to be a player in the occasion of the
consecration of a breakaway church, preaching is called for. So let me say that
it can and must be true, that it can be sustained, because it's unthinkable
that it will not be. That is not serious and rigorous reason. It is simply the
kind of faith that is supposed to inform not merely a breakaway church but the
great creation which is embodied in that institution we serve and that was founded
upon the principle of the First Amendment and of freedom unimaginable in virtually
But why is there even a need for what you all have done? The words rolled
out today. Because there truly is a crisis of faith, and there truly is a crisis
of connection and community and connectivity. I really have to say nonetheless,
that as much as I loved a great deal of what was said today, I cannot say that
I agreed with all of it. One thing specifically I have to call right now into
account. I told Walker I was going to do this. I'm doing it.
The truth is not that the problem is the newsroom does not understand capitalism.
The problem is that the front office does not understand journalism. The problem
is not that the average reporter -
HODDING CARTER III:
- that the average reporter does not understand what it is that's necessary
to make the payroll, to make the good edifice, to make the thing that he wants.
It is that in fact those who control too many of the edifices have actually
come to believe that Wall Street has wisdom, and that that wisdom should instruct
Let me just say something categorical. There are vast enterprises which reverse
that successfully. They tell Wall Street what to believe about what they do,
and Wall Street, a prostitute, does precisely what it is told because the money
is there. That we, to believe for one moment that a Wall Street which consecrated
an Enron, which believed in Arthur Andersen, and which touted the dot-com bubble
is able to tell people in journalism what it is that the system of capitalism
demands is a perversion of capitalism, it's a perversion of journalism, and
it's a perversion of the notion of journalistic integrity.
HODDING CARTER III:
The truth of the matter is, as in most of the enterprises which Wall Street
chooses to be an expert on, they neither understand nor care. They care about
one thing, and those are levels of profit margin.
A dear friend of many of us in this room now running the Michigan journalism
program, Charles Eisendrath, is fond of saying, consider it this way: GM, which
is averaging 6 percent now, suddenly is making 20 percent. Would you believe
that their cars are still as safe? Would you believe that their cars were still
as efficient? Would you believe their cars were still as good? Who would dream
of asking GM to make that argument? Yet we are sitting here swallowing the idea
that you can take margins from 15 to 20 to 25 to 30 and that at end of day they're
going to be as good, as effective, as safe for the democracy as they were when
the margins were 15.
Another dear friend who is well known to others of us here, Brandt Ayers over
in Anniston, Alabama, an independent owner, is fond of saying, I stand there
in an independently-owned, having to go to the credit markets only, and I make
10 percent. And with that 10 percent margin I have a new press, a new building,
I have foreign correspondents, I win awards, and I live like a pasha. And it
is told to me that I have to make 25 percent? To be what?
It is actually required of us these days to do something even before civic
journalism because the best intentions of civic journalism are not going to
work if the enterprises in which you offer them are not meeting their basic
necessities. Again another of you today spoke casually about the fact that,
of course we do not have enough money now to do what we used to do, and there
is less money now then there used to be.
The fact of the matter is, there is. Not merely against some marker of 10
years ago, but against need, against the world in which we live. No matter how
fast you run with civic journalism, if we are not able to reconvince those who
control this medium that at end of day the business of this business is not
business, but the news, and that in fact what an absolutely ignorant, venal,
and unresponsive institution, which is the Wall Street analyst world, if that
is to be our guide then we're lost.
I was, of course, in my brief time in daily journalism, an owner in a small,
tiny newspaper in which, of course, it was understood that everybody was the
public editor because we were too close to the ground to be anything else. I
did not understand in fact it was even possible to make a profit for the first
three months of any given year, given the kind of world we lived in. We put
out a pretty lousy paper in a lot of ways; a lot of ways. We didn't have the
money. We didn't have the knowledge. We didn't have lots of things.
But another word that was used today is something we did have, and that was
passion, and that was conviction, and that was certainty that what we were about
mattered so much that you had to put it all on the line every day to do it.
We all live relatively comfortably. One of the nice things that civic journalism
has done is asked some folks to put some things on the line and say we have
to change some things. You begin to hear some voices out here which I hope we
will heed. They're saying there's a second level of things we have to do, particularly
to make this first one work. We're going to have to start speaking a lot more
clearly with some truth to a lot of power. Not government's power; our own business'
Tim McGuire at the ASNE convention that just ended spoke of the need for a
constant conversation now between editors and publishers. Len Downie speaking
to the board of that same institution the night before the conventions kicked
off, casually said he did not see in any case why 15 percent was any more than
you had to make and suggested a rigorous set of conversations between those
who run the newsrooms and those who control the budgets.
Is that asking too much? Too much bravery, too much putting it on the line
on the one area that it matters to put it on the line? To finally have that
face to face conversation, not with the public, much of which you don't know,
but with those who control the enterprise, most of whom you do know. The answer
of course is, it's easier to do almost anything than it is to speak directly
to those who have the purse strings, who control the budgets, and your own destiny.
Yet I had a kid here today who's working now in Greensboro who was in an ethics
class I taught at Maryland and she reminded me of something, which I didn't
remember having ever taught but I'm happy to think she thinks I did. But what
her real conversation reminded me of is that we are still turning out people
who believe, and we are still sending people out into the news world believing
they can make a difference. Frankly, the business matters too much for us not
to live up to the rhetoric that they are taught and the words we utter too often
This is a terrible time. It is a bleak and fallow time. I've been going to
ASNE for 52 years of my life. I have never seen a time of more dispirit, more
discomfort, more frustration, more fear, more resignation, more cynicism. That
is not a set of adjectives we wish to apply to our business, to our calling.
There is a whole set of other words that you want, and they were said by Steve,
and they were said by so many of you today: passion, commitment, belief, community,
context, continuity. We are, finally, the custodians of something much better
than our jobs.
Civic journalism believes that, and it believes that with great intensity.
But for civic journalism to work, those who run our news operations in this
country have got to prove in their daily encounter with those who control the
budgets, that those words are not simply something to be trotted out to justify
ever larger profit margins, or to be trotted out to justify creating products
that a free people and a free society will turn to for information, for understanding,
for invigoration, and for connection.
[Whereupon, the keynote address was concluded.]