(This is a slightly edited version of the speech made to the SBCAN community forum on July 26, 2006.)
My friends, thank you for coming on this hot evening. Before making my small contribution to this forum, I want to pay tribute to Jerry Roberts and the eight other former members of the Santa Barbara News-Press staff who put principles ahead of their personal interests and resigned from a newspaper that had violated the basic tenets of professional journalism. Standing on principle isn’t easy: it doesn’t put bread on the table or pay the mortgage. This is especially true at a time that newspaper circulation and newspaper jobs are shrinking. These nine people do NOT deserve to be slandered as biased journalists. They deserve our thanks, and we ought to find ways to help them financially. We need to recognize that their fight is our fight.
I spent more than 40 years of my life as a newspaperman, working for five papers in California, then for a Washington bureau and then 26 years for The Washington Post. I started out writing sports stories and filled in as a general assignment reporter. In my 1977 book, Reporting: An Inside View, I used an old-fashioned definition of a general assignment reporter as “a person who knows something about everything and nothing about anything.”
Over the years, I covered the police beat, courts, school boards, local and county government, a middleweight championship fight, the State Legislature, Congress, the presidency, and briefly, the war in Vietnam. As Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post, I covered earthquakes, fires, floods, riots, and the several trials arising from the beating of Rodney King. I wasn’t very good at first. To paraphrase Eric Severeid, an iconic broadcast journalist, I practiced on my readers. Over time, I did better. But I was fortunate at every step of the way to have editors and mentors and role models. Those of us who write need editors, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some good ones. My reporting book was dedicated to fifteen journalists who had helped and inspired me. Most of them are gone now, but if I were to write the book today, I could easily double the number of names in the dedication. None of us is an island. We are all, in the familiar words of the poet, part of the main. We all need help. The bell tolls for all of us.
Tonight I’m going to share a few stories and insights drawn from my reporting book and from comments a few years ago to prospective reporters in one of Annie Bardach’s classes at UCSB.
A man named Gene Fowler was one of the great reporters in the early 20th century, or any century. Fowler worked for a paper named the Denver Republican. He had committed a minor indiscretion to impress a young woman. His editor, a man named Josiah Ward, lectured Fowler. He said, “I want to tell you what a newspaper means. It’s a serious, sacred business. The least smell of corruption, fear, or favoritism must not creep into its news columns. Avoid even the appearance of evil. Never do anyone a favor that might compromise the newspaper you are connected with. To get the news you may kill, steal, burn, or lie, but never sell out your paper in thought or deed. A newspaper doesn’t belong to the men who run it or those who own the plant. The press belongs to the public, to the people.”
Well, it’s important for reporters to disassociate themselves from Mr. Ward in several respects. It is NOT permissible to kill, steal, or burn to get the news. Most of the time, it’s also not permissible to lie. And the rest of Mr. Ward’s little sermon was misplaced. Fowler’s big story, which was about how Colorado’s powerful business interests had browbeaten a compliant governor into calling out the National Guard to break a miner’s strike, was suppressed. The Denver Republican belonged to the man who owned it, not the people. It soon went out of business, which was no great loss. But, as we would say today, Josiah Ward understood the big picture right. Reporting the news really is serious, sacred business.
Another hero of mine went at this in a different way. A.J. Liebling, who wrote so many wonderful stories for The New Yorker, said: Facts are precious. Facts are precious, and opinions are cheap. And getting the facts is the essence of reporters do. Now Liebling had opinions about everything under the sun. He was making a point. The point he was making was that to be a good reporter one must put those opinions aside and try to find out what happened. This isn’t easy, as any reporter can attest.
All of us have opinions. Our attitudes and our world view are shaped by our parents, our country, our schools, our colleagues, our political and social alliances and, if we have them, our military experiences. They are shaped by friends and enemies and by our religious beliefs, our race, our gender, our culture, and our region. So the notion that anyone can be the kind of reporter Liebling and Josiah Ward had in mind, is an act of faith. It is an affirmation in the value of reporting and in the preciousness of facts. It is an affirmation that we can, through professionalism and hard work, transcend our various biases and informs our readers.
This is sacred business, all right. Rare, too. We have no shortage of folks who can argue the case for or against the war in Iraq, for or against abortion, for or against the death penalty. We are not lacking in opinions on the budget deficit, Medicare, campaign financing, or the wisdom of putting parking meters on the village green. But the numbers of people who care enough about the facts to become reporters—who want to give people information on which they can base decisions rather than tell them how to think—are few. I was a syndicated columnist for many years. I’ve done my share of editing. I’ve written eight books. But what matters most to me is that I’m a reporter who believes, with Liebling, in the persuasiveness of the facts. And that’s why I so admire the editors and columnist and reporter who quit and risked their livelihoods rather than suppress the facts.
In my letter to the editor to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which many of you read in the Independent after the News-Press declined to print it, I wrote about the courage of Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, and of Dean Lesher, the publisher of the Merced Sun-Star, both of whom risked advertising dollars and in Mrs. Grahams’ case much worse to preserve the editorial independence of their news rooms. But these were exceptional actions. There are many, many times—too many times—when newspapers have suppressed legitimate news stories because the publishers were biased or afraid or ignorant. I have a searing personal memory of one such incident, when I worked for the San Jose Mercury-News in 1969.
At that time the newspaper’s excellent political editor, Harry Farrell, and I spent several weeks working on a series we called “The Secret Life of Richard Dolwig.” It detailed, with an abundance of facts, various conflicts and corruptions of a San Mateo county senator who was a power in the Legislature. The publisher, Joseph B. Ridder, did not dispute any of our findings. But he was a Republican who didn’t want to expose a prominent senator of his party, and he told Farrell to kill the series. There wasn’t anything we could do, although the story had for us something of a happy ending. Five years later Dolwig was indicted in Hawaii for conspiracy and racketeering and mail fraud and sentenced to prison. Harry Farrell sent me the banner headline on the story in the Mercury-News and wrote on it: “Poor Dick. If our story had run, he’d be out by now!”
I recall this story tonight to point out the courage of the magnificent nine who quit the News-Press. I was furious when Joe Ridder spiked our series, but I had four kids and a good job and didn’t quit. Neither did Harry, who had worked at the paper for a long time and whose wife was very ill. I rationalized that this had never happened to me before—indeed, Joe Ridder gave me enormous leeway to write whatever I chose about his favorite politicians—but the truth was that I wasn’t willing to give up a very good job on a matter of principle. These nine people did, and it is the right principle. Facts are precious things.
By rights this speech ought to end on this note but I want to make an additional point. All of you need to know that it isn’t going to be easy to make a change in the newspaper situation in Santa Barbara. As my friend Marty Nolan of the Boston Globe says, starting a newspaper is five times more difficult and ten times more expensive than anyone thinks it is. So for those of you who want to make a change, I say to you that it’s going to be a long fight. Newspapers, for all these difficulties, are profitable enterprises, and the only way to have an economic impact on a publisher is the indirect one of canceling subscriptions. If circulation declines, so does advertising revenue, which is based on circulation. Do enough people in Santa Barbara care about honest news to mount a long-term campaign? I hope so because to repeat myself about Jerry and Barney and Scott Hadly and the others:
Their fight is our fight.
Thank you very much.