An Inside View
by Lou Cannon

The Washington Post journalist speaks to the community regarding the News-Press walkout

Lou Cannon speaks out on the News-Press at a rally in Sept. 2006
Paul Wellman (file)

(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

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

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.


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