70th Anniversary Convocation Weekend

The Press and the Presidency

November 8, 2008
Cambridge, Mass.

Introduction by Bob Giles, Curator of the Nieman Foundation:

Ellen Fitzpatrick is the Carpenter Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of New Hampshire. This year, she is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study working on a book that examines how war, race, justice, and competing visions of America as a nation shape the dynamics and outcomes of the 1968 election as well as the American landscape over the four decades since that perhaps ended last Tuesday.  Fitzpatrick was a member of the first graduating class from Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts and later received her Ph.D. from Brandeis.  Her work as an author, historian and commentator embraces journalism among many other subjects.  Her book, Muckraking: Three Landmark Articles is built around three famous muckraking articles by Lincoln Stephens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker that were published in McClure's Magazine in January 1903 which was the most prominent muckraker journal of its day.
She is the author and editor of several other books including History's Memory: Writing America's Past, The Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform, and a textbook coauthored with Alan Brinkley, America in Modern Times, since 1890.  In her most recent appearance as an analyst on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Fitzpatrick explained the nature of elections and the reality that things could change in the final days. "It's interesting," she said, "the way that we think it's going to go.  When you're in the situation, it's just very, very hard to tell until the final moment.  You know, Abraham Lincoln once said that the strife of an election really reflects the fact that human nature is being applied to the facts of the case.  You have wise and silly people, you have good and bad people.  You have people with weaknesses and people with strengths.  And when we're in this playing field, really anything can happen."

It is a great honor to be here with you tonight to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Nieman Foundation. As a student of American history, I do so with a keen awareness and an even deeper appreciation for the extraordinary contributions journalists have made to preserving the democratic ideals of this country. The remarkable achievements of the men and women who have participated in the Nieman Fellowship program refract a bright light — one that bends back to our earliest days as a nation when printer — journalists during the American Revolution captured and disseminated the Enlightenment ideals of a new generation.

“To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses,” James Madison wrote in 1800, “the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Without the press, might the United States “not, possibly, be,” Madison asked then, “miserable colonies, groaning under a foreign yoke?” Madison himself seemed certain enough of the answer. The press had provided to the “United States...much of the light[s] which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation.”

It is true that Madison offered this ringing defense of the press before he became President of the United States. He was moved to do so by Congress’s enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Passed in the midst of escalating war fears and federalist efforts to consolidate power, the Sedition Acts made it a crime for anyone to “print, utter, or publish… any false, scandalous and malicious writing” aimed at the government of the United States. Under its provisions, to “defame,” “bring into contempt or disrepute” or to “excite the hatred of the people of the United States” against either house of Congress, or the President was to commit a serious crime, punishable by two years in prison and a very large fine. Can you imagine if the Sedition Acts had been enforced during the last campaign? Our jails would be overflowing with journalists and politicians, bloggers and pundits, television anchors and talk show hosts — a Nixon Era dream!

Madison, on the other hand, took a more admirable stance. He viewed this law — and indeed, any such effort to curb the power of the press as totally unjustifiable. And he maintained that position even as a wartime President beset with unrelenting domestic opposition and public criticism so harsh that cool observers saw it as bordering on treason.

It is fitting to revisit these distant days in Revolutionary America as we look ahead to a new Presidency and new challenges for the press. The American people have elected Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th President. Their reasons for doing so are various. But in so doing, they have addressed a fundamental moral contradiction that has run like a fault line through the entirety of our American history. The founders of this country embraced ideals of liberty and equality with a daring that is almost unimaginable, given the eighteenth century world they inhabited. And with a genius that continues to astonish us over two centuries later, they created a framework for democratic government that has permitted this nation to grow, thrive and endure through historical challenges they could never have anticipated. In rejecting the tyranny of imperial rule, the Revolutionary generation insisted in their rhetoric that they would not live as slaves. And yet, they permitted the real institution of slavery to endure in the new Republic they crafted.

Slavery poisoned, as Bernard Bailyn has observed, “the moral foundation of the nation.” It left the new nation with a terrible contradiction at its very core — a belief in rights and principles that were systematically denied to African Americans, even after the Civil War had come to its bloody conclusion and new constitutional amendments were ratified to safeguard the rights of the freedmen. Within a few tragic years, the force of those rights was nullified for millions by insidious new legal instruments as the edifice of segregation was constructed. And our country headed down a still longer, torturous road marked by violence, inhumanity, and repression that cannot and should not ever be expunged from our collective historical memory. Now Americans have elected their first African American President and in so doing they have crossed the threshold of history.

But what makes this such a moving and momentous achievement is not the attainment of another notable first — first woman astronaut, first African American on the Supreme Court. Rather, it is the historical realities that preceded this election and that run through the interstices of our history. Racism and inequality remain troubling realities in this society. And they will not be expunged by a presidential election. But we have put a punctuation mark, with this election, on a long chapter in American political history. For the first 230 some years of our nation, race too often served as the basis for disfranchisement, second-class citizenship and the denial of political rights and opportunities. That page of history has turned and we have witnessed the turning.

I’m reminded tonight of a speech Martin Luther King gave in December of 1955, just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott was beginning. Speaking at a mass meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church, King made the following prediction as he tried to fortify his listeners for what lay ahead. “Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people, a black people … people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.’” The history books today do indeed speak of the moral courage of civil rights activists and their contribution to the nation. That much of King’s prediction has already been fulfilled.

Today the American people again appear to be looking to inject new meaning into the veins of our history and civilization. And they have turned to a young, new President who seeks to cross a great many divides in achieving that end. Some argue that Barack Obama has been elected to the Presidency despite his race or because race no longer matters in American society, especially to those buffeted about by the current economic crisis and the lack of faith in Washington. But the pride many have expressed in seeing the nation cross a racial barrier suggests, at the very least, that along with their immediate concerns Americans possess a searching consciousness of their history.

The challenges that face this new young president, the country itself and you in the press who will tell the story of what unfolds are great. The scope of the difficulties will only become more evident in the next few months as the Bush administration packs up and exits the stage. The economic crisis alone already is evoking comparisons to the 1930s. It is sobering to recall that the Great Depression took place before we had an FDIC, a Securities and Exchange Commission and a host of other regulatory measures created during the New Deal to prevent any future such collapse of our economy.

In fact, we have arrived at our present moment after decades of criticism of New Deal activism and economic planning. And it would be richly ironic, if the times were not so desparate, to dwell on the specter of a Republican administration that rose to power in its criticism of federal intervention and planning now desperately turning to the methods it demonized to bail the nation out of the current catastrophe.

Recall, as well, that it was World War II that eventually pulled the United States out of the Great Depression. Another war will not produce a similar transformation this time around. Unlike Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt assumed leadership of a nation upon his election in 1932 that was reeling from disastrous economic conditions but at peace. President-Elect Obama faces resolution of economic problems that are global in their reach, as was true in the 1930s. But he also confronts two costly wars neither of which is likely to yield to settlement easily.

Roosevelt’s approach to the press during the Great Depression is instructive as we think ahead to the new administration. Even as FDR acted quickly to stabilize financial institutions and provide relief, he also sought cooperation from the news media. Roosevelt urged the press to cut out “the petty stuff” and get their “shoulders behind” the wheel of “national recovery.” He challenged editors and reporters to show some independence from conservative newspaper owners. They could do so, he stressed, by telling their readers both sides of the story in reporting on his New Deal initiatives. To do otherwise, Roosevelt insisted, “won’t hurt me” but “may hurt” about 125 million other people.

Obama likewise takes charge at a pivotal moment in American political history. A deeply divided electorate has given way — for how long we cannot say — to new political realities. The moment is rife with possibility. But the legacies of the past many years are with us too, including a veritable army of pugnacious political television personalities who cover the news while commenting on it relentlessly.

John F. Kennedy once noted that Presidents and those who write about politics had a mutual dependency, one that at its best could better serve the cause of freedom. What that synergy means, however, is that reversals experienced by one party cannot help but shape the other. Current changes in the news industry will undoubtedly impact the Obama presidency. For the press itself is struggling under the weight of the current economic meltdown and of transforming technological changes in the production and dissemination of information and news. Newspapers are collapsing. Declining resources and cutbacks threaten the ability of journalists to cover the news at all — never mind in the detail that has distinguished our best investigative reporting. Like many Americans, reporters fear for their livelihoods and their families. They work under unrelenting pressure and a host of added responsibilities imposed by a lengthened news cycle, the competitive need for web updates and the demands of online reporting. No wonder many mourn for a craft they have devoted their entire lives to that seems to be morphing into something distant and alien from values they revere: truth, substance, imagination, and integrity.

At the same time, Internet based news has created fresh opportunities for many more citizens to participate in political coverage as consumers and producers. Posts on a well read blog may well be more influential than the coveted and scarce Op Ed pieces that were once the Holy Grail for those seeking to sway public opinion. Web based links disseminate far beyond their immediate readership and viewing audience stories prepared by traditional print and television media — but often stripped of their context. This kind of democratization of news coverage has its pluses. But it creates pressures of enormous proportions on all concerned. In concert with a faltering economy, two wars, and the high expectations and engagement of voters, it is clear that President-Elect Obama and the press will face steep challenges. We can only hope the new administration will find a way to work with the press that does not involve the “culture of deception” pursued by other beleaguered presidents.

What lessons, then, can we extract from history, in seeking a way forward for the press as it approaches this new Presidency? First, realize that the American people have defied their own history to elect a President who has promised something that is as intangible as it is alluring — hope and change. That message was a source of ridicule from some throughout this past campaign. Yet it touched a chord among many who want to believe that things really can be different in American political life and that presidential leadership can be an instrument of profound change. The history of this country reveals plainly that such ideals are a sine qua non for profound social and political transformations– not sufficient unto themselves but necessary preconditions for deep reform.

It is imperative, I believe, that the press recognize the significance of the people’s choice and their aspirations and give the new President a chance to succeed. By no means should there be any abdication of the press’s historic responsibilities to cover, report, question and critique. We are lost without an aggressive press serving as a watchdog on our democracy.

But we are not well served, in my view, by a news business that tears down aspirations and dwells on ordinary human imperfections, errors, and vulnerabilities for no larger purpose. Very few of you got into the business to meet a base but very real appetite in our culture that dwells on human frailties. We have all been buffeted about by a public discourse over the last four decades that defaults to cynicism, emphasizes divisions, offers a platform for extremism but is fundamentally empty of ideas. Last night in a day that brought news of the United States’ highest unemployment rate in 14 years and the President-Elect’s first press conference, CNN returned repeatedly to Obama’s remark about Nancy Reagan in a way that made it the bigger news.

This leads me to a second guidepost that we can identify from the history of the press and the presidency. And that is the importance of approaching whatever administration is in power with a firm rather than floating set of ideals and beliefs, a moral imperative if you will, derived from a deep understanding of our fundamental values as a country and our national history. This was what the Washington Post did so brilliantly during the Watergate investigations. They exposed not only the President’s misdeeds but also a style of governance — the imperial presidency — that violated the constitutional constraints on the executive branch. And in so doing, they reminded the nation of who we were and what we believed.

It is a tradition that was also well embodied by the valiant muckraking reporters who were so instrumental in professionalizing the news industry in the early twentieth century. The best among the muckrakers went to incredible lengths to construct their stories. They dug deeply in obscure public records. They searched out forgotten voices in many parts of the country. But most impressively, they brought to their efforts an extraordinary awareness that history was transforming their country in ways that ill served too many.

These journalists allowed the American public the chance to see more, understand better, hold elected officials accountable, make clearer political decisions and perhaps most importantly, confront the moral responsibility that comes with having one’s eyes opened to reality. You are laudable successors to these early twentieth century reporters and have achieved far more than they could have ever dreamed was possible. But it is worth remembering the passion for truth and for justice that animated their newsgathering and informed their efforts to hold Presidents and politicians to the constitutional, moral and historical foundations of the country.

This brings me to a final conclusion that I think we can draw from looking at history. And that concerns objectivity. Muckrakers were branded sensationalists in part because their hard hitting accounts named names and revealed in often lurid detail facts that made their Victorian readership uneasy. But the best among these reporters held fast to the emerging professional standard of objectivity. They understood that the press needed to stand apart from rather than inside the reigning party and ideology. They let the facts speak for themselves and the facts they marshaled did so — powerfully.

The pressures of newsgathering, the culture of celebrity that may envelop some journalists, the seduction of closeness to power, and the passions that energize politics always hold the danger of blurring boundaries. But the public pays the price when the lines between subject and writer become too porous. Once the press is compromised, the citizens lose the astute judgment of journalists in assessing truth and reality. Witness the failures all around in the public relations campaign that predated the Iraq invasion. High placed sources seeking places to leak erroneous information about weapons of mass destruction found their marks. And the results have been far-reaching and quite literally, deadly.

The modern tendency in television news to erase the line between reportage and commentary strikes me as especially troubling. The best reporters in our history didn’t need to become personalities in their own stories — they relied on their skills as journalists to pose the tough questions, show political restraint, and let the facts they uncovered speak loudly. I am astonished today to see news anchors on the cable news channels who begin their programs with outright opinion pieces and then set their text aside to read the day’s news. Contrast this with Walter Cronkite’s decision to insert a brief commentary questioning the progress of the Vietnam War, after the Tet Offensive, into his newscast on February 27, 1968. According to opinions polls, Cronkite was then “the nation’s most trusted person.” On that memorable evening he ended his report on Vietnam with these words: “To say that we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion.” His remarks badly shook and “depressed President Johnson,” who is said to have concluded: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But what made the anchorman’s commentary so effective and bracing was its rarity.

I leave you then with no answers but these historical themes to consider as the press takes on the new administration coming to Washington. As the founders understood so well, democracy is in your hands. Use your power wisely.