1997 Batten Awards Speech
The Challenge Is To Reclaim Our Moral Authority
How Do We Know What We Know?
Editor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The movie, Il Postino or The Postman, tells the story of a postal carrier in a little fishing village who falls into the orbit of the poet Pablo Neruda. The whole community falls into Pablo Neruda's sway. And there's this scene in the movie where everyone is so excited because the newspaper has chosen to write about Pablo Neruda's time in this small village in Italy.
So they tear open the paper and they read it furiously only to discover they're not in the story. This is a story about Pablo Neruda in a quaint fishing town; it's not about the people in the community. And they're puzzled that someone who is so central to their lives is not in turn seen as being part of their community, and that they're not seen in that story.
This puzzlement says a good deal about the state of journalism. Lots and lots of people pick up the newspaper and do not see their stories being told.
There is considerable discussion about taking credibility and making it the primary focus for the newspaper industry in the next two or three years. I think that's fine and well-intended, but not enough. I think the challenge before us now is not simply to rebuild, or repolish, or refashion, or reshape, or reset our credibility. Rather, the challenge is to reclaim our moral authority.
I'm going to propose three things that we ought to do to reclaim that moral authority.
First, we need to complete the circle of news. The story from Il Postino is about an incomplete circle of news. People wanted to read about themselves in that newspaper, not because they didn't know about themselves but because they had stories they wanted to tell to the broader community . . .
Leah Hager Cohen is a writer who's written a book, Glass, Paper, Beans, Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things. And she tells a powerful story about the circle of news: "Some Native American tribes had ceremonial runners who literally spent each spring and fall running from community to community, circulating news of deaths and births, of food supply and weather conditions, tribal councils and treaties. Why were they called ceremonial runners when the purpose they filled was so plainly practical? It was practical, but it also satisfied a more spiritual craving.
"In the middle of the 19th century, the last surviving ceremonial runner of the Fox Nation in the Midwest is said to have warned his people about what life would be like without him. "You will have no one," he cautioned, "who will go about telling anything that happened to you." In this he made clear what we each already know to be true, that the issuance of information about ourselves is at least as dear to us as is learning the news of others.
"News has always been a circle since the days it revolved around us as we gathered water from the well, and we are drawn to that circle still in our longing to give as well as to receive."
We know that the circle of news does not include women the way it should, does not include minorities. Even more astounding, it doesn't include citizens . . . you do not see in news reports ordinary citizens going about the task of deliberating and making decisions and improving their lots in life. They're not included in the circle of news.
Worse yet, there's increasing evidence that newspapers as companies are falling into the seductive trap of thinking more highly of demographics than of democracy, of continuing to segment our audiences in smaller pies so that people are no longer talking to each other, seeing each other, hearing each other's stories in their newspapers.
Second, we need to help people pay attention in order to solve problems. For too long our standard of news has been novelty; what's new or different or unusual or deviant, and not in fact information that helps people solve problems . . . David Shenk's new book, Data Smog, Surviving the Information Glut, makes the point that it's no longer about novelty, it's no longer about generating information or finding things out, or being a hunter-gatherer of information. Rather he uses a wonderful phrase, we are now in an era in which people value data gardening. We need to help people take the information that they already have access to, and fertilize it, and develop it so they can begin to really pick some bouquets, and pick some things that they can eat; help people understand the meaning of what's happening in the world rather than simply telling them: "Here's the latest bulletin."
So we have to make sure that we are thinking about our readers as . . . an engaged public and not merely a persuaded audience. An engaged public that takes responsibility for what's going on in the community, not simply people who are waiting to be sold on some agenda by political figures, business leaders, or the newspaper's editorial page.
The third point is that we need to embrace constructive thinking. [In April] at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Edward de Bono was part of a fascinating panel on thinking and creativity. He made the point that in Western thought we have honed very well the notion of critical thinking in which we describe something and look for its flaws. The theory being, if we identify the flaws and eliminate them, life gets better, ideas get better, proposals get better.
He says the problem with that is, it's like saying, ah-ha, I see a flaw in the car. There are no tires; you add tires. But if you also have no gasoline, you haven't thought of a way to move forward. He talks instead about constructive thinking, which is not merely describing or analyzing what is, but thinking about what can be.
Let me suggest an example. We ought to think about what can be in terms of power. Right now our dominant view of power is that it's a zero sum game. If President Clinton has it, Newt Gingrich doesn't. But lots of people have argued that power can expand; the more people who have power, the more power there is, and it doesn't have to contract. That's a new way of looking at power.
Or we can look at power the way that Amy Guttman and Dennis Thompson do in their new book, Democracy and Disagreement, in which they say politics ought not be about shifts in power. It ought to be about changing people's minds. Which template do we use in writing about Washington? We tend to follow shifts in power. We don't tend to write about changing people's minds and how that's done. So I think there's a lot of opportunity for us to do that.
Those are three things that I think will help us reclaim the moral authority that we're losing because we are driven by too much emphasis on news as novelty, news as celebrityhood, news as conflict, news as distributions of power rather than increases in it.
In the next several months I hope that we do three things at the Post-Dispatch that I would propose other newsrooms think about.
First, we need to create an open culture; a culture that is open to each other in listening to one another, is open to women and minorities, is open to citizens coming in to talk to us, is open to ideas and conceptions and even the language of other disciplines and professions, is open to new thoughts and new ways of doing business.
Secondly, we need to create a community within the newsroom. A community in which people know what's going on within the newspaper itself and take responsibility for it, in which people help each other and hold each other accountable, in which people are concerned as much about their responsibilities to each other as they are about their rights from management.
Finally, we need to constantly ask ourselves, how do we know what we know?
I think it's time for editors and senior journalists who really care about our profession and care about society to embrace this as a challenge. To constantly stop and ask ourselves: how do we know what we know? Not only how valid is the data or how credible is the data, but how valid and credible are the frames that we use to explain the data to ourselves, to understand the data?
Our newest Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, in his poem, "An Explanation of America," has a powerful question: "Where shall we throw our courage?" That's the question before us. Our industry has been afraid for far too long. It's time to stop being afraid and to embrace the challenges before us with courage.
It's time for journalists to be activists. Not in their communities, but in their professions. It's time for us to be courageous, to embrace these challenges, and think in new ways, and act in new patterns.
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