Setting the Testbed for Journalistic Values

by Peter C. Goldmark Jr.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
International Herald Tribune

Prepared for the Fourth Annual Aspen Institute
Conference on Journalism and Society

Creating Value, Preserving Values:
Challenges for Journalism in the 21st Century

Aspen, Colorado    August 23-25, 2000



I have watched the discussion in the United States about whether our journalistic values are decaying.  I have watched it from the United States.  And I have watched it for the past two years from Europe, from a perspective that is not essentially European, but simply that of an American based outside the United States.

This is an important debate.  It is becoming, also, an old debate.  As the line from that wonderful old song in that wonderful old movie goes, “the fundamental things apply.”  The American tradition of journalistic standards and independence is a strong one, a remarkable and a wonderful one.  The second half of the twentieth century - from the slow arousal in the face of McCarthyism in the 1950's, through civil rights and Vietnam, to the series of crises and political scandals carrying the suffix “-Gate” and to the end of the 1990's - will emerge clearly as a grand, long, and strong run in that tradition.

The tradition that the second half of the twentieth century exemplifies so well is a remarkable tradition.  The role of America in the world and the prominence of her press in her political struggles and evolution have kept the spotlight sharply focused on the American code of journalistic values.  Although it is by no means an exclusively American tradition, it is strongest here, most acknowledged here, most clearly and firmly anchored in our governing constitution and beliefs, more staunchly and systematically defended by the judicial branch of government here.
Yet even here in America it is fragile - more fragile than we understand.   Truly independent journalism is relatively new in human history.  Many of the traditions of democratic theory and governmental institutions trace their origins back several millennia to the classical period.  But the tradition of an independent press does not find its roots there.  It is much, much newer, and this has made the whole adventure both much more exciting and much more precarious.  How old is it at most - on and off for a couple of hundred years or less?

It is also a very vulnerable tradition, as we are fated to discover again and again.  During the 1990's we experienced the euphoria of seeing dictatorships around the world cede or crumble, from Prague to Pretoria, from Santiago to Seoul.  And now for many of those very same countries in whose transition to new democratic forms we rejoiced, the future of a free press is in doubt.  And in some cases the forces that today cast shadows of threat and intolerance over the exercise of an independent press are the same forces that a few short years ago led the opposition to prior tyranny.  For human beings power is a fascinating, addictive and somewhat hallucinatory elixir, and most seem happiest to praise the virtues of an independent press when they are in the opposition.  The fundamental things apply.

One of the most important functions performed by the independent press is to chronicle the travails of the press itself in these new democracies.  This reporting is undertaken, in fact, largely by the written press, not by TV or the new media.  But it is a vital and important function.  The future of democracy in those countries is centrally linked to the fate of the independent press.

Do you think I exaggerate?

Think a minute.  Can anyone here name a democracy that has long survived without an independent press?   The fundamental things apply.

The debate in which we have all been both witnesses and participants, has been about whether traditional journalistic values are in decline, are being abandoned, are being compromised; about whether we are losing something valuable and special that we once had, or whether mutatis mutandis the tradition of independent, high-quality, relevant journalism continues to operate effectively in our land.

I have read the three Catto talks that precede the one you are good enough to listen to today.  Two were given by individuals I know and respect enormously - Robin MacNeil and Max Frankel.  The third was given by a man I do not know, but whose ability to influence for better or worse the issues under debate is greater than that of all the others combined - Gerald Levin.   I am not sure any of us knows enough about where all this is going to be standing up here trying to tell you.  But like them, I am not afraid to try.

. . . .

I learn from these past Catto talks that there is much to worry about in terms of the strength of independent journalism.  And I learn at the same time that the tradition is alive, evolving, and strong enough to engender and sustain strong criticism.

What are the basic ingredients of this tradition of an independent news function in our society?:
 


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I believe there is a special characteristic of this period in which you and I live, and I believe it is this: for the first time in history the human race is faced with a set of ultimata.

What is an ultimatum?  An ultimatum is a challenge, a threat, an adverse condition to which you must respond effectively, or else there will be serious negative consequences.  I will mention only two of these ultimata, ones on which we can probably agree fairly easily.  The first is the threat of weapons of mass destruction, whether delivered by missile by a foreign power, or delivered in a truck or in a jar by a terrorist.  And the second is the deterioration of the planet’s ecosystems brought on by the pace and extent of human economic activity.  The special characteristic of our period, then, is this: for the first time in human history we encounter - indeed we have helped to create - forces and threats which if not dealt with effectively can dramatically and adversely change the entire quality of life on this planet and the prospects of the human adventure itself.  That has never been true before.

I have stated the adventure in intellectual terms.  Is this too abstract for you?  Let me try it in more human terms . . .

Can you hear it?

Behind the gentle sounds of Aspen in August, can you hear the sound of the Earth’s drama?  Can you hear the hissing wind as it whistles across thousands of acres of sand and waste that used to be part of the Aral Sea?

Beyond this summer afternoon in Colorado, beyond the beautiful evening light, the breeze, the mountains and skyscapes of this stunning countryside – are you able to discern the images of the passion play in which we find ourselves?

Can you see it?

Can you see the Irani diplomats and government agents striding purposefully, in neat dark suits, through customs, getting their passports stamped, as they fan out across the world to acquire the components of a nuclear arsenal?  Can you see the children of El Guasmo?  El Guasmo is a slum in Guayaquil in Ecuador, a poor country …allowed to go bankrupt … we bailed out Lockheed, Chrysler,  New York City, some of Asia, Russia several times over … but not Ecuador.  Was it too poor, too little, too weak for us to save?  Can you see the children … distended stomachs leaning over water barrels?  Can you see the net resources of their poor country flowing North?  Can you imagine that?

Can you see the shadow of Japan?  It falls over every forest, every forest dweller, and every wild animal in East Asia, and over many in Latin America.

Can you see the bottom of the sea?  Most Americans have not seen pictures of the bottom of the sea.  Do you know what you see on the seabed of the world’s fisheries?  Where the dragging scoops and nets have crossed are gashes and furrows – vast, rake-like gashes and marks left by huge American and European fishing drags.  We thought the ocean, like the air, was so vast that man and all his scrapings and all his foolishness could not make a difference.  But I have seen the picture and where the draggers have been, the sea has been raped and despoiled.  It is barren – a desert at the bottom of the sea.  There is no plant.  There is no fish.  There is no life, it has been ripped out.  And then the camera turns and there’s a little triangle where the marks, the gashes of the draggers did not quite overlap –there is a little triangle, perhaps with a plant, perhaps with a fish or two left…

Can you hear all this?  Can you see all this?  Can you imagine all this?

Are we covering these stories with the attention and in the depth they deserve?  No, we are not.  There are reasons for this.

First, as with most large, ill-defined, new trends the players along the political spectrum are sufficiently confused about them to appear to require qualification, caution, and defensive presentation of offsetting views in reporting them.  What is more damning to our present journalistic performance in the case of the two ultimata I have mentioned, however, is that the relevant scientific and expert communities are far more broadly agreed than are the politicians that both trends are profound and dangerous.  There is significant difference over the time horizon over which these trends are likely to impinge visibly on our lives.  But of course within the context of human history, let alone geological time, all of this is happening in the blink of an eye.  And that is one of the things that stymies us in the press – the question of time scale.  If the threat were that an asteroid was going to hit the earth one year from today, we would know how to report that.  That is immediate enough to command intensive coverage.  The experts would be clearly divided - some would say it will hit the earth, some would say it will miss it.  As the months rolled by one group or the other would turn out to be right.  The consequences would be catastrophic, understandable and somewhat predictable.  And the mobilization of technological and governmental resources to deal with the threat would constitute a frenzied and impressive pageant.

Second, the two ultimata I have mentioned are, ironically, far more real - but they are far more difficult for humans to react to.  A time horizon of one, two, three decades is not something we have much experience in reporting on.  It is not, understandably enough, a time horizon for which any of our basic governmental institutions were designed.  And, the arena for much of this is global, not national or local,  and global news coverage is among the most expensive to mount, and among the most unsuccessful in attracting audiences.

Third, in the case of the two ultimata I have mentioned there are powerful groups who have shown themselves thus far to be disinterested in bringing attention to these problems in any realistic way.  In the case of the spread and eventual use of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by terrorists, it is the government experts.  In all the developed countries experts have undertaken analyses of these possibilities and made assessments of their potential consequences.  The picture is so grim that they and their political masters have decided not to discuss this subject, for two reasons: first, because some of them believe that to discuss it is to make it more likely - a proposition that needs to be debated; and secondly, because they see very little they can recommend to counter this threat within the context of presently acceptable political alternatives, and therefore they do not want to raise a big, messy problem for which they have no immediate answers.

Let’s pause there a moment.  Does that raise an echo for you?  Not wanting to raise a big, messy problem because we have no immediate answers?  That is what we did for a decade on the problem of AIDS.  That is what Barton Gellman laid bare this summer in his brilliant reporting in The Washington Post on the history of the AIDS crisis.  He finally told the story of the governments and other official organizations, including U.N. agencies, that for various reasons didn’t want to talk about the real measure of the problem.  One of those reasons was the fear that they didn’t have the resources or the political will to respond if they confronted it honestly. It was all discussed - the dimensions of the problem, the implications of trying to deal with it, the consequences of a worldwide epidemic.  It was all discussed, but mostly in private.  Almost all the large institutions that should have faced the AIDS problem squarely, including the United States government, flinched, ducked and looked away.  And the quality of the reporting on the AIDS problems contributed to enabling them to flinch and duck.  The reasoning that produced a mindless conspiracy of inaction and silence on the AIDS problem is exactly the kind of reasoning that now paralyzes us in regard to a whole series of problems, including the two that I have classed among the ultimata that define our moment in history.  And that story in the Post is the kind of reporting we should be getting on the set of huge problems around us.

In the case of the environment, a strange and uneasy alliance of business and government -often fierce antagonists in other arenas - simply does not want to face the scale, cost and dislocation implied by the changed models of economic production and consumption that would be required to respond seriously to environmental deterioration.

Why do I raise these two ultimata?

Because they are among the most distinguishing and fateful characteristics of the period of history in which we live and we are not reporting them very well at all.  We are not covering a big chunk of what will turn out to be most important about these years, and independence and objectivity without relevance will turn out to be a half-baked half loaf indeed.  How many among us will turn out to have been journalists who covered the emperor’s wedding rather than the young German monk who brought the Roman Catholic Church to its knees?

There is never a time in which it is so difficult to defend and apply core values as when things are going well and those values appear not to need affirmation or protection.  We are in such a period now.  Can we think clearly?  Can we bring discipline, and logic, and passion - all three - to bear on our present situation and prospects?  Or like other civilizations who have enjoyed great power, great prosperity, and great acclaim, will we fritter away these years of relative calm and economic munificence, and through weakness and inattention fail to do the hard work required to figure out where we are, where we’re going, and what we have to do to get there safely?

Listen to these words by Edward Gibbon writing about ancient Athens:

“In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.
They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all - security, comfort
 and freedom . . . When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to
 society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished
 for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”

What is our challenge?  Is it to recover the greatness of Murrow and Reston and Bradlee and Cronkite ?  What shall we do to measure up to the values of which they were such marvelous exemplars?  Shall we follow in the footsteps of the men of old, as the old dictum suggests?

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Let’s review some more of the fundamental logic.

The function of independent journalism is necessary to a democratic society.  It is an indispensable and indissoluble element of the great human adventure in self-government.  It is not a luxury or a frill.  It is essential; without it everything would change, and we would lose much of what we say we stand for, and for which we have in the past been willing to put at risk our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor.

What is food for?  Food is for the body.
What are education and learning for?  They are for the mind.
What is entertainment for?  For diversion and relaxation.
What is religion for?  It is for the soul and the spirit.
Who is the news for?  News is for the citizen.

The citizen is that dimension of each one of us that is responsible for, contributes to, and benefits from the cooperative endeavor of self-government. The citizen is the basic constituent element of the public dimension of human activity.  Without the citizen, there is no self-government, no individual basis for responsibility, choice and values; there is only the state in all its fearful, unchecked power and unaccountability.  And without the independent news function, the citizen is starved, paralyzed, neutered, rendered insensate, ineffective, robotic.

To report the distinctive challenges of our moment in history will take some changes.  It will certainly take some daring, and discipline, and tenacity.  Traditional hard news reporting is largely event-focused.  A Prime Minister is chosen; a summit meeting is held; two companies merge.  It has been considered dangerous, with good reason, to wander too far into speculation, even expert speculation, or to look too far into the uncharted future where one can easily become dependent on opinions and guesstimates and more vulnerable to manipulation.  Leave that for an occasional piece in the science pages.

But venturing into those waters is exactly what is required now, because in those waters will be found the slow-moving, scouring, currents that will carve out so irrevocably the world our children and their children after them will find.  And therefore we will have no choice but to develop techniques that will allow us to encompass the time horizons and uncertainties of these deep sea changes without either being manipulated or getting lost in conflicting or abstract expert speculation.

We are not helpless.  We have learned new techniques in the past when we had to.  We learned painfully, slowly, but eventually successfully how to report stories in the security domain where much critical information was unavailable, classified, or easily manipulated by the institutions that controlled it.  That, after all, is our craft isn’t it - to take the realities as they present themselves, and to find ways to report them out consistent with the values that guide us?    Even when it hasn’t been done before.  The fundamental things apply.

What does this add up to?

Here’s what I make of it, in its simplest form.

We are the heirs to a wonderful and rare legacy, the tradition of tough, independent, uncompromising journalism.  The vital functioning of this tradition is an indispensable fuel of a free society; it is the oxygen of the civic metabolism that animates the human adventure in self-government.  It is not a function that can evolve easily and be supported totally by the operation of short-term market forces, although we must note that the bastions of the best journalism in our society today are commercially viable companies that have known shrewdly when to sacrifice short-term commercial profit for journalistic values, and how to profit commercially from the long-term practice of good journalism.  It is not a function that can be kept alive by the public sector.  It is a sector of our society that is accountable to everyone - except to government, and that exception is fundamental.

Are the strong journalistic values that flourished in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States still alive and vital?  Yes.  Are they  at the same time, paradoxically, under threat from changed economic circumstance, new technologies, and new audience dynamics that include larger numbers, greater individual choice, new technologies, and shifting relationships with advertisers?  Yes, yes, and yes.  What is our task?  Part of our task is of course to be conscious of our legacy.  John Ruskin tells us why:

“No nation ever had, or will have, the power of suddenly developing,
   under the pressure of necessity, faculties it had neglected when it was
   at ease; nor of teaching itself, in poverty, the skill to produce what it
   has never, in opulence, had the sense to admire.”

But we must not confuse understanding the power and value of our legacy with the real test that is before us.  The real test is to harness that legacy and apply those values to the particular challenges of our moment in history.  And they are long-term secular trends in the use of technology, particularly for destructive purposes, and in the impact of the Western pattern of economic production and popular consumption that dominates the globe and is damaging at an accelerating rate the fragile biosphere in which and from which it originally arose.

These trends pose ultimata to us because we will eventually find life as we know and enjoy it today unsustainable if we are not successful in comprehending and then modifying our collective behavior.  That will require, one way or another, collaborative action on a global scale - a totally new stage in the adventure in self-government.  And that cannot happen and will not happen without the indispensable fuel, the critical catalyst of independent journalism.  Simply by saying what I have just said - a thought you have heard before, and a thought from which too many of us have learned to turn away because it is seems so daunting, so unwieldy, so discouraging, sometimes so idealistic and often so paralyzing - simply by saying or hearing what I have just said we sense the immense scope of this task, and the extraordinary rigor that will be required in the face of this challenge.

Can we face it? Can we do it?  I do not know, and you do not know.  But what we both know is this: that we certainly will not do it unless we try, with focus, with clarity, with generosity of spirit, with discipline in thought and action.  Go back through history, and you will find what each of you has already learned in whatever domain or enterprise you are personally engaged: that in every difficult, apparently improbable endeavor, in every triumph over the apparent odds, focus and tenacity have played central roles.  But even with focus and tenacity; even if we are fortunate enough to have skilled leadership; even if we add to the recipe a measure of good luck, which we shall surely need - even then, that  will not be enough.  It will only be possible if we put into the mix as well the operation of a vital and robust independent journalistic function.

Our job then - yours, mine, of all those who belong to this wonderful tradition, all those who claim the mantle of independent reporting, all those who are willing to brave the anger of governments and to risk the pressure, the calumny and worse that private corporations can bring to bear on an individual reporter or news organization when it feels its commercial interests are threatened - the job of all of us is to devise the new techniques, to forge the new tools, to learn the new patterns of thought required to report the really big, really fundamental stories of the next few decades.  It will require new techniques and tools because in many cases those stories will involve unfolding trends that are at first obscure, then denied or dismissed by governments and private business.  They will involve forces about which experts - some legitimate, some who are “for hire” and have been purchased - will differ.  And these forces and trends will represent dangers and pressures operating in more cumulative fashion over a longer term than those for which the reporting techniques of the past were adapted.

It is in doing this that we shall be judged, and that we should be judged.  The questions will be asked: did they see and get on the biggest stories of their day?  Unlike AIDS, whose basic dimensions they essentially missed for over a decade, did they see the other stories emerging and really dig into them, really take them apart, despite the resistance of many governments and some corporations?   Did they get inside and expose what governments did not want them to expose about the danger of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction in our cities?  Did they find ways to tell the story of dying fisheries, the story of threatened food supplies, the story of the progressive diminution in the quality and availability of potable water around the world?  Were they able to get inside the ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ zone that many corporations have erected around their own activities in this regard?  Did they find a way to add these pieces up into the macro story, the story of the gradual but accelerating exhaustion of the earth’s capital and resilience?  Did they find the techniques to do that and still respect the limits and principles of reasonable scientific judgment?
 

Who is they?
“They” is we.
Are these big stories?
Absolutely.
Are we perhaps already doing the job on these stories now, as I sometimes hear?

No, we are not.  What we do now is produce episodic pieces, or one-off analyses of these subjects.  Some are quite good; many are not.  But good, mainline journalism is about the big patterns, the big consequences.  They help frame the terms of public debate and they leave behind benchmarks against which future actions and utterances by public leaders are measured, and we are not doing that now.  We are not covering the real movement of the tectonic plates in the landscape around us.  To put it another way that may be helpful historically, our coverage of these issues today has about as much to do with the actual unfolding of these historical ultimata as the coverage of European politics and military affairs in the first years of the twentieth century had to do with the unfolding reality of the First World War.

If you disagree with me, then do this.  Go back and read Barton Gellman’s piece on AIDS this summer in The Washington Post.  What I am saying is this: every broad conclusion that Gellman’s piece draws fifteen years after the start of the epidemic, could have been drawn in the late 1980's and early 1990's.  Gellman’s words are dramatic and harsh.  He writes:

“ . . . for a decade the world knew the dimensions of the coming
catastrophe. . . Individually and collectively, most of those with power
 decided not to act.

“How and why they made their choices is a story of authentic doubts
for a time, because the disease concealed itself in years of latency and
 layers of social taboo.  It is also a story, by turns, of willful ignorance
 and paralysis in the face of growing proof . .

“At nearly every level, the process featured what some participants see
as shameful ‘demand management’: a reluctance to act for fear of
prompting further claims on time and money.”

Is that a big story?  It is.  It is the story of a new kind of globalized coverup born of laziness, lack of willingness to face and think through evidence, and the desire to sidestep unpleasant political consequences.  In terms of our future on this planet it is emblematic of the kind of coverup we have to fear the most.

And now you see why I have chosen the AIDS example and this marvelous piece of reporting to make my point.  Because it was a long, slowly developing story.  Because many people knew, or judged it very likely, that what would in fact eventually unfold was a plague-like pandemic that could have been countered and limited by early, concerted action.  Because the weight and the common logic of this expert opinion was ignored or suppressed by official bodies, both national and international, and was discoverable by the press.  But it was not in the actual event discovered and explored by the press.

As we see over and over in human affairs, the signs are there; they always are, aren’t they?  The examples are there.  Even the early prototypes of challenge and dilemma are there.  That is what the AIDS story is - an early prototype of the kind of story that will be central to the human experience of the first half of the twenty-first century.

I often think that the most fitting epigram for our new century was written by one of the great writers of the last century, Samuel Beckett.  He told us:

  “Everything will turn out all right . . . unless something foreseen crops up.”

Shall we seek then to emulate the behavior of the great reporters and editors who created the twentieth century tradition of journalism?

The fundamental things apply.

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Two issues recur in this debate about journalism:  technology and gigantism.

Let’s take the challenge of technology first.

Will technology change journalism, its practice, its modes, its venues?  Will technology change fundamentally the relationships between journalism’s producers and consumers?  Will it change the connection of citizens to the public process, in which it is the principal intermediary?

Yes.  It always has, and it will again this time, in this technological revolution.  We may indeed have entered what was once called, in another domain and in another time, the “permanent revolution”.

These changes and the issues they raise are terribly important.  But they will compound, not supplant, the issues we are wrestling with in terms of the fundamental values of journalism and their application to the challenges of our moment in history.  And as has been the case with most technological revolutions in the past, it will be blindingly obvious to many that big changes are afoot, and frustratingly indecipherable to most what the consequences and impact of these important changes will be.  I do not dismiss the importance of the discussion, and I certainly do not underestimate the importance of the changes.  On the contrary, I worry about them, and like most of you encourage discussion and thoughtfulness about them.  But I also think that the best preparation for them is to be clear about the values that underlie our system of independent journalism and guide its interaction with public and private centers of power, and to apply those values to the truly big global stories staring us in the face.

In that task reporting skills, commitment, ingenuity and bravery will get those stories to the citizens through one medium or another, new or old.  Or, looked at from another angle: we don’t know which new technologies will dominate.  Some are here - we have PDA’s and WAP’s.  More are on their way - new TFT’s and oLED’s that may make foldable electronic sheets of paper feasible.  And what about audio?  Are you willing to bet me that five years from now you won’t be able to personalize your own news offering verbally, by speaking into your mobile telephone lapel mike - and have the articles you select read to you as you drive or walk?

Don’t bet against that.  Want to know why?  Here’s Damon Runyon telling you why:

 “Some day, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice, brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear.  But son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.”

And what about corporate gigantism?

Here I part company with many of my friends.

I know big corporations can be soulless, greedy, and destructive.  So can small corporations.  So can news organizations and all manner of other organizations, including non-profits and religious groups.

But in a world where avenues of communication are multiplying, where censorship and control of news by the state in general is declining, and where technology is lowering the entry barriers to the communications field, I have trouble pointing to the single characteristic of size alone and saying that this is a mortal danger to good journalism.  I think an understanding of the role of good journalism in our society and fidelity to its core values as a public trust will be more important to our future than trying to limit our news organizations exclusively to corporate homes that are modest in size.

Put it another way: every CEO understands that they have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders.  In terms of journalism, I put more faith in corporate leadership that understands that they have an equally solemn fiduciary obligation arising from their ownership of a news organization; that they hold a public trust that is a vital component of a free society.  I put more faith in that than I do in whether the corporation is big or small.

That said, what can we do to cement the value of the journalistic enterprise within these huge corporate empires where some of them are now located?  What can we do to make sure this rare and fragile generator of illumination for the citizen and oxygen for the public arena remains healthy within the vast, temperature-controlled, caverns of the lumbering multinationals?

I have four suggestions.  They are all relatively easy to do.  They are all implementable by the decision of a single CEO acting imaginatively and with foresight.  The problem is they all presuppose the commitment to independent journalism that they are meant to further.

And they all have to do with process.  But here I am on solid ground.  John Dingell, that wily Congressman who has struck fear into the hearts of corporate giants, was once quoted as saying:  ‘you decide the substance and I’ll decide the process, and I’ll beat you every time.’
 


Sometimes difficult choices would flow from it – and that is part of the point.  If the values we are talking about today are present in a unit of the corporation you lead, then you are a custodian of that value.  You may not have sought it, you may not even enjoy it.  But you have it.  I and millions of Americans and probably even your own children want those values preserved and kept alive, even if we chafe under their expression from time to time.  Do this then – it is an institutional and procedural step to reflect the value of those values in relation to everything we strive to be at our best.
 


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I believe we are embarked now on by far the most fateful chapter in the drama of our self-stewardship on this planet.  The consequences of our military endeavors, ethnic hatreds, destructive spasms and persistent spoliation of the biofilm in which we live can no longer be ignored as the unfortunate but tolerable corollaries of ‘the pursuit of politics by other means’, or shrugged off as the waste byproducts of a dynamic and productive economic system.  For centuries we have been able to run from or ignore the more harmful results of the human experiment upon this planet.  But there is no longer any place to run to.  The weapons are vastly more destructive, almost unimaginably so.  They and their electronic control systems are miniaturized and mobile, and they are getting into many more hands.  And on this beautiful blue-green planet, entire ecosystems teeter, in ways we are only beginning to understand or measure, along the path of deterioration: first-growth forests; coral reef systems; water tables; the three great plains that support the largest grain-producing systems, among others.

This complicated and disorienting transition is daunting, not yet well understood in some of its dimensions.  Because we are at peace and riding a wave of stupendous economic prosperity, we too often accept the categories of the previous moment in history rather than seek out the new ones.  We squeeze our definition of political issues into the confines of four-year presidential terms.  We cover fast disasters like the crash of the Concorde, the Kursk, or the flooding on the Indian sub-continent, but not the slow disasters like the falling of water tables or the development of cyberwar capacities.  Who is building the hunter-killer computers?  Who is selling Iraq centrifuges?   Who is suffering because the first of the world’s fisheries is collapsing?

The theater of new dangers and challenges is complicated and it is global.  It is fascinating to some, numbing too others, discouraging to many.  But however daunting or unfathomable you may find it, remember that compared to other transitions humans have faced in the past, two things are fundamentally different: the stakes this time are dramatically higher; and believe it or not, with all our shortcomings and ignorance we know more about the transition we must accomplish this time than most generations in the past have known about the changes and dilemmas they faced.

I am an unreconstructed creature of the public space, the shared arena where we forge our values and in applying them write our destiny and reveal through the history of our actions what we really care about.  And I believe that the most critical decisions about our future, the decisions or failures to act that shape the world our children will inherit, will be made in the public arena, in our capacity as citizens.  I do not believe they are preordained by fate.  I do not believe they will determined by forces over which we have no control.  I certainly do not believe that they will be made by the market.  I believe the most important responsibilities will be assumed or abdicated by us in our capacity as citizens.  And I believe that as citizens we will be deeply, perhaps decisively, influenced by the quality of news available to us regardless of the medium by which this news is accessed.  And therefore I believe we must have a strong, powerful, luminously independent news function, to provide oxygen for the citizen, to allow the citizen to breathe and reflect and act, and to measure and challenge those who would claim the right to steer the frail vessel in which we must make the difficult crossing before us.

Is our most important task to model ourselves on the journalistic giants of the past fifty years, who acquitted themselves so well in the discharge of the responsibilities they faced?

I believe it is proper to ask that question, and to ask:  can we keep alive the journalistic values that we have inherited?  Can we live up to the high standards of those who have applied those values before us?  But I believe the fullest answer to those questions is less likely to be found in debating incessantly exactly what those values were, and to what degree and in what respects they are thriving or attenuating.  I think the answers are more likely to be found in the hard work of applying those values in practice to the distinctive contemporary tasks we face.  That is how we will be judged by those who two decades from now write the history of the press today.  That is how we should be judged.  That is how we shall be judged - by how well we apply to the challenges and circumstances of our own moment the values and traditions we have received and learned to hold dear from those who have gone before and who, in the crucible of their own crises, learned to apply them to their own circumstances.

Shall we seek to duplicate the feats of those in our profession who have gone before?

No.

The answer lies in a Chinese proverb: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the men of old.  Seek instead what they sought.”

The fundamental things apply.
As time goes by.

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