Accepting the Paul White Award
RTNDA Conference & Exhibition
New Orleans, LA
September 20, 1997
Thank you. I am humbled to be here tonight. If you hear nothing else that follows, hear this -BELIEVE it - I do not deserve this honor.
If you hear only one OTHER thing, hear THIS:
Without the inspiration and support of my wife Jean, I wouldn't deserve so much as a plate of cold mashed potatoes.
I DON'T deserve this. Few practitioners in the whole history of our craft have ever truly deserved to have their names mentioned with that of the late, great Paul White. I am not among them. And about that, I have no illusions.
"Great" is a vastly overworked word in the vocabulary of those of us who work in front of microphones and cameras. We use it too often, too loosely. Most especially when we apply it to ourselves, in our own minds.
Ego inflation is a disease of our trade, one that has grown rampant in our professional lifetimes. But "great" is an apt word in remembering Paul White.
Paul White was, in fact and on the record, the first true news DIRECTOR. As such, he led some of the greatest names in electronic journalism. Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood, now all rightly in the pantheon of electronic journalism, were all guided - and formed early in their careers - by Paul White.
Before Paul White, there was no such person, no such thing as a news director in broadcasting. Not in the sense that the title "news director" is now understood.
Paul White was, literally, the father of radio news. And he helped to father its offspring, television news. He came out of newspapering to join CBS in 1930, as news editor and director of news. In 1933, he organized the Columbia News Service when the wire services, under pressure from newspaper chains, shut out radio stations and networks.
Over time Paul White, in partnership with Ed Murrow, began molding CBS News into the gold standard for broadcast news. Murrow in front of the microphone and in the field, Paul White behind the scenes and in the front office.
Never has there been so powerful, so effective a combination of news director and on-air talent. The keys were mutual respect, and mutual dedication to excellence and integrity in the news.
Together, White and Murrow, with Bob Trout and the network's best correspondents, invented "The CBS World News Roundup," first broadcast in 1937 and still on the air over CBS Radio. The idea - innovative, even revolutionary in its day - was to bring in reporters LIVE from far corners of the globe, as the storm that became World War II began breaking loose.
The format caught on, took hold and spread. Radio AND television's daily newscasts around the world, to this day, are modeled on that breakthrough idea.
Paul White knew that World War II was brewing - not because he was a fortune-teller, but because even though he was a quote "manager," unquote, he was ALSO a go-there, be-there newsman. He traveled to Europe in 1938, and what he saw confirmed for him that war was inevitable. Thus, when Murrow and Shirer came to him, asking for more resources and air-time to cover the gathering storm, Paul White didn't argue with them or try to second-guess them. He didn't need to cite budget projections - instead, he could honestly support their news judgments, and his own.
As far as I know, it never occurred to him to do otherwise. That's the kind of news director you want to work for, the kind you want to be.
The best managers I've known in the news business still do it the same way. Not content to lock themselves behind windowless doors, they go out and scout the news themselves whenever they can. And when they CAN'T get out - they respect the news judgments of their reporters in the field. Working professionals themselves, they respect other working pros.
Paul White was a teacher as well as a working pro. He taught Murrow and the Murrow Boys, and he taught at Columbia University from 1939 to 1946. And it's worth noting that Paul White didn't merely PRACTICE high standards - he put them in a book, where he hoped that the young - students and professionals - would find them and learn from them.
And so he wrote News on the Air. For a long time it was THE definitive textbook on broadcast journalism. It influenced three generations of radio and television reporters, including the present generation - and specifically including this reporter, who devoured the book in college.
White was dedicated to making the future of radio and television as ethical and integrity-filled as possible. He had a constant eye for standards that could and would be upheld. He was determined to pass on the lessons learned from one professional generation to the next.
He was believed by his colleagues and his biographers (and perhaps even his doctors) to have worked himself to death. Perfectionism and overwork are cited as causes of his death whenever he is remembered by his contemporaries. Let us pause now, my friends, to ponder that. His was the commitment to craft that many of us joke about making - but never make.
HE loved the news so much that it killed him. Literally. He was dead at age 53. For those of you who haven't reached the age of 53, let me assure you: 53 is young. Too young to die. Too young for anyone as dedicated as Paul White even to consider retiring. When he left CBS News, he took up the "less demanding" job of news director at station K-F-M-B in San Diego. And died there.
Nobody, NOBODY ever cared more about our craft than Paul White. Nobody ever tried harder to make it not just good but EXCELLENT. I suspect that even excellence wasn't enough for Paul White. PERFECTION really was what he sought. No, perfection isn't possible - but that doesn't seem to have stopped him from striving.
Nobody ever tried harder to make news reporting accurate and fair, decent and responsible - a life's work to be proud of, a SERVICE worthy of every reporter's lifetime commitment.
Which brings me…to US. You and I, custodians of the legacy of the first and best news director in the history of radio and television.
In Miami a few years ago I stood before this organization and invoked the name of Edward R. Murrow, the lead pitcher on the winning team Paul White coached and captained. Four years ago, I recalled Murrow's disappointment as he witnessed the decline in our standards-already declining in 1958, only three years after Paul White's death. Thirty-five years after Murrow sounded the battle cry, I tried as well as I could to get us all to consider the question: How goes the battle for integrity in our own time?
The answer, as I saw it, was: Not very well.
The question still needs to be asked-and answered, honestly-four years later, here, in Paul White's name as it was asked in Ed Murrow's.
I believe the question needs to be asked by each of us, every day.
But we must also ask-How can we do better? It is not enough, in looking at ourselves, to catalog our faults. Finding fault is easy-especially in any endeavor so flawed as our own.
Correcting the faults-that's more difficult. THAT is the challenge.
In many cases, I have no certain idea how to correct the greatest problems in our craft. And I truly have no authority to recommend my ideas over yours. Paul White might have had such authority, I don't.
Yet this much seems clear to me. What is needed most is the WILL to correct our faults.
We will FIND the will only by caring, by seeking the best in ourselves and in others-and by saying so.
Too often we come to these professional conferences and beat our breasts and tear our hair, we put on sack-cloth and ashes, and we spend hours discussing how terrible we are.
Then we go out and party. Exactly as if nobody had said a word. I don't blame us: After some of those speeches, we probably NEED a good stiff drink. But the faults endure, uncorrected.
When I spoke to you four years ago, a few people heard what I said and mislabeled it as preaching or nagging. They heard me criticize our craft. They didn't hear me speak of our idealism.
Yet I found that it was the idealism that MOST people heard FIRST.
I'll never forget the young woman from CBS News who came up to me after the speech with tears in her eyes, because she'd gone a long time believing that the network didn't WANT for her to do her best, believing that there was no room or BUDGET any more for excellence. The certainty that her best efforts wouldn't be appreciated had taken a toll.
I was struck then, and since, by how seldom we do speak of those ideals.
Have they become outdated, or shameful? Was there something wrong with those ideals? Did those ideals lack substance or force, to help us do our work, to help us correct our mistakes? Have we become such hard-bitten pros that we can't afford the time or energy to speak from our hearts?
This I believe: Our failure to speak of our ideals has cost us some of our reputation, especially in the eyes of the American people, but also in the eyes of our new, worldwide audience.
The audience is skeptical of us, and that's okay, that's right, they should be. We're only human, and they should take what we say with a grain of salt.
But we need to ask ourselves why-WHY are so many Americans listening to those highly politicized, partisan, ideological voices who call us corrupt, self-serving, politically biased, and fundamentally dishonest? On the left and the right, there are dozens of well-funded organizations whose sole purpose it is to punish the journalistic community for our independence, for our refusal to parrot anybody's party line.
We know those organizations are wrong
So why are some Americans listening to them?
Those organizations tell America that we are politically biased, that we are conspiring with one party or another.
I know of few correspondents or producers, at my network or any other, who have ever in my presence stated their personal political views--even over a sarsaparilla in the shank of the evening. It's simply not done--bitterly frowned on by our colleagues--considered a sign of immaturity, unprofessionalism, foolishness.
It is NOT a provable fact that there is a political bias in the press. Quite the contrary. But some demagogues and some organizations, ever leery of provable facts, nevertheless continue to spread the rumors--the deceitful advertising and rigged opinion surveys--and sometimes outright lies.
As ever, free and honest, independent American journalism drives some people NUTS.
When the Free Press is threatened--as it most assuredly is by such organizations -- all America is threatened. It's not a giant step from suppressing the press--to suppressing the speech--to suppressing the town meeting--to suppressing any political statement at all--to tyranny.
We know that. Belief in the necessity of a Free Press is one of the ideals that brought us to journalism--to oppose such attempts at thought-control and intimidation. Are we talking about it enough?
Do Americans KNOW that we really believe all that civics class stuff about a free press and public service, defending an independent citizenry with information--do they KNOW we believe that with our very SOULS? Do they know we wouldn't be working these jobs if we didn't, couldn't continue to believe those things? Do they know that the pressure is so great that, many days, our ideals are the only things that see us through?
Let's talk about our ideals, not just tonight and amongst ourselves, but all the time.
We need, now more than ever, to speak--to speak up and speak out, to explain to people what we are at least TRYING to do. And how we see ourselves and our work. The American people can then decide for themselves whether THEY believe we are meeting our own standards, living up to our own ideals as we have communicated them.
We should not be afraid to speak about our idealism. Indeed, we should be eager to speak about it. But first we must remind ourselves what our ideals ARE.
Our first and most important duty, our primary goal - TRUTH. As Oscar Wilde said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Neither is it easy to find. But our GOAL as journalists is to report the truth. If not the whole truth, then certainly nothing but the truth, and as much of it as we can find.
We too often fail at this. But it is important that people know this IS our goal.
Overwhelmingly, most of us get into this craft, and stay in it, because we want to be of service.
However it may sometimes APPEAR, we DIDN"T get into journalism for the money. We didn't get into it for the stardom, or for the adventure.
We came to journalism because we wanted to make a difference, for good - to be of service, to our relatives and friends, to our communities and our country, and to humankind.
And so we serve the belief that pursuit of truth is the most important service we can provide. THAT'S what we're about, when we are true to ourselves and are at our best.
We ARE fallible. We DO make mistakes. And when we fail, when we make mistakes, we need to say so. In our idealism, we DO believe in standing up, looking 'em in the eye, and saying, "We were wrong." None of us say that as often as we have the opportunity. But we do believe in it. And we do believe in the pursuit of truth as the core of our craft.
We believe, the best among us STILL believe, that a public journal is a public trust. And those of us in radio and television believe, in that spirit, that a newscast is a public journal.
To be true to that trust, not to prostitute it, we believe in an absolute commitment to accuracy and fairness.
Where does that commitment to the public trust stand in our relation to our desire (and perhaps more importantly to the command of our employers) that we increase circulation and ratings, and make ever more money?
Our commitment must stand above commerce.
That is our ideal. We do not, cannot say that we always practice our idealism in this regard. We can and do say, we must say, that we BELIEVE in the ideal. And we should say--here, now and henceforth--that we are rededicating ourselves to the practice of that ideal.
About accuracy: There is no excuse for inaccuracy. When we are inaccurate, it must pain us deeply. We must be ashamed. A sense of shame when an error of fact is made is one mark, perhaps the single most important mark, of an ethical journalist.
Another such mark is total dedication to fairness. It is not humanly possible to be fair in everyone's eyes on every story. But that IS our goal. We are dedicated to giving opposing viewpoints a fair representation. We are dedicated to showing respect for the rights, dignity and privacy of people as we gather and report the news.
We do not believe in letting supermarket tabloids corrode and erode our duty to provide accurate and fair coverage of people and events. Those tabloids are not our competition. They do not set our standards. They are in a different business, and we can never forget that.
In our worst moments, of which there have been far too many, we have all succumbed to sensationalism and triviality, to one degree or another. About that, we should all be ashamed. Because we do not believe in it. WHEN we have done it, we know in our heads and in our hearts, that we should not have. Because it is wrong.
Credibility IS our creed. We know that we squander our credibility whenever we backslide into tabloid tactics. On those occasions, we do feel ashamed. And our readers, listeners and viewers need to know that.
Just as we all know there are entertainment programs posing as newscasts, we know there are highly partisan political and ideological operations posing as news organizations.
The public--some of the people, some of the time--may be fooled. We are not. We know what news is. And we know what a true news organization is.
Yes, all of us, in some ways some of the time, let our biases show through. But--and this is the difference--we fight NOT to let that happen. Partisan political agendas are not what we are about. When it comes to news, in such things we do not believe.
Four years ago I addressed this organization, and I spoke about fear.
Tonight I wanted to talk about hope.
After all, it's not fear that brings us to journalism. It's not fear that keeps us on the job.
Hope that we can do the job the right way.
Hope that we can live up to the ideals that brought us here.
Hope that the bosses will let us do our jobs.
Hope that the audience will notice our best work.
Hope that we'll deserve the hopes and faith our parents invested in us.
Hope that we'll deserve the sacrifices made by our spouses and children, in the name of our careers.
We don't talk about these things, I know. We work in an environment that encourages skepticism even cynicism. If we speak of the things that are in our hearts, we're certain--and we're usually right--that somebody is behind us, smirking.
Well, too damn bad.
We must speak--we must speak now, and more often--of our hopes. We must identify our ideals. We must communicate our beliefs--even as we live them.
The risks of our silence are too great--we see already what can happen when we DON"T speak of ideals, of hopes, of belief.
We MUST speak.
I don't say this from some inflated idea of what journalism is. Journalism is not a religion--I know that. And if it were, it would need better preachers than I. But I hope that anybody, not just journalists but anyone who holds down a tough job, also holds onto hope.
I hope my plumber has high standards, ethics, integrity.
I hope she believes in doing the best job she can.
I hope she wakes up every morning determined to be as good a plumber as Edward R. Murrow was a reporter.
I hope she has apprentices, and teaches THEM what it means to do the job the right way.
Because it's not enough to do the job right, not enough to embody the ideals. We must speak.
We must repeat the lessons. The words count. That's why we speak our prayers, why we sing our hymns, why we go to temple and worship together, go to school and learn together.
But you're never too old to learn. Never too young to teach.
We must speak.
We must speak as Paul White spoke, spending his dying breath to teach the journalists of the future.
We are those journalists. Paul White isn't here to teach any more. It's up to us.
We must speak. Thank you.