1998 Devroy Forum presentation
If Ann were here, the first thing she would say is, 'It's hot as hell in here. Why don't you guys take off your jackets?' So, that is my first suggestion. I invite my colleagues to do the same.
Ladies and gentlemen, Chris, let me add my word of congratulations to you and to all of the finalists. I think it's wonderful for all of you that you were chosen as finalists, and having had a chance to get to know you at least a little bit, I think you've got wonderful prospects and careers ahead of you. Mark and Sara, and the other members of the Devroy family who are here, and all of the good folks from this campus, I am pleased and proud to be part of this tribute to my friend and colleague, Ann Devroy.
It's been six months since she died untimely at age 49, and she is missed in our newsroom as keenly as if her passing had just been yesterday. She embodied something that was very important, and sadly, I think, increasingly rare by way of journalism values and human qualities. Both Mark and Milton have spoken well to both those aspects of her personality already. I'm going to try to talk a little bit about some of those values in a couple of minutes, but first, I want to give you an additional perspective about Ann as a person.
Ann had an extraordinary reputation
Like many others on The Post, I got to know Ann as a competitor before she became a colleague. She was at Gannett news service, and like others, I found that if you were working on the same story that Ann was, she killed you. She was just too good. So when several of us at The Post got tired of getting beat by her, we persuaded our bosses that it would be a great move for The Post to hire her. And that's how she came to our paper.
She was an immensely likeable person. All of us here — Milton and I and all of us as Midwesterners — tend to think that there are some kind of Midwest values. I grew up in Illinois, just across the line from Wisconsin. Ann, as you know, had her roots in Green Bay, where she grew up, and here in Eau Claire, where she came for college and for her first newspaper job. She was funny, she was direct. She did not conceal anything, as Mark said. She let you know quickly that she was smart, and she let you know when she was happy and unhappy. When she got mad, you could hear Ann Devroy halfway across the fairly large newsroom at The Washington Post, and when she laughed, her laugh carried every bit as far across the newsroom. She was a great friend, not just to people in the building, but to others. She could keep secrets, as she did the budding romance between James Carville and Mary Matalin, and she would go to bat for you. A guy in the Clinton White House once went on television and called me an old windbag. I thought it was a fairly accurate description, but Ann was absolutely outraged, and she chewed that guy out on the phone so thoroughly that the poor man called me immediately afterward and apologized. When she died, many of us in the news business, and particularly in her own newsroom, tried to convey in what we wrote something of what made her special. But quite recently, in The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics — which is a title that Ann would have instantly ridiculed for its pomposity — a good and serious academic student of the press and the White House named Martha Kumar, who teaches at Towson State and the University of Maryland, wrote an appreciation of Ann, which I think will give you who did not know her some sense of her extraordinary reputation. I'd just like to quote a couple sentences from that article.
It begins: 'Scholars, government officials and citizens recently lost an important friend and ally at the White House when Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy, who covered four presidents, died on Oct. 28. Her reputation as a reporter was one of fairness and accuracy, a gift for straight and impartial news reporting and a tenacious pursuit of information. She had an interest and a style well suited to the institution that she covered. And she worked for a news organization that had the resources and the inclination to support her work.' Kumar then goes on to cite a lot of comments from Democratic and Republican press secretaries and other White House officials who knew Ann because she covered them. And they talked about her tenacity and her scrupulous fairness in checking out stories. Professor Kumar noted that Ann believed her first obligation was, and I quote, 'to allow the president to say to the American people what he wanted to say.' So she gave prominence in her White House stories to quotations from the president and other material that was supplied by the White House. But, Professor Kumar noted, once she gave the White House version of events, she traced reactions to the president's words and deeds and analyzed the impact. I would add on my own that she also was very diligent about comparing today's White House words and deeds with the previous day's or months' or years' words, measuring those people for their consistency, or lack thereof. Then, at the end of the article, Professor Kumar says, 'both in interest and in style, Ann Devroy was ideally suited to the White House beat. Devroy not only had the persistence required — I love this phrase — to strip the bark off the White House publicity tree, but she also possessed an avid interest in understanding the institution she covered, including the rhythms of its operations over time. She respected the people who worked there, including the president, but she never let that respect turn into awe that prevented her from putting real pressure on them to disclose what they were thinking and doing.' Professor Kumar concludes, 'Ann Devroy established a lasting standard of how the White House should be covered, to which I think all of us at The Post would simply say 'Amen.' '
In every way, Ann's journalistic values were at the opposite end of the spectrum from those, say, of Fox television news, a latecomer to the spectrum, which has built its operations about such figures as Tony Snow, formerly a speech writer for President Bush; Tony Blankley, formerly the press secretary to Speaker Gingrich; and most recently and strikingly, Dick Morris, (to) whom you can supply any phrase that you wish for. Ann avoided television in all its forms, something that I have not had the wisdom or the character to do, though I try to choose my spots fairly carefully. But the gap between her values and those of Fox television news provides, I think, a nice framework for what I want to do in the next few minutes, which is to discuss in value terms where this industry of ours is going.
Line between tabloids, mainstream press not 'sharply drawn'
I choose the word industry deliberately, because I think it's important to acknowledge right at the start that all of us work for private profit-making enterprises. We operate under a unique constitutional protection, because the founders thought there was a public value in unfettered journalism, but we do so as part of private profit-making businesses. The bottom line pressures operate today, and they have always operated, but I think that perhaps they operate increasingly now as news organizations have become parts of larger and larger corporate enterprises. At the worst, this has almost led to an abandonment of those responsibilities for informing the public which Ann always had uppermost in her mind as being the essence of her job.
A year ago, when ABC News saw the ratings begin to drop on its nightly television news show, they asked — maybe ordered — Sam Donaldson to go back to his old beat at the White House, and he complied. ABC News apparently thought the viewers would turn out in larger numbers if Sam Donaldson once again was standing on that spot on the lawn in front of the White House. But last week when the president of the United States had his first formal news conference in four months, ABC News was unwilling to interrupt its regular schedule of afternoon serials to carry the news conference — something which I should note quickly (that) Sam Donaldson, to his great credit, publicly protested. There's been a lot of talk, and I think accurately, about the tabloidization of the news, and it occurs in print as well as on television. Programs like Hard Copy and Geraldo have their counterparts on the press side. It's certainly true, I think, for all of us who've been in the business for awhile, as Mark and Milton and I have been, that the old line between what supermarket tabloids carried and what the mainstream press dealt with is not nearly as sharply drawn in the sand as it was when we entered the business. Newspapers, including our own, are searching all the time now for ways to make themselves 'relevant' to young readers whose allegiance to the newspaper reading habit we have good reason to doubt. We're all anxious as to how we make our product appealing to the under-40s who have grown up in a world absolutely saturated with television and now have the Internet as a toy to play with as well. So, we're doing a lot of softer news stories in our papers, and we're worrying more about how stories are packaged in the press. There has been, I'm happy to say not at The Washington Post and certainly not at The Baltimore Sun, a tendency to reduce the amount of space and coverage that's given to foreign news. In a lot of places, news directors and editors have decided, 'Well, the public's not real interested in politics any more, so why should we bother to cover that very intensively?' I don't want to draw a completely bleak picture here, because there has been a countertrend, which has been profoundly healthy for the country — or at least some of the people in this country who avail themselves of it and for the press itself, because while there has been this 'dumbing down' of the product in many respects, there's also been a real sense in which the product that's available to people, whether they choose to use it or not, has been substantially improved. For the first time in our lifetime as a nation, we now have three national newspapers in this country available everywhere in the country on the morning that they are published. Two of them happen to be among the very best papers in the country: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The third, USA Today, which tried going the dumbing down route and found that it didn't work — (or) at least, it wasn't the kind of product that they wanted it to be — has now reversed course and is rapidly becoming a much more substantial and valuable addition to the daily news diet. In addition to that, we have National Public Radio, which I happen to think is an enormous resource, and all of the cable channels that bring you actual events or very close to actual events. There are special interest publications of every kind, so no matter what your particular field of interest may be, wherever you live, you have that available. And as I mentioned just a moment ago, there are now the exploding resources of the Internet. As a result of that, you can go into any community of any size anywhere in the country, as I do now in traveling my political beat, and you will find in that community a cadre of people, self-selected, who are every bit as well informed on public policy, every bit as engaged in what's going on in public policy as the people that you meet at The Brookings Institution in Washington or the Council on Foreign Relations. They are there now in every community.
Ann strove to make sure press kept the public informed
But having said that, I think you have to concede that in many respects, we in the press have not been doing what Ann always thought was the essence of her job: Namely, bringing a clear understanding of what policy is being made in Washington, why it's being made that way, who are the people, how is the process working. Ann believed, as I think all of us would like to believe, that ultimately in this country an informed public opinion will be and should be the arbiter of public policy. But you have to underline in that sentence the word informed. That is a critical part of it. I've always thought as a political reporter that in some remarkable way, the people in this country can sort through all of the rhetoric, all of the advertising, all of the junk, the static that is part of our campaign process. At least for the major offices that they're concerned about — president, governor, senators — they get the people pretty clearly in focus, and they make smart decisions. That doesn't mean that I've agreed with the public judgment on every single presidential election campaign I've covered since 1960. I certainly wouldn't make that claim. But the decision makes sense in terms of what's important to the voters. But I have to say, I don't think you can make that same claim when it comes to major questions of public policy. There is an interesting survey that came out just a couple weeks ago done by the Pew Foundation in Philadelphia that is now funding a lot of journalistic enterprises and also putting the press under its microscope ... for good or ill. But they did an interesting survey where they talked to members of Congress, presidential appointees and a cadre of senior civil servants. And they asked them: 'How well informed do you think the public is on the issues that you deal with in your jobs?' Half the members of Congress, and more than seven out of 10 in the other two groups — presidential appointees and senior civil servants — said that they think the public lacks the necessary information to make intelligent judgments about public policy. Now that's a pretty heavy indictment, and it can be dismissed, if you will, as elitist opinion — folks looking down their nose at the rest of us. But I've had some reporting experiences which lead me to believe that there may be some truth, unfortunately, in that judgment. I spent a lot of time between '92 and '96 covering the fight over health care policy in Washington. Clinton's policy was complex, and so were most of the alternatives. The press struggled to explain them, but clearly we did not succeed. Measures taken by The Kaiser Family Foundation and others showed the public actually became more confused about the options under discussion the longer the debate went on. In the end, public opinion was shaped, not by news coverage of the controversy — voluminous as it was — but by the 30-second Harry Louise ads financed by the health insurance industry. If this were an isolated example, it might not be worrisome. But I think the same thing happened during the 1996 welfare reform debate and in the ongoing debate about the way to improve the performance of public schools. Republicans and Democrats have very different ideas on that subject. Two different theories of the case were being argued and debated on the floor of the House and the Senate. We had a debate, although nobody in the country as far as I know was aware of it very much, about whether we were going to change the makeup of the NATO alliance. The biggest and most successful military alliance in this century has now been fundamentally changed by a decision first of the president, now ratified by the United States Senate, without an ounce of serious public debate on the issue. Next year we're going to have a debate like that on Social Security. In all of these areas, I think the preponderance of the evidence suggests that what the people heard coming out of Washington was mostly static and not a clear delineation of the choices that they could have been making and should have been making in a country like ours.
One of the results of this loss of informed public opinion on major issues is that the interest groups — which are as American as apple pie, but which all have agendas of their own — get to play a disproportionate role in deciding what the policy's going to be coming out of Washington, because they are attentive to the debate, they are well informed about what the alternatives are, and they make their voices heard more clearly than the average citizens do when these issues are being considered. Most of these interest groups on most of these issues have at the top of their agenda protecting the status quo, seeing that they and their members don't lose any advantages that they now enjoy. The AARP, God bless them, will oppose any change that anybody proposes that would reduce the benefits that my contemporaries get from this society. The National Federation of Independent Business will oppose any proposal from any quarter that would raise taxes on small business. That's their mission in life. But you multiply this by a thousand different organizations, and you're likely to get what another reporter in Washington, a man named Jonathan Rauch, called in a little book a few years ago, demosclerosis — nice pun — clogging of the arteries of democracy that makes it harder and harder for any policy change in any direction to take place. The public looks at this, and there's a kind of a vicious circle. The more the public sees politics as an arena where the insiders — the politicians, the political consultants, the interest groups, the contributors and, yes, us in the press — are engaged in what's going on and determining the outcome, the more likely the public is to say, 'Hey, that ain't for me. Those people are playing some other kind of a game than anything that I can figure out how to influence. I'm just not going to waste my time on it.' They look on that process, and they become more and more disenchanted. Add to that the impact of relentlessly negative political campaigns where each side is more inclined to try to shift votes by tearing down the opponent than by building up the candidate for himself. Then add what we have going on in Washington at the moment: A civil war within the government of the United States, with the White House and the Independent Counsel's office — which happens to be part of the executive branch of the government of the United States — leaking the most vicious possible stories about each other, and the two parties in Congress serving as a kind of an echo chamber for that kind of partisan warfare. It's no wonder that people say, 'I don't want to be bothered. I don't want to hear this kind of thing going on.'
Now, the press is not to blame for all of this, and the press certainly can't begin to solve all of these problems. But what does concern me about what I see happening in our industry is that there are an increasing number of people and organizations that seem to be willing to abandon what is our essential function in a republic like ours — the informing function, the thing that Ann Devroy had uppermost on her mind every single day of her working life.
She wanted people to know and understand what was going on in that seat of government that she was covering. There's a story this morning on the front page of The New York Times about the California governor's race. It was a story about the fact that this contest — with the primary now less than a month away — which will determine who runs the sixth or seventh largest government in the world, the state of California — is essentially going unreported in California. The candidates for governor find it virtually impossible to get coverage of their campaign, not only in the newspapers — they get occasional breaks there — but on television. There, it does not exist at all, except in the paid ads that those candidates are buying at a record pace. The television stations in California have simply opted out of this on the theory, apparently, that the audience is not interested in politics. One of the new candidates in that race, a Democratic congresswoman, begged and pleaded for anyone of the 40 radio stations in the city of Los Angeles to cover her announcement press conference. She even offered to get on the phone with somebody in the office. They could not find a single taker on a single radio station in Los Angeles to cover her announcement for governor.
Today's journalism is far from Ann's journalism
Now, at the national level, what we see happening is a little different from that, but we do see that some of the most prominent positions in journalism are not going to the Ann Devroys of this world, the people who have worked their way up from Eau Claire to New Jersey to Washington, learning and developing and honing their skills every step of the way. They're going to people who jump the lines, having achieved prominence in the world of politics or government and then translating that celebrity value to the new world of the media where they make much more money and presumably get greater psychic rewards. You've got George Stephanopoulos and Bill Kristol on one network. You've got Pat Buchanan and Jesse Jackson on another network. Or these groups, if they can't get somebody from the political world to come play on their stage, they will induce reporters to play act as if they were politicians, (to) go onto shows like The McLaughlin Group and argue about politics and policy as if they were politicians seeing who can out shout each other, who can deliver the most devastating sound bite in those programs. It is as far away from Ann Devroy's kind of journalism as anything that you could imagine. And it indicates what is most worrisome, particularly for the four young people like you: That the people who are making the hiring decisions for some of the most prominent jobs in our business no longer have enough respect for the values of the journalism world, for the traditions and the disciplines of the journalism world which Ann embodied so superbly, that they are prepared to give the most prominent places in their news organizations to people who come from a, I have to say, alien culture, one which does not understand those values.
Intelligence, hard work among qualities Ann upheld
ook again, just for a moment, at what the values were that Martha Kumar discerned correctly in Ann Devroy's work: Detachment. I don't think any politician Ann ever covered, and certainly none of her colleagues, ever knew what Ann's own politics were. I can't remember ever having a discussion with Ann about how she was going to vote or what she thought about this party or the other party. Respect for the people and the institutions. Never a cheap shot in any of her stories. None of the standing up at the end of the piece and getting in that little zinger at the end. Ann respected people in government — and not just the top people. One of the secrets of her success as a reporter was that she conveyed what was genuine for her, which was a similar respect for the people who really did the hard work, didn't have the big fancy titles, but really did the work and really knew what was going on. She cultivated those people, not by flattering them, but by letting them know that she took their work seriously, and she respected what they were doing.
Critical intelligence. You absolutely could not BS that that woman. She knew too much. She made it her business to know too much. She did her homework.
Finally, and most important of all, I think, she understood and embodied what the mission of journalism is all about. She never forgot that she was writing for people who were not in power themselves, but whose lives would be affected by the decisions that were being made by people in power.
The greatest tribute that you here at this university could pay to Ann's memory is to produce more journalists imbued with those values. And the best thing that we can do, in whatever way we can — those of us who are geezers — is to be sure or try to be sure that there are jobs waiting for people in news organizations like The Washington Post that made Ann Devroy an honored place in our newsroom and who mourn her loss every day. Thank you very much.