2000 Devroy Forum presentation
Good evening. I am so very privileged to appear and speak here in honor of the memory of Ann Devroy. I have been a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for 36 years now, and never during that time have I worked with a better, smarter, more aggressive, more tireless, more accurate or more fair reporter than Ann Devroy was. To help you get to know Ann the way I knew her, let me take you across the country and back in time.
Ann held the government accountable
I remember vividly the night in the newsroom during the Bush administration when some very big story was breaking that had a major impact on the White House. It was one of the few such occasions when I had succeeded in hurrying back into the newsroom from home before Ann had gotten there. I went over to the national news desk to suggest which administration officials Ann should try to call for information and comment when she arrived in the newsroom. 'Don’t worry,' the night editor on the national desk told me with amazement. 'All those officials — including the president’s press secretary and chief of staff — had already called Ann.' Some of them had reached her at home; others had left messages with the national desk that they were ready to talk to her as soon as she got into the newsroom. Think about it: The people who were running our country had so much respect for Ann, and the power of her journalism, that they were eagerly calling her to offer information and comment when a big story was breaking. Then, of course, not to put too fine a point on it, there was Ann’s — let’s say — imposing personality.
Ann was very, very tough. Don’t get me wrong; as a colleague, friend and parent, Ann was as sweet and kind and caring as they come. But in carrying out what she fiercely believed was an almost sacred responsibility to hold the White House and the federal government accountable to the American people, Ann was ferocious. I remember one late morning when the newsroom was relatively quiet, and Ann’s booming voice could be loudly heard above all else. 'Are you accusing me of trying to intimidate you?' she shouted into the telephone to some hapless White House official, who apparently was not providing information that Ann felt she and her readers were clearly entitled to. And then Ann rose menacingly from her desk chair as though the official was standing right before her in the newsroom. Reporters and editors at nearby desks backed away a little as Ann shouted even more loudly into the telephone: 'Damn right, I’m trying to intimidate you! And, if you know what’s good for you, you will tell me what I want to know right now!'
Ann usually smoothed things over after such confrontations — and after she had gotten her story, of course — which is why most of the officials she covered came to feel affection for her, in addition to awe and fear. Many of them joined her wonderful husband, Mark, and the rest of us at her memorial service, laughing at all the wonderful stories about Ann and weeping over the injustice of losing her.
I also am pleased to be speaking at a Midwestern public university. I graduated from the Ohio State University, one of the Midwest’s first land grant universities. Back when I joined The Washington Post as a summer intern reporter in 1964, the many young Ivy League graduates then in the newsroom called me 'land grant Downie.' When I received an honorary degree from Ohio State in 1993, I told the graduating classes and their families in Ohio stadium that I was still a Midwesterner at heart and still proud to be 'land grant Downie.' I have been especially pleased today to talk with students here who I hope will be joining me in the news business. I regard this as a calling — a vital role in serving and sustaining our constitutional democracy — today more than ever.
There's a lot more news now — but you can't trust all of it
Anyone who sees a newspaper, watches television or uses the Internet today knows that the news is changing dramatically. There is more news now than ever, delivered to Americans by everything from Web sites and Internet portals to radio, television, newspapers and magazines. The best of the news also is more accurate, complete authoritative and better told than ever — from top newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to best television news shows like 60 Minutes and cable networks like CNN and C-SPAN that broadcast many events live as they are happening. The Internet now makes all of this news coverage available to anyone, anywhere in the country, who can afford a computer and a modem.
But, at the same time, a lot of what is offered today as news is untrustworthy, irresponsible or incomplete. Many newspapers have shrunk their staffs and the space they devote to news to increase their corporate owners’ profits. Local television news has been distorted by the nightly mayhem of 'action news' formulas, and 'happy talk' anchors' whole primary purpose is to entertain and increase ratings. The big networks have diluted their evening news shows with entertainment and lifestyle features and then filled 'prime time' with low-budget 'news magazines' dominated by sensational sex, crime and court stories. Cable TV channels and radio stations offer hour after hour of repetitive and often misleading talk show opinion and argument. And many Internet sites mix news with gossip and false reports disguised as news. Many people recognize these problems and worry about them. The news itself has been much in the news these days. And these issues are the subjects of intense debate within the news media themselves.
News tracks big issues that have transformed the U.S.
The changes in the news business are hardly unique, of course. Nearly every aspect of American life has been transformed in recent years. Part of the excitement and challenge of being alive during this turn-of-the century time has been watching and experiencing these changes. Extraordinary prosperity, economic and cultural globalization, the celebrification of almost everything, the power of youth culture, the emergence of women, African-Americans and gay people, and the great migrations from Latin America and Asia all have redefined the American experience. One of the best ways to follow the evolution of this new America has been to read the newspapers and watch television and surf the Internet — to follow the news. News connects us to the world beyond ourselves and gives every one of us the opportunity to be real citizens of our own times. Good journalism satisfies many appetites. Some Americans intently follow and participate in the ongoing experiment in self-government begun by the founding fathers, who saw the press as the vital link between government and the governed. And the many other Americans who have turned away from politics and government have other appetites that good journalism can satisfy. Getting inside sports, going behind the scenes of movies and television, keeping up with the stock market, health trends, the local school board or the gossip from Hollywood — virtually the entire range of human curiosities is covered by good journalism today.
Journalism has another function that isn’t always so obvious, but is more important than the satisfaction of curiosity. The American experiment — ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ — can only work when those who have power in our society are held accountable to the people for the ways they use their power. This includes not only those who hold power in government, but also those who hold power in business, finance, popular culture, educations, sports and the rest of our complex society. American society works best when Americans can see what their leaders are doing. This is the main reason why news matters. If the news is aggressively and accurately reported and fully and fairly shared with the public, citizens can know what is happening all around them. Knowledgeable citizens are the most likely to be effective citizens.
News media are vital to the U.S. — even in the midst of indifference
I do not mean to exaggerate the power of the press. Journalism only rarely acts as a decisively independent force. More often it is a catalyst for other forces in society. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post did not alone unravel the Watergate burglary and cover-up in the early 1970s. In addition to what they found from participants and witnesses, Woodward and Bernstein were reporting the activities and findings of government investigators, including a federal judge and members of Congress and their staffs. They had subpoena powers The Post could not match. Yet it is also true that Watergate would never have played out the way it did, culminating in the resignation of President Nixon, without Woodward, Bernstein and The Post. Bob and Carl’s reporting made the most difference in the days and weeks immediately after the burglary, when everyone but the co-conspirators knew the least about what had happened. The Post’s willingness to stay on the story, while other news organizations ignored it, kept the pressure on investigators and on Nixon and his inner circle. News matters — and never more than when journalists can help hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Tony Marro, the executive editor of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, has said, 'With governments and private institutions as large and as powerful as those that we have in this country, society needs watchdogs to keep them in check.' This is important even for Americans who consider themselves indifferent to the news. The news media are vital to our country whether or not they are popular and whether or not most Americans are even paying attention. They are essential to the culture of accountability that may be the best deterrent we have to the misuse of power of all kinds.
News also matters in everyday life. As I said earlier, our fast-changing times have transformed nearly every aspect of American society — work, money, education, health, science, technology, even sports and entertainment. Americans confronting the changes all around them face a simple choice: They can try to pay attention and understand what is happening, or they can roll with the punches. Those who want to understand what is happening depend on good journalism. On the staffs of The Washington Post, many other newspapers, the television networks and some local stations are a growing number of reporters whose full-time assignments are these subjects of real-life importance: work, money, education, health, science, technology, sports and entertainment. At The Post, we are fortunate to have several hundred reporters, all of them paid to learn and to share what they learn with our readers. For just 25 cents each weekday, and a buck-fifty on Sunday, a reader of The Post can retain the services of those 300 reporters, 45 photographers and artists, 135 supervising editors, 130 copy editors, and two dozen editorial writers and columnists. The reporters are deployed far and wide — two dozen of them in foreign bureaus all around the world, a dozen across the North American continent and more than 100 in the Washington area, where most of our local readers live.
Here are some examples of news that matters produced by our staff in the past few years: Last August, we published a major story by investigative reporter Joby Warrick revealing that the U.S. government’s oldest plant for converting uranium into fuel for nuclear bombs and power plants — the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky — has been thoroughly contaminated by plutonium and other radioactive wastes for decades. And not just the plant itself — but also fields, woods and creeks for miles around the plant. The federal government and the plant’s operators had never acknowledged this build-up of highly toxic radioactive waste. In fact, they had denied its existence even as plant workers became ill and died over the years. Joby’s reporting began with interviews of workers willing to talk about what they knew. To check out their claims and fears himself, Joby went out into the woods around the plant with a Geiger counter to collect radiation readings and a shovel to take soil samples. A laboratory confirmed extensive radioactive contamination. Joby studied hundreds of records, including death certificates, and compiled his own medical histories of plant workers, finding extraordinary rates of leukemia. His first story, published over several pages of The Washington Post on August 8, 1999, generated immediate national attention. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson launched an investigation and went to Paducah to apologize personally to workers and their families. He promised financial compensation for all sick workers, and he ordered a 'safety stand-down' to correct procedures in the plant.
In 1998, a team of Washington Post reporters produced a series of articles documenting that Washington, D.C., police shot and killed many more citizens during the 1990s than police in any other city, regardless of city size or crime rate. The reporters documented many reasons for this, including poor training and supervision, the hair triggers on the … guns used by Washington police and the fact that they often shot at unarmed suspects in moving cars. Police officials responded to the stories by enforcing new guidelines on use of weapons and ordering extensive new weapons training for everyone on the force. By the end of 1999, the number of people shot by police in Washington had been reduced by two-thirds, and The Post won the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service for this journalism.
Then, last year, we published some of the most heart-breaking and important journalism during my 36 years at the newspaper. One of our most remarkable investigative reporters, Katherine Boo, discovered that 1,100 mentally retarded people who were wards of the Washington, D.C., city government were being warehoused in wretched conditions in group homes operated all over the city by private contractors who were paid large sums of money by the city. Kate Boo found that many of the retarded had been mistreated by the owners and staff and other residents of these group homes: violent beatings, rapes, scaldings, drug overdoses. Some of the retarded were being used as slave labor by group home owners. All of this was being subsidized by more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money. Kate also discovered that city officials who were supposed to be regulating the groups were actually doing business with their owners, misusing city money. They and other officials were actively covering all this up. They refused to answer Kate’s questions, they blocked Freedom of Information requests, and they even shredded documents. Kate had to piece together much of the story by interviewing the retarded wards themselves in painstaking depth. She then checked their stories with police reports, ambulance dispatch logs, Medicaid vouchers, hospital records and even bank statements of some of the retarded. Shortly after Kate’s first series of stories about all this were published and shocked the city, one of Kate’s sources among the retarded showed her another retarded man dying in a hospital of pneumonia that had long been neglected by the proprietor of the group home in which he had lived. And that was how she discovered the deaths — well over a hundred of them, deaths of the retarded people in the group homes caused by neglect, abuse, beatings and over drugging. Deaths that were covered up by both the group home owners and the city government. One group home owner burned the body of a resident who had died of neglect to keep it from being reported to authorities. Most of the dead were never autopsied, and their deaths were never officially investigated. They were buried by the city in mass graves marked only by numbers on stones, which Kate herself had to dig out of the dirt so that she could read them. After these stories were published, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Washington police all began investigations of everything from fraud to homicide. One group home operator and a city official connected to him already have been indicted. Some group homes have been closed. A number of city officials in charge of the agency for the mentally retarded were fired. The mayor of Washington promised to overhaul the program from top to bottom. A few weeks ago, this journalism also was awarded the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service — the first time in the history of the Pulitzer Prizes that a newspaper has won the Gold Medal for Public Service two years in a row.
Growth of corporate ownership has transformed coverage
One reason why we are able to produce this kind of public service journalism so consistently is that The Washington Post has the right owner — the family of Katharine Graham and her son, Donald Graham, that controls the newspaper’s voting stock shares. They ensure that The Post is the best possible newspaper for its readers in the Washington area, as well as nationally and internationally. Families still control the ownership of a number of the best newspapers in the country, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And the Newhouse and McClatchy families are both improving the newspapers they own in a number of cities.
But more than 1,200 of the nation’s 1,500 daily newspapers are now owned by large newspaper chains that do not appear to be ensuring the best journalism possible for the communities those newspapers serve. This is a big change from most of the first two centuries of American history, when nearly all newspapers were deeply rooted local institutions. So were the first television stations, many of which were originally owned by local newspapers. But the growth of chain corporate ownership has transformed the nature of those businesses. Control of most American newspapers has shifted to distant corporate headquarters. Typically, their publishers and editors shuttle from one newspaper to another as they climb the corporate ladder. Increasingly, their decisions about the newspapers’ budgets and news coverage are shaped, if not dictated, by corporate executives at the national headquarters. The three original national television networks also mushroomed into huge corporations. They and the big newspaper chains gobbled up local television and radio stations. Some of these same media giants then bought cable TV systems and launched or bought all-news cable networks. And, in very recent years, they all put news sites onto the Internet.
However, the news has become a small part of such corporate behemoths as Walt Disney, which owns ABC News; AOL-Time Warner, which owns CNN; or General Electric, which owns NBC. Even the media companies for which news remains the primary product — such as the Gannett and Knight Ridder newspaper chains — appear to focus as much or more on maintaining their profit margins and stock prices as on improving the news. Gannett owns 74 newspapers, with a combined daily circulation of nearly 7 million, plus 21 television stations broadcasting to one-sixth of the country’s TV audience. Knight Ridder has 31 papers, with nearly 4 million circulation in cities from Miami and Philadelphia to San Jose. Newspaper editors and television news directors in such large chains are held more accountable for controlling costs and increasing profits than for improving the quality of their journalism. While local television is a primary source of news for many Americans, most local newscasts fail to keep their viewers well-informed about their communities or the world around them. Despite sharp drops in crime rates across the country in recent years, crime coverage still gets more time on local newscasts than any other subject. One of every four stories on local TV newscasts is about crime, according to national studies, and crime, accident or disaster stories lead most broadcasts.
Much of this coverage is driven by the availability of live and taped video of crime scenes and chases, fire and traffic accidents from the satellite trucks and helicopters that are the biggest investments in news coverage made by most local stations. Most TV news directors believe, perhaps mistakenly, that this video, rather than good news coverage, drives ratings. The actual news staffs of local television stations are quite small. Most of them employ only a tiny fraction of the number of reporters at the local newspaper.
Increasingly, too many Americans are getting their news only in bits and bytes on TV and radio, in newspapers with less news space, and (from) headlines and news summaries on the Internet. And much of what people think of as news comes in popular entertainment formats — the television news magazines, TV and radio talk shows, celebrity magazines, gossip sites and chat rooms on the Internet — that mix fact, rumor and opinion and sometimes even fiction. Some of the most closely followed news in studies by The Pew Research Center for the People and Press have been stories about celebrities — especially the accidental deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. — that dominated TV news magazines and talk shows and Internet chat. Many Americans, especially younger people, appear to be increasingly indifferent to the kinds and quality of the news they consume from this smorgasbord, but I do not believe that we live in a post-news society.
On a typical day, according to numerous studies in the past few years, three-fourths of all Americans watch news on television and look at a newspaper, even as more and more of them also see news on the Internet. And they do see news as important to their lives and crucial to a free society. Pew Research Center surveys show that a majority of Americans closely followed the major news events of the 1990s, from the Persian Gulf War and presidential elections to major natural disasters and mass shootings in high schools. Despite the indifference of some people to the news, I know there are many millions of Americans who want and need the more reliable news that is now more widely available than ever before from the best of the news media. If they are not always necessarily seeking to become well-informed and involved citizens, they still want to understand how to cope with economic forces buffeting them, how to educate their children, how to protect their health and safety, how to enrich their lives.
A leading academic analyst of the importance of news in our society, Michael Schudson of the University of California at San Diego, has written that 'American citizens have more information today than they had a generation ago. More credible information. More national sources of information. More authenticated conflicts of information and opinion, thanks to the proliferation of expert lobbying groups and the changing habits of the media to seek out a variety of sources. More information coming to the laity through the media rather than through expert intermediaries.' Yet, not enough of this information reaches enough of the American people, because their numbers, intelligence and needs are being systemically and irresponsibly underestimated by too many of those who now own and lead the news media.
Americans should demand better news coverage — and more of it
So I believe it is time for Americans to demand better than that. With a myriad of Internet news sites offering them hundreds of newspapers on the Web and with a multitude of cable TV news channels, American news consumers now have more choices than ever. They can bypass the local monopoly newspaper and broadcast television stations if they want and need to in order to find better news coverage. Demanding news consumers can have an impact on the news media. We have seen in recent years that newspapers that have maintained or improved the quality of their news coverage have been more likely to gain circulation than have the many newspapers that have watered-down coverage.
Recent national studies also have shown that local television stations that increase the serious content of their evening news also have increased their ratings. By contrast, as the major network news broadcasts increasingly gravitate form real news coverage to entertainment features, they have been steadily losing audience share. Consumers of news should understand that the news media have extraordinary discretion in deciding what the 'news' will be. Every news story in the newspaper or on a television broadcast, especially those not related to something that just happened, is the product of reportorial and editorial decision-making. And even stories about breaking news events reflect editorial discretion that colors the way they are written and played in the paper or on the broadcast.
Consumers of news can influence these decisions in many ways. They can decide whether or not to buy a particular newspaper or to watch a particular television news broadcast. Consumer choice is even more influential on the Internet where, by counting page views on its site, a news organization can determine every day not only how many people are coming to the site, but also exactly what they are reading on it. We at The Washington Post, for example, know that the audience for our news Web site, washingtonpost.com, is growing every day. We know that the largest number of its users read it around lunchtime from their offices to catch up on that day’s news. We know that they read serious news stories more than anything else on the site. We know that most of the washingtonpost.com users in the Washington area also read the printed newspaper most days; they look at news on the Web during the day to supplement what they read each morning in The Post. And we know that we have gained a large new national and international for Washington Post journalism via washingtonpost.com on the Web.
In particular, I hope Americans will put pressure on their hometown newspapers to give them better news coverage. Newspapers are not going away in this Internet age. Although the number of metropolitan area newspapers and their circulation declined steadily over several decades, their readership has now stabilized — and is growing on their Web sites. Meanwhile, community newspapers in the suburbs are growing in numbers and readers. Newspapers remain the core source of news in our country. Newspapers still do more original reporting than any other medium. Newspapers are the originating source for most of the news on local television and radio and the Internet. Of all the media, newspapers are still the most reliable and authoritative, most ambitious, best-staffed, broadest and most diverse in news content and most connected to their communities. Improvement in news coverage by newspapers would affect the most Americans and ripple through the rest of the news media.
This, then, is my manifesto: Americans can discriminate between good news and bad. Owners and leaders of the news media can improve their news coverage if the public demands it. Citizens can benefit significantly from good journalism — and they will pay a price if the institutions and people who influence their lives are subjected to the oversight that good journalism ensures. News does matter. It is time for we in the news media and you, who depend on us, to decide that we will do everything we can to seize the extraordinary opportunities of this new information age to make American news coverage — throughout the media — the best that it can be.