Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Publisher of the New York Times

Landon Lecture
September 13, 2004

How the Use and Misuse of News and Information is Undermining Our American Political System

Thirty-three years ago my mother moved to Topeka and it was three years after that that I met and successfully wooed my wife, Gail Gregg. She remembers K-State and her days as co-managing editor of the Collegian with great fondness.

But there's another interesting connection that links me with this particular town. So let me tell you a story, which some of you may know, but I hope not most of you. In 1855 two early pioneer settlements joined with the New England Emigrant Aid Society and established a new town and they called it New Boston.

Only a few months had passed when another group of settlers, whose boat had twice grounded on sand bars, found themselves stranded near that town of New Boston. They were quickly invited to join the community, but this second group, this new group, had one condition, they had to rename the town Manhattan.

Apparently the good folks of New Boston were practical people, and they knew how to compromise, which, by the way, is an important theme of this speech, because the constitution for the new town of Manhattan was adopted on June 19th, 1855.

Since I am the chairman of a company with one major newspaper located in that other Manhattan, and another major newspaper located in that other Boston, I feel a genuine kinship with the people of this great and wonderfully named community, and I am looking forward to returning to New York, because I want to lead an effort to rename some part of our city Aggieville. We could use an Aggieviile.

I am, of course, telling you all of this in an absolutely shameless effort to gain your sympathy and your support. It also serves to make a larger point. Geographical and philosophical based assumptions can be very misleading. Yes, I have a blue state upbringing and a very blue state job.

I have also been provided with a healthy dose of red state influences. These include my wonderful inlaws, my mother-in-law, Ann Gregg, is here today, and many, many great friends, such as Ed Seaton who, quite frankly, didn't have to do a lot of arm twisting to get me here, sir, but Ed is clearly the legendary editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury, but he's more than that. Former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and one of my profession's most respected leaders.

This lecture series namesake and honoree, Alf Landon, understood that life tended not to fall into neat categories or linear story lines. The former Republican presidential candidate was once asked whom he regarded as the great Americans of the 20th Century, and he answered, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman.

Woodrow Wilson might have been if he had been willing to make some more compromises. So might have John F. Kennedy, if he had lived. I think you would also have to include John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers.

He knew that this was a surprising list, perhaps even a shocking one, coming from a man with his GOP affiliation, but the former governor of Kansas admitted, "My record for party regularity is not impressive."

I am proud to say that today I will be following in the great man's footsteps as I try to take a non-ideological and common sense look at how the use and misuse of news and information is undermining our American political system, how the news media is struggling with its traditional role as an impartial analyst, interpreter and commentator, and how audiences across the country are coping with all the discord and disconnection of our increasingly uncivil society.

Now, more than a few of you may be thinking, "Who is this guy trying to kid? The publisher of the New York Times obviously has a system of beliefs that affect the opinions and endorsements that appear in the paper daily," and, of course, I have a system of beliefs, just like every other newspaper publisher in the country and like, I hope, all of you, and even the folks who are protesting us today.

In my case, my belief system is generally reflected in the editorial page of the New York Times. Just pick a position, whether it's abortion, welfare reform, farm subsidies, gun control, Iraq, the First Amendment, and our paper's editorial board will have something meaningful, I hope, to say about it. You may not agree, but that's okay. It is debate that keeps our democracy alive and vibrant.

Now let me pause for a moment to make an educational aside, for many don't fully understand the difference between our editorial and our news pages in American newspapers.

At the Times and, indeed, at most serious newspapers we have built-in rigorous safeguards to confine such debates as those you'll read on the editorial and op-ed pages there and to keep our news pages separate from our opinion pages. Both in the case of the Times, for example, they're run by separate editors.

But now let me return to the speech. The incredible shrill tone of discourse these days shows that our ability to have a rational and productive conversation about anything important in this country is becoming more difficult. Because of this it is growing near to impossible to thoughtfully address our most pressing challenges.

When presidential campaigns spend a predominance - or a preponderance rather - of their time talking about what their opponents did or did not do in a war that ended 30 years ago, they're not really focusing on the challenges or the here and now, Iraq, or jobs, medicine for our elderly, the challenges of our national debt. When that happens we have serious problems.

Today I will talk about how we find it so hard to communicate calmly and respectfully with each other, and then offer some suggestions as to how the public sector, the news media and the citizenry can all help to reestablish a more productive and enlightened national discourse.

Since we are, thankfully, only 50 days away from election day, let's start by talking about politics and how the practice of the art of the possible is fundamentally changing how we communicate with each other.

There was a time when we used to tolerate the craziness or our campaigns. We knew this was a period of temporary insanity. Every couple of years the political parties would let off a little steam, accuse their opponents of every imaginable misdeed and then once the votes are tallied, go back to the very hard work of governing.

And just occasionally, if the elected officials were sufficiently forthright and bold they were able to actually claim that they had a mandate to pursue a particular program or proposal, and most remarkably, things actually changed, sometimes even for the better.

Regrettably in this case neither of the presidential campaigns is elevating the tone of our national discourse. On the contrary, all we hear are charges and countercharges.

What is amazing to me is that two guys who went to the same university, indeed, belong to the same secret eating club, could attack each other with such incredible gusto. It's like a hazing ritual gone terribly wrong.

Lately politics has become so rhetorically zany that it feels as if some crazy novelist is writing our daily headlines, but folks, you can't make this stuff up.

After all, who would have thought that the phrase "girly men" would become an important macro economic concept in our nation's debates about growth rate and unemployment.

Or that an article written in 1946 about post World War II European reconstruction by the legendary New York Times journalist Ann O'Hare McCormick - the first woman, by the way, to win the Pulitzer Prize - would be castigated inappropriately, I must say, in the president's convention acceptance address.

From what I understand of Ann, he's lucky she's not alive, he'd be in big trouble. And now with the help of a few totally independent 527 committees - and if you believe those are totally independent, I have a bridge in the other Manhattan to sell you - we are beginning to hear some world class name calling.

Both campaigns are absolutely convinced that launching a huge deluge of negative ads is the only way to ensure that their dollars are most effectively spent.

While the candidates and their spokespersons may talk a positive game, the political advisors and the insiders have collectively decided it's time to go for the jugular or maybe even lower.

And while the upcoming presidential debate should be highly entertaining, they will, unfortunately, cast a lot of more heat than light on the major issues that our nation is now confronting.

As we all know, there are long-term consequences to all of this. We can begin with the fact that it's now far more difficult to discuss public policy challenges.

What should be a thoughtful deliberative process has become instead another venue for highly partisan combat and bickering, the result is legislative gridlock at the federal level, at the state level, at the city level. It's even starting to have an effect on our nation's judicial system.

To the surprise of no one, the public has become full participants in these angry squabbles and this makes it even harder to achieve the necessary compromises on major issues.

As I mentioned earlier, we could learn a lesson from those practical problem solving citizens of New Boston. When advocates from both the left and the right shout down the voices of moderation, we will inevitably fail to reach what the great historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls the Vital Center.

And finally, too many news outlets enjoy their role as another actor in the political theater of the absurd as they add more fuel to the verbal fire.

It was not so long ago that people looked to the press and to their favorite journalist to act as an arbiter or truth, to provide some insight into the great debates of our day.

We all remember when a Scotty Reston or Walter Cronkite could almost single-handedly define the terms of our national discourse. In 2004 news anchors and others whose core job is to be impartial, are too frequently joining the fray as ideological cheerleaders and doing all they can to contribute to our nation's political gridlock.

In fact, the producers of the cable news channels know full well that perceived ideological bias is, attracting particular segments of viewers.

For example, during the Republican National Convention Fox News was dominant, while CNN did much better during the Democratic National Convention.

I'm not suggesting that those two have the same journalistic values. Fox is more overtly partisan, but both, along with much of cable TV, blur the distinction between reporting and advocacy.

As this perception becomes more widespread, news consumers have become more skeptical and cynical about what they see and hear and read and have a greater tendency to believe that all reporting is distorted by political bias and by larger commercial interests.

What is worse, in fact, much worse, is that a sizable portion of our audience considers news to be just another form of reality programming, some variation of Fear Factor or The Apprentice, and as people become more detached from the national sources - from traditional sources of information, and as it becomes increasingly difficult to find trustworthy analysis, people are pushed in two directions.

Understandably some completely withdraw from what is happening around them. People get tired of being frustrated and start to redefine their concerns and interests very narrowly.

This partially explains the declining number of individuals over the past few decades who volunteer in campaigns or vote in elections, or why such an incredibly small percentage of individuals are willing to even answer a polling question on the phone.

When you become alienated, the easiest course of action is to simply check out. Others actively vent, and this further feeds into the rising tide of animosity and anger.

Just look at the New York Times bestseller list, which is full of books accusing the other side of every imaginable political and social crime. We now have squads of talented writers - well, in some cases talented writers - on both sides of the ideologically spectrum wielding verbal brickbats and rhetorical brass knuckles.

These same individuals are also appearing with far greater regularity on broadcast and cable networks. They understand that as their behavior becomes more shrill, their book sales will increase, and their television ratings will grow, and this invariably leads to increasingly vituperative debates where each side believes that only it can lay claim to truth, justice and the American way.

And this approach is taken to an even greater extreme by talk radio's trial-by-insult format. It is amazing to watch a pack of pseudo-journalists spend hours vilifying whomever they don't happen to like at that moment. I have, however, noticed that many of these screamers seem to come from other professions, politics, law, the financial world, even academia.

These so-called commentators completely ignore traditional reporting standards and seem to enjoy that their programs are little more than barroom chatter, which isn't to say they don't do damage to our social decorum, to our sense of community, and to the desire to become more engaged and to the credibility of a profession I love.

Unfortunately, or ultimately rather, journalism must be about news. It must seek to educate, inform and illuminate. It cannot be the terribly uninformed shriek of opinion, nor can it be the modern day equivalent of the Roman circuses, where we publicly and savagely humiliate our latest press victim.

Another manifestation of this social alienation is the rapid proliferation of superficial cynicism. It is far easier to condemn an entire political and social structure than to understand and to enhance it.

How often do we hear people reject a proposal, a proposition or an idea out of hand by just calling it stupid, or worse, liberal. We see this attitude everywhere, in casual conversation, at work, at home, and yes, even in the news media.

While it is routinely saddled to elected officials, corporate executives, or university presidents, or anyone with power and authority, even newspaper publishers, we are starting to pay a high social price for this form of cheap entertainment.

For instance, this alienation and polarization breed even more alienation and polarization, especially in younger generations. Social scientists teach us that civic habits, good and bad, are passed down from grandparents to parents to children. As the baby boomers become more disenchanted, they passed on their frustrations to the eco boom offspring and the dot net grandchildren.

This resulted in younger generations being less interested in the news. Consider the fact that the median age of viewers of broadcast TV news and CNN has climbed from the mid 50s - the average age from the mid 50s to the late 50s and now even the early 60s.

For the record, the Times has successfully defied that trend. The median age of our readership has remained stable over the past decade, and one of the reasons for this is that more and more college students are getting into the habit of newspaper reading.

But I digress. There is no question that the news media can play an important role in addressing all these issues, but it must first stop being part of the problem.

We need to remember that the press plays such a unique role in society that it is granted constitutional protection. Our very existence depends on our ability to convince our audiences that what they read and view and hear is credible, valuable and trustworthy.

Being human, we have difficulty living up to these high standards all the time, and during polarizing periods such as now that only becomes harder.

Journalism professors, government officials, business leaders, op ed writers and millions of concerned citizens regularly ask whether the news media still cares about questioning authority and being an independent arbiter of truth. And some critics go even further to inquire whether these have become the quaint ideals of a bygone era.

Yes, my profession has damaged its relationship with its readers and viewers and listeners, and one of the reasons for this is because we have inadequately responded to the myriad of different and difficult challenges in this turbocharged 24/7 era.

Let's start with the fact that editors and reporters are constantly caught between the increasing consumer demand for more immediate information and the news media's ability to provide it.

While there are fewer newspapers there is a proliferation of real and pseudo news programs on TV, all competing for attention, and this creates a high premium for coming out first with the big story. Too often accuracy plays second fiddle to audience share and serious mistakes are committed.

A perfect example of this problem was when the networks looked at their polling data on the night of the 2000 presidential election and announced that Vice President Gore had both won and lost the state of Florida, and we found out that it was much too close to call.

More tragically, two years ago a network broke into its sports programming on Super Bowl Sunday to announce that kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl had been killed.

As it turned out, it was at that time a case of mistaken identity and the negotiations for his release continued. For a while longer we hoped that Pearl's captors would release our heroic colleague.

The news media frequently loses its way when it attempts to compete in a marketplace with an almost unlimited number of options, the focus on ratings, or readers, or dollars can become so intense that it's easy to forget that reporting and editing are serious tasks with profound social and political ramifications.

Too often we respond to the competitive pressures by making less of ourselves, by offering our readers the perception of vitality in exchange for hard reporting and thoughtful analysis.

An unfortunate case in point is the way the line is crossed and often obliterated between reporting and advocacy. While there will always be a role for editorial comment and people still need access to unbiased information if they're going to make thoughtful decisions about candidates and issues, and thereby participate fully in this great nation's democratic process.

Now, add to all of this the Internet, which has, despite all the dire predictions, dramatically expanded newspapers' ability to reach and meet the needs of its audiences. It used to be that you had to come to work every day, or at least leave the bedroom to know what was going on. Now all you have to do is turn on your computer and the world is yours.

As the cyber battle for customers heats up we see numerous examples of reputations and values being sacrificed in the pursuit of a larger share of eyeballs. On-line news sites recognize that one of their competitive advantages is speed and traditional rules and practices of journalism are now being ignored with greater regularity.

This takes us to another important on-line phenomenon, the rise of bloggers. These individuals publish web logs that offer an ongoing narrative of their thoughts and observations. Some are professional journalists, but the vast majority of them are just folks with something on their minds.

While some of these individuals are making a serious and thoughtful contribution to our global dialogue, too many simply contribute to the sense that we're in the midst of an opinion-ridden free-for-all.

While this new medium requires innovative analysis and creative application, companies must still find a way to instill their core journalistic values into their on-line activities, especially given how important this medium is for the teenagers and young adults.

To repeat, traditional news outlets want to provide our audiences with the most up-to-date information, but we still need to maintain our professional standards to continue to offer our central value proposition, providing trustworthy news and information.

Of course, traditional journalists too have to make an even greater effort to ensure the quality of their own news reports. The public has rightly been greatly distressed by the shameful behavior of journalists like Steven Glass, Jack Kelly, and of course, our own Jason Blair.

These reporters failed to adhere to a very basic social contract, the first clause being "My first responsibility is to the truth." By either fabricating or plagiarizing stories, each of these individuals harmed themselves, they harmed their publications, and they harmed their profession and they harmed society.

What these incidents did was dramatically reinforce the misperception that the news media doesn't give a damn about accuracy.

One of the things that I found most upsetting about the Jason Blair ordeal was that we received so few phone calls from those individuals who were mistreated in his deeply flawed stories. They just generally assumed that newspapers operate that way. They expected that our editors wouldn't care.

These problems make it much more difficult for the news media to establish a sense of connection with our audiences. The good news is that my profession is full of journalists who know that we must contend with these issues.

They are extremely concerned about the quality of our national discourse and are working hard to convey the message that, one, we are guided by a set of larger philosophical propositions about the critical role of information in a democracy.

Two, that we do care about the concerns, interests and fears of our audiences and of our society. Three, we understand that when newspapers and television and radio stations and web sites dispassionately and aggressively pursue the truth they help rebuild respect for our profession and for our industry and ultimately contribute to our country's social cohesion and stability.

And finally, we know that by providing authoritative insight into a planet beset with new struggles and old biases, economic deprivation and armed conflict, we are helping people grapple with a set of geopolitical scenarios that are more complicated and more unpredictable and, quite frankly, more dangerous than ever before.

While explicitly acknowledging these critical truths is very important, what is more important is to meet and exceed the expectations of our readers and our viewers and our listeners.

The mainstream news media is doing exactly this with its excellent coverage of the hostilities in Iraq. As you read about what is happening in these stories, just remember that there is a reporter or photographer or camera crew on the scene.

They are doing everything they can to get the story, and this frequently means putting our own lives - their own lives in harm's way. In fact, almost three dozen journalists from all over the world have died covering the Iraq war. One more died yesterday. This most regrettably includes one of our own, the Boston Globe's Elizabeth Nufer.

Earlier this year the Times had a reporter and photographers kidnapped on two separate occasions. In both cases they were released, but not before they faced the very real possibility that they would all be killed.

Of course, there are many other examples of the news media rising to the challenge beyond the ongoing events in the greater Middle East, such as its reporting on the worldwide war against terrorism, the communications revolution, corporate scandals, the AIDS pandemic, and the continuing debate about international trade.

So there is hope that the news media can actually make things better. You may be wondering, this sounds nice, but is it in our nature to be constructive and positive, and the answer is an unqualified yes.

I've been around this business for more than 30 years - how did that happen - and what I have come to understand is that reporters and editors are by their very nature great optimists and incurable romantics.

We continue to care deeply about the world and its many problems, and we passionately believe that we have the ability to change humankind's destiny and to improve our collective quality of life.

I'm also optimistic for another reason. I believe that we are beginning to reverse an important socio anthropological trend that has seriously undermined our national discourse for decades.

A couple of years ago I read a book by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone. I recommend it to all of you. He makes a very compelling case that our post-modern life-style is moving in a disturbing direction, that our attention seems to be far more focused on our immediate reality and that we are, therefore, less interested in the larger world around us.

Clearly this lack of civic engagement has been profoundly undermining our society and our way of life. When people become less interested in what's happening around them, they tend to cede power and control to those special interests that implement a particularly narrow agenda. These groups maintain their focus because they fully understand that it's in their best interests to do so.

This might be changing. There are signs that people in this country are starting to become re-engaged in civic affairs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau a record number of people for a non-presidential election, 128 million, registered to vote in the 2002 congressional elections.

Another record number, 89 million, reported that they voted. There has also been a lot of discussion that the so-called dot net generation, those 40 million adults between 15 and 25, are far more interested in doing volunteer work and contributing to their community.

And over the past year a civic engagement movement has been launched on the campuses of this nation's colleges and universities to help transform our nation's cultural infrastructure.

The New York Times is pleased to be a partner in this critically important effort. A Times-sponsored American democracy project, which now includes 190 state colleges and universities, is helping to foster academic strategies that will, to quote the program's statement of goals, increase the number of undergraduate students who understand and are committed to engaging in meaningful civic actions.

I also believe that the horrific 9-11 attacks are playing a major role in this desire for reengagement. We have certainly learned that we cannot afford to respond passively to the forces swirling around us.

We now better understand how decisions are made and actions taken in New York and Washington, D.C., in Kabul or in Abu Ghraib, and how they directly affect each and every one of us, from a gallon of gas, to new security restrictions at our airports, to our sons, daughters, wives and husbands bravely fighting in the war in Iraq.

What has become abundantly clear is that a reinvigorated national discourse, one that allows us to more rationally consider what we must do next, is absolutely essential. And this can only happen if government, the news media and the citizenry all insist that we communicate with each other in a different fashion.

In September of 1936, at the height of that year's presidential campaign, a book was published titled America at the Crossroads. It provided a useful compendium of Alf Landon's thoughts and proposals, and its first chapter was titled The New Frontier. Catchy phrase, don't you think?

The Republican presidential candidate said this: "We are aware that we must make our own joint contributions to the solutions of the problems of our times. Each generation in turn has its own problems to solve for posterity. No age has escaped this inspiring responsibility. If such there were, then that would be an age of stagnation."

Alf Landon would have understood the moral and communication imperatives of this era as well as anyone, and he would have urged us all to become a little less fractious, a little less partisan, make a concerted effort to speak in a civil tongue, consider what is in everyone's best interest, and then to move forward. And that's excellent advice and I hope we have the wisdom to take it.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Landon Lecture
September 13, 2004