Speech of former Gov. Gerald L. BalilesFollowing is the text of a speech by former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles upon his acceptance of the 2009 VPA Virginian of the Year Award. He titled this speech, "The Fourth Estate and the Governance of the Country."
Thank you for this wonderful award. It is a pleasure to receive it in the company of my wife, children, grandchildren and friends, and an honor to join the ranks of your prior recipients, especially good friends like David Goode and Jack Marsh.
It is customary, I am advised, to make some remarks at this point.
After such a delightful meal in excellent company, and all the nice things said, it’s hard not to recall that Adlai Stevenson once said that the best after-dinner speech he had ever heard was: “Waiter, I’ll take the check!”
It should not come as a surprise to anyone here that I do have a few thoughts that I’d like to impart this evening, especially about the press.
So let me begin, by saying again, that it is a signal honor to be recognized by this body -- the Virginia Press Association.
It is the case that at least some beneficial tension always should exist between officials in office and the press --- but whether in office or out, I have viewed the press very much as “the fourth estate,” the fourth branch of governance in our free society, as the watchdog for the public.
These days as the Director of the Miller Center at UVa, governance is the focus of my attention --- more specifically, “issues of importance to the governance of the country.” And so it is with some concern that I --- and the faculty and staff at the Miller Center and friends across Virginia -- have taken note of the troubles that newspapers in particular have been encountering --- in recent months and weeks especially.
Recent figures do still show that nearly half of all adults read a newspaper every day, and spent more than $10 billion last year doing so, by subscribing or purchasing newspapers. But we all see the shuttering of the doors at the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post Intelligencer, while others declare bankruptcy, eliminate print editions and reduce home deliveries. Across the country, we see the waves of layoffs of reporters and staff. And we watch as stock prices of major newspaper companies have fallen.
We are worried.
The news right now is full of talk and stories about the news, and for good reason. And yet, the deeper context and history can often be overlooked in the current moment. Technological change is afoot, but not for the first time.
The printing press itself was a disruptive force throughout the fifteenth century. Before that, in the fifth century, the shift from scroll to codex --- which is to say from using scrolls for documents to using something very much like our modern books --- was disruptive.
The printing press, of course, is better than manual transcription, and books are better than scrolls. But don’t believe that nothing was lost in these changes. For instance, any works that were not transcribed from scroll to codex in late antiquity have largely been lost to posterity --- including works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.
Clearly, we are at a moment of significant technological change, and we would be wise to address it carefully, lest we lose something else. To be sure, the newspaper business has seen change before. As mentioned earlier, I have been discussing this matter with friends and faculty at the Miller Center, and we’ve noted that the story of newspapers and the news in America has many interesting turns and evolutions.
Take the Colonial era to start, and consider William Byrd II, who lived in the late 1600s and the early decades of the 1700s. The Byrd family had the practice of educating their children in England, as many prominent Virginia families at the time did. When William returned to the Tidewater area as a young man after his time in England, he longed for information from across the Atlantic as well as from the other American colonies. You might be surprised to know how it came.
During most of the history of Colonial Virginia, news came from letters hand-carried across the ocean, routed through London. Indeed, if Byrd wanted news from Boston where his law partners resided, letters carrying it were still routed through London, making two transatlantic trips. As late as the early 1700s, news was largely private and available chiefly to the rich, it relied on hand-carried letters across great distance, and the only viable newspapers were in England.
Newspapers in America began in earnest in the 1720s and 1730s. The Maryland Gazette began in Annapolis in 1727 and the Virginia Gazette began in Williamsburg in 1736. We have likewise all heard of Ben Franklin’s exploits as a publisher, with the Pennsylvania Gazette beginning in the 1730s.
It is not coincidental that the rise of newspapers accompanied the rising devotion to freedom in that time, and through the Revolution. By 1819, through the seedtime of the republic, and the founding of the University of Virginia, there were more than 500 newspapers in America, and by 1840 newspapers were ubiquitous, numbering in the thousands.
The founding fathers believed that newspapers and the free flow of information encouraged democracy. They protected the press in the first amendment to the Constitution. And they created and generously funded the United States Post Office to insure the timely and affordable delivery of the news to the public.
It is often said in Charlottesville that employees of the University of Virginia are contractually obligated to quote Jefferson. A Jefferson quote is quite apt here --- and familiar:
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Soon after the dawn of newspapers, a trend developed we today might find odd --- and it was a trend that Jefferson himself both used to his advantage and suffered from --- the rise of the partisan press. Soon enough in the 1800s there was not a pretense of impartiality in the press. The trend accelerated when Jackson lost the presidency in 1824. The Jacksonians turned to establishing, funding, and running newspapers to carry his partisan message. Editors were party activists and papers worked to create record turnout and fight for their party.
By the middle of the 1800s, though, the business model for newspapers changed --- they discovered the potential of advertising. Prior to the 1840s and 1850s, newspapers were funded by purchases and subscriptions --- or funded by political parties --- but not funded by advertising. With advertising funding, the content of news broadened from partisan politics to include emphases on business, sports, and entertainment. Newspapers that produced only political news failed.
My guess is that few modern journalists would respect the early commercial newspapers. The rule was to follow what sold. In the adage of the day: “boosting paid --- knocking did not.” So even with broadened content, there was still a political slant, and very little, if any, of what we today would consider investigative reporting. For instance, during most of the time Boss Tweed held iron sway over New York City, not one of the 26 New York newspapers meaningfully critiqued or challenged him.
It was not until the 1870s that Harpers Weekly ran a series of critical stories and cartoons concerning the Tweed administration --- and began what we think of as investigative journalism.
Modern journalistic ideals of objectivity, separating facts from values, and neutrality, reporting fairly, did not take hold broadly until after World War I.
So today, we are just perhaps a decade shy of the 100 year mark of newspaper journalism as we know it. The business prospered and continued to profit, even through the rise of radio and then of TV. One high water mark was when Bob Woodward, one of the Miller Center’s dozen governing board members, gave a powerful example of the watchdog power of the press with his Watergate reporting. But now the Internet, which like newspapers --- and unlike radio and TV --- also traffics in the written word (and classified ads), poses a challenge to newspapers.
Newspapers, especially in their modern form, have played a crucial role in our democracy. Just this week, a Princeton University study showed that the absence of a local paper leads to diminished voter turnout and diminished competition at the polls for incumbents because fewer challengers run, finding it harder to get the word out about their candidacies.
Newspapers and journalism, “the fourth estate” --- very Jeffersonian endeavors --- matter to the governance of the country.
It may be that the current concerns about the decline of newspapers and journalism are premature. But the concerns are mounting, and it may never be too soon to consider not only the effects of change, but how to adapt to a new landscape to ensure survival.
Frankly, I worry about the loss of the newspapers’ role as the eye witness to events, the conscience of the community, and the source of livelihood for reporters, staffers, editors, managers and sales representatives, and carriers. There is reason to be concerned about the loss of the collective carriers of stories across the country, that are personal, professional and scientific, stories of a commercial nature, a concern for labor issues or reports of sporting events.
My career overlaps a period of profound change in the newspaper business. When I first ran for statewide office in 1981, Virginia newspaper owners were already looking critically at their businesses. By the time I left the Governor’s Office in 1990, afternoon papers were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. And let me assure you, my administration had nothing to do with that!
But that was just the beginning. No one ever imagined then that the morning papers would be at risk, that we would see newspaper organizations in Virginia -- and across the country -- under enormous strain, and we all know that the newspaper of today is not what we knew 20 years ago.
I have no issue with change per se, but have long advocated a departure from Virginia’s past tendencies to resist new things -- the importance of engaging the world economically and the need to compete.
It is hard to resist sounding like the blacksmith complaining about the horseless carriage, but a world without newspapers is a fundamentally different world than we have known.
The trend lines are disturbing and raise some fundamental questions about how we govern ourselves.
There is the unfortunate fact that newspaper organizations - who invariably lead coverage - believe they can no longer afford to invest the resources necessary to maintain overseas news bureaus. Some are shutting down their posts in the nation’s capital, and reducing their coverage of state budgets and education issues.
There will be consequences that flow from such decisions, for there is simply no easy substitute for institutional memory -- who did what when, who said what and why.
More than that, in my judgment, it is institutional memory that informs analysis.
Speaking of institutional memory, I remember some of the giants in the publishing world of Virginia during my career: the Battens, the Bryans, Byrds, Boones, Grahams, Bottoms and Van Burens, the Arundels, Rugabers, Spilmans, Haskells, the Rowes and the Worrells. And it is hard to forget some of the Virginia deans and dons of the reporting world -- the Jim Latimers, Guy Friddells, Marge Fishers and Buster Carricos, and their successors, some of whom are still covering their beats.
Times have changed, and we must recognize that.
We must not confuse sentimentality with the challenges confronting newspapers and journalism. The business model is strained, and we don’t know yet what will replace it. We are in a period of transition where we can only see darkly.
As a recent article in The New Republic stated, “social transformation is breaking up old monopolies of communication and power and creating new possibilities for free expression and democratic politics.” The same article notes that “the expansion of choice is probably one of the most worrisome trends in American life: diminished attention to the news and reduced engagement in civic life on the part of the public. Some are concerned about increased fragmentation by interests and partisanship. Some believe we are beginning to see the emergence of “distinct ideological profiles” in the media.
The concluding paragraph of the most recent New Republic article provides additional food for thought:
“News coverage is not all that newspapers have given us. They have lent the public a powerful means of leverage over the state, and this leverage is now at risk. If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate of government, the end of the age of newspapers implies a change of the political system itself. Newspapers have helped control corrupt tendencies in both government and business. If we are to avoid a new era of corruption, we are going to have to summon that power in other ways. Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities.”
Thus, the question: Can we govern the country without newspapers, the provider for much of the news that is carried by radio, television and the Internet?
At the Miller Center we intend to convene in the coming months a national working group of key media leaders, stakeholders and academic experts to systematically address two questions ---
1. What are the future prospects for the infrastructure of news journalism?
2. What effects will trends with newspapers and the media in general have on the governance of the country?
The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has been known as a place for leaders to come together to find solutions, and perhaps we can contribute now in some way, as a facilitator, in helping to identify lines of progress as newspapers and journalism face today’s changing trends and technology.
This is a celebratory evening, -- or should be --and the “fourth estate” has much to celebrate. While there is change afoot today, the industry has advanced through periods of change before. I hope that with prudent measures it can move from strength to strength in the years to come. It must --- because of course there will be future Governors to interrogate, watch over, and prod, not to mention the rest of the country.
I thank you, again, for the honor of this award --- and on behalf of the Miller Center, I look forward to being of service in helping to consider the path ahead for the very Jeffersonian work of the press.