July 05, 2020
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A Latter-Day Torch To Be Borne With Care

In this inaugural Vinod Mehta Memorial Lecture, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll talks about the origins, uses, abuses, trials and triumphs of free, fair and investigative modern journalism as the world knows it

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A Latter-Day Torch To Be Borne With Care
Photograph by Gireesh G.V.
A Latter-Day Torch To Be Borne With Care

Thanks to everyone at the Outlook Group for having me here. I always relished an occasion to come back to Delhi. I really enjoyed re-reading Vinod Mehta’s work in preparing for this. It is a great honour to be selected to deliver the first lecture in his memory. I don’t know how many of you have had a chance to read his memoir, Lucknow Boy, but I recommend it. It has a certain admirable character about it. He is not full of himself. He is full of humour, full of life, full of curiosity, very conversational, very accessible and that I think is sometimes what it takes to reach audiences. His sensibility was on the other hand quite a serious one—very devoted to public interest journalism and all of us outside India admire Outlook as an exemplar of the very best journalism in this country.

I lived here for three years in Vasant Vihar as the Washington Post correspondent between 1989 and 1992. It was a time of considerable change in Indian politics. I think I covered four governments in three years. I may be one of the few Americans who know that Chandrashekhar was in fact the prime minister of India, may have only been for some weeks. It was an exciting time, a disturbing time and a time for beginnings for the India I enjoy coming back to today. Now when I look out the windows and I see the metro and the flyovers and I am reminded just how much progress has unfolded since that time.

The founders of our countries trusted that a series of checks and sources of transparency in the constitutional system would improve it.

One of the reasons I really loved it here and love coming back is because of the connection between the political economies and the Constitutions of India and the United States. The founders of our countries who wrote these Constitutions had in mind development in an open system—dev­elopment that might sometimes be slowed down by arg­ument, by conflict, by openness. They trusted that there would be a series of checks and sources of transparency in this constitutional system that would improve it. I have reflected a lot on what makes journalism credible in a constitutional system. How does it renew its place in the system imagined by our founders?

I want to start by telling a story about another editor. At Columbia, I come to work every day aware that the school I am stewarding and the prizes that are administered down the hall were created by a man named Joseph Pulitzer, whose commitment to excellence in journalism is well known. What is not very well known is who Joseph Pulitzer actually was and how he ended up with his vision of fact-based, professional journalism that he endowed in this school over a hundred years ago. His story, like Vinod Mehta’s story, is not the story of a man from the elite. It’s a story about a journey and of a discovery late in life of certain values and principles that became very influential in the United States.

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847. His family was well off and he was tutored in German and French but his brothers and parents died and he found himself alone as he was coming of age. He answered a newspaper ad that was related to the American Civil War. Late in the Civil War President Lincoln imposed conscription, because it was becoming difficult to find enough volunteers to fight. He imposed a draft, but with a catch to prevent uprisings. The catch was you could pay someone to substitute for your conscription. So wealthy families in New York started taking out advertisements in Europe looking for mercenaries to serve in place of their sons.

Pulitzer argued that if journalism became a bona fide profession, it could inform and strengthen civil society and be a check on power.

Joseph Pulitzer, at 19 or 20, decided to sign up. So he went to New York speaking only German and French. He found another group of German-speaking mercenaries. They formed a cavalry unit in 1864. They ended up fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, near Washington DC. For a year they rode up and down the valley, speaking German to Virginians. The war ended and they were all told now you are Americans if you wish to be. Hearing that in St Louis there was a German-speaking community, Pulitzer went to that great city on the Mississippi, and found a community of politics and journalism that attracted him.

At that time journalism in the US, as in many parts of the world still today, was very partisan. It was an arm of political parties, an expression of political competition, which was often not polite. The principal battle then, as now, was bet­ween Democrats and Republicans. Pulitzer became a Democrat. He bought a newspaper called the St Louis Post that is still published in diminished form. He became an investigative reporter. He learned enough English to edit a paper in English and started attacking graft and corruption in local officials. Of course, his targets were almost always Republican officials, as he was a Democrat running for office. But he found the Republican officials that he was competing with to be utterly corrupt. So, week after week, he would publish these deep investigations of their conflicts of interest, their pay offs, their bribery. One day, a subject of a story became aggravated and marched over to the offices of the St Louis Post and had a very heated argument with Pulitzer about the accuracy of this investigative story. At the end of the argument, Pulitzer pulled out a pistol and shot the man; in the leg, actually. This being the West, he was not jailed for shooting the man. He was fined.

After some time, he moved to New York and he bought a newspaper that became the greatest newspaper of its age in New York, the most financially successful, the most innovative and that made his fortune and enabled him to endow Columbia journalism school and Pultizer prizes. This was the New York World. At the peak of its power between say 1880 and 1915 it was a rem­arkable paper also because of its innovations. It was the first paper to print colour comics, it emphasised illustrations, had a populist streak that favoured new immigrants. It had a popular tone but also a kind of rigour about its rep­orts. Still, if you read it in 1895 you would not have predicted that Joseph Pulitzer would become one of the most influential intellectual patrons of fact-based journalism. But towards the end of his life he reflected about journalism’s role in a democratic society. Eventually, he pulled together some remarkably prescient ideas about the future of journalism in an essay in the North American Review in 1904. Long before people talked about journalism as a function of a constitutional society, long bef­ore people thought about journalists as belonging to a profession requiring ethics, a commitment to truth-seeking and a reliance on scientific method and facts, Pulitzer did so.

The main argument he made was that journalism could bec­ome a profession alongside law and medicine and accounting etc and that if it did, it could inform the public, hold powerful individuals and institutions to account and strengthen civil society, to strengthen the electorate and to provide along with the judiciary a check on power. And he wondered if 70 years on (I don’t know why he chose that time-frame), the constitution, and the equality of all before the law would be preserved.

And he said, I don’t know if my vision will be taken up, if Col­umbia will accept my endowment. In fact, Harvard turned it down and Columbia was reluctant to establish a school of journalism, unsure if it was worthy of the university. Well, it happened in the end that journalism evolved gradually from a rather unruly sensationalist populist profession into one that also included very serious public-minded institutions like Outlook, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The irony that I hadn’t reflected on before I went back to re-r­­ead this essay in preparation for tonight is that exactly 70 years after that essay was published (1904), in the summer of 1974, Richard Nixon resigned because of reporting in the Washington Post by a couple of professional journalists.

How is this public-­minded, probing journalism, speaking truth to power to coexist with irresponsible, noisy and distorted news?

I think what Pulitzer really outlined for our profession was that the rights contemplated in constitutional systems for the press are inseparable from the other rights that were contemplated at the same time. The Press is not a special category of civil rights, but part of a system that includes the judiciary, independent prosecutors, public opinion and elections. I want to come back to the subject of Donald Trump. I must say I am rather tired of talking about our President. There’s something that’s happening in the constitutio­nal functioning in the US in these past seven months, including the press, that I think is worth reflecting on him in the light of Pulitzer’s idea, which many of us take for granted. One of the questions I want to embrace is one that you hear a lot in journalism school. How is it that this public-minded, public int­erested function of journalism, this con­stitutional function of transpare­ncy, investigative reporting, speaking truth to power, creating fora for diverse opinions, how is that supposed to coexist with sensationalist, irresponsible, noisy if not fake, distorted news, amateur rep­orting, shouting on television. How are we supposed to understand the responsible role of the press when so much of the media is transparently populist at best, irresponsible at worst? As Vinod Mehta understood, the serious press has always exis­ted alongside the popular press. It was true at the time Joseph Pulitzer started to reflect on what a professional press could become and it is true today.

There are different kinds of failure or sensationalism or popular strategy in media that I just want to inventory brie­fly. Firstly, there has always been a popular press alongside a serious press and secondly it is not always threatening to our democracy. In the US, you might have noticed the tabloids alongside the cash register—the National Inquirer and the others. It has headlines like ‘Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby’ and it had like an ‘official photo’ of her holding something from E.T. You could find a dozen of those headlines on any grocery stand of the United States for the last forty or fifty years. Do people who bought those newspapers actually credit the truth of these stories? Of course not. There’s alw­ays some sensational journalism designed to be entertainment and there’s a sort of agreement of suspension of disbelief between publisher and audience about it.

Where it becomes dangerous is where it becomes propaganda. There is a difference, I want to argue, between sensational entertainment and deliberate propaganda. A propaganda campaign is designed to manipulate public opinion or political outcomes. What’s happening to digital media today both in the US and India is that the line between popular entertainment—sensational, flawed but acceptably free journalism—and outright propaganda is blurring. It’s also difficult to distinguish because so much of the undertaking of this work is being done through automation and in spaces that are very difficult for the reader to see or to assess or to judge. This problem isn’t going to get better any time soon. I think we are in for a period of deliberately manufactured propaganda campaigns where the technology associated with those campaigns is going to be more sophisticated than the audience’s ability to distinguish a credible from an inc­redible source. We are in a dangerous moment.

Now, what do we do about it? We started with these constitutional systems that were based on the primacy of openness. That we are willing to accept a certain amount of penalty for the amount of argument that we have, for the conflicts we endure, for the diversity we privilege. If we face propaganda dangerous to the health of our democratic system, are we meant to shut them down? If we do that, how much other speech will we suppress? What is the mechanism by which we empower either a company like Face­book or a government to distinguish between propaganda and legitimate speech? It’s a very difficult question to answer in a way that would give you any confidence in such a regime. You’re certainly going to move into a form of censorship. There have always been kinds of speech in a radical First Amendment society like the US, speech that has been qualified, speech that incites violence and mobilises hatred, although the bar for stopping such speech in the US is high, there is a bar and it is similar to restrictions in India.

But we’re also talking about manipulated news, manipula­ted public opinion, propaganda campaigns. If we try to shut those down on principles similar to the prohibitions against inciting violence, we will be shutting down lots other kinds of speech too. There’s something glorious about a society that is informed by truly free speech, even nutty, irresponsible speech. In the US today, some of the best news and investigative reporting is being created by satirists—The Onion, John Oliver’s show on HBO.

Free, fair journalism based on scientific methods is an Anglo-American tradition. It’s also unusual and, in practice, relatively new.

So the claims journalism makes on credibility in a democratic constitutional system doesn’t lie around the capac­ity for that system to provide space for free speech. There’s something else going on in the editorial decision-making of Outlook—that is, a journalism based on facts, impartiality, a kind of scientific method, fairness and truth-seeking. We have to recognise that this—journalism devoted to scientific methods—is an unusual tradition in the history of arts and letters and journalism in the last four or five centuries. It is also a distinctively Anglo-American tradition. It came out of the search for evidence in British courts in, say, the 17th century. It came out of the need in commerce-based capitalist societies for accurate information about shipping. In the American tradition, the transition from partisanship to fact-based press happened out of technology, out of market incentives. When the telegraph was invented somebody made a business out of transmitting news quickly around the country to newspapers, which had partisan disagreements, but they all needed access to the same facts at the same time. So the wire services developed this neutral, careful, accuracy-based system.

This Anglo-American idea of professional journalism was passed through to countries like India that then converted it into their own nationalist press. And so this tradition has spread, but it’s not common. It’s not really part of the history of journalism in France or Italy. So the first thing to say about this idea that we are all taking for granted is that it is unusual. It’s also young. In the US the press enjoys privileges and protections unlike in any other country but even though the First Amendment is over two centuries old, the protections that journalists at the Washington Post or the New York Times enjoy and which President Trump has been attacking rhetorically—at least so far—really only date to the 1960s. The reason that US journalism enjoys such unusual protections is because of a libel case that was settled in 1964, because of the Pentagon Papers case that occurred in 1971. Even in the 1920s, the US was putting presidential candidates in jail for suggesting that people avoid the draft. A socialist candidate was put in jail during the First World War for that very reason. So, this is not a deep 200-year commitment to the role of fact-based journalism in the public square. This is a really young regime that is yet to be as fully tested as many other parts of the Constitution have been.

The digital media has opened up publishing and resulted in a tribalised media, where people read and watch news that confirms their opinons.

The other thing that has put pressure on these protections and the role of journalists is that businesses changed because of the digital revolution. Magazines and newspapers that enj­oyed the stability to pursue this kind of journalism don’t have the economic independence and stability they enj­oyed 30 or 40 years ago. The digital revolution has opened publishing to everyone and out of that has come a media that is increasingly tribalised. You see this in the US. People tune into the cable network or read the news outlet that confirms opinions they already hold. You may find some of this in your own country. This has sprung up and intensified over the last five or six years to the extent that in the US, organisations like the New York Times that used to see themselves as published for everyone are now seen as very specifically ideological. Even though editors and reporters may not see themselves that way, their audiences do.

There are three or four things that have tribalised the media. First, the underlying polarisation in our politics—the US is more divided into like-minded communities that intensively oppose other communities than was true 20 or 30 years ago. Some of this in the US has happened by migration, creating communities that think alike. This has created pockets where every presidential election is decided by 20 points or more in many counties, as there’s no contest. Sociologists have shown that this has intensified in the last 20 years.

Secondly, this is just the way that our brains work. Scientists have discovered that we have this property in our brains called cognitive bias. It means that we prefer to hear the emotionally pleasing confirmation to beliefs we already hold. Why do we have this? Because our survival as a species depended on solidarity, on hanging together. So one thing you learn as a reporter, if you want to avoid mistakes, you have to get out of this emotionally pleasing loop of confirming what you think and force yourself to be challenged by possibilities or facts that make you uncomfortable. The other big factor, and I am sure is present in Outlook and other media, is that in today’s advertising market, in today’s circulation market, it’s not good enough to be smart, to be reliable, have breadth. You need what marketing people call engagement. You need an audience that is passionate, like how NYT readers are passionate about their involvement with the Times.

On the other end you have Fox News, an emotionally charged, very transparently political cable television network, one of the most profitable media companies in the US. Cable companies know that if they were to drop Fox News they would be subject to a political revolution. So there’s this self-enforcing tribalisation which I can’t see going away. Now, a partisan press is not necessarily bad if it is honest, credible and independent of political parties. This is the tradition in continental Europe.

But the problem is that as journalism become more ideological and polarised, it becomes less credible for many. It’s therefore easier for governments to repress it or for corporate owners to manipulate it. And we are witnessing a wave of repression and co-optation of media around the world. Ten or 15 years ago even in authoritarian societies like China the space for investigative reporting was opening up, especially about subjects like corruption and conflict of int­erest. Independent journalists even in places like Egypt and China and Turkey were testing boundaries. Today, all of that space has closed back up and there are enough reporters in jail in Egypt and Turkey to staff a good-sized newspaper.

Though Trump craves media attention, his rhetoric delegitimises journalism as a check on his own power, as part of the constitutional system.

Now what about Donald Trump? What kind of threat does he pose? The first thing to understand is his own relationship with the press. He craves the press and media attention and has already cultivated it. That has been the secret to his business success. There was a time when he used to call up the New York Post, pretending to be Donald Trump’s press agent, to plant stories about Donald Trump! He has a sop­histicated sense of the press. He loves reporters if they love him. So he is not hostile in some innate way to the role of the media. This is a political strategy he has seized upon that he has rolled with. But his words are changing the climate for journalism in the US. His rhetoric delegitimises journalism as a check on his own power, as a part of our constitutional system. He is dee­ply sceptical about these fragile privileges that the press enjoys and I wouldn’t be surprised if I see a reporter prosecuted for espionage during the Trump adm­inistration for ‘collaborating’ with a source to obtain and publish classified information. The Obama administration started us down this road.

Yet, these recent attacks on the press have actually strengthened American journalism. They have made it clear to many reporters why they have this constitutional role and you can see—if you read NYT and the Washington Post—it’s difficult for anyone in the US to draft an executive order or propose change of law and not have it land in a Washington Post reporter’s inbox within about two or three hours. Important institutions like the FBI and the Justice Dep­artment recognise that the integrity of their own probes conducted under great pressure from a President who continually denounces the legitimacy of these investigations, depends on the transparency of a free press. These are not leaks without purpose. The purpose is to tell the public what’s going on and why an independent judiciary should be respected.

As journalism gets more polarised it becomes less credible, and easier to repress. The solution is to take more risks to defend a free press.

So what are our solutions? I think we have to take more risks to defend a free press with all of its imperfections and variety to stand up for those rights even when they are unpopular and to renew our defence of independent, fact-based and impartial journalism. It’s going to be a struggle. The history of both of our societies is that the preservation of rights is always a struggle. And these rights are int­ertwined. If you fail to defend one set of rights, you’re likely to see another erode. It’s remarkable for my generation in the US, for we’ve never known pressure like this from a government, certainly not since the Nixon administration. I think we’re up for it. But I don’t want to underestimate how severe these tests are going to be and how much courage they are going to require from journalists to defend their own credibility. In the end, what we ultimately need are more and better journalists, independent journalists, committed to the traditions that Vinod Mehta modelled and created at Outlook and which the magazine continues to follow today. It’s been an honour to talk with you about some of these ideas that informed Vinod Mehta’s career and I thank you for listening. I appreciate it. Thank you.

(Steve Coll is Dean, Columbia School of Journalism and author of Ghost Wars)

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