By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
Walter Robinson was the Boston Globe’s Editor-at-Large when the vaunted newspaper broke the story of a decades long cover-up of child molestation perpetrated by the local Catholic Archdiocese. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the series of reports, and a movie (Spotlight) predicated on the Globe’s account, won an Academy Award. However, he chose to talk about “Which Will Die First – Democracy or Newspapers,” during a visit to Kiawah’s Sandcastle on Oct. 25.
“This issue is not comfort food. Nor, I regret to say, is the topic in any way overstated. Some here might be delighted to learn that journalism … [is] on life support. I think I can offer a credible argument that this would not be a good outcome for any of us,” Robinson began. He then differentiated between Washington, “where the swamp is being drained,” and the rest of the country, “every red state and every blue state… because we have so much in common, more than we know… [and] much to lose if we allow a free and independent press to wither away.”
Robinson spent most of his career covering the political world, though he said he was gratefully free of covering the last election. But he covered the White House when it was occupied by presidents Reagan, and Bush, “two men who understood a thing or two about America’s responsibility to set a high and unflinching moral standard… Two men who embraced a standard of presidential leadership that was civil… Two men, like all their predecessors, who were irked and annoyed at the news coverage they received, but who understood the critical role a free and cantankerous press plays in a free society,” Robinson highlighted.
“I am mindful of the old line: there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.
Here are the statistics:
- Seven in 10 American adults cannot identify their congressman by name.
- Just 34 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government.
“Those are but two measurements of how ill-equipped we are to make informed decisions at the polls. When I hear commentators lament the fact that 93 million Americans did not bother vote in 2016, I sometimes secretly rejoice.
“Second, in 1999 there were 25,000 reporters working for daily newspapers in the United States. Half of those jobs have since vanished. Those numbers are not unrelated. When we discuss how ill-informed most Americans are, we place too much blame on our public schools for eliminating civics classes. We’ve forgotten that newspapers are supposed to teach civics too. I call that continuing education, but we hardly do that anymore because our business model has collapsed. And no one has figured out how to resuscitate it.
“In the last two years, much of the country has been fixated on whether we can trust the news we read and see. To me, what is more worrisome is that much of what should be in our local newspapers is not being covered at all. Democracy cannot function effectively unless citizens know what is going on,” said Robinson.
He cited the case of the Pentagon Papers. The Supreme Court ruled the government could not censor the press, and the top-secret history of the Vietnam War was published, despite institutional efforts to prevent it.
“Before the Pentagon Papers case reached the high court, a federal judge in New York initially denied the Justice Department’s [requested] injunction. Here is a little of what judge Murray Gurfein wrote: ‘a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression, and the right of the people to know… It is not merely the opinion of the editorial writer or of the columnist, which is protected by the first amendment. It is the free flow of information so that the public will be informed about the government and its actions. This has been the genius of our institutions throughout our history. It is one of the marked traits of our natural life that distinguish us from other nations under different forms of government,”’ cited Robinson.
He wrapped up his presentation by discussing the profound importance of Judge Gurfein’s ruling and comments. However dramatic issues of national importance are, the same rules apply to local papers, he said. The issues may not even be particularly partisan, but local news helps us understand what’s going on around us. Information on the micro level still helps us make intelligent decisions and has for decades, Robinson added.
“Information on where we live, what schools are good, how safe we are, whether our tax dollars are spent wisely… articles that are written and edited by men and women who are our neighbors, not by participants in cable news shout-a-thons. I am focusing today on newspapers because I know a little about them, but also because newspapers are where the vast bulk of news originates. Even now, the staffs at local TV and radio stations, and even national television networks are tiny compared to newspapers.
“Back in 2001, when my team at the Boston Globe began investigating the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, the newspaper was selling more than half a million copies every day. We had 550 people in our newsroom. Today, 16 years and eight buyouts later, we have just 220 journalists left, and the daily print circulation is below 140,000. [Luckily], the Globe is owned by a billionaire who believes in good journalism and is happy to produce it even if he makes [nothing],” said Robinson, thus amplifying his plug for local papers.