2004 IPFA John Carroll

International Press Freedom Awards

John Carroll
Burton Benjamin Memorial Award

John Carroll is the editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times. Throughout his four decades of newspaper work, Carroll has been a respected leader, admired throughout the industry for his considerable journalistic talents, as well as for his integrity and deep commitment to press freedom and fairness. Carroll was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, served on the Pulitzer Prize board from 1994 to 2003, and was chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board in 2002.

The Tribune Company recruited Carroll in April 2000 to take over a distinguished but demoralized newsroom in Los Angeles. At the Times, hard hit by public criticism of an advertising arrangement, Carroll moved steadily to restore the newsroom’s self-confidence. Carroll placed a high priority on investigative journalism and scrupulous editing. He also revamped the newsroom management and the paper’s design to include more prominent exposure for international coverage.

He has served as the newspaper’s chief advocate–defending its Middle East coverage, for example, when readers organized a boycott–as well as its chief critic, reproving his publication for liberal bias in its coverage of an abortion story this spring. In 2004, five journalists at the Los Angeles Times won Pulitzer Prizes, prominently affirming the Times‘ place as a top U.S. newspaper.

Carroll began his reporting career at Rhode Island’s Providence Journal-Bulletin before moving to The Baltimore Sun, where his beats included Vietnam, the Middle East, and the White House. In 1972, he joined The Philadelphia Inquirer as an editor. During the next 30 years, his name became synonymous with vibrant, investigative journalism and leadership that enlivened Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as the communities they serve.

Remarks by John Carroll, Burton Benjamin Memorial Award winner

Thank you, Sandy. I’m glad to see so many old friends tonight. And I am proud to receive this award, coming as it does from a group of people who will go anywhere on Earth, literally, to stand beside a journalist in trouble.

Each autumn we gather here in New York for an event that is social, elegant, and, in its own way, tribal. It is tribal in the sense that we listen, like primitive people around a campfire, to stories that give us inspiration. The names of the protagonists may strike us as foreign, but the deeds are familiar, evoking something deep in our American memories.

Change the names, and these are the stories of John Peter Zenger, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells and other Americans who faced prison, mobs, and even death to demonstrate, by brave example, four crucial values of our craft.

A journalist, they taught us, must not be afraid to stand alone. A journalist’s work is a counter-weight to the misuse of power. A journalist lives or dies by that humblest form of knowledge, the simple fact. And a journalist, when things get tough, can serve only one master: the public.

Now as this award suggests, I’ve been in the newspaper business for a long time. One sees changes. Some of the changes are obvious – the disappearance of the typewriter, for example. Others are more subtle, transforming our work – and the way we think about our work and about ourselves – just a little bit each year.

Each year, the organizations we serve grow larger and more complex. Each year, the voice of the journalist grows smaller and smaller within those organizations. And each year, I’m afraid, the gap between ourselves and our heroes grows just a little bit wider.

Today, the American public is bombarded with news from many sources, some trustworthy, some not. Few citizens have time to sort it all out.

That role falls to us – we who work for corporations and are sometimes derided as the “establishment media.”

Are we worthy? Let’s measure ourselves against the four values we celebrate tonight.

Value number one: A journalist stands alone.
Today, as we face the public, we represent not only ourselves, but many other interests. We – corporately speaking – produce books, movies and television programs, which we also review for the public. We engage in something that resembles competition with television stations and newspapers that actually belong to us. Some of us can’t even remember all our entanglements. We like to think of ourselves as independent, but others are less and less inclined to see us that way.

Value number two: Journalism as a counter-weight to power.
We may also think of ourselves as vindicators – and sometimes we actually are vindicators – but we are also, as an industry, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Is it tenable to challenge power while sidling up to it at the same time?

Value number three: Reverence for the facts.
I’m wondering whether the nation has ever been hit with more distortion and falsehood than it was in the recent campaign. Some it arose, as always, from simple human error. But much of it was not error. It was marketing. Over the last decade, traditional journalism has been thrown into a blender along with the most dishonorable practices of attack politics. The resulting Kool-Aid is toxic to our credibility.

And finally, value number four: Service to the public.
In many ways, we do serve the public well. The best of today’s journalism is very good indeed.

But, there are limits to our zeal. For decades, our industry has been waging a lavishly financed argument that the public will do just fine with fewer and fewer sources of news. This is a story we cover only tepidly. It appears on the business pages, usually a routine item involving corporate winners, corporate losers and lots of lawyers. But we know it’s more than that. This issue, we know, touches the core of the relationship between journalism and the self-governing people of our nation. It’s time we covered it that way.

We – the people in this room – are stewards of a tradition. It is a good tradition, a hard-won tradition. Times may change, but the best of our values must be carried on. The first step in doing so is to see clearly, without self-delusion, who we are today – and to remember, with equal clarity, who we ought to be.

Thank you so much.

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