During nearly four decades at The New York Times, JOSEPH LELYVELDhelped define the highest principles of American journalism. Lelyveld began at The Times as a copy boy in 1962. His distinguished reporting included years as a foreign correspondent in London, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and Johannesburg. His 1985 book, Move Your Shadow, based on his reporting on South Africa under apartheid, won several major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Other honors for his reporting have included the George Polk Memorial Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Lelyveld moved from foreign correspondent to foreign editor in 1987, then he became managing editor and finally executive editor of The Times from 1994 until his retirement last month.
In an interview during his tenure as executive editor, Lelyveld said that communities need a “free and rambunctious press” in order to create “a place where issues can be defined, redefined and debated.”
The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award, given for a lifetime of distinguished achievement for the cause of press freedom, honors the late CBS News senior producer and former CPJ chairman, who died in 1988.
Tony [Anthony Lewis, New York Times columnist], I’ll always be grateful for those words. It’s terrific to find myself braced by you, my old bureau chief in long ago London days, and Gene Roberts, an editor I came to know in ancient times on a story called Chappaquiddick, and who, more recently, was my stalwart partner: dear friends both. Now if only I were in the position of presenting this award in memory of a great news editor, Bud Benjamin, to one of you, my presence here this evening would make a lot more sense to me than finding myself on the receiving end does. I can only imagine that the decision to give this award to a struggling free-lancer who has sold a grand total of two articles in the last 15 years is meant as an encouragement to unsalaried writers everywhere who, like me now, find themselves in a permanent state of looking for work. Or maybe it’s meant as a tribute to my old colleagues at The Times who have performed so heroically in the 10 tumultuous weeks since I moved on, in which case, I heartily join in the salute but wonder even more why I’m the one standing here. Surely it’s not for my spectacular ill timing in scheduling my departure from daily newspapering so that it occurred just six days before the biggest story in our city since Washington was sworn in not far from the place we now call ground zero.
In any event, this occasion presents me with an influential and captive audience you and an opportunity to think out loud for three minutes on the evening’s obvious themes. One is courage, the other duty, and often, they are indistinguishable. The press and broadcast heroes from repressive lands who are stirringly honored at these CPJ dinners don’t set out to be heroes. They don’t court arrests, beatings, or bombings. But when they come face to face with a demand that they silence themselves, they know their duty: They publish, they broadcast, at great personal risk.
We’re all uplifted by their examples, but in the glow of an evening like this, we should not overlook the obvious fact that in country after country repression actually wins for years, even decades, at a time: Journalists are intimidated and corrupted; independent papers and broadcast stations are shut down, simply padlocked, or blown up; journalists of integrity and courage are driven into exile, deprived of any outlets in their own countries for their works. These outcomes more commonplace than assassinations or jailings are harder to highlight but, ultimately, just as corrosive to the hope of a free society. And a view prevails that was memorably summed up, in the days when I covered Geoff Nyarota’s country, by a journalist who had sold out to Robert Mugabe: “Positivity is news,” this official flunkey proclaimed. “Negativity is not news.” There was no independent press to speak of in those days in Zimbabwe. And there was certainly none in China. Yet the idea of independent journalism did not have to be imported into those countries. It was homegrown by courageous men and women like those we honor tonight.
I find their examples particularly apt for a time in this country when the idea that “negativity is not news” has gained force in the shadowy struggle against terrorism. Our government has urged us not to print or broadcast Osama bin Laden’s crazy harangues for fear that his medieval vision which justifies the slaughter of innocent civilians would inflame new adherents. It has detained large numbers of foreigners in this country indefinitely without charge, using the immigration statutes to create something very close to a system of preventive detention. Mostly, we don’t know who the detainees are, where they are, or how many they are. It has promulgated a system of military tribunals that, according to the vice president, could conceivably try and therefore even execute some of these people without any provision for recourse to constitutionally established courts, let alone journalistic access.
Now I know that we are living in a time of extraordinary peril and that serious people can find serious arguments for such measures. But I come back to the fundamental matter of journalistic duty. It’s not enough to debate these measures. It’s our duty to find out what’s really going on to make our own independent decisions on what we publish and broadcast, with a heavy presumption that publishing and broadcasting are, in a free society, what we exist to do; and to commit resources to uncovering what’s being unreasonably withheld in the name of national security.
This is not about displays of courage or being adversarial for the sake of being adversarial. In a land where journalists face no real threats to their lives or livelihoods, it’s about duty. After we’ve written our checks to CPJ, the best way to support independent journalism abroad is still to practice it ourselves; to practice it ever more vigorously at home and abroad. And if I may be permitted a final wish from the sidelines, it would be that those news organizations that have in the last decade drastically reduced their budgets for foreign news, their foreign news staffs, and the space for foreign news in their publications and broadcasts on the theory that their readers and viewers were more interested in day trading and vitamin supplements my wish would be that those news organizations will now reconsider and act on the evidence that innocence about the world can also be damaging to our well-being and health. That’s just a wish, not a prediction, but if protecting journalists has any larger purpose, it’s protecting them so they can do their jobs. Obviously then, we need to do ours.