Are Journalists Obsolete?

October 3, 2007
Category: Archive

I am so pleased to be at Notre Dame, particularly to participate in a lecture series celebrating the remarkable career of Red Smith.

Unlike Walter Wellesley Smith and his son, my good friend Terry, no one in our family attended this
distinguished university. We do have some Notre Dame ties, however.

My husband is a trustee at Wake Forest University, which several years ago selected your former provost, Nathan Hatch, to be its president. A Presbyterian becoming a president of a formerly Baptist college with the invocation given by a Catholic priest. (That was Father Theodore Hesburgh. If you can’t get God, that’s the next best choice.) It was a scene that would have pleased Jefferson and Madison. Our oldest son’s godfather is Mark Shields, the columnist and commentator and a graduate of the class of 1959. Mark’s spiritual impact was clear when Jeffrey’s first words were “Beat USC.”

I know there has been some anxiety over Notre Dame’s football fortunes recently. I can only say, as an alumna of Duke University and an avid Blue Devil basketball fan, that after this past year, I feel your pain.

Among the reasons it’s so special to be here is the man who introduced me. Terry Smith and I have been friends and colleagues for more than three decades. He has been a valued associate, a great journalist at the New York Times, at CBS, and at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and he’s now doing longer form pieces and articles.

There is something else that makes Terry special.
It cannot always be easy to be the son or daughter
of a legend, especially following in the same trade.
Consider how few offspring of prominent politicians
or business leaders have similarly succeeded.

Terry has—and more. Although he covered foreign and
political news, not sports, he continued the great family
tradition of which there can be no higher praise.

As the history of twentieth century American journalism
is written, Red Smith has taken his place with the
Lippmanns, the Murrows, the Bradlees, and the Ted Turners
as one of the towering figures. He once observed that there’s
“nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter
and open a vein.” If only it were so easy for us mortals.
He has been gone for more than a quarter century, but
that grace, that style, those unique insights, endure. I just
gave my twenty-year-old son, who loves sports, the book
Red Smith on Baseball.

The title of our conversation this evening—“Are
Journalists Obsolete?”—is of more than passing
interest to me. Next year my husband, also a journalist,
and I expect to have three children in college; whether it
makes for the best narrative, my answer thus will be no.
Yet that question no longer seems frivolous.
We, or at least we of the so-called mainstream media, seem
perpetually pessimistic these days, and not without cause.
Every year the Project for Excellence in Journalism—
sponsored by the Pew Research Center—does a survey on the
State of the News Media. The 2007 report is not encouraging.
Virtually every media sector—newspapers, network television,
local television, cable television, national magazines—is
losing readers or viewers. Moreover, most of these venues are
investing fewer resources in covering the news.
Newspapers have lost circulation for three consecutive
years, down about 7 percent.

One of the country’s great journalistic chains, Knight-
Ridder, vanished last year, bought by the McClatchey
chain, and then major papers (like the Philadelphia
Inquirer) were sold again. Knight-Ridder was a profitable
company with margins that many industries would die
for—just not profitable enough for Wall Street and this
climate. The bottom line trumped the journalistic line.
The Tribune Company, with its flagship Chicago Tribune
and crown jewel acquisition, the Los Angeles Times, may
soon cease to exist as we have known it. Few expect that
will produce better journalism. I hope we’re wrong.
Dow Jones, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, has a
market capitalization today that is half what it was seven
years ago; the Journal, in a cost-saving move, has reduced
the physical size of the newspaper.
The Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe, once two of
America’s prized regional newspapers, have eliminated all
their foreign bureaus. The Dallas Morning News, which
in the 1980s and 90s transformed itself
from a mediocre to a superb paper, is
retrenching.

Anxiety abounds at even the most
successful places. Arthur Sulzberger Jr.,
the publisher of the New York Times, told
an interviewer, “I don’t know whether
we’ll be printing [the print edition of ]
the New York Times in five years, and you
know what? I don’t care.” The central growth and profit
center for the Washington Post Company is not its flagship
newspaper, the Washington Post, or Newsweek magazine, but
Kaplan Educational Services, a tutoring program.
Any great journalistic venture needs three central
elements: integrity, ambition, and resources. And the best
guarantor of that is ownership, and the best ownership is a
family with values.

Yet, the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times and the
Binghams of the Louisville Courier Journal and the Knights
illustrate an irrefutable reality: journalistic families, like
others, grow in geometric proportions, and journalistic
values and pride usually erode with generational change.
One salvation, some argue, is private ownership, which is
not as subject to the quarterly private passions of publicly
traded companies. Yet experiences in Santa Barbara and
apparently now in Philadelphia suggest that this is no panacea.
In my business of television news, the picture is no
more encouraging. Network news audiences are steadily
declining, and fewer and fewer resources are devoted to
covering the news. The expendability of a Ted Koppel
crystallizes the difference, not just in degree, but in kind,
from the values of less than a generation ago.

The world, everyone agrees, is far more interdependent
today than ten or twenty years ago. What happens in
Shanghai or Berlin or Tehran profoundly affects us. Yet
there are only half as many foreign correspondents today for
CBS, ABC, or NBC as there were two decades ago. After
September 11, there were countless stories on why we do
not understand each other around the world. But on that
day none of the television networks had a correspondent
based in a predominantly Muslim country. Not a one.
Cable television news, the Excellence in Journalism
survey reports, is now facing many of the same concerns
of the older media; to adjust it is focusing more of its
programming around personality and opinion shows and
therefore less on news coverage.

I worked at CNN for twelve years; it
was a terrific place, and I consider Ted
Turner one of the genuinely influential
journalistic leaders in American history.
In taking CNN from an idea in his head
to the 24/7 global news network that has
had a transforming effect on TV news, and
arguably, on print news as well, he proved
all the skeptics—who told him he was crazy—wrong. He
didn’t care what people thought, or else he never would
have taken the chance he did, which lost money for the first
several years it was on the air.

I fully expected as cable competition grew and matured
that one of those news outlets would calculate—for
business reasons—that there is a market for quality
journalism: “Let’s try to get Jim Lehrer away from public
television or provide a new home for Ted Koppel.” It has
not occurred.

Local television news, most radio news, and magazines
offer, if anything, an even bleaker picture.
Moreover, even apart from the dismal economic realities,
the press has suffered a series of credibility cataclysms:
the Jayson Blair scandal at America’s most prestigious
newspaper, the failure to report on the government’s
duplicity before the Iraq war, and the Scooter Libby
trial, which revealed a seamy underside of Washington
journalism, cozy relationships, and promiscuous promises
of anonymity that seemed to put the interests of sources
and accessibility ahead of that of readers and viewers.
Then there is the blogosphere. There is, of course, much
more to this than news. There are single-parenting blogs,
Red Sox blogs, celebrity culture blogs, and, unfortunately, a
proliferation of pornographic sites.

The overall explosion is stunning. In 1999 there were
twenty-three blogs. Today there are almost thirty million,
and the blogosphere doubles in size about every six months.
It certainly is playing a large role in the dissemination of
news and information; just look at all the attention the 2008
presidential candidates are paying to the Web in all of its forms.
There is much to celebrate. It is participatory, enabling
people in Enderlin, North Dakota, or Edenton, North
Carolina, to create a virtual community as well as people
in Manhattan or Manhattan Beach. It has energized
the political interest of many citizens in an outlet less
dependent on commercial pressures.
There have been huge triumphs: The
stories forcing Trent Lott to step down as
Senate majority leader in 2002, the exposé
of the CBS report on George W. Bush’s
alleged draft evasion, and the current
controversy over Attorney General Alberto
Gonzales’s firing of eight U.S. Attorneys
were all driven by the blogs.

Yet, journalistically, this is a new world, much of which ignores
the best of the old-media values. There is little accountability.
Matt Drudge continues to flourish, despite a plethora of false
stories that he has run time and again that would have cost most
good newspaper or broadcast editors their jobs. Stories—from
the Swift Boat misrepresentations in the 2004 campaign to the
phony story on Barack Obama supposedly having attended
a Madrassa school—have been picked up by the mainstream
media and become part of the dialogue.

There will be vast changes in the times ahead, though this
reality is unlikely to be altered. With its independent spirit,
“ultimately,” one smart blogger recently observed, “blogging
is not a practice over which you can hope to establish
broadly accepted rules of engagement.”

Further, however much traditional print and broadcast
venues switch to online, there is a genuine worry whether
they will have or be willing to expend the resources
required for some of the most important journalism.
The New York Times worked for more than a year on the
exposé about illicit government eavesdropping in the wake
of 9/11. That type of story doesn’t come from one simple
tip from a source or one purloined document.
And one of the most impressive journalistic achievements
in my time in Washington was the multipart Washington
Post series this past winter on the mistreatment of wounded
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center. Those stories personified everything journalism
aspires to be: an impeccably reported story that gave voice to
the powerless and resulted in punishment for the arrogantly
powerful—producing the promise of real change.

But two top Washington Post reporters—Dana Priest and
Anne Hull—spent four months, full-time, reporting this
story under difficult circumstances. With the research and
editing time, the Post probably devoted a year’s worth of
work to a piece for which there was no guarantee of success.
Will the new media or the reconstituted media in two or
five or ten years be willing to devote the
kind of resources and take the necessary
risks that produce seminal stories like that
one or like the stories that the New York
Times did on eavesdropping?
All right, you’re asking, back to tonight’s
topic, and now that I’ve made Robert
Novak seem like the Prince of Lightness,
why do I believe the journalism that Terry
Smith and I grew up in—or the journalists who practice
it—are not obsolete?

There are three compelling, convincing reasons.
One is to look at some of the other journalism being
practiced these days. Papers like the Times and Post—and
certainly the Los Angeles Times even under harrowing
conditions—continue to provide a vital public service.
There are Tim Russert and Bob Schieffer’s Sunday
interview shows, the Economist magazine, Charlie Rose’s
public broadcasting program, the foundation that owns and
operates the St. Petersburg Times, and much of C-SPAN.
These disparate outlets share two common elements:
They do good journalism and their reach and influence
continue to grow.
Let me cite three others with which I am associated and
thus very familiar.
National Public Radio. For the past decade, the audience
and public trust for NPR have grown steadily. To be sure,

this was aided by the generous gift exceeding $200 million
from Joan Kroc, the McDonald’s Corporation heiress, who
I understand has also been generous to Notre Dame. But it
reflects the commitment to serious, high-quality reporting
of news, achieved often with an intellectually interesting
and appealing narrative. NPR is actually fun to listen to,
and you’re learning at the same time.

Bloomberg News. I do a monthly interview program
for Bloomberg Television, and my husband runs the
Washington print and broadcast operations. Seventeen
years ago Bloomberg News didn’t exist; today it has 2,200
print and broadcast editors and reporters in 134 bureaus
around the world. Every day there are hundreds of wellreported
stories from around the globe, principally on
finance and economics, but also on politics, sports, and
culture. It is a different business model, subscription rather
than advertising driven.
And third, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, my once and
now again home.

The NewsHour, some critics have declared,
dares to be dull. Five nights a week we offer
serious, thoughtful debate and dialogue on
issues of relevance to our society. The best
response to those critics is to paraphrase Red
Smith, who once said that baseball “is dull
only to those with dull minds.”
And we average 1.2 million adult viewers
a night; that’s more than Bill O’Reilly, the top-rated
cable program on public affairs. It’s more than double the
audience of CNN at that hour, and almost four times that
of the MSNBC audience. We like our dull minds.
This leads to the second reason that I am optimistic that
journalism, as practiced by the Terry and the Red Smiths,
is not obsolete. There is a demand for good content. When
you aggregate these audiences for all the programs cited
above, it is not small.

What good journalists provide is good content, not just
information; good content is not just content. It is content
where there has been thought, consideration, research.
People have sat around a room and discussed, “What is it
that we should be covering? What are we hearing from our
viewers and our readers that they want us to be covering?”
There is much discussion today about the conflict
between the old media and the new media.
That obscures the fact that most of the old media are
desperately seeking to adapt to the new world; imagine a
newspaper or broadcast journalist who doesn’t Google. And most
of the new media is derivative; how many stories on blogs can
you recall that cannot be traced to newspapers or broadcasts?
And most top news organizations are adapting to a hybrid
news model, with a Web staff. Some of the best newspapers—
the Washington Post and New York Times—are competing
to develop the most innovative and attractive approach to
their Web sites; many are integrating their print and Web
operations. They are trying to figure out how to get the
Web people and the print people to work together. Similar
innovations are taking place in broadcasting at both the
national and local levels.

As for the best business model, this remains elusive.
Whether it will primarily be subscription or advertising
driven, or something in between, or altogether different,
will be determined by the market.
But whatever the problems, whatever the growing pains,
whatever creative destruction the market
system produces, the demand and the
need for high-quality content will persist. I
believe it will not only persist, it will grow.
And it will not be satiated by Drudge or
Daily Kos or even two of my favorites, Jon
Stewart or Stephen Colbert.
I became more convinced this demand
for good content will grow—with a more
educated and involved citizenry—after spending most of
last year on the multimedia documentary project on the
group we call “Generation Next”—the students at Notre
Dame and their counterparts, in and out of college, ages
sixteen to twenty-five.

We talked with them about their hopes, dreams, and
aspirations—their views on everything from politics to
religion, America’s role in the world, family, the values that
matter to them, the role of technology in their world—the
Internet, cell phones, and iPods—and much more.
We discovered that they—you—are the most diverse
generation in American history—17 percent Hispanic, 14
percent African American, 4 percent Asian, and another
significant percentage mixed race. One in every five of
them has a parent born outside the United States; one in
every eight of them was himself or herself born outside the
United States; no wonder they are surprisingly comfortable
with people who look and sound different from them.

They’ve grown up with, lived down the street from, or gone
to school with young people of many different races, ethnic
backgrounds, religions, and cultural values.
Their political attitudes tend to be more liberal. They’re
more likely than their elders to say that immigration has been
good for the country, and more likely than those over twentysix
to favor gay rights and even marriage for homosexuals.
What was most clear is that their political attitudes often
defy stereotype; in our research, and through the young
people we met, we found them frequently carving out their
own unique views of the role of government and of the
responsibility of citizens.

We found them surprisingly well informed. More than
people give them credit for, they were up on national and
international events and skeptical of politics (based on what
they’ve seen coming out of Washington the last few years).
They’re not great readers of newspapers, but
they follow news on the Internet and, to some
extent, on television. You won’t be surprised
to know that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
was the favorite by far for this generation.
As we learned, something out there is
piquing their interest and perhaps creating a
thirst to be better informed about the war in
Iraq, the cost of college education, the state
of the environment, and the economy, as it
impacts their ability to find jobs and earn a
good living. These were things they told us
time and again were on their minds.

Just as interesting, and just as important, we also
learned through research that they are more interested
in the community around them—in doing something
for their fellow man and woman—where they can see
tangible results.
More of Generation Next is volunteering to join Teach
for America, the Peace Corps, and programs like them.
More are giving of their time to tutor underprivileged kids,
to volunteer in soup kitchens, or to start neighborhood
programs—in the United States or overseas—around
poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, and the environment.
This younger generation, in fact, is doing as much
volunteer work—is as civically engaged—as any other
generation of our time. The political scientists are
wondering whether this will lead one day to greater
political involvement by this generation.

A generation that is civic-minded, is looking for a
better politics, and is more inclusive is a generation that,
I think, will be more receptive to good journalism. The
form may vary or evolve and the technology may be quite
different, but to meet those demands and to satisfy those
minds requires good content. There is one way that will be
provided—and that’s with good journalism.
And let’s hope there is always an appreciation for the
excellence in writing personified by none other than the
Notre Dame class of 1927 graduate Red Smith.
For people who are caring and curious, the question
is relevance.
If anyone asks if Red Smith would be relevant today, I’d
call his or her attention to the column he wrote after the
October 1951 National League play-off contest between the
New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was the
famous game in which Bobby Thomson hit
a home run in the bottom of the ninth to
beat the Dodgers.

Titled “Last Chapter,” Red Smith’s
column the next morning began:
“Now it is done. Now the story ends.
And there is no way to tell it. The art
of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled
invention. Only the utterly impossible,
the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be
plausible again.”
What makes that column and so
many others stand out is that it was so
beautifully written. This was such a huge event in the
world of baseball, America’s pastime, that by the next
morning, practically everyone in the country knew about
it. That wasn’t true of all sporting news back then—even
with the greater readership of newspapers, television was
still in its infancy.
There will always be a demand for the sort of brilliant
insight Red Smith provided on that morning in October of
1951—like shining a bright light on a story, showing it in a
way no one ever thought to see it. We need that even more
today than we did then.
I’m honored to be with you this evening.
Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

Question: How much independence and security do you have
at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer?

JW: How much independence and security? Well, we’ve got a
lot of independence because ever since Jim Lehrer and Robin
MacNeil started the program—they started a half-hour show
back in 1975 and then expanded it to an hour in 1983—
they’ve had autonomy. They’ve been able to put the program
they wanted on the air. They both came to the program with
years of experience as journalists in their own right.
Robin MacNeil had been a television journalist for
NBC. He had traveled the world and had covered stories
everywhere. Jim Lehrer came out of print journalism—he
had a distinguished career as a newspaperman—and had
begun to work in public television. Together they created
something different, something unique. It remains unique
today, twenty-four years after they began the half-hour
MacNeil/Lehrer program, and it remains independent.
Financially, the program is on good, sound financial
footing, but like every other news program and every
other public affairs program in public television,
it’s harder to raise money these days for good news
programming. Corporations used to want to be
associated with a program like Meet the Press or Ted
Koppel’s Nightline, just to name a few. Today, advertising
agencies have more sway. There is much more concern
about the bottom line every quarter. Wall Street is
looking at whether the books are balanced and if
companies are not only making money every quarter,
but making more money than they made in the last
quarter. There’s intense pressure on all the profit-making
companies, and those are the people or the organizations
that have been more likely to give money.
Now, if you watch The NewsHour, you’ll see it also gets
money from foundations, and that has continued to be the
case. The NewsHour is in good shape financially, but it is
harder to bring that money in.
We have a wonderful team of people, led by our former
executive producer Les Crystal, who is out there talking to
a lot of current contributors and potential contributors. If
any of you would like to sponsor The NewsHour, we will be
glad to talk to you after the lecture tonight.

Question: I’ve noticed that CNN in recent years has been
phasing out a lot of their older anchors, especially the women,
and I’ve also noticed that they’ve been moving to more showbiz
coverage. They have the entertainment segment at night, and
they have strong characters, like Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck,
who have one-hour shows, so there are time periods in the
evening when you cannot have headline news. I know that they
are trying to attract a younger audience, but I don’t know if
they are really succeeding in doing that, and I am wondering if
you think they will ever go back to a more traditional approach
to attracting audiences.

JW: Well, the truth is, and I think that I suggested this earlier,
the cable networks are in a very different environment today
from the environment when Ted Turner founded CNN in
1980. Back then it was CNN all to itself: CNN covering
the world 24/7 with a heavy emphasis on news. As the years
have gone by, competition has arisen from FOX News and
from MSNBC and the Internet, and so many other local
or regional cable news outlets out there. Virtually every day
you wake up and there is more competition. So, with more
choices, the audience for each outlet is shrinking.
It’s not entirely clear where people are getting their
news. We know that the audience for broadcast television
has shrunk, and we are now looking at a leveling off of
the cable news audience. You’ve got three channels, plus
everything else I mentioned competing for that audience.
What does that mean? It means that they are going to do
whatever they can—within the boundaries of what they
think they can get away with—to attract an audience.
That means a lot of coverage of Anna Nicole Smith;
the Runaway Bride was one of my favorites a few years
ago; Michael Jackson.

I remember we spent hours when
I was at CNN following Michael Jackson, waiting to see
when he was going to show up at the courthouse. The
day he showed up in his pajamas I think we were on the
courthouse picture for about an hour and a half.
The other day CNN devoted—and I think the other
cable channels did, too—a little over an hour to the
coverage of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s news
conference focusing on the controversy surrounding Don
Imus. So they are covering those type of developing stories,
and I would say of course when there’s breaking news, they
gravitate to that. It’s in those periods—when there is not an
obvious story—that you find them, in effect, falling all over
themselves trying to find ways to keep the audience. The
fact is they’re a business and if they don’t keep the audience,
if they don’t keep the eyeballs, then they can’t keep going as
a business. So, do I think it’s going to turn around? I hate
to tell you no, but I don’t think so.

I think we are going to be looking to some of the venues
I mentioned earlier as good examples: some of the Sunday
shows on the networks; what Ted Koppel used to do at
ABC and is now doing periodically for the Discovery
Channel; NPR. There will be other venues that will come
up, and I think the Internet offers some good prospects for
programming. But I think we’ve passed the time when we
can expect to see wall-to-wall coverage of serious news.

Question: Do you write your own material and decide what
you’re going to talk about?

JW: On The NewsHour? Yes, I do. Now, we have a staff of
writers and producers, and we work as a team in putting
the program together. For example, there will be a team of
people who may do a first draft, but whoever is anchoring
the program—and it’s usually Jim Lehrer—will then go in
and rewrite everything.

For instance, last night I did an interview with two
reporters on the John McCain campaign, because John
McCain made an announcement yesterday about his
position on the Iraq war, hoping to relaunch his campaign.
He’s had a lot of problems recently. I had the assistance of
two or three off-air reporters who did the research for me,
and I made additional phone calls and put it together.
Television is very much a team effort. We write as much
as we possibly can. Sometimes, if we are doing three or four
things simultaneously, we may have to depend on somebody
else, but we certainly edit everything that we do on the air.
Ultimately it is product of the person who is speaking it.

Question: You implied that journalists are going to have to
evolve in the future. I wonder if you could you give us a little
more detail about what a journalist in ten or twenty years is
going to have to retain, going to have to lose, and going to
have to develop from the journalist of today. Is that going to be
possible, and will good writing be enough?

JW: A very, very good question, and I’m glad that you asked
it. I think good writing is at the very core of what we do as
journalists. In fact, when young people ask me, “What should I
major in? Should I major in broadcast journalism or something
else?” I say it doesn’t much matter what your major is, but my
strong recommendation is that you get the best liberal arts
education that you can.

Study history, study economics, learn a little bit about
psychology, philosophy, religion. Learn about all of these
things, and write as much as you can, because whether you
go into print journalism, television, or certainly now the
Internet, you’ve got to be able to write. Whether you’re
writing long form, where you have a day or weeks to write
a piece, or whether you’ve got minutes to write, writing is a
skill that’s always going to be essential. So I would say that’s
the bottom line.

Beyond that, I would say be prepared to be flexible.
We don’t know into what form journalism will evolve.
Television isn’t about to go away. So if you’re interested in
television journalism, writing is still important. You will
need all the reporting skills that you would pick up whether
you’re working for a newspaper or working for the Internet.
I think what’s very important is that these new forms of
journalism retain some of the core values we prize today in
our great journalistic institutions, and that they begin to
develop accountability and transparency. There is going to
have to be, I think, a system of accountability, and we in
the media are only as good as our credibility.

If we’re giving you information that you can rely on,
that you can trust, it seems to me that’s worth its weight
in gold. There were plenty of times, for example on CNN,
when we didn’t have the whole story yet but still were on
the air; I always tried to say, “This is all we know, this is
what we have heard up to this moment.” Transparency
will become increasingly important because viewers and
readers are smarter today than ever about the media. They
follow where you get your information. They’re comparing
sources with other sources, so we are all going to need to be
more open, and when I say transparent that’s what I mean:
We need to be clearer about how we get our information,
including what we left out.

We only have a minute or two minutes to do a typical
story, if it is television. We can offer more on our Web
site. If you’re doing a story for a newspaper, there will be
guidance to readers to look at the Web site.
I think writing and flexibility are important. Just be
prepared, because it’s like getting on a wild ride at the
amusement park: You don’t know where you’re going to
come out. Most people I know who are very smart about
journalism aren’t really sure today what it’s going to look
like in ten years. Those of you who inherit journalism,
who are the next generation of reporters and editors and
producers, it’s really going to be in your hands.

Question: Have you written a book?

JW: I wrote a book with help right after I had my first child in
1981. I’ll tell you the story very quickly. I was covering the White
House for NBC and the Washington Post had asked me to keep
a journal for the first month or month and a half of the Reagan
presidency about what’s it’s like being a television reporter in the
White House, and I did. I kept a daily journal and transformed
it into an article for the Post Sunday magazine in the spring of
1981, right after Ronald Reagan went into office.
Some publishers called and said, “We liked it. We’d like
you to turn it into a book.”

Coincidently, I was pregnant with my first child and I foolishly agreed. In retrospect, I
wish I hadn’t, because in order to get it done and get it done
by the deadline, I had to work with a writer who came in
and basically just interviewed me nonstop for about three
months and then helped me turn that into a book. But it
was not perfect. It came out after my son was born and it
was a time when I was paying more attention to my son.
But that’s the book that I’ve written. I’m not sure that
I’m ever going to write another one. I am surrounded by
writers. My boss at The NewsHour, Jim Lehrer, seems to
turn out a book a year, and they’re all successful. Robin
MacNeil has written books, so I probably will eventually
write a book. The idea that at thirty-four you would write
about your career is a little, well, full of yourself.

Question: What is the title of it?

JW: It’s out of print. It’s This is Judy Woodruff at the White
House. When it came out, the picture they put on the cover,
the dust jacket of the book, was my White House press pass,
because it was all about being at the White House. Well, it
turns out there is a law against reproducing the press pass,
and the Secret Service literally came and impounded the
covers of the book. They went into the plant where the
books were printed and took out all the covers. They went
to bookstores and pulled them out. The cover became a
collector’s item, because the Secret Service took them and
shredded them or something. We had to quickly come up
with another cover.

Question: It seems to me that people are not taught the value
of information itself. Who should do that? Should journalists be
in charge of doing that?

JW: I think that’s a big question. I think that has to do with
everything from families to our education system to public
schools to our great universities, like Notre Dame, and the
news media in this country. All of it is like a big stew. It’s all
mixed together and somehow people, wherever they come
from, have a different idea, as you put it, of the value of
information.

I would hope that as we pay attention to the world that
we live in that more and more of us see that we can’t ignore
what’s going on in the world around us. I mean certainly
since 9/11 it’s critical. We went through a period in this
country when foreign news—international news—was
in a decline. The television networks were doing public
opinion polls and the answers they were getting back to the
question “What are you interested in?” were “I’m interested
in the economy, I’m interested in education and what’s
going on in my neighborhood.” Foreign news was down
at the bottom, and that was the reason that many news
bureaus were closed for the television networks and then
ultimately for newspapers as well.

I would hope that we now see the importance of knowing
the world around us, because for all the reasons that
you’re all very well aware of, the United States is far more
interconnected to the rest of world then we’ve ever been.
But that’s only one part of the story. There are important
stories right in our own neighborhoods and in our
own communities that I believe too often are not being
covered by our own local television and radio stations
and newspapers. There is more formula coverage that I
see coming out of many local television stations where
they have so-called show doctors come in, consultants,
who might say, “Emphasize traffic accidents and crime
and maybe you can squeeze in a minute or so about what
happened at city hall or what happened in the school
system.” You’ve heard the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Is
that really a formula for informing the public?

I think we are so fortunate to live in one of the freest
countries in the world when it comes to the information we
can get. But many people don’t take advantage of that. We
have the opportunity to vote and only about half of us who
are eligible go to the polls. Some of the responsibility for
this is on citizens themselves. People have to want to go get
information. They have to buy a newspaper, go to the Web,
read the Indianapolis newspaper Web site, read the Chicago
Tribune Web site, and so on. People do that, but not enough.

Question: What will the three leading issues be in the
upcoming presidential election of 2008, and which party will
have the advantage on each of those three issues?

JW: I think the war in Iraq is far and away the main issue. It
may be number one, number two, and number three unless
there is some resolution or some dramatic change in the war. I
think that all of the candidates know that. That’s why they are
struggling mightily to come up with the right position. Some of
them have a position. Barack Obama likes to point out that he
was against the war before it started, and you have gradation of
opinion all the way to the other end, with John McCain lashing
himself to the Bush administration’s position on the war.
Beyond that, I would say immigration is going to be an
issue in the minds of many people. There is no clear sign
to me right now that any action is going to come out of
Congress on that because the parties are so divided. The
Republican Party is very divided, but so are the Democrats.

I think the issue that should be discussed, and I’m not
sure it will be, is health care. I think it’s a crisis in this
country; it’s been ignored for way too long since the early
days of the Clinton administration, when President and
Mrs. Clinton made a flawed proposal. They hadn’t put it
together in the most politically smart way, but it was an
attempt that could have provided a stepping-off point to
come up with a solution, and ever since then health care
has been seen as practically the third rail.

Question: What about global warming?

JW: I think the environment and climate change or global
warming is an issue, but I don’t know that it’s going to be
in the top three. I think for some people it’s going to be
very important. It’s like so many other things. You hear
about how people vote their pocketbook. If people have
lost their jobs or are in danger of losing their jobs, they’re
going to vote the economy.

If they see a tangible change, something tangible
happening in the environment that worries them, that they
think is going to affect their lives, then they’re going to vote
that, and you’ve got very different opinions on that in this
country. You’ve got the auto industry in the Detroit area
very much worried about these new regulations that some
folks, both Democrats and Republicans, are trying to push
through, fuel efficiency standards for example. So I think
there will be some version of that that will be debated. I
think that all of these things will be discussed. But I do
think the war in Iraq will be number one, far and away.

Question: When you have an opinion on an issue and you’re
trying to do a down-the-middle show, like Inside Politics or
The NewsHour, how do you make yourself seem as fair and
balanced as you possibly can be?

JW: I’ve been covering politics and covering the news for
so long I’ve developed what I think is an ingrained ability
to keep my views to myself. I don’t believe, by the way, in
any such thing as objectivity. You can’t have pure objectivity.
Journalists are people; we’re human beings; we have opinions,
so the best we can do is try to be fair and learn to keep our
views to ourselves and really work hard to do that.
If I sense in myself that I have a view, I bend over
backward to make sure that I’m asking questions of both
sides. But I do think that after time you develop an ability
to keep it under wraps.

Almost every time I go out and speak in public, people
want to know if the press is biased. Sure, there are reporters
who have opinions, and some of them have stepped over
the line, and some of them have influenced coverage
in ways that they shouldn’t have. But, by and large, the
reporters I know for the mainstream media, the national
newspapers, television, certainly at The NewsHour and
when I was at CNN, kept their opinions to themselves. You
just learn how to do it.

Question: It seems that it’s more difficult to have a successful
career in journalism. What advice would you give to students
who want to be journalists?

JW: I want to tell you that if you think you want to be a
journalist, you can be a journalist. Whatever you have set
your sights on, whether it’s working for a newspaper, for
television, for the Internet, for radio, if you want it, go after
it. Even if it means creating your own news organization
and, by the way, your generation is doing that. You’re much
more entrepreneurial than any generation that I’m aware of.
That’s what we found in our reporting last year.
Taking everything I’ve said—and I meant everything
I’ve said—these are tough times for the mainstream media,
who’ve been around a long time, but we’re evolving. This is
a time of change. Some of what we have today will survive,
some of it won’t, but something else will come along. And
when I say good content will be needed, there will be
an audience and an appetite for that. You can be part of
creating that good content, whether it’s a newspaper you
publish or online.

I wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I went into
the business, people said, “You’ve never taken a course in
journalism,” “You’ve never written for a school paper,” and
I hadn’t. But I had decided I was interested in politics and I
really wanted to find out what it was like to cover politics, and
so I tagged along. I was a newsroom secretary at an Atlanta
television station. That was my job right out of college, and I
was determined I was going to learn, and I believe you can do
that, and I don’t think that’s wishful thinking.

If you’re determined and you don’t take no for an answer,
you can do it, whether you end up working for a big
company or a medium-size newspaper or a television or
radio outlet or create your own new news organization.
Your generation is going to get news differently in many
respects than the way we do now. But don’t be discouraged.
Thank you all so much.

The Red Smith Lectureship in Journalism is sponsored by John and
Susan McMeel and Universal Press Syndicate. The Lectureship seeks
to foster good writing and to recognize high journalistic standards.

In the words of John McMeel, chairman and president of Andrews
McMeel Universal (parent company of Universal Press Syndicate),
“Red Smith’s writing continues to offer lessons about stylistic and
professional accomplishments that remain valuable to students and to journalists.”