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Pulitzer Center Update April 17, 2019

Rescuing Democracy: Kathy Kiely on the Role of the Free Press

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Kathy Kiely, professor and Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at University of Missouri, delivered the annual James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture at St. Louis University's School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri on April 9, 2019. The speech focused on the state of the free press in the twenty-first century, particularly as it relates to social media and the challenges this mode of communication presents to traditional forms of information sharing. Kiely also challenged her listeners to engage with people and platforms they disagree with, which she hopes will foster a healthier and better informed citizenry.

Before transitioning into academia, Kiely spent years covering politics in Washington as a reporter and editor at for USA Today, Houston Post, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, New York Daily News, and Pittsburgh Press. Prior to Missouri she taught at the University of New Hampshire and Princeton.

While in St. Louis Kiely also joined lawyers Joseph Martineau, Mark Sableman, and Lisa Van Amburg for a panel discussion moderated by Pulitzer Center grantee William Freivogel titled "A Free Press and the Bar: Ethical Duties of Lawyers."

For further commentary on media in the digital age and its impact on so-called rural "news deserts," please see Dee Davis's story "Speak Your Piece: In a Desert, Any Oasis Will Do" in the Daily Yonder.

See full transcript below:

I know it has become super-fashionable at events like these for the speaker to roam the stage, clicker in hand, throwing up slide decks and extemporizing a la TED talks.

I am not that person. Apologies in advance for going old school on you but I'm going to be clinging desperately to the security blanket that is my script up here. I'm much more comfortable behind a byline than in front of an audience, especially an audience in such an imposing academic venue.

That may sound funny coming from the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies, but the truth is, when I was on Jay Kantzler's show yesterday and he addressed me as "professor," I kept looking over my shoulder to find out who else he was talking to.

I suffer from a deep-seated case of impostor syndrome.

Truth is, I got into journalism because I thought I would be a lousy academic.

I worried that I would never be able to sustain a thought beyond the next deadline — and that, absent a deadline, I'd never finish anything. So, fresh out of college with an English degree, I headed to the newsroom.

The Pittsburgh Press, when I arrived, featured grimy linoleum floors and gunmetal grey desks thoroughly battered by the three shifts of reporters who used them. For me, it felt like home. The place crackled with the sound of the police radio and the wit and craft of the people who worked there.

We served our readers — and I mean all of them.  

You had to be sure to get the stock closing figures exactly right because that's what the bookies used for the daily number. (This was before legal Lotto) In an obit, you had to get all the names and Masonic lodge numbers right because that was often a person's sole appearance in the paper. We were social media before social media got invented: We got to introduce people to interesting neighbors they'd never met, call out the bad ones for misdeeds and celebrate others for their accomplishments. At our best, we played a vital role in creating and nurturing community.

Of course, we are not always at our best, especially these days. The whys and wherefores of that and what to do about it are topics I'll be addressing tonight.

The other reason I chose my career path — and a politically incorrect one it is in these times: I love journalists. I can't imagine anyone with whom I'd rather spend 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days of the week. Journalists are funny when you need it most, irreverent in all the right places and about all the right people, and they care deeply about their work.

Oh, and did I mention that journalists tend to have massive egos that need to be regularly massaged?  (Hey, I'm a journalist, so I must give you the whole story).

Egos notwithstanding, I loved my time in the newsroom.

I still hang out there: Today, I was on what I like to call "dawn patrol,"  supervising our very early morning crew at the Columbia Missourian.

But I have stepped a bit to one side to take this academic role. And I have done so because I am worried about this thing I love so much.

Real reporters — the kind who seek out primary source material and who correct their mistakes — are an endangered species: According to a recent report by the Knight Commission on Democracy and Trust, American newsrooms have lost 25,000 jobs in the last ten years.

I don't think it's a coincidence that when newsrooms are in trouble, so is the democracy they serve.

Another recent study by the Democracy Project, a joint effort of the George W. Bush Institute, the Penn Biden Center and Freedom House, concluded that we are facing "a crisis of confidence in our political system . . . that spans partisan affiliations and demographic groups." Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed for the study said they believe democracy in this country is getting weaker.

And while four out of five Americans told the Democracy Project's pollsters they believe it's important to live in a democracy, with 60 percent rating it "absolutely important" — 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 — that enthusiasm wasn't universal.

Among those under 29 years old, only 39 percent — substantially less than a majority — gave democracy a 10.

So . . . I've decided that this next stage of my career should be about trying to change that.

Saving journalism and democracy: My goals are nothing if not modest.

Still, I think we can do it. Notice I said "we." This is not a one-woman job. I want your help.

We'll get to your assignments later. First, like all good reporters, we've got to background this story. Let's consider how we got here.

To me, this chapter of our recent history is bookended by two walls.

I'm not going to talk about the one our president wants to build along our southern border. In fact, I don't plan to talk very much about our president at all.

Much as I'm sure it will pain him to hear this, President Donald Trump is not the biggest threat facing the news media.

Oh, it is tempting to obsess over his Twitter outrage du jour. For reporters, it's soul-satisfying to portray ourselves as brave defenders of the First Amendment in the face of a big bully. Do that too much though, and you risk coming off as the self-absorbed elite that that you-know-who says we are.

Chest thumping doesn't help our image. More importantly, it distracts us from the real threats we face.

Which brings me back to those two walls.

One fell almost 30 years ago. The other has been built up in the interim. The newer wall is invisible. But like the first one, it is ugly, formidable and a menace to freedom.

The first wall, as many of you will have guessed, was in Berlin.

In November, 1989, I was lucky enough to be one of the reporters sent to that city. We rushed to cover the first cracks in the ugly barrier of concrete and concertina wire that had cast such a long shadow over my generation: The baby boomers — children of the Cold War.  For us, the Berlin Wall symbolized a world divided, perpetually on the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

No wonder its fall left many of us giddy with exhilaration.

First lesson of Journalism 101: Never trust giddy exhilaration.

Back then, people far more impressively credentialed than this reporter ballyhooed the fall of the wall as a triumph of western democracy and free market economies. Their opposites seemed to have been definitively vanquished. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama went so far as to declare "the end of history."

Wow. If I bothered to share these tales of antiquity with my students — most of them born at least six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — they'd justifiably wonder what we were smoking.

For their generation, history is ba-a-ack, and with a vengeance.

How hollow the triumphalism of 1989 rings now. Political polarization has left many western democracies — including our own — in a state of paralysis, unable to pass a budget, much less grapple with complex socioeconomic challenges that run the gamut from climate change … to terrorism … to global migration and widening income inequities.

Just when we need it most, the fabric of civil society is fraying:  Constructive debate and community dialogue are giving way to talk-show rants and social media trolling. Issues take a back seat in the public conversation to personalities — the more outrageous, the better.

And our trusty watchdog, the press, has been kicked to the curb — starving, neglected and, all too often, abused.

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed end of history, we find ourselves in a global war for free speech. In the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey and, most horrifically, Saudi Arabia — just to pick the U.S. allies — journalists are regularly being jailed and killed in retaliation for speaking truth to power. It's happening here as well. In the last two years I've worked on the cases of two Mexican journalists, both legal asylum-seekers, whom our government fought to send back to the country where they have been threatened with death.

There are other worrisome signs on the home front.

Last summer, on a municipal Election Day here in Missouri, a student reporter for the Columbia Missourian — a fresh-faced young woman with a ready smile — was on a routine assignment, asking voters what brought them to the polls. Until one man turned on her. He started hollering "fake news." Then he spat at her.

Last week in Georgia, lawmakers proposed creating an official "review board" to police the work of the journalists who cover them. I emphasize that this is coming from the Georgia we affectionately call the Peach State, not the Georgia that once was part of the Soviet Union — although, under the circumstances, you might be forgiven for getting confused.

Last month, while my students were on spring break, I went back to Washington for an event I helped organize at the National Press Club. We brought newsmakers and news gatherers together for two days of face-to-face conversations about how we can ratchet down the rhetoric and deescalate the hostilities. Why did we think we needed to do this?

Sitting at my table was Rick Hutzell, the editor who saw five of his colleagues when a shooter went on a rampage in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, a community newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

How has it come to this — that we, in the land of the land of the free, the brave and the First Amendment would rather kill the messenger than hear the message?

That brings me to the second wall.

Six years after the fall of the one in Berlin, in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois released Mosaic, a new-fangled thing known as a graphical user interface, or web browser. The precursor to Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome, it enabled mere mortals without degrees in computer science to interact with the World Wide Web. The internet boom was born.

Nine years after that, a teenager named Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. And thus was born social media.

Last December, the Pew Research Center released data showing that Americans now consult social media for news more frequently than they do newspapers.

Young adults — those aged 18-29 — rely on social media more than any other source for news.

Having watched and even participated in this communications revolution from my perch in the newsroom, I can tell you that many of the people who led it were just as giddy with enthusiasm as those political scientists who were metaphorically dancing on the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

According to the internet evangelicals, as I like to call them, this democratization of media was going to end the stranglehold old white guys had on communications, allow for new voices to be heard, make government more transparent and guarantee the triumph of truth, justice and the American Way. . .The end of history all over again.

Then along came Vladimir Putin.

But I don't want to talk much about him either. Because he did not build the second wall.

We did.

As the myth of Prometheus teaches us, every creation has within it the seeds of destruction. You can use explosives to blow a tunnel through a mountain, cutting off hours from an otherwise difficult and dangerous trip. Or, you can use them to blow up a federal building and kill a lot of people, including little kids. You can use a gun to get tonight's dinner. Or, you can use it to shoot up your local school. You can use nuclear fission to power a city. Or to annihilate one.

Similarly, you can use the internet to broaden your horizons, to open your ears to new voices and your mind to new perspectives, to watchdog your government and to fulfill all the Internet evangelicals' fondest dreams. Or you can use it to limit your intellectual intake to news for, by and about fellow vegan yoga practitioners who crochet kitten booties. Or fellow bigots. Or fellow terrorists.

Among the things that scared me most when we began to put newspapers on the web and adapt our sites to social media were the folks who said, "This is going to be great. You can create a 'My USA TODAY' or 'My St. Louis Post-Dispatch.' It will deliver just the news you're interested in."

I don't know about you but the most interesting story I read each day is often the one I didn't expect to find. The most important one is usually the one I wish I didn't have to read.

Allowing people to avoid those stories turned out to be laying the foundation for that invisible wall. It's the wall that immures us in confirmation of our own biases, the wall that allows us to hear only the echo of what we already believe, the wall that might have started out as a little picket fence we erected by choice but that, as Eli Pariser describes in his book Filter Bubble, is constantly being made higher and more impenetrable by algorithms.

Because the price of admission to those social media sites that my students think give them the news for free is data: data about what you're searching, what you're buying, where you live, who your friends are and what you and they are talking about. Data that allows those social media sites to serve you up just the information that you seem likely to want — and nothing else.

Nowadays, reporters who manage to infiltrate this feedback loop with facts that don't fit get accused of fakery, spat upon or worse.

Turns out it's a very short step from creating your own news filter to creating your own facts.

When I consider the implications of this, I think about "The Race Beat," a great book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. It tells the story of the civil rights movement through the reporters and editors who covered it. And it makes a compelling case that they had as much to do with the success of that movement as any of the political players involved in it. A daily drumbeat of straight news stories changed hearts and minds. And that changed laws and society.

But that was when each community had two newspapers and three TV stations. Today, would people just surf on over to their local KKK blog and have their received opinions confirmed?

These are the kinds of questions we have to start asking ourselves.

For newsrooms, these questions are particularly fraught because the same digital revolution that made it possible for people to choose their own news has also given advertisers new and more efficient channels to reach their customers. The advertising model that subsidized news coverage for more than a century has been destroyed. And while we search frantically for new revenue streams, the temptation is to pander to gain or keep audience.

And today, thanks again to the digital revolution, pandering easier than ever.

When I was the age of many of my students, just getting started in the news business, the most prominent piece of technology in the newsroom was the police scanner, the radio that lets us listen to first responders as they head to a fire or an accident, or a crime scene. Today, scanners are dwarfed by the giant screen showing ChartBeat, the data analysis tool that lets newsroom managers watch as readers click on stories in real time.

Back in my day, we kind of figured that more people would be reading the story about the big celebrity divorce case than the story about the state Senate subcommittee meeting on funding for secondary education. So the celebrity divorce case would go on page one — probably below the fold. And the subcommittee meeting would probably be found on B-19.  But it would be there.

Today, I think on most websites, the celebrity divorce would be the lead story. That school budget meeting? It might not be there at all. According to that Knight report I cited earlier, the number of journalists covering state legislatures dropped by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. All too often today, the first citizens learn of a major public policy action is when it's about to be enacted. Too late to stop it or help shape it.

No wonder so many Americans think the system is rigged. By failing to inform them of what they need to know, we in the media have helped make it that way. Instead of building community, we've been busy laying clickbait.

The Pittsburgh Press newsroom that I walked into more than four decades ago had a certain swagger. Some might call it arrogance, and I wouldn't argue with them. It was born out of knowing we were one of a handful of media outlets in town and had a captive audience of readers and advertisers.

That gave us the freedom to deliver not only the news people wanted, but the news they needed. Yes, those decisions were usually made by old white guys and they didn't always get it right.

But while we recognize and acknowledge the dark side of that old reality, we must also recognize and acknowledge the dark side of the current one.

People in newsrooms have become so worried about building audience or not losing it that it has distorted the way we report. It got to a point where I felt as if the only time I could write anything positive about a politician was when he or she died. There was such a fear of being perceived as being "in the tank" for one side or another that we gravitated towards gotcha stories as a safety zone.

Balance is easy to achieve in journalism. It isn't always accurate or fair. Yet in our eagerness not to offend or alienate audience, journalists have slipped into "on the one hand/one the other handism." All too often, that has amounted to assuring our readers, viewers and listeners that everyone in public life is equally awful.

And then we wonder why people don't want to pay taxes or show up to vote.

There's also an irrational fear of overwhelming our readers with complicated information.

If we covered sports the way we cover news, you'd never hear about a touchdown, a base-clearing grand slam or a world record being broken, and there'd only be stories about drug abuse, domestic abuse and contract disputes. There'd certainly be no columns filled with statistics in agate type.

We need to get back to giving our readers more credit, more complexity and more nuance. Democracy is pretty inefficient, but sometimes it works. In my experience, the strength of our system of checks and balances is the way it allows greatly flawed people to do great things. But it can't survive if we just show people the warts and forget about the "and all."

I am not blaming newsroom managers though. Remember: They have lost 25,000 pairs of legs in the last decade. In these financially straitened times, public interest journalism has become a luxury many newsrooms can no longer afford. Conflict and opinion are a lot easier and cheaper to serve up than nuance and shoe-leather reporting. And they sell. Remember, we can see what you're going for on Chartbeat, in real time. Clickbait wins if that's what you click on.

Call it the Pogo dilemma: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Which is why, at the very beginning of this speech, I said that you are going to have to help.

We are at a tipping point. Are we going to turn into a society of ideological tribes, ceding power to the manipulative propagandists who use technology and prejudice to divide us? Or are we going to learn to take charge of this amazing tool we have been given — the internet — and make it work for the good?

In an era when everyone with a smartphone can be a publisher, I think it's about time we all learn to be reporters.

What's the source of this information? Is it a reliable source? Why is this person or organization giving me this information? Am I getting played?

These are the kinds of questions real reporters and editors ask all the time in real newsrooms before we publish something. These kinds of critical thinking skills need to become part of every citizen's tool kit. The old newsroom adage "if you mother says she loves you, check it out," may seem harsh. But piece of wisdom is more important to impart today. When we say "if your mother says she loves you, check it out," what we mean is, the thing that you most want to believe is the thing you should be most skeptical of.

To put it in terms today's media consumers can understand, if somebody says an athlete or politician you really hate has been caught fornicating with goats, you might want to verify that before reposting it to your Twitter feed.

Don't get me wrong. As a reporter, I love a good gotcha story. One of my faithful readers, who swore it was a compliment, nicknamed me "Little Kathy Hatchet." But take it from one who has spent four decades in the business: The negative stuff is not what you remember or cherish most from your career. Let me share a few lessons that have stuck with this reporter:

Objectivity opens doors and minds. Yes, journalistic objectivity is a literary pose. But some of the most enriching experiences of my life have come out of being forced to find all the stakeholders in a story and seek out their opinions — because, again, that is how real journalists roll. Try it some time. You might be surprised to find out how much you can learn from — and even how much you can learn to like — people you don't agree with.

Walls protect you from nothing but knowledge. As a reporter I've made a career of literally and figuratively going around, over and through them to find out what was on the other side. I've always learned something, even if it's only to appreciate how good I have it on my side.

We are all in this together. When I was working as a Washington correspondent for The Houston Post, the congressional delegation I covered included Mickey Leland, an African American Democrat who was so liberal and devil-may-care he thought nothing of flying off to Cuba to spend all night dining with Fidel Castro. It also included Jack Fields, a buttoned-down southern Baptist and a Republican so conservative he calllbbed me up to make sure I reported that he voted against a bill Mickey sponsored to provide aid to starving Ethiopians. The famine was terrible, Jack agreed,  but he didn't want to do anything that might prolong the power of the Communist dictator then in charge of the country. It's hard to imagine two people with more different outlooks on life. But when Mickey died in a plane crash in Ethiopia and left behind a wife pregnant with twins, the godfather to those boys was Jack Fields. The liberal Democrat and the conservative Republican got to know each other on plane rides from Houston to Washington and gravitated to the humanity in each other. We should all be doing more of that.

There. I've given you a couple of assignments. Here's another: If we are going to save the First Amendment and the democracy that depends upon it we need to make fact-based journalism viable again.

That means learning what it is, what it is not, and supporting the good stuff. Subscribe, and not just to news that tells you what you already know. Talk about the news you consume with other people, and not just those you already agree with.

One of my goals as the Lee Hills Chair for Free Press Studies is to help launch media literacy circles in schools and communities so we can begin to share this knowledge and appreciate the humanity in each other.

What I'm describing is a massive public education campaign. It will take time. But, to quote one of my favorite Americans, Rosie the Riveter, We. Can. Do. It.

I know we can because — and now I'm really going to date myself — I can remember a time when nobody wore seat belts, everybody smoked and the gold standard of career success was the three-martini lunch with a lot of cholesterol on the side.

We have come a long way since then in improving the public's physical health. Now we need to do a little work on our mental hygiene. Because right now, a lot of us are relying on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and forwarded links from friends for news. That's the intellectual equivalent of eating Doritos , Skittles and Hostess Ho Hos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Changing that media diet challenges those of us who are content providers to come up with new recipes to make whole grain news more appealing. But it challenges all of us, as news consumers, to commit to changing bad habits. So, here's another assignment: Stop taking the clickbait. Stop sharing it. Don't reward the political war profiteers.

I came to the Missouri School of Journalism because I think journalism schools have a crucial role to play at this historic crossroads. We can take the lead in public education to promote a healthier media diet.

We can also take risks that many commercial newsrooms cannot in trying to find ways to revive and fund public interest journalism.

I'm going to take a small commercial break here to brag on the Missouri School of Journalism: At a time when the number of state house reporters has dropped by more than one-third, Missouri has the biggest, baddest state legislative bureau in the nation, thanks to my colleague, Mark Horvit. He takes a class of students to Jeff City every semester. They provide print, audio and video coverage to news outlets throughout the state.

This is the kind of leveraging of public and private resources that I think it will take to make fact-based journalism viable again. If democracy is to survive, we must recreate a news ecosystem that will serve our communities. Journalists are doing what we can. But much will depend on our audience: If we build it, will you come? And watch? And listen? And read?

These are difficult times for journalism but they have given me a sense of mission. I am spending less time in the newsroom so I can spend more time writing, teaching and evangelizing of behalf of my profession and on behalf of the democracy that depends on it.

I want to be involved in reminding people of what really makes America great: A First Amendment. A free press. An informed, engaged citizenry.

I hope you will join me.


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism