Many truly distinguished journalists have been honored by the William Allen White Foundation, but it is doubtful if any of the national citation recipients has delivered a more timely and important message than did this year's honoree, Louis Boccardi, president of the Associated Press.
As president of the world's largest news-gathering agency, Boccardi has the credentials to discuss the role of the press in today's society. And his message Friday at the Kansas Union was right on target for his audience of journalism school students, journalism school faculty members, university administrators, other faculty members, journalists, media executives and others with no journalism or media ties.
"We live in an `Information Age' in the most media-intense society the world has ever known. And that age confronts journalists, print and broadcast, with issues that stretch clear across the professional landscape," Boccardi noted.
THE AP executive noted the role of the media in an election year, when the media itself can become a central part of the entire electoral process. He pointed out the role and performance of the media in major stories such as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill story during Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the current Mike Tyson trial in which the boxer is accused of rape, the news coverage of Desert Storm, the current economic situation in the United States, and the story of Gov. Clinton and Gennifer Flowers as examples that test how the media report the news.
He stressed that times have changed in recent years with news now being transmitted by the AP at the rate of 9,000 words a minute compared with 66 words a minute only a few years ago. And the number of ways a person can read or hear the news has multiplied many times in recent years.
In this environment, the media have become a significant part of the stories reporters are covering.
Faced with this situation, along with the growing criticism of "the press" or "the media," Boccardi said, "It is a mistake (for the media) to take the `hunker-down' option, to calculate that we've always had problems and, in effect, to hell with it, we can't do much about it. No, that's wrong. Dead wrong. We should defend and explain what we do when we think we are right and when we are wrong, admit it, openly and generously."
HE SAID those in the news business must seek out ways to make themselves an essential part of the solution, not just an annoying part of the problem.
Boccardi said he was neither pessimistic nor discouraged about the ability of the news industry to deal with the challenges. To do this, however, he said, "we must adhere to values that long ago established their worth and their durability.
"The public expects the newspaper press to serve as a medium of context and continuity, to help the reader understand, not to add to the confusion.
"He expects us all to be accurate," Boccardi emphasized, "to find the truth. And what is `objectivity' other than telling the truth, getting the facts straight and treating our subjects fairly?"
He added, "Let's remember that criticism is inevitable unless we've let ourselves become irrelevant. I think there is bedrock public support for a free press. We must be resisters of noise and hoopla and hype, not purveyors or indeed victims.
"We cannot forsake the old and enduring values, like accuracy, fairness, clear separation of fact from opinion, balance, and completeness. If a newspaper can't do that, a newspaper of whatever size in whatever place, it's going to have a very hard time, indeed.
"KEEP IN MIND that there can be news in good news, that not all news has to be bad news, that some things do go right, and the people ought to want to know about them.''
"Put it all in three words," the highly respected newsman said, "Serve the audience." And, he added, "Make a difference."
Acknowledging there is much criticism of the media, Boccardi pointed out the AP has operations in 68 countries and does extensive business with news agencies or news companies in many other countries. He said the AP has the largest foreign news staff of any American news organization and that when a person measures the U.S. press, with its constitutional protections, against all press systems around the globe, the American press is a "shining model."
He said the goal of every person in the newspaper and news business should be to "bring passion to what we do, passion to get at the truth, passion to make a mark, passion to leave the town, the city, the state, the nation better served because we were there."
Boccardi, directing his remarks to journalism school students in the audience, said, "You students, if you can't get passionate about this, if you can't care, then don't come into the business. You'll be happier and more successful at something else."
He emphasized that an uninformed electorate trying to guide a democracy is a frightening prospect.
THE NEWS business needs more Lou Boccardis, and more of those in journalism schools and practicing journalists need to hear his message. Those in the news business should not take themselves too seriously, but they need to take their responsibilities very seriously.
Boccardi has done a superb job in building the AP into an even finer, stronger and more comprehensive news-gathering organization than it was when he moved into the president's office in 1985. He has a passion, a fierce passion, to help produce an even finer, more complete news report, a news report that will help readers and viewers understand and cope with today's challenges and help them make informed decisions concerning so many issues in our system of government.
There are speakers within the news business who may have more "star" or "show biz" attraction, individuals who have become known for their television exposure or have a stronger name identification, but William Allen White Foundation officers could not have selected a citee for this year's honor who has higher, more respected credentials than Boccardi. He knows the nuts and bolts of the business. Every day he is responsible for the quality and direction of the world's largest news- gathering organization and he is doing a superb job.
His observations about accuracy, objectivity and fairness, as well as the role and responsibility of the press, need to be heard at all journalism schools and in all newsrooms.