Lou Boccardi

The Press and The People

VTR Date: January 23, 2003

Louis D. Boccardi of the Associated Press discusses free speech issues.


GUEST: Louis D. Boccardi
VTR: 1/23/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend whose fervent and unshakably strong and well spoken personal convictions concerning the inherent value for us all of an unyielding yet always reasonable, rational defense of press freedoms everywhere … are just that … personal, not just professional. It’s not that Lou Boccardi stands where he does just because of where he sits at the very pinnacle of American journalism as long time President and CEO of the Associated Press.

For that’s precisely where my guest’s heart and soul are as well, which I can readily testify to as one who has tried so frequently and so unsuccessfully to bait him into perhaps a somewhat different posture.

You’ll note, of course, that I haven’t chosen to use the well-worn descriptive, “free speech absolutist” in describing my journalist friend. For I still think he’s too rational and reasonable for that. Though I wonder whether Lou Boccardi himself takes umbrage at my choice not to use that phrase.

Boccardi: No, I think that’s okay. I would not use it of myself.

Heffner: But one would use it of a lot of other people in your field of work.

Boccardi: Yes, there are some who are self-described “absolutists”. I think in a society like ours where the press plays the role that it does that you have to have a certain rationality to your conviction and I appreciate the description with which you introduced the program. But I’m uncomfortable with absolutism about almost anything.

Heffner: Do you think they’re self-destructive … the absolutists?

Boccardi: I don’t think they’re self-destructive. You know in, in almost any conversation it’s helpful to have a variety of points of view and it’s good for that … if you will … foot to the fire point of view to enter the dialogue. But, you know, there are corners where you have to be concerned about some other issues, security, safety … the old, old cliché of fire in the crowd–of not crying fire in a crowded theater. So you just have to be somewhere, distant, separated from the absolutist position all the time. But I think people who have those strongly held views perform a service.

Heffner: Well, I, I asked you the question about self-destructive because I was enjoying reading back last night, looking at a … at the transcripts of our old programs. This one dates back to June 1984.

Boccardi: It’s almost unfair, you know …

Heffner: [Laughter] You were just out of high school …

Boccardi: … read it … well, I think … not quite.

Heffner: We were talking about this same issue … it doesn’t go away.

Boccardi: I don’t think it ever will, Dick.

Heffner: We hope that it doesn’t go away in a sense. But you were saying “I think we will suffer a further erosion of public understanding and support of the function of the press in this society. And over a long time, decades, I think that erosion could come to a point where we would see a serious challenge to the free press. The free press First Amendment based system that we own, but I don’t mean to be scary about that. That’s decades away.” Well … that was decades ago … two of them anyway. What do you think? Do you think we have jeopardized Americans’ presumably traditional penchant for freeing the press?

Boccardi: The opportunity to comment on yourself is almost as hazardous as the luxury of quoting yourself. But I think what I said then had a point then and I think the intervening 20 years or so have been a period in which this discussion between the press and its public has gotten worse, so … yea, I think we’ve seen some of that erosion. I don’t think we’re at the apocalyptical point where it’s all about to go down. I don’t think it is. But I think it was not a bad look ahead to say that we’re going to be in some difficulty with a lot of our public. And I think we are.

Heffner: What are the signs of that, Lou?

Boccardi: Look around … anywhere in the public dialogue, in print, in surveys of credibility, of where people get their news and this endless claim of bias and disbelief … “I never watch this anymore. I don’t read anymore”, the circulation difficulties that newspapers are having which I think in some degree are credibility connected issue. The, the endless charges that … from both wings of the political life … that we’re biased. Go into a cocktail party, step away from it … if I may say a professional engagement like this one …

Heffner: Right.

Boccardi: … walk into a cocktail party and let somebody know that you’re a journalist. And watch what happens. Listen to the heavily negative comment in most places. So, yeah, I think a lot of what I was talking about there has, has happened. Not, as I say, in an apocalyptic way, where it’s all over. It’s clearly not.

Heffner: The … between the time we first talked … decades ago … and now … we’ve had some military ventures or adventures …

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: … perhaps I should say … and at the time of the Gulf War there was a very great deal of concern about the role that the military was playing, that the government was playing in restraining press rights … keeping the press away. Do you think we’re going to experience that now if, in the months or years ahead we have more military ventures?

Boccardi: I hope not. And there is some indication from the Pentagon now that they want to try to do it differently. The proof will be in what happens. But they have undertaken to do some training of journalists, which has never happened before, that is familiarization with the military issues … safety and things like that. They’ve talked about a plan, the new buzzword, a plan to embed journalists in units that might see some action. Which is a two-sided thing. If you’re embedded … there you are and pretty much that’s where you’ll stay.

Heffner: Right.

Boccardi: So, I’d rather be “in” than “out”, but it’s not exactly a free, “hurray” point. So they’re saying anyway that they’re going to try to do things somewhat differently this time.

Heffner: Wasn’t …

Boccardi: The Gulf War was very difficult to cover. And it lasted such a short time and it had these pools and as it ended after … again … just a matter of days … the pools were about to rupture and there was going to be an explosion of journalists wandering that area which would have been problematic for everybody. But it had started to happen.

Heffner: Well the “embedding” was starting then. Wasn’t, wasn’t that the problem?

Boccardi: Not anything like what they’re talking about now. Now they’re talking about injecting, embedding, a journalist with a unit. You will go with the 101st Airborne or whatever unit. And you’ll go off with them when they go, where they go, if they go. That’s the new plan and there wasn’t anything quite that formalized before. Most of the coverage in the Gulf, the Gulf War was press briefing kind of coverage. And then these very limited pools that were taken to specific places, all in a very controlled kind of environment. And as I say, that began to come apart … big time … just as the war ended. It was fortunately so short.

Heffner: Well, then and at Grenada, in Grenada and other ventures or again, adventures … you’re, you’ve always been terribly much aware of technology and the role it plays or may play. There was a problem then … in those times … with the possibility that a free ranging journalist, given his technical capability, could really do us damage. How do you evaluate …

Boccardi: That’s a fair concern and it’s a good example of the point on which we started this little chat today about the absolutist positions on some of these things. You can’t, in my view, responsibly claim that as a journalist you have a right to do something that endangers lives of the people that you’re covering in this hypothetical you just described. So I think if you’re in a situation where you have that capacity you have to be very careful with it and in fact not use it in a way that will cost lives … endangers lives or endanger the mission. And I think that’s just a fundamental, commonsense approach of trying to cover a military action.

Heffner: Fundamental commonsense approach. How much …

Boccardi: I’m sorry [laughter]

Heffner: No, no, no … I’m just …

Boccardi: … that’s offensive … I’m sorry [laughter]

Heffner: … amused … not at all offensive, quite the contrary … I just wonder where you find other than at this table, that commonsense approach?

Boccardi: Well, you know after the Gulf War there was a serious effort made by some of us in the media to see people in the Pentagon and develop a set of ground rules for the next time.

Heffner: Was that the Seidel …

Boccardi: It was in that climate … but it wasn’t exactly Seidel. So, I was engaged in that and we ended up in the office of the Secretary of Defense. Who, of course, at that point was Mr. Chenney, who’s now the Vice President. And we agreed, pretty much, on ten or 11 rules that would apply the next time. And for the most part, were they in place and were they followed, it would have been Okay. Now there been a few regimes throughout the Pentagon and so this is kind of cast, kind of cast off into a piece of history. But my point is that it was possible then for responsible voices to sit down and say, “Look, let’s just try to figure out, there’s got to be a better way to do this … responsibly, but where we have access to information on behalf of the public that we serve. And that’s not a novel construction. And we found at least the willingness then to, to listen and as I say to work out somethings. That’s pretty much over with and we’re now three of four administrations beyond it. But you seem skeptical that there’s, there’s any, any chance to talk reasonably about it and we thought there was a reasonable conversation.

Heffner: Well, after all in the last few years, particularly in the last few years there’s been much more talk, fairly well documented of efforts to govern ourselves through governing opinion. Govern ourselves through the manipulation, if you’ll forgive of me of opinion … a procedure in which the press plays, by definition a very, very major role. How would one find, these days an acceptance of the kind free press role that you embrace, that is in your blood stream. How do you reconcile that with the notion that “things are too dangerous today”? National security; war time and peace time, too, requires that we continue to keep order, we keep things in order too.

Boccardi: Well, you know, so many of these issues are issues that get you into trouble as you take them from the sort of a core relevance. You know a core agreement. Yes, it makes sense to be conscious of security concerns and then you take them out to the end where everything is to be controlled and nobody is to have the freedom to do anything. I think you need to stop the conversation much lower down, down the scale.

Yes, there is a concern about security and we shouldn’t be writing things that would make it easier for an enemy to, to attack, to cause the loss of human life. Of course not, but this is more than a leap, there’s a chasm, a flight over to the idea that “well, because of this now, in this day … I’m sorry. It was okay to have a free press back when the stakes are lower, but nowadays we just can’t do that. It’s nice ideas you have, but we can’t really do it.” I don’t think we’re there and I don’t think that that’s the logical end point of, of legitimate concern about security; legitimate concern about the protection of, of life.

Heffner: Yes, but as always, you sneak in a word and adjective … “legitimate concern” so reasonably people will agree on that. What about illegitimate concern and what about your estimate as to whether there would be illegitimate concern.

Boccardi: We, should … we meaning the press should oppose legitimate concern; concern that might be rooted in the political motivation of one direction or another. You know it’s not that one group has a particular corner on concerns that maybe at this table we’d agree are not quite legitimate, not true security concerns. We should oppose those. And we do.

Heffner: Okay, you and I have been through the wars … literally … over a number of years. What do you see as the future for the press, the printed press in particular in terms of economics, in terms of manipulation … whatever you want, you choose it. What do you see in that crystal ball right in the center?

Boccardi: Well, fortunately, I’m paid for whatever skill I have in reporting events or seeing to the reporting of events and not to predict them. But I’ll answer your question.

Heffner: Because I’m not going to pay you.

Boccardi: Yeah. Indeed, I knew that when I got here. Yeah. There are some changes that have happened in our world since you and I last sat at this table. The speed, the growth of … speed of movement of information; the growth and the availability of, of information. Growth in the sizes of the companies that are engaged in these, in these businesses. So an awful lot has changed since we tackled some of these questions last time. I think the print press is very conscious of its need to shore up and increase its circulation; it’s falling behind in terms of the percentage of the population that every day reads newspapers …those figures used to be far higher than they are now. They’ve slipped below 50%, used to be 75% or 80%. So the print press I think, has to work hard to establish its importance, its relevance and “you really need to read me today” in the audience that its trying to serve. I don’t think we’re going to be undone on an ideological basis where so many of your questions of today have been. I think we need to make sure that that newspaper … for the print part of your question … the newspaper needs to make sure that it does everything to be an important part of the people it wants to serve. You know, I had the privilege of serving on the Board of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Heffner: You’re the Chair, aren’t you?

Boccardi: I have been the Chair, I’m not now; there’s a rotation. And I see some magnificent journalism and you can’t do that work and looking at these submissions for prizes and come away thinking that there is some, from a rabid illness in the print press in America, an awful logged of good journalism happens, I think newspapers are by and large very good, and striving constantly to be better in this newly competitive, more competitive environment. So I’m not pessimistic about print. You have so many new elements, though, in this, in this mix. When we chatted last, we didn’t have all news cable of local and national and international dimension. You didn’t have the Internet as a source of information. I’ll say official … not in the government sense, but you know, information from sources that have other roots in journalism. And then other folks who have access to the Internet, and there they are. And they have a right, which is, I think, beyond dispute, to say what they want, and get out there. And there’s a whole other … almost an industry, not organized in the way you described the newspaper industry, but another industry of opinion and comment and none of that existed before. So we’re all working in an environment where there’s vastly more information flying about. And sometimes I worry a little bit about the consumers of all of this. You sit there and it’s hard for those of us whose job it is to keep up with all of this. And if you sit there as a consumer of this, I think we, we need to worry a little bit about the role ideology gets to play in how people react to so much of what they see.

Heffner: Aren’t they turning off? As a result?

Boccardi: Well, I think that they’re feeling … in the vernacular “enough already”

Heffner: MmmmHmmm.

Boccardi: You know it’s enough. Everything seems to be a crisis, nobody will come on the air and say, “Well, fundamentally, nothing happened in regard to Iraq today. Meanwhile …” and go on to something else. You just don’t, you don’t see that. And so there is this breathlessness that so much of news presentation on television, anyway … and some on radio, too, there’s this breathlessness that I think wearies people a little bit. The night that these two suspects were arrested in the snipings in Washington, I happened to be in a hotel room in Baltimore, so I was watching, and I was watching one of the cable channels … and here they kept cutting to this poor guy who had no more information than I had sitting in a hotel room. And here he was time after time … “Now, we’re off to …”, I forget his name … but let’s call him Dick … “now off to Dick. Well here I am in the parking lot …”
Heffner: [Laughter]

Boccardi: … which astute observers could have divined … with the lots of cars … sitting there, lined up, not moving … maybe it was a parking lot. “Well, I’m still here in the parting lot.” You know and they go back a few minutes later. So I think the public reacts to some of that in a negative way and think, “Enough already. You know, I don’t need to hear this again.”

Heffner: You said that the figures for newspapers, going down … newspaper readership going below 50%?

Boccardi: Circulation is down at … less than 50% of the population reports that it took, picked up and read a newspaper yesterday.

Heffner: What do you think the impact of that is upon our society? Upon who we are as a people?

Boccardi: I think it means that there either need to be other sources of information that those folks who don’t pick up the newspaper turn to, or the society become somewhat less, less well informed. And a lot of the people in, in … that I talk to in our business, worry about a society that’s a little less well informed, or a lot less well informed, because what else do you have in a democracy except people expected to know what’s going on. Not in the minute way that’s our job to know, but you know, to be aware and to make informed choice. You’re a historian and a scholar yourself, you can define democracy, I guess, more artfully than that. But that’s … the essence of it in an informed people who make choices when confronted with them …electoral or legislatively and so on. If that information isn’t there, that’s a serious issue.

Heffner: I’m thinking though about the whole business of dumbing down of our society and connecting that … I mean I think of asking my students, always, to read Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion with the bottom line being that without a well informed public opinion, we’re in mortal danger in terms of our survival. And then I know what the statistics had been and now you give me even more insight into that, and I can’t help but connect it to this notion of “dumbing down” …

Boccardi: MmmmHmmm.

Heffner: And knowing how much less the people I come in contact with know about our lives and the world around us, than their counterparts did five years ago, ten years ago.

Boccardi: It’s our job to do the best we can to make sure that that doesn’t happen or that we, we roll it back, as we see it start to happen. I think that we’re agreeing that information is, in so many ways, the lifeblood of a democracy. An informed people are a lifeblood of a democracy. Now, you would hear from many people that folks like myself and maybe like you … we’re focused on their not taking the traditional kinds of information …

Heffner: MmmmHmmmm.

Boccardi: But I saw a survey the other day that says that 22% of the people surveyed said “Yes, I stay informed about news and I get my news from talk radio.” Well …

Heffner: That’s scary.

Boccardi: Well, you know, no one with my career history and no one in my job could possibly think that there’s anything but a good thing to have more comment and more discussion, the widest range of conversation. But, you know be careful what you think you’re hearing and whether it’s news or commentary. And there’s a real difference. And here was a survey … I’ve no reason to doubt it … that said 22% of the people said “Yes, and I get my news from talk radio.” Well, talk radio has got an entertainment character to it. All legitimate … again … I don’t want to hint in the slightest that I think there’s anything wrong with that. But you know, some of it … maybe a lot of it is not exactly a newscast; it’s an opinion on news. It’s taking news and putting it through the prism of, of whoever the host is. At either end, and none of this is ideological, I said either, either side …

Heffner: In a McLuhan-ish sense, and really the question I was asking you about the impact of going to 50%, below 50% …

Boccardi: MmmHmmm.

Heffner: Really asking about what an incredible impact it must have upon what we were like when we were part of the mainstream and given our years … I won’t put you in my category, but you’re getting up there …

Boccardi: Close … you keep staying ahead of me, though, Dick.

Heffner: [Laughter] I hope so. I hope so. It seems to me that there’s nowhere where we’re thinking about what … what are we going to look like.

Boccardi: MmmHmmm.

Heffner: … remember back in the McLuhan-ish days, I remember that cartoon … the human being a 1,000 years in the future … Cyclops … one eye in the center of the forehead … what else do we need? We’re going to change. And I have to feel that that 50% figure …

Boccardi: MmmmHmmm.

Heffner: Or maybe slightly below 50% ….

Boccardi: MmmmHmmm.

Heffner: … means that we are going to fundamentally change.

Boccardi: That’s certainly a risk. Although I think we tend to look back and color memory a little bit in a rosy way. And I can’t tell you I remember a lot of conversations when I was in high school here where we sat around and, and talked about world politics, or what took the Roman Empire down. I guess maybe we did a little of that in class. But, you know, I think we tend to color that a little bit rose-ily. And attribute a little bit more to … well, way back when … than was really there. But as I’ve said, I think there is a challenge here for us to make sure that this, this free press that we’ve talked so much about and fight so hard for, continues to have a relevant role because it’s in, it’s the core of, of a free society.

Heffner: Lou Boccardi … couldn’t be said better, by a better guy. Thank you so much for coming back and joining me again on The Open Mind.

Boccardi: You’re welcome.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.