Speech: Bringing Public Media Out of the Woods

Walden Quote
I wrote this speech for my speechwriting class at American University. It ties some of Henry David Thoreau’s complaints and lessons about the media of his day to the need for open-minded public media today.

A recent Washington Post article wrote that NPR listeners are graying. So in an effort to stay hip with the Millennial crowd, I’m going start with a story about someone who was streaming before it was cool, the 19th century Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

Before the American Civil War, Henry David Thoreau pled for the country to consider the character of John Brown, a man who attempted an insurrection against slavery and predicted a war over it.

Thoreau asked how herds of newspapers and magazines felt “obliged to get their sentences ready for the morning edition” while they refrained from publishing Brown’s exact words for fear of losing subscribers. Thoreau asked,

How then can they print truth? If we do not say pleasant things, they argue, nobody will attend to us. And so they do like some traveling auctioneers, who sing an obscene song in order to draw a crowd around them.

Thoreau’s call for calm and character fell on deaf ears amidst the clamoring office-seekers and speechmakers who made a cackling for conflict. With a Civil War, he witnessed the consequence of a press too cowered to question the conventional wisdom.

Thoreau’s quiet ideas echo loudly in our era of instant digital reaction, the 24-hour news cycle, and the public’s chronic distrust of journalism. Thoreau’s wisdom should be public media’s mission.

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When public problems present themselves, the public needs a press it can trust.
Just as the printing press expanded the reach of the written word, television, radio and the Internet give people more options than ever. But this widened horizon of choice presents a paradox.

As more news must now compete for our attention, we have less time to make media choices critically. Commercial concerns create echo chambers and competition amplifies conflict. As entertainment and information compete for attention, we risk mixing news with the trivial.

In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau laments the superficial discussions about news and politics but says we should not ignore them. 

He argues newspapers and conversation ought to observe a “chastity of mind,” treating our thinking as a public space to be kept clear of dust, bustle, and filth.[1]

A free press is like a river. It should be broad, not shallow. The free flow of information should enable listeners to learn and grow and challenge thinking. That’s how we build a foundation of trust in society.

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The Concord River, which leads into Walden Pond. (Photo by Frank Murmann)

The press plays an essential role in building trust in our democracy. The press is the only profession explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of the United States in the First Amendment protections. Founding Father James Madison called “a vigilant and courageous press” a primary need to secure life and property from “criminal alliances and official neglect.”

Today, polls show record levels of public distrust for both the press and the government. Our dissatisfaction might stem from increased partisanship, a sense that networks value celebrity over substance, or a feeling of powerlessness on the behalf of citizens.

National Public Radio’s original mission statement in 1970 suggests an alternative. It built a news organization that begins “with no identity of its own” and refused to “substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity.”

 A media that serves the individual and promotes personal growth will build trust by “encouraging a sense of active, constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”[2]
News is only helpful if the audience feels it has relevance to their lives and they can take action. Those civic efforts only feel relevant if we build trust.

Information is essential but the expense in gathering it challenges journalism fundamental freedom from influence.

Conventional news is disappearing. With $46 billion dollars in ad revenune, Google now makes more on ads than what the entire newspaper made in 2001. Today those papers make about half as much.[3] Google’s motto may have once been “don’t be evil,” it is not bound to any sort of journalistic integrity. Google’s success does point to what people truly value: information.

Algorithms may make a more complex world easier to manage, but that news can’t exist without reporters on the ground. Popularity as measured by views or clicks won’t always support the journalism that needs to hold power accountable.

Today, more than ever we need media devoted to the public good. Free from partisan loyalties, conflicts of interest, or government control. Public media’s model isn’t perfect but its discipline provides the best path forward to truth.

With that in mind, we have to remember that reporting comes first.

Fred Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.” That honesty comes from being an honest listener as well as an honest speaker. More often than not, this means newsgatherers ought to give priority to their subjects in stories. We need to tell stories with the people rather than telling them how to think.

Giving people their chance to be heard. That’s how a story can transport listeners to other people’s lives, other people’s countries, other people’s understanding. When you treat your audience with respect, there’s no need to interpret stories for them. They speak for themselves. Truth becomes self-evident.

Sometimes the most simple story speaks volumes. On 9/11, Robert Siegel happened to be in Manhattan. While televisions turned on the instant ticker, Siegel described the scene—the smoke in the air, the volunteers on the ground.

He found papers from the World Trade Center—a resume for a restaurant, some court hearing documents—and he used them to contact people who were there.[4] Instead of pontificating about how this moment changed everything, he told those people’s stories.

When Thoreau wrote, “speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” he was referring to why we shouldn’t yell in the woods.

If we consider Thoreau’s message of self-discovery, personal growth, and peace of mind, we can forge public media’s path. If we listen, maybe we’ll find the wisdom to face the challenges of our day.

  
[1] http://thoreau.eserver.org/life2.html

[2] http://transom.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NPRMISSION.pdf

[3] https://gigaom.com/2013/04/11/two-charts-that-tell-you-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-future-of-newspapers/

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQB3XUrKz58

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