Go to USC home page USC Logo School of Journalism and Mass Communications



I-Comm Week
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Honors and Awards Night

Keynote Address by Gerald Boyd

Good evening.

It's a pleasure to be here today and to be a part of the wonderful set of activities that your school of journalism and mass communications is putting on this week.

It is  almost worth the trip to see Dean Bierbauer again. We had a lot of strange and wonderful times covering the Reagan White House together and I'll carry many of our secrets to my grave or at least until Harper Collins publishes my memoir next year.

Actually, I just finished a chapter entitled, "What White House correspondents do when the camera is turned off and Secret Service agents aren't looking?"

Not really. Seriously, I will share one memory.  Covering a  pressure filled beat like the White House gives us an opportunity to see some of the best and worst that journalism has to offer. The competition is intense, the travel endless and the demands unreal.

You learn quickly who the real pros are. Those are the ones you jump in the trenches with without a second thought. That was your dean.  He was right up there with the best of the best, smart, calm, fair and thorough. It was hard to believe that he was a broadcast journalist.

I am delighted to be here and to talk about "Challenges in Changing Times: The World of Journalism Today."  It's a subject that I have not just thought about, but I have lived intensely over the last two years,  when I was the Managing Editor of The New York Times.

I took over the number two job at The Times five days before the terrorists attack of 9/11.

Today, journalism is undergoing change and that change is  real and permanent. And I am here to argue the following: That while journalism is a calling - a noble profession, if you will - it is also a living and breathing thing that must evolve to be relevant to its readers, listeners and viewers. In other words, journalism cannot engage the public effectively by remaining static. And the need to find better ways to evolve is perhaps the most difficult challenge we face.

So I am here tonight to discuss three issues that I believe are critical for journalism as we look to the future -- leadership, accountability and diversity.

Now why do I say this:  Because today, we live in a time when news and information sources, are endless -- from Web sites to list serves from entertainment shows to talk radio.

And when President Bush tells ABC's Diane Sawyer that he prefers to get his news not from journalists but from "people he trusts who give me the actual news and don't editorialize" or when Arnold Schwarzenegger goes on Jay Leno to announce his candidacy for Governor of California, they are reflecting a sign of the times.

Sure, the press remains vital to communicating with the public. But don't think for a second, it's the only game in town. And don't think that those who work in Washington or, in fact, elected officials everywhere aren't aware of and already skilled at exploiting this trend. Your generation knows this better than anyone.

And I have another concern. Increasingly today, people can function as their own editors. You can decide what you want, when you want and how much you want.

To me, both these developments are troublesome and potentially dangerous.

When I started in journalism -- three decades ago -- the fault lines were clearly drawn. The press was there as the prime and often only source for communicating with the public. And it was a mission that the public accepted and understood. After all, that was our role, our public responsibility. At the end of the day, few questioned whether we had the public's interest at heart.

That view of the press was very much in evidence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Esteem for the media rose to record levels; the circulation of newspapers shot up -- at The Times circulation rose by almost 100,000 in the first week -- as did the number of people watching television news and listening to the radio. The reason, I believe, was simple:  we faced a dangerous and confusing time. And searching for answers, the public needed us and needed us greatly.

Today, I would submit, that picture is murky and in fact, is becoming murkier. A lot of the public doesn't see the press as operating in its interest.

Let me explain what I mean. Recently, a journalism study group called the Project for Excellence in Journalism did a comprehensive review of the current state of the profession and public attitudes. The findings are scary.

  • The percentage of people who rate their daily newspapers as believable dropped to 59 percent in 2002 from 80 percent in l985.

  • Want more:  Over that same 17 year period, the number of people who believe news organizations generally get their facts straight declined from 55 percent to 35 percent; those who think news organizations are politically biased rose from 45 to 59 percent; and those who believe news organizations try to cover up their mistakes rose from 13 to 67 percent.

So I want to spend my remaining time talking about the news media and what we must do to change these impressions. Unless, we do the future becomes obvious:  Rather than remaining the first choice, traditional news organizations will increasingly be marginalized and find themselves taking a back seat to other information outlets. 

Why am I so concerned? 

Well, I can still remember the good old days, when journalists smoked too much and drank too much. There were lot of bottles in our newsrooms -- but they certainly weren't bottles of water.

The world we live in today is a world where kids kill kids and priests abuse children. It a world of living with AIDS not dying from AIDS and telling people why they should care. It's one where more Americans than not own stocks and where Alan Greenspan is as important as Tom Daschle. Quick, who is the Democratic leader in the House?

When I started in journalism, we could go into the ghettos and small towns and write about the noble struggle of blacks wanting and deserving civil rights.

It was a good story, actually a great story, full of heroes and villains.

Today, the story of race in America is a story of paradoxes, with more shades of gray than black or white. And it reaches beyond race into areas that include immigration, education, and class, just to name a few. 

Journalism today is about navigating a world of ever expanding information sources, and making people understand how what we do is different from Web blogs and Entertainment Tonight. That means letting them know that we care as much about them and their lives as we do about profits and rating and ridiculous counting methods, such as audience penetration.

And those challenges do not begin to tell the half of it.  Our nation and the world changed in a fundamental way as a result of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York two years ago. Those attacks launched an era of new realities for us as Americans in how we work, play and live.

Think about all that has happened since then: Increased security at public buildings, new security at airports, increased awareness of threats from bio-terrorism such as anthrax, new procedures for shooting down commercial airplanes, a significant realignment of U.S. military and foreign policy goals, and reassessment of long held civil liberty protections. And as you know, we have fought two wars since then and are still fighting them.

I once tried to describe to a group of journalists from Japan what that day meant to America.

And as I kept thinking about 9/11, the coordinated use of jumbo jets as guided missiles, the President moving around the country in total secrecy, the grounding of the nation's entire commercial airline fleet, the markets shutting down, and above all, two thousand New Yorkers going to work that morning never to be heard from again, I told them that this was the day that America lost her innocence.

For me, what I will recall for the rest of my life is how my wife Robin and I had to explain to our son Zachary, who was then five, about good people and bad people and where people go when they died. I remember how it took him the longest time to shake the image of planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Each night, he would end his prayers by saying, "Please Lord take care of the people who died at the World Trade Center."

That's our world today.

Often over the last few months, I have asked myself if we are doing all that we can as journalists to meet the challenges of this new day. And increasingly I have found myself answering no.

Now, I'm sure that some of you have heard of Jayson Blair and what his violations of trust did to journalism and to The New York Times. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

Since he resigned from The Times almost a year ago, 10 other journalists have been forced to leave newspapers because of problems related to fabricating or plagiarizing. Only recently, Jack Kelley, a star reporter at USA Today resigned after charges that he committed similar violations.

Everywhere I go, editors and reporters, academics and writers, are eager to talk about what can be done. So here's how I believe that journalism can and must get better.

Let me talk first about leadership.

In the past few months, I have come to believe that the greatest benefit that can come out of these scandals is the opportunity it gives us to really focus on what it means to lead in the modern news organization.

By this, I mean the need for systematic leadership development and assessment to be built into the very fiber of our news organizations.

Virtually every successful major corporation spends a significant amount of time, energy and money developing its leaders -- both its current leaders and its future ones.

Those aspiring to be leaders in journalism need roadmaps on how to engage readers more effectively and how to explain better that we are different from the other sources of information masquerading as news. They need to understand how to stand steadfast to our core values at a time when pressures are pushing us in other directions.

Let me describe what I mean. Recently, John Carroll, the editor of the Los Angles Times, wrote a story describing the paper's decision to publish its investigation into the groping allegations involving Arnold Schwarzenegger before the gubernatorial election. 

Why is that important?

Because Carroll understood that - at a time when readers don't know how decisions get made and when critics misrepresent the journalistic process - a leader must pull back the curtain and show how journalism is practiced. In doing so, he provided a rare peak inside the decision making process at the L.A. Times, something that I welcome.

Other editors are reaching out to readers in a similar fashion. Recently when the Washington Post decided to clamp down on the use of anonymous sources, the editor, Len Downie, wrote an article explaining the decision.

That's the kind of leadership we need today.

We need to explain ourselves more often and better.

We need to distinguish more effectively between what we offer as journalists and the information the public gets from entertainment shows, talk shows, the Web and other sources that don't share out core values.

Like it or not, today we confront an information explosion as a result of advances in technology. And that development is nothing short of awesome, as my son Zachary would say.

But it's also a two-edged sword. Information moves in minutes whether right or wrong. Rumors or speculation become fact and are passed along with or without the cursory denial. I'll have more on that later.

Ten years ago, a Jayson Blair's fabrication would have been discovered practically from the beginning. That's because national reporters were required to leave whereabouts with the hotel they were staying so they could be reached. Today, we have cell phones, pagers and e-mails, which makes it easier for someone who wants to foil the system.  And we must have leadership that appreciates this transformation, and that knows how to put controls in place that protect us. 

From my first days in journalism, I have heard how our profession is a different animal. How great leadership is automatic and how great reporters or great writers make great leaders.

Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.

And the reality is this:  Whether we are dealing with micro chips or what stories to put on page one, we are talking about complicated decisions where employees need to work together to reach the smart solution in the face of significant competitive forces.

We can no longer ignore this development. The stakes are simply too high. All the issues that journalists wring their hands over at annual gathering -- the shrinking audience for serious journalism, the competition for mind share brought on by the information explosion, the challenges of concentration of media ownership in fewer hands -- have combined to make this a particularly crucial time for journalism.

That leads me to my second point, accountability and trust.

I believe, with all my heart, that we must become more active in helping the public know that we work for them and that what we do is in their interest. That's our public responsibility and why we have a First Amendment. Sometimes, that seems to be lost.

This is true not just for my generation, but for those in high school and college, who I believe are not always clear on the merits of journalism versus other forms of information.

We simply cannot take the view that we can put it out there for them to take it, as we give it, period.

In all honesty, fewer and fewer of them are taking it, and some of them who are taking it are throwing it back in our faces.

From our first days on the job in any newsroom, we learn how to become skilled in gathering, analyzing, synthesizing and reporting the news.

But clearly we need to do more.

Let's face it, just about all of us now in journalism were motivated to get into this profession by the thrill of the chase -- hunting down that great story. The love of the scoop is intoxicating and yes, still important, vital, and crucial.

But I would argue that some of that time, talent and effort has to be turned toward issues that provide for the long-term viability of serious journalism.

Don't get me wrong, I am not some  Chicken Little rushing around screaming that the sky is falling, the sky is falling.

But I do worry about the future.

And I do believe that any forces that tend to work to the detriment of serious journalism by definition work to the detriment of society.

So what am I calling for?

We need the establishment and expansion of structures dedicated to looking deeply and critically into journalism and how it engages the public. These structures need to focus not only on how the news is covered, but even more basic questions, such as why we continue to disconnect with those who we have given our professional careers to serve.

Just as it is a central part of the news efforts for leaders to discuss, debate and give serious attention to issues like the structure of a story, the length of a story, and the placement of a story, we must increasingly focus attention on the reasons for the story and whether those reasons are clear to our readers.

Should we accompany controversial stories with sidebars revealing some of the issues related to how the story developed? Should we make special efforts to explain our decisions, whether in print or on the airwaves?  And should we do more to anticipate backlash and criticism and try harder to explain ourselves? Should the Web be used, for instance,  to generate more dialogue with the public about issues raised on the air or in the paper?

These kind of questions and concerns are not just interesting academic exercises for J-schools and conventions. They are everyday situations that must be tackled in a way that is meaningful, yet that does nothing to compromise the journalistic mission.

I cannot overemphasize the importance or the potential difficulty infusing these kinds of practices into the daily work of professional journalists.

Hard it might be, but do it we must.

After all, journalism is a profession and like any profession -- law, medicine, education -- it must evolve with society -- constantly impacting and being impacted by society.

That leads me to my final point, diversity.

I don't believe for a second that journalism can be as rich, smart or relevant as it needs to be without diversity.

Embracing diversity becomes crucial because the world of journalism today is one of sameness.  We attend the same colleges, live in the same neighborhoods, eat at the same restaurants and send our children to the same schools.

There is nothing wrong with that, but it should worry all of us.  How do we begin to understand the hopes and dreams, the pressures and the problems of those who don't live in our world?

In the end, our role as journalists in the world of today has to be two-fold:  To go as broad as possible and as deep as possible. That assures our future.

I can't tell you the number of young journalists, particularly young journalists of color who have come to me wonder if they have future in journalism after the Jayson Blair episode? Will they be trusted, will they be given opportunities, or will anyone care about their future? To be honest, such questions just rip my heart out.

The Jayson Blair scandal also indicates  that race relations in the newsroom and society in general still has a long, long way to go.

Why do I say that?

I can't tell you how proud I was to be the managing editor of The New York Times, the venerable, erudite and progressive New York Times. Few newspapers in the country, for instance, could have published the ground breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning series, "How Race is Lived in America."

I know that The Times is genuinely committed to basic tenets like fairness, justice and diversity -- probably more than just about any other major news organization.

Yet, when Blair's fraud came to light, the central feature in many people's mind was the issue of race. Despite all of the accomplishments of my career, despite the obvious troubles he had, some people could not see past the fact that Jayson and I happened to share pigmentation. They assumed I was his mentor and have given him breaks.

We do have a long, long way to go in terms of race relations.

But what's new about that:  Everyone always says "We have a long way to go:  The question is when do we leave and how do we make the trip?

I would offer a relatively simple proposal: That each of us commit ourselves individually to taking personal responsibility for making progress in our direct sphere of influence.

By that, I mean that we need to find ways to monitor the progress that we as professions are making in our businesses and communities to create cohesive environments that bring people together across boundaries of race. This is not just the moral and ethical thing to do, but it is absolutely a must if we are to preserve, protect, and promote the future of this cherished institution we call journalism.

Before I conclude, let me make another point that I think is important.

We live in a day and age in which one person's perception of fact can appear in print without any fact checking or without any attempt to determine the truth. And whether this information is manufactured or misleading, whether it is personally harmful or professionally damaging, it finds its way into the market place to be circulated over and over and over.

That is a powerful force.  And as journalists, you must always be aware of what that power means and how it affects people's lives.

That power is one that I have always, as a journalist, tried to use wisely. I have had to learn this personally the hard way, when the tables turned and I became part of the story, rather than the person writing or editing the story.

The story I am part of, of course, is the aftermath of the Blair scandal. Last week there was yet another installment in this story -- an article written in the May Atlantic Monthly magazine by Howell Raines, the former executive editor.

My first reaction to the piece was that I would not respond to it in any way. But I realize that in the interest of truth, there were a few points that need to be made.

Howell, my former colleague and friend of many years, offered his personal assessment of many things in the piece. I do not agree with many of his characterizations, including his unfair attack on the staff of The Times.

For the past year , my former colleagues at The Times have been on a roller coaster, where their professionalism has been attacked and maligned. This has to stop.

In my case, Howell alleges that I was aware of the now infamous memo from Blair's supervisor, saying that Blair should be stopped from writing for The Times. As I made clear in my discussions with the Siegal Committee, the panel that reviewed his career at The Times, I was not. I first learned of the memo at the same time that Howell learned of it.  That fact - that this memo went to lower level editors and was not circulated to higher ups -  has already been clearly established by the Siegal Committee and should not be in dispute.

Nor is this fact:  The day after the supervisor sent the memo,  Blair was reprimanded and warned by letter that he could lose his job unless his performance improved, a  course of action that I was made aware of and that this supervisor approved.

The truth is that in the end, it came down to this: we were managing the wrong problem. We thought we were managing a young, green reporter, who was erratic but had enormous potential. That's something that can be managed. Instead, we learned to late that we managing a reporter who did not share in the values, we all cherish as journalists.

Let me correct one other misperception. For months, I read one publication after another declaring me to be Jayson Blair's mentor, even though that fact couldn't be further from the truth. If it had been, I would have acknowledged it, but it was not true. That was based on something that appeared in Newsweek, which I told them was untrue and was never corrected.

The Newsweek writer said the report was based on what Blair told people. I found it shocking, and I still find it shocking, that this was reported without further checking, when they already knew that they were dealing with an admitted liar. They took his word for it and in doing so, added another complicated layer to a story that was already hurting a lot of people personally and professionally.

As I speak to you today,  I don't pretend to have all the answers. I don't even pretend to know all of the questions.

But I know that truth matters. It's our currency and the foundation of our profession. 

And I  know that at this critical time for the press, we must be proactive. And we must  head into the future with a determination that our journalism is the best we can produce. And if it gets broken, we must do work as hard as we can to fix it. 

That's why I am here to day.

Thank you.  I'll be glad to take questions.