A FORMER president of the United States—the one born and reared in Arkansas—came by the other day and spoke before 900 invited guests in Little Rock. The occasion was the 200th anniversary of Arkansas’ Newspaper, which first began its inky business in 1819. At the banquet celebrating our bicentennial, Bill Clinton not only made an appearance, which would have been admirable, but also was the featured speaker, which was commendable. As the old papers used to say in the local columns, a good time was had by all.
Bill Clinton could
always command a room—big, small, in-between. It was nice to see nothing has changed in that regard. When he rose to speak, folks stopped tinkering with their coffee cups and wine glasses. It was like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials.
He was diplomatic and kind, but you knew that already. The man has his charms. And he spoke of things near and dear. Like newspapers in general. And how facts matter. Even these days, when it seems CNN and Fox News are living on different planets.
We’d paraphrase Bill Clinton’s speech for y’all, but there’s only so much a mere editor can do. How about a compromise instead? We’ll highlight some of his key points, in his words. Because he puts things so much better. Always has.
Consider this a guest editorial. And by a charitable guest, at that.
After the Fleetwood Mac was dialed down, and the applause only scattered, the former president (and governor) talked about the old days:
“Old-fashioned newspapers are important—if they tell us what’s going on. In every place we’re interested. I can read the business stories in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and I can get a . . . feel for how the major businesses are doing . . .
“I’m really interested in this whole education question about whether the state will turn Little Rock schools back over to the local leadership. I read all the stories about that. Including people that thought it was right to do the other thing. But when it was over, I felt like I knew what the issues were. I knew who was on what side and why. Which is all you can ask of a great newspaper. So I want to thank you for giving us a newspaper.
“I’m fine on having the opinions—explicit, articulate—in the editorial [section], and I appreciate the fact that you have balance among the columnists. You even run Paul Krugman, whom I think is the most intellectually honest columnist in the op-ed section ofThe New York Times . . . .
“We are at risk today of not just losing our newspapers, but what we like to take for granted. . . . I might agree or disagree with a newspaper’s editorial policy. . . all that is good, as long as, by the time you get there, you know what is going on . . . .
“I think it’s really important to understand that both technology and the movement toward authoritarianism all over the world today are driving us to the point where ordinary people may find it impossible to tell fact from fiction or truth from a bald-faced lie. If that happens, if that happens, then it will be impossible to sustain meaningful democratic governance.”
As you might imagine, he was interrupted by applause here. And elsewhere.
AFTER a brief rundown on the paper’s history, Bill Clinton explained why papers mattered in the past, and why they should matter today:
“When I went to college, and my dad got sick, I would have had to drop out of school if I hadn’t gotten a job on Sen. Fulbright’s patronage staff. One of the jobs I had was to read six newspapers a day. . . . Ironically, of the six papers I read, three, editorially, were right of center, and three, editorially, were left of center.
“But what I was interested in was a different take on the facts of the authors. Or which papers were emphasizing one part of the world or not. But the point is, if you wanted to know something, you could find it out in a newspaper, and you didn’t doubt, that to the best of their ability, whatever the politics of the reporter was, or the politics of the paper were, they were doing their dead-level best to give you all the relevant facts given the constraints of space. I think that’s what we need to look for again. And then we need to be able to trust people with that mission. . . .
“What we need is not to be ‘hot’— we need to think again, we need to feel again, we need to look at people again and see them as three-dimensional human beings, not cardboard cutouts.”
He went on to note this newspaper’s move to iPads, and folks’ reactions to that. And deemed it good:
“We have to ask ourselves, where do you want the Gazette to be in 10 years . . . . You can’t know if this is going to work, but it’s got a better chance than doing nothing. . . . This is great, because we need to know things. . . . And we need to be able to have discussions and even arguments with our neighbors based on a perceived set of facts.
“I know that I’m preaching to the saved, because you all clapped, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg had 15,000 people here the other day, and got 96 or 97 votes when I nominated her, because people think she’s on the level. And every Republican was aware that when it comes to women’s rights and civil rights, she was more left of center than not, but they also were aware that she was against running over democratic processes, and not respecting other people’s opinions, and that’s why she made friends with Justice Scalia, among others. She’s on the level. We all need to work harder at being on the level.”
He never mentioned Fox News or CNN but emphasized that newspapers, in particularly this one, really do want folks to know what’s going on. Or as another Democratic politician named Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted, you’re free to have your own opinion, but not your own set of facts. Were it so among all the nation’s media.
BILL CLINTON pointed at the table that included some of this newspaper’s family owners. “It doesn’t matter if you are a libertarian or a social democrat or something in between, you’ve got to know. . . . The legacy of the Arkansas Gazette, and the legacy you have kept alive with the Democrat Gazette, is you really want us all to know. Yes, you try to persuade us, what to do with what we know, just as your predecessors did, and there are differences about that, but you don’t want me not to know. That’s all we have the right to ask for. . . .
“We’re just passing through. We face massive challenges, all of which you know. But we are better positioned to deal with all of them than any place on Earth. It’s just that we have to know. And we have to believe that we know.
“That is the trust that has been reposed now in you, one you have eagerly sought, and as nearly as I can tell, honorably maintained. . . .
“Thank you for this night. Thank you to the Gazette for 200 years—thank you to the Democrat-Gazette for keeping the right to know, and the responsibility to tell, alive. There’s no point in going through all the details of the challenges of this. All over America people are trying to keep newspapers alive, knowing that, for example, their political coverage will get more clicks, more re-tweets, if it’s highly sensational. And if inconvenient, countervailing evidence is left out.
“There’s a lot pressuring the media. But if you can prove that your solution works, you can keep on the business of making sure people know. If we blow what we know, that’s on us. That’s democracy’s bet, and has ever been. But if we don’t know, at the time of greatest promise in all of human history, that existential challenge, shame on us. Happy birthday, thank you.”
No, thank you, sir.