Herblock prize lecture
April 25, 2013
I love journalism and I love journalists, and that’s why I’m honored and humbled to be ASKED to deliver a lecture in the name of a man I admired – Herb Block.
ON THE RARE OCCASIONS WHEN I AM GIVEN A SCARCELY DESERVED OPPORTUNITY LIKE THIS, I AM AT FIRST CONVINCED THAT SOMEONE HAS MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE.
AFTER SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE PARODIED ME – TWICE – AFTER I MODERATED VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES – i was persuaded people asked me places because they thought i was queen latifah.
ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES, IT WAS BECAUSE THEY FIGURED I MUST KNOW JON STEWART…
BUT LITTLE DO THEY ALL KNOW…IT’S BETTER THAN THAT. I KNEW HERB BLOCK.
ANY REPORTER WHO WORKED IN THE WASHINGTON POST NEWSROOM DURING THE TIME HERB WAS THERE TELLS PRETTY MUCH the same STORY. I’M SO GLAD I CAN TELL IT TOO.
it goes like this.
IF YOU WERE FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO BE WORKING ON THE NEWS OF THE DAY – IN MY CASE, POLITICS – HERB WOULD COME usually SHUFFLING OUT OF HIS OFFICE LATE IN THE AFTERNOON, RIGHT AS DEADLINE TIME WAS APPROACHING, WITH A DRAFT OF THE NEXT DAY’S CARTOON.
DEADLINES BE Damned. YOU SNAPPED TO ATTENTION.
FOR Herb IT WAS FACT CHECKING – A SKILL SOME REPORTERS SHOULD EMBRACE A LITTLE MORE THESE DAYS.
but FOR me, IT WAS LIKE SITTING AT THE KNEE OF A journalistic IDOL. perhaps it was because every one of us -- AT SOME POINT in kindergarten or as we doodled our ways through boring meetings -- THOUGHT we COULD DRAW.
kind of like thinking you can do what reness fleming does because you once sang in the church choir.
she could sing. you probably can’t. not really.
he was an artist. you probably are not. really.
so herb WOULD ASK YOUR ADVICE (I’M NOT WORTHY, you’d think to yourself) AND then he would NOD thoughtfully, THEN SHUFFLE AWAY, EITHER IN SEARCH OF ANOTHER OPINION, OR SATISFIED THAT HE’D LANDED WHERE HE NEEDED TO BE.
you never really knew until you saw the newspaper the next day.
HERB LOVED NEWS, NEWS REPORTERS AND NEWSROOMS. SO DID I.
Herblock and I had absolutely nothing in common when we met. not on the surface, anyway.
but What Herb possessed…and what I strive for still every day, is humanity.
Herb knew when to laugh. Washington, admit it, can be quite absurd.
when bill clinton was elected in november, 1992, he frew a picture of a man in a plaid shirt staring up at a huge globe being rolled out of a dump truck as the delivery man asked: “your name clinton?”
he was prescient.
in another cartoon, he sketched a somber-looking anchorman reading the news. over his shoulder was a map of iran and he was saying: “and now the latesest from terroran.”
the year was 1979.
but most of the time, even when he used a light touch, he was deadly serious.
in 1953, when jospeh stalin died, the drawing was of the soviet strongman literally taking a walk with death – stalin with a bloodstained sickle in hand, and the grim reaper with his own curved blade.
“you were always a great friend of mine, jospeh,” the reaper said.
and of course he just loved richard nixon.
but he also worried that children were starving…and young people were dying in dubious wars…and that politicians were lying.
Some people wrote about it. He drew about it.
i would love to see what he think of the business he loved now. IN SO MANY INSTANCES, THE DEFINITION OF JOURNALISM HAS BECOME PERVERTED. SOME PEOPLE THINK ANYONE WITH A SUIT AND TIE TALKING INTO A CAMERA must be a journalist.
others THINK IT’S ANYONE POUNDING A TABLE SO HARD THAT THEY WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO HEAR THE ANSWER EVEN IF IT WERE GIVEN.
SOME PEOPLE THINK IT IS CROWD SOURCING, WHERE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT GET TOGETHER ONLINE AND MAKE THINGS UP. we saw how well that worked last week after the boston bombings.
there are times when i despair just a little bit.
last year, I MET A COLLEGE FRESHMAN WHO said she was excited to meet me because she wanted to be in journalism – more to the point, on television.
why? i asked.
because, she said, “I LOVE TO TALK…”
and then she proceeded to talk, kinda of at me rather than to me, for some minutes…before i was able to interject my own question.
do you listen too?
she was baffled.
but i FELT MUCH BETTER ABOUT THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT I MET ONLY LAST WEEK WHO TOLD ME SHE WANTED TO BE A JOURNALIST BECAUSE SHE LOVED TO WRITE…
and she writes and writes and writes…
i got that. i have always liked to write.
it didn’t matter that so few people in my chosen industry looked anything like me.
which brings us back to herb. he had a special skill for reaching toward diffrence, not away from it.
I got my first job in a newsroom in a way Herb would have appreciated.
It was at the Boston Herald American in 1977. my first time in a real news room. making myself handy in any way i could, as long as they let me hang around the hot type and the clattering wire machines.
one day i arrived at work and found a note waiting for me.
it read: “nigger go home.”
yes, it was shocking. but it tells you something about me that my first response
WAS A REPORTER’S QUESTION: “i WONDER WHO THIS IS FOR?”
I tell that story to help people focus the mind. It’s not the name I was called. Or even my bosses’ reaction to it. It’s being aware of the world around you and deciding what you are willing to do about it.
Herb KNEW WHAT HE WANTED TO DO. SOMETIMES HIS CARTOONS WERE ANGRY, BUT HE WAS NOT.
BUT IN HIS MIND, SOMEONE HAD TO TELL THE STORY OF THE UNDEREDUCATED, EXPOSE THE INEQUALITIES IN THE WORKPLACE AND EXPOSE CORRUPTION. WHO BETTER THAN A MAN WITH AN INKWELL?
We as journalists have enviable access to events, the chance to ask questions and demand answers. That doesn’t mean we are annoying – although sometimes we are – it means that we have a responsibility to fulfill.
It’s the deal we cut when they let us in the dooR.
Whose stories can you tell? Whose voices are not being heard? Which stories and voices go unheard, and – MOST OF ALL -what are you willing to do about it?
HERB BELIEVED IN THE POWER OF THE PEN TO LET PEOPLE SEE MORE CLEARLY. HE HAD OPINIONS, OF COURSE, BUT HE WANTED YOU TO PAUSE OVER THE PANEL, THINK IT THROUGH, AND UNDERSTAND WHY HE CAME TO HIS CONCLUSIONS.
I’M FREQUENTLY ASKED ABOUT WHY I DON’T CHASE PEOPLE AROUND THE TABLE AND FORCE THEM TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.
IT’S BECAUSE I THINK IT’S MORE USEFUL FOR PEOPLE TO DRAW THEIR OWN CONCLUSIONS, NOT FOR ME TO FORCE THEM TO MY POINT OF VIEW.
THE TWO VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES I moderated convinced me that this is right. in the first one, with dick cheney and john edwards…i asked each to tell me what they would do about the skyrocketing numbers of heterosexual black women who were being infected with hiv, the virus that causes aids.
i specifically asked them to talk about the domestic crisis…not about africa.
john edwards’ response: well let me tell you about my plan for africa…
dick cheney’s response: really?
neither had the answer, or cared about the answer…and viewers at home told me afterward they drew their own conclusions from that.
in the second national debate i moderated, between joe biden and sarah palin, i was surprised when the republican nominee turned to me at one point and said – “i don’t have to answer the moderator’s questions.”
the viewers figured out what that meant to.
not getting an answer doesn’t mean you don’t ask the question. it means you let people know that the people who would lead them won’t answer the question.
it means that things get messy sometimes…that questions don’t get answered…that we are forced in a constant state of uncertainty and in conclusion.
SOMETIMES CHANGE DOES HAPPEN OVERNIGHT. BUT MOSTLY IT HAPPENS OVER TIME. AND IT SELDOM HAPPENS IN AN ORDERLY MANNER.
my favorite story of the value of the inconclusive and the disorderly can be found in a deeply reported research work, which probably lives here at the library of congress.
‘WINNE THE POOH.”
it was one of my favorites growing up.
I THINK I FOUND SOMETHING APPEALING IN THE CONTRAST BETWEEN POOH'S NERVOUS SUNNINESS, TIGGER’S ANTIC EXCITEMENT AND EEYORE'S DEPRESSIVE NATURE.
POOH'S AUTHOR A.A. MILNE, UNDERSTOOD THE BENEFITS OF THE UNLIKELY COMBINATION.
"ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING DISORDERLY,” HE WROTE, “IS THAT ONE IS CONSTANTLY MAKING EXCITING DISCOVERIES"
I GUESS I’M A JOURNALIST BECAUSE I ALWAYS THINK THERE ARE NEW AND EXCITING DISCOVERIES JUST AROUND THE CORNER.
…DISCOVERIES IN AN AGE WHERE EVERYONE HAS AN OPINION, BUT SO LITTLE IS NEW AND SO MUCH IS TRITE.
…DISCOVERIES IN AGE WHEN WE ARE BOMBARDED WITH SO MUCH INFORMATION AND SO LITTLE NEWS.
…DISCOVERIES IN A TIME WHEN SO MUCH OF WHAT PASSES FOR INSPIRATION LACKS TRUE INSIGHT..
….DISCOVERIES THAT MOVE US TO SEIZE RESPONSIBILTY RATHER THAN TO GRUDGINGLY FULFILL OBLIGATION.
AND DISCOVERIES IN A TIME WHEN WE DEMAND THE RIGHT TO ASK QUESTIONS.
THAT’S WHERE YOU COME IN. I LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR QUESTIONS.
BUT FIRST I’d like to end with ONE MORE STORY. IT IS ABOUT A FRIEND…A WOMAN OF MY AGE, MY RACE AND MY JOURNALISTIC AMBITION. BUT WITH SO MUCH MORE VISION AND SKILL than i.
SHE TRAVELED THE WORLD. SHE COVERED SOUTH AFRICA WHEN NELSON MANDELA WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON…AND WHAT WAS THEN ZAIRE WHEN MOBUTU SESE SEKO RULED…
SHE SAT IN LIVING ROOMS IN MIAMI PUBLIC HOUSING PROJECTS AND TALKED TO CRACK ADDICTS. AND SHE STUDIED DANCE.
like herb, she worked for the washington post. LYNNE DUKE WAS A RENAISSANCE WOMAN. SHE DIED LAST WEEKEND.
HER WASHINGTON POST OBITUARY QUOTED FROM AN ESSAY SHE WROTE ABOUT HER CRAFT, OUR CRAFT…
it seems fitting to read it here tonight
“I HAVE ALWAYS FELT MOST AT HOME AS A JOURNALIST,” she wrote. “FOR I BELIEVE THAT THE PRACTICE OF JOURNALISM ISN’T WORTH MUCH UNLESS ONE BELIEVES IN ITS POWER TO DO GOOD.
“SO I HAVE OFTEN SOUGHT STOREIS WHERE SOME GOOD WS NEEDED, WHERE WITH LUCK, MY JOURNALISM COULD BRING CHANGE TO SOMEONE’S HARD LIFE.”
I THINK IT’S FAIR TO SAY THAT’S THE WAY HERB BLOCK – AND THE RECIPIENTS OF THE PRIZE HE SO GENEROUSLY ENDOWS TONIGHT – SAW AND SEE THE WORLD as well.
and thank god for that.
thank you too.
I’M HAPPY TO TAKE YOUR QUESTIONS.