11/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Health Care, Character, Journalism, and America's Future

President Obama made two very important speeches last Wednesday.

Most people heard about his speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress, and for good reason.

By talking not just about health care but about the heart and spirit of the late Senator Ted Kennedy and, from there, the character of our country, President Obama challenged Congress to embody those qualities of compassion and community that the American people, themselves, so frequently demonstrate when their neighbors are in danger.

Here's what President Obama said:

...That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise...that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited... We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test... Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.

But President Obama's other speech was Wednesday morning here in New York... at the memorial to Walter Cronkite.

And in paying tribute to Walter Cronkite, President Obama issued another challenge. With the spirit and morality of Walter Cronkite as his guide, President Obama called on America's journalists -- and the media executives for whom they work -- to recommit themselves to the standards of journalism that Walter Cronkite practiced... and in so doing, to help the American people be the best informed citizens they can be.

Here are some key passengers from President Obama's remarks:

"What happened today?" is replaced with "Who won today?" The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should -- and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?


The simple values Walter Cronkite set out in pursuit of -- to seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world the best he could -- they are as vital today as they ever were.

Our American story continues. It needs to be told. And if we choose to live up to Walter's example, if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I'm convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one -- and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead.


We are grateful to him for altering and illuminating our time, and for the opportunity he gave to us to say that, yes, we, too, were there.

I invite you to watch President Obama's complete remarks at the memorial, below. His comments about how better standards in journalism are needed start at about the six and one half minute mark.

To those who deeply desire that Congress be where real legislating takes place -- and where all Senators and Representatives have the opportunity to leave significant legislative legacies -- I urge you to consider these two speeches as, essentially, two halves of what it will take to have that happen.

We cannot have a Congress that really works, if our elected representatives do not seek to embody the best we Americans have to offer: the best of our national character.

But at the same time, we cannot have a Congress that really works (and an Executive branch as well), if "we, the people" are not accurately told "the way it is" by America's major news organizations. The American people need accurate information, so they can support their representatives in living up to those standards of character that the American people, themselves, hold to in their daily lives.

Given the constant efforts by special interests to control what Congress does, it's easy to understand how our representatives can wind up representing special interest over the interests of the nation as a whole.

However, "we, the people" bring a counter-balancing force to the actions of the special interests: our votes on election day and the freedom we have to champion our interests by writing letters and other forms of civic action.

But -- with the vast majority of journalistic efforts currently focusing on "Who won?" rather than "What happened?" -- we, the people, are left uninformed and ill-prepared to hold our representatives accountable for doing the right thing. How can we, if we don't know what the "right things" are ourselves?

In fact, it's worse than that. Without a profession -- one that might otherwise be considered The Most Trusted Profession In America -- providing high quality journalism that would earn it our trust, we, the people, are left to be victimized by agents of the special interests, agents who use any number of methods to convince us (essentially) that "up is down" and "backward is forward."

This is how a majority of us wound up believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attack, and is how a significant number of us believe right now that President Obama is not an American and that his health care plans include an organized effort to put old people to their death.

This is also how America's election system is coming close to being privatized, rather than being under government/civil service control.

As President Obama said, without journalism of the kind Walter Cronkite practiced.

The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should.

The time has come for journalists -- and the corporate leaders for whom they work -- to once again commit to helping the American people... seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world...

(By "keep us honest" I'm not sure if President Obama meant "us politicians" or "us Americans.")

... illuminating our time... (so we could) say that, yes, we, too, were there.

Journalism that gives the American people a complete and honest picture of their world. That illuminates all that is going on, so we can know enough to tell our leaders what we want them to do without accidentally saying some variation of "up is down." This is what we need.

But there's one more aspect to illuminating what's going on in addition to right/wrong truth telling. It's the aspect having to do with what "complete picture" means.

"Complete picture" means reporting on humanity's accomplishments as well as humanity's failures. The best we are doing and the worst.

The "unvarnished truth" about we humans is that we do both. Great things as well as terrible. But the strange thing about America's major news organizations is that they almost always report the terrible things. They only rarely report the great!

Walter Cronkite knew both existed. And -- while he didn't shy away from reporting the negative activities of our world -- he absolutely celebrated the positive ones, especially the space program. The story of humanity doing what had previously been considered to be "impossible" thrilled him to no end!

In the official CBS News report of his death, below, you can watch Walter talk about the importance of reporting on this greatest of human achievement.

Space exploration may not seem like such a great achievement these days. And perhaps, given how little has happened since man first landed on the Moon, it is a great achievement gone to waste. We'll see what plans develop in the next few years.

But there are projects under way today that deserve the regular coverage the space program received in its infancy. And that's because these project have the potential to usher in a new world just as the space program did. These projects have the potential to take human society where it has never been before.

The energy efficiency and "next, nature-friendly industrial revolution" work of the Rocky Mountain Institute and McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry are two examples.

Others are the initiatives -- such as Business for Social Responsibility, the UN Global Compact, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development -- that are working to transform the business world from one focused on profits alone to one focused on producing sustainable products and services.

As President Obama said, the journalism industry could profit in the future from delivering a higher quality product to it customers.

And isn't that how other industries thrive? By offering the highest quality products and services possible? Why should journalism think it can survive by appealing only to the lowest emotional and intellectual aspects of its customers? To offering fighting rather than learning?

On Wednesday night, when speaking to Congress, President Obama concluded by saying:

... when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- then at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves...

President Obama didn't mention journalism as he ended his day before Congress, but I'm going to end by connecting those two dots now.

If we don't want to lose our capacity to solve big challenges, we need the highest quality journalism possible here in America. We need journalism that helps the American people, rather than holding them back or sending them off on irrelevant or dangerous tangents.

We need high quality journalism that replaces "fair and balanced" with "truthful and complete".

Rather than giving lies equal time with facts, we need journalism that's willing to push lies away from us, not shovel them towards us. And we need journalism that's willing to regularly report on the initiatives that have the potential to give us the solutions we are looking for, initiatives that are capable of making the impossible possible.

Because if we don't know these initiatives exist, then "we, the people" won't be able to demand that our representatives give those initiatives their support.

Imagine a business world that puts "doing the right thing" ahead of "more profit no matter who gets hurt." Imagine a carpet manufacturing process so clean that the water leaving the factory is cleaner than the water entering the factory.

I already know these things are possible, because I'm involved in the corporate social responsibility movement. Now maybe you will start learning they are possible too. And then maybe so will your representative in Congress.

And we'll be on our way to the healthy and prosperous America (and world) we are truly capable of having!


This essay is based in part on the dialogue I had on Saturday September 12th with participants in the Newshare workshop organized by Bill Densmore of the Media Giraffe Project at the UMass - Amherst School of Journalism. I am a huge fan of Bill's efforts to help the journalism profession find a path to a sustainable future, both financially and ethically / morally, and want to thank him publicly for allowing me to discuss my ideas for a movement for quality journalism with the others who were there.