In acceptance speech, NPR’s Scott Simon reflects on the state of journalism

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Stephen Voss/NPR


Scott Simon joined a pantheon of esteemed American journalists Feb. 23 upon receiving the 2022 W.M. Kiplinger Award for distinguished contributions to journalism.

The award has recognized “many giants of American journalism,” said Knight Kiplinger, editor emeritus of Kiplinger Publications, who presented the award during the National Press Foundation’s annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C. “It’s a very eclectic group — unique talents — Seymour Hersh, George Will, Judy Woodruff, Frank Deford, Bob Woodward.”

“The man for whom the award is named, W.M. Kiplinger, was a plain-speaking, clear-writing Midwesterner, a native son of Ohio,” said Kiplinger, who is W.M. Kiplinger’s grandson. “He would be pleased that we are honoring this evening a man who, despite his almost four decades inside the Beltway, remains a clear-thinking, plain-speaking, native son of Chicago.”

In accepting the award, Simon expressed gratitude to many people, including the thousands of sources who have let him into their lives and answered his questions. He went on to discuss journalism’s role in society — to report news that people need to know, even when it challenges their worldviews, and to bridge divides between people who think they have nothing in common.

His speech, republished here with permission, was edited from prepared remarks to include where Simon went off-script, as recorded in NPF’s video. — Karen Everhart, managing editor

I want to begin by noting that we hold thoughts in our hearts tonight for the family of Dylan Lyons, the Spectrum News 13 reporter in Florida who was shot and killed at a crime scene this week. A 9-year-old girl also died. Those were two bright young lives.

And I speak just a day after NPR announced a 10% reduction in force. I think we all understand the vagaries of the news business — and we understand and respect the fact that it is a business. I want to accept this award in honor of those who give so much of themselves to make those initials NPR stand for something that nourishes millions of Americans every day. And to those of you all around this country who support us — your encouragement has never been more vital. Thank you.

… Please let me just take a little more of your time to share something from my “lifetime” perspective now that you’ve all done the math and know exactly how old I am. There is no safe space in journalism.

What we do should come with a caution: Warning — What you are about to see or hear or read may contain language, ideas, arguments, that you may find alarming, offensive and upsetting to your view of the world. That is journalism.

I have been in societies in which the press is repressed, hounded, locked up and thrown through windows. We face occasional threats here. But mostly we face occasional lawsuits and obnoxious tweets. We receive awards from each other while reporters in Mexico, Russia, Cuba, China, Iran, the Philippines, Ethiopia and other societies must live in fear.

Our problems are different, and many of our own invention.

We have used the power of the web to connect us to the world, then closed ourselves off from different points of view. We are beginning to take the technology of mass media to carve out niches and echo chambers, rather than trying to reach across divides to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

People can now choose the news they want — or it’s chosen for them, click by click — so millions of good and conscientious Americans can now fill themselves with only the news that nourishes the views they already hold.

And many news enterprises have followed: identifying an audience by algorithms and repeating the same themes, like refrains, story after story. We have too often allowed ourselves to identify our audience by our most superficial qualities.

It’s one of the bromides of this business that journalism should speak truth to power. But more and more, I fear we are happy just to speak to ourselves and to like-minded individuals, report after report, tweet after tweet.

The whole premise of reporting is to tell stories of people with whom we may think we have nothing in common, because if the story is well and truly told, we will discover that, in fact, we have a lot in common.

We’re not talking enough to people. We’re talking to pundits, to each other and to people with titles — often long ones — that disclose by themselves what they’re going to say. But often we’re not allowing ourselves or our audience to be surprised by real people and their complexities and contradictions.

And too often, we speak in cliches: hyphenated-dialectical-academic-activist-ideological-corporate-catch-phrase-cut-and-paste jargon instead of real language that can be vivid and open to all.

It’s not lost on me that the dispatches of Orwell, Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Ben Hecht, Stanley Crouch, Joan Didion and Edward R. Murrow are read in perpetuity because they were lyricists, not polemicists.

All of us in this room tonight have to worry about how artificial intelligence bots might soon replace us. When we do work that is algorithmic, unsurprising, predictable, polemical and formulaic, we make ourselves pretty easy to replace.

I hope these remarks might apply to all of us in this business, but not equally. And speaking this week I have to be specific: I was disgusted these past few days to read the messages that show Fox News executives and hosts consciously reported lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, because they were sure that’s what their audience wanted to hear. They were not even sincere in their fallacies. They had not only a chance, but a duty to help their audience through chaos and confusion. But instead Fox hosts and executives chose stock price. They shouted “Fire!” in the crowded halls of Congress.

‘No better place for a reporter to learn’

A few of us tonight have made references to Chicago. I do believe there is no better place for a reporter to learn about courts, crime, human drama, ethnic strife, race, greatness, art, comedy, loss, life, politics and the music of the soul.

My wife Caroline is French. There are times even she seems convinced that one of the Ten Commandments is “Though shalt not put ketchup on a hot dog” and that the rallying cry of the French Revolution was “Liberté, Égalité, and Vote Early and Often!”

In fact the motto of Chicago journalism, which comes from the columnist Finley Peter Dunne, is that our work should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” In these times, I think that means challenging the comfortable notions and nostrums our audiences may have about the world — left, right and center.

And I count among my many blessings in life to work for NPR, which has not only a business plan, but a purpose.

There’s a speech in Hecht and MacArthur’s play, The Front Page, that’s set in the Chicago Criminal Courts. There was a revival about three years ago. John Slattery played the part of Hildy Johnson. I like to think, now that my hair is silver, someone would consider me too. Hildy Johnson has a speech where he says: “Journalists! Peeping through keyholes, running after fire engines like a lot of dogs, waking up people in the middle of the night to ask them for pictures of their dead loved ones, or what they think of Mussolini, a lot of daffy buttinskies running around with holes in their pants, and for what? So a million office workers and motormen and their wives can think they know what’s going on?”

You know, that sounds like a good life to me.

… This is a tough business; it should be. We put a hand on events that can affect elections, human reputations, life and death.

But journalism is the profession of The Front Page, not Mary Poppins. It should be done with decency.

Our rumpled forebears in this business were among the deplorables of their times: obnoxious, rowdy, often vulgar, boorish — and worse — clannish, blinkered, barely civil and sometimes even hateful. But they opened news to the public, independent of party, lobby or faction. They told stories about murders, riots, wars, crimes, bribes, revolutions, nonsense and inanities because that is all part of our human story.

We’re here to comfort, but not coddle; explore and surprise, not scold; joke, but not mock; and to share some of the sheer fun we have in learning about our world in all its ludicrous and captivating contradictions.

Thanks for listening. There is more to come.

2 thoughts on “In acceptance speech, NPR’s Scott Simon reflects on the state of journalism

  1. Dear Scott,

    I love listening to you Saturdays. I love your sensitivity, humor, knowledge and world perspective from years of reporting. I work for KUOW (public radio station in Seattle) as of 8 months ago. Thrilled to be on the inside of public radio after listening for 40 years! Thank you for your lifetime of work. Looking forward to listening for years more!

    Kate Thayer

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