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In business and journalism, Frank Batten nurtured hope

Friday, September 11, 2009 | 12:31 p.m. CDT; updated 2:26 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 11, 2009

Dear Reader,

I believe in the journalism of hope.

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The death of a great newspaperman this week reminded me of it.

You might have heard of Frank Batten Sr. for his most notable creation: The Weather Channel. I knew Frank as the father figure at the Virginian-Pilot, the Norfolk-area newspaper where I worked for 15 years.

Frank was the publisher of the only newspaper in Virginia to take a stand against Massive Resistance to public school integration. He was an advocate for higher education, including $100 million to build a school of leadership at the University of Virginia. He was a man who, as a friend of mine wrote this week, “defined ‘excellence’ and ‘integrity.’”

Frank was on my mind this week, even before news of his death reached me.

Tuesday morning, I uncovered a box that had been unopened since – well, since I can’t remember. In the layers of old notes and now-meaningless memos was a thin book of 10 speeches Frank made over the years as chairman of Landmark Communications. It was as if I was revisiting a wise old friend, even though I had spoken with Frank on only a handful of occasions.

“Optimism has been the wellspring of American achievement,” he wrote. “Even in the worst times, people and institutions make progress. We should be generous in coverage of achievement; our pages should reflect the grit, devotion and durability of the human spirit.

“We should nourish hope.”

Hope. It’s a curious word for an institution that often describes the failings of a community.

There is no word more appropriate, though, for the aspirations of a great newspaper.

It is, or should be, with hope for a better community that journalists hold government accountable; listen for all sides of a public debate; speak for people who don’t otherwise have the voice; and act as a public square for ideas and dialogue.

It is with hope that newspapers spotlight potential solutions to problems and on people solving them.

Frank’s journalism was one of humility, not arrogance, and openness, not defensiveness.

In a remarkable life story, the Virginian-Pilot’s Earl Swift described a piece of writing by Frank that wasn’t in that little booklet of speeches:

"Newspapers live entirely on the bounty of the public. The ability of journalists to report and to comment is based upon a unique grant of freedom from the public. Thus our duty is clear: It is to serve the public with skill and character, and to exercise First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility. …

"There are no sacred cows. No territory of legitimate public interest is off-limits to fair and competent report and comment."

I learned the value of that statement as the editor of a series of stories investigating the practices of a mayor whose brother was a senior executive at Landmark.

No one outside the newsroom tried to influence the reporting. Not once.

In the same statement, though, Frank wrote: “Rather than demoralize its community, the great newspaper will by honest and intelligent journalism inspire people to do better.”

An old saw: Newspapers cover the community, warts and all. Frank believed in showing the size of the wart in relation to the size of the hand.

He was a complex man of simple values and big vision. The media world these days could use a few more men and women like Frank.

Tom

 


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