Title: Dedication of the New Building of the National Press Club
Date: February 4, 1928
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: Coolidge speaks on the importance and progress of the press in the nation
Mr. Chairman and Fellow Members of the National Press Club:
While I have been a member of this club ever since I have been in Washington, it is seldom that I have had the opportunity to visit its quarters. Although I have not done much on your staff as a reporter, I have acquired a fairly good record as a contributing editor, and, though I have not written many stories, I have nevertheless had some success in the making of news. Even with all the ingenuity that characterizes the press of the present day, most writers are dependent upon some real news as a source of inspiration for their reporting.
Aside from the office which I hold, these accomplishments might be assumed to be some warrant for asking me to participate in the dedicatory exercises of our new club building. We are located here on one of the most important corners of the business section of the city of Washington. The site is historic around. For a considerable time it was associated with the journalistic profession. The easterly side of Fourteenth Street, between F Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was formerly known as Newspaper Row. The building on this corner was used by newspapermen from shortly after the Civil War until the early seventies, when it was torn down to make room for the famous Ebbitt House. In that hotel lived many eminent men who reached national prominence during the succeeding generation. That old house and some of its neighbors gave way to provide the location for this magnificient building. It has a frontage of 270 feet on F Street and 150 feet on Fourteenth Street, the occupies nearly a whole acre. The corner stone was laid in the spring of 1926, and this great structure of composition limestone, steel, and concrete, as near fireproof as possible, rising 14 stories, was completed late last year. It has a large moving-picture theater and there are stores and offices around the auditorium and the stage.
In the rest of the property there are located 1,000 individual office units. Already more than 400 newspapers are represented in this building, although some of the correspondents are connected with more than one publication. The National Press Club occupies the larger part of the thirteenth and all of the fourteenth floors, giving it a floor space of 27,000 square feet. The club has a large auditorium with a seating capacity of close to 1,000, spacious dining rooms, and a library capable of holding 5,000 books. The other facilities are such as are characteristic of a first-class club.
It is hoped by the management that this property, valued at about $10,000,000, may be free from incumbrances within 25 years. Its income will then be devoted to the benefit of the National Press Club, which will be in possession of more than $500,000 of income each year. It is planned to give awards for journalistic achievement and use the surplus profits of the property for the promotion of the general welfare of the newspaper business. The journalistic profession as it is represented in the city of Washington lends itself especially to a movement of this kind. Like everything else connected with the Government of the United States, it has had a very remarkable growth.
It is said that it was not until 1796 that any newspaper was published here. After struggling along a little more than a year with his semiweekly, Benjamin More, a bookseller, who was the proprietor of the enterprise, announced: “The Washington Gazette will not be published again until the publication is attended by some profit to the publisher.” In October of 1800 a triweekly, called the National Intelligencer, was started, and 13 years later became a daily. Ever since that time the disputes between certain Members of the Congress and those reporting its proceedings have been chronic. The Evening Star was founded in 1852 and the Washington Post in 1877. The Herald, Times, and News are of much more recent date.
But this organization exists not so much on account of the local and powerful press of this city as because of the large number of correspondents who are here from all parts of the Nation to report the doings of the Federal Government. This, too, has been a remarkable growth. In 1862 the Senate press gallery listed only 13 correspondents. In that year Whitelaw Reid managed the Washington bureau of one of the New York dailies. It was more the practice in that time for one man to be employed by a number of papers. At the present day there are about 500 correspondents here, connected with the press all over the world. Some of the metropolitan dailies have as many as nine on their local staff.
It is this condition that has made possible the establishment and growth of our National Press Club. An effort was made in this direction as early as 1867 by a social organization made up entirely of local newspaper men, known as the Washington Press Club, which was in existence several years. In 1892 the local newspaper men started the National Capital Press Club, which gave some notable entertainments, but was later disbanded on account of financial difficulties. The present National Press Club dates from 1908. Its purpose was to provide an organization and gathering place in Washington for the benefit of newspaper men throughout the country. It has made steady progress until it has a resident membership of nearly 1,100 and a nonresident membership of 800. In the character and importance of the news which it reports, in the power which it represents, its opportunities surpass those of any other press club in the world.
It is possible to see in this spacious building, so magnificently equipped, a symbol of the development of the whole United States. The old, the outworn, the poorly adapted, has been discarded and removed to made place for the new and the modern. It represents an increase in power, not by any means limitless, but very vast. The process has transformed our Press Club into a great business institution. Something analogous to this has taken place in the journalism of our country. The press itself, by the very force of circumstances, in order to survive has been changed from an organization of partisan and personal opinion into a very great commercial organization. It has become much more important, in fact indispensable, to the business enterprise of the country, but appears to have cost very much of its power as a director of public thought. There are so many other avenues of information that people are much less dependent than formerly upon the press for their knowledge of men and of affairs.
Now that the transition has been made through various consolidations, and through the elimination of the unsuccessful, the journalism of the United States has on the whole established itself according to the new standards upon a profitable financial basis. It ought to undertake to recapture the dominant position it formerly held as a distributor of current information and a director of public opinion. It ought to contest with our universities as an influence for education and match the pulpit in its support of high moral standards.
In a republic the field which is open to the press as an instrument of clean and sound government is limitless. It ought to be the supporter of efficient local administration and wise national statesmanship. In international affairs it should cooperate with its own government and extend to foreign interests a tolerant and sympathetic candor. Foreign interests have the privilege of being represented here. The right to fair treatment is as wide as humanity. But when foreign governments are represented here, their agents are required to come publicly accredited and be publicly received. For generations our law has forbidden our own citizens entering into any negotiations with a foreign government concerning its relations with our own Government. Such negotiations can only be carried on under the direction of the President. Whenever any of the press of our country undertake to exert the influence in behalf of foreign interests, the candor of the situation would be greatly increased if their foreign connections were publicly disclosed. All public business ought to be publicly conducted.
One of the strongest safeguards of the integrity of official action is publicity. This does not mean an espionage of all personal and private action of Government officials, but it does mean publicity concerning the discharge of the duties which they have chosen to perform. All those who have interests which may be affected by governmental action should have the privilege of employing representatives to present their cause and defend their rights. Nobody questions this on the judicial side, but those who are so engaged are required to be licensed and their appearance before such tribunals is a matter of court record. As in the case of the Federal Government, those who are analogously employed in legislative and departmental matters are not required to make a like disclosure of the interests which they undertake to serve, it is necessary to depend on the press for such information.
It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that the press should be patriotic. This does not require any disparagement of the advantages which other people enjoy in their own country. Whatever it may be in some individual cases, other countries are best adapted to the people as a whole who live there, and our country is certainly the best country for our people. The freedom enjoyed here, the institutions of self-government, the protection of the individual, the standards of living, the comforts and even the luxuries, the unexampled progress in national development, and, in general, equal opportunity, not in any narrow and limited sense but on both the material and spiritual sides of life, broad and unbounded–all these are sufficient to warrant the admiration and reverence of every informed mind.
More progress has been made in this country in scientific development in the last 150 years than had been made in all the world from the day of Julius Caesar to George Washington. Our successes have not betrayed our judgment or hardened our heart. In spite of sporadic outbreaks of violence, one of our chief characteristics is a profound reverence for humanity. On our record and on our prospects there is every reason for an abiding faith in our country.
While these considerations may well be dwelt upon as justifying pride in our country, the reasons for love of country appear to lie deeper. It can scarcely be said that it is the people of great and powerful nations who have exhibited the greatest attachment to the land of their birth. Those who have originated in countries that were small and inconspicuous and poor have rather been marked by a devotion to the soil which bred them above those who were reared among more effluent circumstances. Nevertheless, it has been that strain, nourished on the sentiment of patriotism, who, when they have been transferred to countries having broader opportunities, have been an important factor in human development. They have exhibited a tenacity of purpose, a strength of character, and a moral fiber that has made them a most important element in any country wherever they have been found. Next to devotion to the home, devotion to the country has been one of the strongest and most indispensable attributes contributing to human progress.
The constant criticism of all things that have to do with our country, with the administration of its public affairs, with the operation of its commercial enterprises, with the conduct of its social life, and the attempt to foment class distinctions and jealousies, weaken and disintegrate the necessary spirit of patriotism. There is always need for criticism, but there is likewise need for discrimination. There is a requirement for justice and truth. Wherever there is the genuine, there will be some counterfeits. But our own Nation, or any other nation, does not consist of the counterfeits; it consists of the genuine. Constantly to portray the failures and the delinquents is grossly to mislead the public. It breeds an unwarranted spirit of cynicism. Life is made up of the successful and the worthy. In any candid representation of current conditions they have the first claim to attention. In the effort of the press to destroy vice, it ought not to neglect virtue.
These are some of the ideals toward which, I believe, the journalistic profession should work. I am conscious that they are not yet attainable in their entirety, and yet they may be closer at hand than many of us realize. As civilization advances the time element of reactions greatly decreases. Reforms do not always grow up gradually. They are likely to occur all at once. It is, rather, abuses that creep in on us with a slow growth. The spirit of mankind is more and more asserting itself, more and more demanding that the affairs of government and society be conducted in accordance with the laws of truth. The people who neglect that precept are bound for a moral explosion. Publicity is not only the main agency of reform, it is likewise the main agency of prevention. In its true function it is not the voice of the individual reporter or editor, but the voice of public expression. It represents the thought, the hope, the aspirations, and the faith of the people.
It is a great opportunity that comes to the members of the National Press Club of Washington. This city is not only the seat of our Federal Government and the political center of our country, but it is bound to become more and more the center of science, of art, and of literature. Because of the position which the United States holds in the world, it will assume increasing importance in international affairs. Because you have places here of great power, you are likewise charged with great responsibilities.
In no small degree you are the keepers of the public conscience. By being servants of the truth you can help to create and support that confidence in our institutions, and in each other, which is the foundation of national progress and prosperity. You can give to the nations a better understanding of each other and increase the harmonious relationship, the spirit of good will and friendship, which will bring to all peoples more of the blessings of contentment and of peace.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Alex Bavalsky, who prepared this document for digital publication.
President Coolidge’s admiration for and earnest acknowledgment of the importance of journalists impressed me. While discouraging the press from being cynical, he reiterates the importance of publishing the truth for American people to read. Coolidge’s devotion to public transparency and honesty reminds me of Justice Louis Brandeis’s earlier quip that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” that is, government transparency is key to efficiency and the public trust, values that Coolidge cherished deeply. May this insightful speech serve as a reminder for 21st century politicians — both those in office and those that seek it.