By: Dorothy Giobbe James Russell Wiggins offers some journalistic insights as he celebrates his 90th birthday sp.
AFTER MORE THAN 70 years in the newspaper business, James Russell Wiggins offers opinions and insights that are as crisp and thoughtful as the weekly editorials and column he writes at the Ellsworth (Maine) American. On criticism that the media is partisan and irresponsible: "I think the press is sturdy, responsible and reliable. I'm not ready to write off the daily press of the United States." On political correctness in college newspapers: "Political correctness is folly. If there's any place where speech ought to be free, it's in academic circles." On being fired early in his career: "Every newspaper man ought to be fired at some point in his career." Last month, in celebration of Wiggins' 90th birthday, the American published a special commemorative section highlighting the many achievements of his distinguished journalism career. The 12-page section included congratulations and reminiscences from Wiggins' family as well as from Maine Gov. John McKernan Jr.; colleagues Benjamin Bradlee, Washington Post vice president at large, and Katharine Graham, chairman of Washington Post Co.'s executive committee; and sailing companion and former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite. Also in the section was a reprint of a lengthy piece by Wiggins' one-time neighbor and good friend, the late author E.B. White. As one of the senior statesmen of American journalism, Wiggins has reported on some of the most interesting events and periods in the nation's history. At age 22, Wiggins bought a newspaper, the Rock County Star, Luverne, Minn. He later went to work at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. After a stint in the Air Force during World War II, he eventually moved to the New York Times and then to the Washington Post, where he retired as editor and executive vice president in 1968. After he left the Post, Wiggins served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for a short period under President Johnson. Wiggins purchased the American in 1966, and after leaving Washington, he moved to Maine to become editor and publisher of his paper. In 1991, he sold the American, though he stayed on as editor. Besides sailing, gardening and composing poetry, Wiggins works at the American five days a week, driving himself to the office every day over nearly 25 miles of country roads. Additionally, he lectures and writes, mainly about issues of news coverage and freedom of the press. Wiggins has received honorary degrees from eight colleges and universities as well as numerous awards and membership to honorary societies. With such a plethora of experience and wisdom, Wiggins holds a unique perspective on some of the topical issues in journalism. One of those issues is criticism frequently heaped on the media for its oftentimes intense scrutiny of public figures' private lives. Fifty years ago, Wiggins said, events that occurred in the private life of a public figure were not automatically assumed to be newsworthy and were held to a "standard" set by newspaper editors. "There was a tendency to look at private lives and evaluate, depending on the relation to the performance of the public man's function, if it interfered with the discharge of duties. There must be a sharp distinction made between action taken in the discharge of a public function, which may be illegal, corrupt or unwise, and action taken in an individual's private life," he said. "The trouble comes where the private behavior begins to interfere with public behavior, and it's not easy in advance to determine whether that's so." Recently, allegations of sexual impropriety have clung to such public figures as Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thom- as and even President Clinton. Some careers, like that of 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart, have been devastated as a result of media reports of private behavior. With such intimate examination of personal lives accepted in most campaigns, Wiggins said, emphasis should be placed less on any scandal unearthed and more on the honesty and character of the individual. "There are many people who, when confronted with allegations of private irregularities, will admit that a mistake was made," he said. "Some will lie about it. You must be very suspicious about the one who lies because he might also lie about public affairs. Lying in a public figure is more serious than an act of sexual irregularity." Newspapers should treat the recent allegations of sexual abuse against entertainer Michael Jackson carefully, Wiggins said. "Most newspaper editors in this country are wary of the libel laws and are open to the suggestion that people who are accused of something are entitled to state their case. "It's only a reckless newspaper, like a reckless prosecutor, that will talk about and proceed with material that doesn't on the surface of it seem to be or involve a violation of the law." As evolving technology greatly expands the reach of news coverage, Wiggins said, one of the byproducts of a "one-world news community" is a "tendency to pick up bizarre and illegal behavior over a much more extensive geographic area." The media's extensive reach is such that "when bizarre breaches of the statutes are picked up from all corners of the globe, a distorted appearance of worldwide illegality and criminal behavior is created." For example, he noted, "the [Lorena] Bobbitt case in Virginia has been picked up everywhere because of the eccentricity of the events and the bizarre aspect of the case. But I venture to say that story might not have been carried out of Virginia fifty years ago." As technologies used in news coverage have evolved during the years, the public increasingly has reaped the benefits of faster, more immediate news reports, Wiggins said. "Nothing presently can take the place of the presidential press conference," he added. "The country benefits greatly from having continuous access to what the government is up to, and the government benefits from having continuous confrontation with the questions that are on the minds of the people." The dynamic, interactive nature of a presidential press conference is in sharp contrast to questions shouted at the president while he is en route to another destination, Wiggins said. "Sound bites on the way to a helicopter or a plane are treacherous and very dangerous. It's beneath the dignity of the presidential office to sling an answer to a serious question that may mean war or peace somewhere in the world." While some wonder about the role newspapers will play in the age of an information superhighway, Wiggins sees a permanent need for the service a newspaper provides. "The mechanical apparatus that goes with a newspaper has very little to do with whether newspapers survive or not," he said. "Essentially, the editorial function of selecting and gathering the information that goes into a newspaper still has to be performed, whether it's in a printed medium or a visual media. "Even the availability of thousands of television channels doesn't alter that." ?( In celebration of James Russell Wiggins' 90th birthday, the Ellsworth (Maine) American published a special commemorative section highlighting the many achievements of his lengthy and distinguished journalism career. Wiggins is shown at top right.) [Photo & Caption]