2021 Estlow Center Anvil of Freedom Lecture
Featuring Representative Pat Schroeder
“I’m a little worried about our democracy and journalism,” former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder told University of Denver students as part of a virtual Master Class on media and politics on Wednesday, April 21. Schroeder was speaking to the students as the 2021 Estlow Lecturer and recipient of the University of Denver’s Anvil of Freedom Award. The Master Class was cosponsored by the Edward W. and Charlotte I. Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics and the Colorado Sun, and brought together students, faculty, alumni and community members from across the U.S.
“When you look at our forefathers, our forefathers all realized that journalism was absolutely essential to liberty,” she said, noting that this is why our constitution so strongly advocates for freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The advent of broadcast journalism brought new challenges, she said, including accessibility issues for those who couldn’t afford broadcast licenses. The Fairness Doctrine of the 1940s sought to bring more equity to the field, by requiring that holders of broadcast licenses were obligated to present various perspectives on controversial issues in a manner that was balanced and honest, and that they had to devote an equal amount of time to the airing of contrasting views.
It was this doctrine that gave Schroeder her opportunity to compete with other, more well-funded candidates for Congress in 1972. “There was always somebody attacking me on the air 24/7,” she said. Thanks to the Fairness Doctrine, she was able to ask for the same amount of time on the air to refute the claims, and “we were able to straighten all that out equally and fairly without a lot of money.”
In 1987 under the Reagan administration, the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated. Schroeder worked on a bill in Congress to have it reinstated, but it never made it back into law. According to Schroeder, this lack of accountability and access in broadcasting led to problems that are becoming more compounded today.
Later, the Supreme Court decided that corporations were people and could donate to political campaigns in the same way as individuals could, but at much higher levels, she said. “Suddenly you have a tremendous cost for running for Congress,” Schroeder said. “You couldn’t run with the average donation rate [from my campaign in 1972] of $7.50 anymore.”
Today, “we’ve lost leadership and become showmanship,” Schroeder said, describing the “dance of rage” she sees in political media. She mentioned a survey she had read recently, stating that three quarters of Americans can’t identify the three branches of government. “They may know the Kardashians, but they don’t know the three branches of government, or how the electoral college works,” she said, adding, “Something is missing.” Media, journalism and politics have become so focused on the funding and the clickbait that they’ve stopped worrying about the information that the public is getting. Now misinformation is flooding the scene in its place, and “people are receiving information that is not correct and not listening to the science that is correct.”
What we need, Schroeder said, is “a more vibrant press” to demand fairness, to provide accountability and to fight corruption in politics. But even that is being stifled by newspaper conglomerates. She mentioned a time when she suggested to the editor of her local newspaper, the Orlando Sun, that the paper should print both how local representatives and their representatives in D.C. had voted while in session. Not any commentary, just a markup of their votes, she said. “If you don’t know how people voted, how do you know who to vote for?,” she argued. The editor agreed, and said they would begin to include that information. A week later he was fired. “It really scares me,” Schroeder repeated.
After her time in Congress, Representative Schroeder moved on to become President and CEO of the American Association of Publishers (AAP), where she was able to tackle the newest form of media production: the internet. In that role she also took on the issue of intellectual property rights. She expressed concern about Amazon’s plan to make every book available for purchase for $5, and Google’s plan to digitize and make available for free every book in the Library of Congress, both of which she and the AAP firmly opposed. How else can writers be paid for their work?, Schroeder asked. Ultimately, neither plan came to fruition, although Google Books did move forward with an amended project to digitize and make freely available as many books in the public domain as possible.
The same issues plague newspapers across the world. Publishers like The Washington Post make articles available for free online and make their money from ad purchases. Local newspapers don’t have the reach to gain enough funding through ad sales to post their articles for free, and have to put up a paywall. This drives more and more readers away from local news providers to bigger conglomerates, compounding the issue and forcing small publishers out of business, she explained.
Schroeder closed her lecture by referencing a new law in Australia, which requires Google and Facebook to pay publishers for their articles before they can be available on the platforms. This levels the playing field, according to Schroeder, allowing local publishers and journalists to be compensated for their work without needing the deep reserves and power advertising of national publishers. “This should be our model,” Schroeder said: we need to bring fairness back into play in both the media and politics.
Representative Schroeder represented Colorado’s First Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1973–1997. During her tenure in the House, she became the Dean of Congressional Women, co-chaired the Congressional Caucus on Women′s Issues for 10 years and served on the House Judiciary Committee, the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee.
As chair of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families from 1991 to 1993, Schroeder guided the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act to enactment in 1993, a fitting legislative achievement for her lifetime of work on behalf of women′s and family issues. She was also active on many military issues, expediting the National Security Committee′s vote to allow women to fly combat missions in 1991 and working to improve the situation of military families through passage of her Military Family Act in 1985.
Schroeder’s biting wit and political barbs helped to make her a household name and blazed a trail for a new generation of women onto Capitol Hill. One of only 14 women in the House of Representatives, Schroeder confronted a male-dominated institution that frowned not only on her feminist agenda but on her mere presence.
A leader in the cause of education and a champion of free speech, Schroeder was never a single-issue candidate. As Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property she was one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress on copyright issues and a strong advocate for protecting intellectual property rights and for reinforcing the creative incentive for developing intellectual property. She continued this advocacy as President and CEO of the American Association of Publishers from 1997–2008.
Schroeder was presented with the University of Denver’s Anvil of Freedom award and invited to speak as Estlow Lecturer in recognition of her many accomplishments in media and public service. DU was pleased to celebrate excellence in journalism by welcoming its first Estlow lecturer in 1992. In 1997, the Anvil of Freedom Award was established to recognize the Estlow lecturer's leadership and commitment to the First Amendment.
The Estlow Center was established in 2000 in honor of DU alumnus Edward W, Estlow, a journalist for the Rocky Mountain News and later president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Co., who first joined the DU Board of Trustees in the 1980s. The Estlow Center embraces a commitment to democracy through research initiatives, awards programs, and outreach and education programs.
Watch this year’s Anvil of Freedom Lecture on our YouTube page.