The Poynter Center

I recently processed digitized media from the Poynter Center records held by the University Archives.  The purpose of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions is to advance the study and teaching of ethics and the materials I worked on reflect that focus. In addition, many of the works that I cataloged examined American institutions, such as the press, the branches of the government, and political parties. Nelson Poynter, Indiana University alumnus and founder of the institution, was a journalist himself, and was dedicated to journalistic ethics.

Portrait photograph of Nelson Poynter.
Portrait of Nelson Poynter. Archives Image No. P0021628.

I find the Poynter Center’s mission highly compelling; the institute was founded in reaction to the Watergate scandal back in the early 1970s. It focused on the causes behind a decline in trust behind American institutions. Even though the Watergate scandal was nearly 50 years ago, I think that the discussions around this event, and the general mistrust of the news from the time, are highly relevant today.

There are several programs the Center published, mostly in cooperation with WTIU, to cover these issues. These include Conversations on America, Citizen & Science, and About Time. They often speak with the same guests, which allows them to get a well-rounded view from their subjects.

One series of interviews and discussions I would highly recommend is the set from senator Andrew Young. Senator Young was a congregational minister and prominent leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and spoke on several Poynter Center programs about the movement and the political climate of the South during and before the movement. Young speaks from a place of optimism in the mid 70s, and illustrates the deep changes he observed in his and other communities in the South over the course of only a decade. Young’s discussion is a reminder not only of the history of racism and the fight for rights in this country, but an illustration of the work left to be done. Young’s optimism is a place where we can consider what hopes and promises have gone unfulfilled for the Black community in this country.

Young also comments in his interviews on the way that elections and the more local political climate changed after the expansion of enfranchisement in his and other southern districts. His description of pre-movement politics is, I think, a strikingly accurate statement today, over 60 years later. Young says:

“… you had a kind of politics where people catered to the fears of their constituents, the anxieties and frankly the ignorance of their constituents. If you got people worked up and emotional and afraid enough, then you got elected and could do as you pleased. With Blacks coming into the political system, you have candidates appealing to the better instincts of the voters… Because they have a constituency not based on fear, but who are following them because of their hopes and aspirations, they’re willing to do some more courageous things.”

It’s very easy to draw parallels between the politics of fear that Young describes and the politics of reaction and fear that prevails today. What Young’s discussion also shows is that it takes decisive action to break this cycle of fear.

The discussion that I’ve just laid out comes from about half of one thirty-minute program; this is where I see the terrific value in the Poynter Center recordings. Despite their age, they focus on issues fundamental enough that they can serve as the beginning of a discussion on American institutions and issues 50 years later. I could have, as easily, discussed the views of a Poynter fellow on the press and compared it to today. Andrew Young’s interviews are just one particularly important and relevant example of this.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on any of the topics that these Poynter Center lectures cover; however, I clearly see their usefulness. The other thing I clearly see is a need to continue the conversations started in these programs. The atmosphere of uncertainty, of questioning, of doubt around the political institutions of 1972, and the spirit which founded the Poynter Center, is keenly felt today. I think that discussing our issues in this formal way, removed from the cycles and pressures of the news while still concentrating on the salient issues, has tremendous value in our current world.

We need to reinvest in the Poynter Center concept; to bring it into the modern day and direct it at our institutions and issues. The Center as it exists today is not the same; it has no dedicated building (they left their previous one in 2016) and is incorporated into the Media School. Their programming is limited. However, the Poynter Center’s potential is still immense. It’s no coincidence that Andrew Young’s interviews are still so relevant today. The issues addressed by the Poynter Center are often enduring. With and adjustment of scope and focus for the issues of our time, we have the opportunity to contribute to a serious understanding of how to improve our society, not just for now but for a long time to come.

The Poynter Center Building
The Poynter Center building on Third Street circa 1956. The Center vacated the building in 2016. Archives photo P0022315.