September 14, 2016
Businessman Larry Aldrich (L ’77) provided insights from his days as a media lawyer and CEO during a Tulane Law School discussion about press freedom and the future of digital news on Sept. 12, 2016.
In a conversation that ranged from mass publication of the Hulk Hogan sex tape to newspaper profitability to the public’s right to know about presidential candidates' medical records, former media attorney and newspaper publisher Larry Aldrich (L ’77) engaged a Tulane Law audience in a lesson on the importance of a free press in American democracy.
Aldrich, who was senior legal counsel at USA Today publisher Gannett Co. then led two Arizona papers into the digital age, advocated a broad view of the First Amendment freedom of the press to decide for itself whether information should be considered "newsworthy."
Yet, he also argued for a limited understanding of what qualifies as "the press," distinguishing traditional newspapers and broadcast journalists from bloggers and other self-described "citizen journalists." The special constitutional privilege enjoyed by the press, Aldrich said, must be exercised by collective bodies of reporters and editors who observe ethical boundaries in their news gathering and reporting.
As president and CEO of the Arizona Newspapers group in 1995, Aldrich led The Arizona Daily Star to become the fifth U.S. newspaper to launch a web edition on the internet. But he said that the explosion of information now available online has not been entirely a boon to democracy and the vitality of the press.
An attentive audience posed a wide range of questions for entrepreneur Larry Aldrich.
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Aldrich said he reads several newspapers daily on his mobile device instead of in print. But he said traditional press institutions remain vital to democracy because they're committed to the obligations that come with First Amendment freedom, and by and large they are "driving themselves to be truthful."
Consumers today are bombarded by information from a multitude of sources that have little care for its veracity, stoking cynicism and distrust: “The risk to democracy is, there is so much information,” he said, but in many cases “there is no sense that these facts are true.”
Even with a myriad of sources, too many consumers don't listen to a diversity of voices, he said, instead closely hewing to websites or cable networks that reinforce their ideological viewpoint. In addition, market pressures on newspapers and broadcast media have reduced news staffs and led to a "blending of news with entertainment."
Tulane Law Professor Amy Gajda, a former journalist who’s an authority on media law and privacy, moderated the discussion. Her book The First Amendment Bubble: How Privacy and Paparazzi Threaten a Free Press, published in 2015, touches on many of the same themes.
Aldrich started as a trial lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division before moving into a career as a media executive, venture capitalist and entrepreneur and executive in the health care industry. He emphasized that lawyers can play an important role in avoiding further erosion of the press.
"What do we do as a society, what do we do as lawyers, to help people be better consumers of information?" he asked.
He said lawyers are professionally trained to be problem solvers and can facilitate needed innovation in journalism and other fields. Currently president of his own consulting firm, Aldrich has long been an adviser to businesses and entrepreneurs and has helped launch tech startups. In 2014, he and his wife started the Wendy and Larry Aldrich Endowed Scholarship in Legal Entrepreneurship at Tulane Law to assist students aspiring to careers in business innovation.