Can We Believe Our Ears and Eyes?
Speech delivered to the Florence, S.C. Rotary
on January 23, 2006.
Since I joined the University in 2002, I've managed to spend
some time in quite a few parts of the state, including Florence
on several occasions. I'm pleased to have this opportunity to
speak with you, particularly as a fellow Rotarian.
Our college has important ties to this area. The Doctors Bruce
and Lee Foundation has generously created scholarships in our
School of Library and Information Science for students from the
Media General — parent company of the morning news and
WBTW — has just created a unique multimedia internship
program for students in our School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Needless to say, we are grateful for these associations.
This is a very good time to be at the University of South Carolina.
If you visit the campus, you'll see the Historic Horseshoe is
already itching for Spring to break out. There's construction
under way on the University's research campus, an exciting expansion
that is putting USC on the nation's academic map as a significant
research institution. We're expanding our faculty to provide
a better educational experience for your sons and daughters.
In my College, the Library School has launched a major statewide
literacy initiative. The Journalism School is conducting national
training for media and law enforcement officials to create a
more effective implementation of the AMBER Alert System for finding
and rescuing abducted children. And the College itself is raising
funds toward moving into new and vastly improved — and
sorely needed — facilities in the next few years.
Well, that sounds like everything's just rosy, doesn't it.
Could we take a few minutes to talk about something that's troubling
me ... and a lot of others in my profession. My profession is,
of course, that of a journalist. Now a journalist and educator.
Something I told you in my opening remarks was not the truth.
No, I meant it when I said I was pleased to be here. The scholarships
and internships are real — and I'm really pleased with
But I told a fib when I said I was a fellow Rotarian. Not that
I wouldn't be proud to be one. Over the years, I've been at quite
a few Rotary meetings ... and Kiwanis ... and Exchange Clubs.
So why would I have said that? As I was putting these thoughts
together over the weekend, it occurred to me that this might
not be a smart thing to do. But I wanted to make a point.
Here's the premise: In this day and under the tidal wave of
information and communication to which we are exposed, can we
believe our eyes and our ears?
There's a book that's been much in the news the past week or
two. It's called "A Million Little Pieces" — The
story of a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and criminal. Anyone
Notice I didn't say "true story." It's sort of a true
story. It's about the author James Frey's life. Sort of. It's
autobiographical. Sort of. But it's also sort of fiction. That
is, the author made up parts of the story, embellished the events
of his life in order to make his point. And it's a good point,
that lives gone astray can be recaptured. It's just a better
story to say that he spent three months in jail than a few hours.
Does it matter that the publishers seem unperturbed and are,
in fact, reaping the profits of increased sales derived from
the controversy itself? At close to two million copies, it was
the second highest selling book of 2005.
Does it matter that Oprah says it doesn't matter? After death
and taxes, the third sure thing in life is that Oprah's book
choices are guaranteed bonanzas.
Oprah says the fictionalization of a purported true story doesn't
Does any of that offend you?
[Note: Three days after this speech, Oprah was offended and
excoriated author Frey for his fabrications. I draw no cause/effect
inference, but was gratified that Oprah saw the light. CB]
Let's try politics. I'm taking all sorts of risks here today.
An article I read over the weekend describes a "government
(that) opens and censors mail and monitors phone calls, faces,
e-mails and text messages."
What country might that be?
The article was in the Sunday Parade magazine and it was describing
China which it ranked #4 among the most oppressive dictatorships.
Should we be troubled when a government conducts espionage on
its own citizens? We are when we are speaking about China. Or
Russia. Or Cuba.
What about here?
Just what's being done and under what authorization is not yet
perfectly clear nor fully adjudicated. But we're talking about
the collection of wiretaps, computer records, library records
for investigative purposes — fishing expeditions — where
no crime may have been committed, without warrants.
Some in Washington are saying, the president can't do that.
The president says, "Yes, I can."
I will give President Bush his due process. But I've lived in
some of those countries that spy on their citizens as a matter
of course and punish the exercise of such freedoms as speech,
press and religion that we take as constitutional guarantees.
So I'm wary of such liberties and cardinal truths being abused.
Lest you think this is a partisan rant, I'm also wary and disappointed
by leaders who parse the truth of their lascivious actions with
evasions such as "it depends on what the meaning of ‘is'
Somewhere in here, I'm supposed to say these are solely my views
and not those of the University of South Carolina. But I don't
think these are solely my views.
Now let me turn the mirror on my own profession. Would that
I could say “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who's the fairest
of us all?” And hear the mirror say, "Why journalists
are the fairest of us all."
Just as we know there's a bad apple in Snow White's future,
there are some bad apples in our profession. Am I overreaching
with that metaphor?
By now you know the examples perhaps as well as I do.
• New York Times reporter Jayson Blair? Made up stories
of places he'd never been or borrowed from other journalists
who had been there. Even dummied expense accounts to suggest
he had been on the scene.
•CBS and Dan Rather reported that Texas National Guard
Lieutenant George W. Bush failed to meet his military obligations.
But CBS failed to authenticate the documents that were meant
to back up this accusation.
•The Boston Globe, USA Today, Washington Post have all
suffered such journalistic embarrassments.
Beyond these frauds perpetrated, alas, on the American news
consumer, there are the unfortunate episodes of inaccurate reporting.
Overly dramatized accounts of brutalities in the wake of Hurricane
Katrina, duly recounted by people who purported to have witnessed
them, but that may not have taken place.
Overly hopeful and premature reports of a rescue in a mine tragedy
in West Virginia.
Sometimes it's the journalist's fault. Sometimes it's inadvertent.
Amid the ringing of church bells and the exultations of families,
I heard some reporters asking, "Who told you they are safe?
How do you know?"
Sometimes it's the truth when it's reported.
Remember Richard Jewell, the security guard initially suspected
of setting off the bomb at the Atlanta Olympic Park in 1996?
When the media reported that law enforcement had identified Jewell
as the primary suspect they were reporting exactly what the FBI
sources had told them. That it proved not to be the case did
not mean it was inaccurate when reported.
Journalism, you may have heard, is sometimes called the "first
draft of history." Not the final word. But trust in media
has declined and that's everyone's concern.
More than a few of you may want to ask, so what are you doing
about it? Fair question.
As many on our faculty will tell you, I have a simple mantra
about our responsibility as educators and communicators. It is
that every course we teach should be a "writing course and
an ethics course."
Writing because there is no discipline across the entire spectrum
that can escape the essence of communication. Build a better
mousetrap and you still have to patent it, build it and market
Ethics, well, because as one of our nation's cherished documents
puts it, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Truth
should be just that, self-evident.
So we try to instruct our students that beyond knowing "how" to
write, or broadcast, or create advertising, it is critical to
know "why" we do what we do.
All too often with all the technical capability we have, the
answer to "why" is "because we can." That
answer is not good enough.
We tell the students that the two-source guideline — one
for information, one for verification — needs to be revived.
The internet has created a vast web of information available
to us. But we cannot assume that it is all accurate. An internet
blogger may be a diligent journalist, a flake or a pathological
liar. How would you know?
A falsehood, once embedded in the internet, can be replicated
for as far as we can foresee into the future.
Not to suggest that our founding fathers had it easy, but they
could not have anticipated all the latitudes they granted us
with our freedom of speech.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently published a slim
book titled Active Liberty. Justice Breyer cites a national poll
that found more students knew the names of the "Three Stooges" than
the three branches of government.
Justice Breyer laments that the "public knows ever less
about, and is less interested in, the processes of government."
That creates an environment in which we risk being deceived
by half-truths, semi-fictions and illusions. In other words,
the stakes are rather high. My job is to make our students aware
of that and vigilant not to perpetuate it in the work they do.
As academics, journalists and citizens we all have a stake in
the communication of information that is accurate and fair. The