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Minding Our Business


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 Florence area.

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 those.

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 read it?

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 matter.

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' 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 it.

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 truth matters.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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