In Praise of Independent Journalism
Each year the McCarthey Family Foundation trustees (whose great-grandfather purchased The Salt Lake Tribune in 1901) host a lecture series honoring the family’s commitment to cultivating a “lasting legacy for an independent press.” Recognizing the vital role an independent press plays in a democracy, the Series sponsors public lectures by and concerning journalists who have demonstrated the highest level of courageous, thoughtful and unbiased reporting.
This year’s speaker, New Yorker editor and Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick, packed the Rowland Hall field house on October 28. Remnick spoke on the coarsening effect of the current Administration on culture, the state of common dialogue and the imperative to be morally brave.
Remnick also announced the winner of an essay contest for college students sponsored by the McCarthey Family Foundation. The assignment was to reflect on the words of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee who oversaw the publication of Woodward and Bernstein’s stories documenting the Watergate scandal: “As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free.” (1973)
Here is the winning essay, written by Sergio Arellano.
We are living in this strange time where trust is more important than truth.” It was during the middle of Hasan Minhaj’s speech at this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner that these words silenced an audience that included journalists and celebrities, but not the president. His absence sent a clear message, which would have easily been the biggest take-away of the night, were it not for the presence or two men: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Minhaj’s words are the zeitgeist of journalism today. Preserving freedom of speech and accurate reporting have always been a challenge for journalism, but that challenge has never been greater than it is in the internet era. Today, a single tweet can deny the research of the entire scientific community, it can shape racial relations—it can win presidential elections. Information, true or not, is so readily available now that the press has to vehemently fight for its audience’s attention. This fight for attention combined with the overly saturated online press has generated a distrust in the mainstream media like never before. At the height of the Watergate scandal, polls put public distrust of the media over 40%. Today, the latest Harvard-Harris poll showed 65% of voters believe that the mainstream media has a lot of “fake news,” and 84% of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online. People do not necessarily believe what is true anymore, they believe those they trust.
It is for this very reason that the words of Ben Bradlee have never been more relevant. It is in the truth, and the rejection of lies, that men can really be free. It is journalists that have to spearhead the fight against lies, for the news outlets and for society at large. Society needs to be able to identify truth and categorically call out lies and liars. For example, the inclusion of Sean Spicer in the Emmys ceremony and his selection as a Harvard visiting fellow ha been criticized as the shameful embrace of a liar. The Emmys as a media outlet and Harvard as an institution that seek truth are actively engaging in this celebration of fame over virtue, because these moves are guaranteed to seize attention from their audiences. These are signs of a society that is becoming numb to lies, and this is the true challenge of modern journalism.
The absence of the president at the dinner that celebrates freedom of speech in America is a clear sign that journalism has to fight harder than ever. Minhaj ended his speech thanking Woodward and Bernstein, the two men that started the Watergate story, for inspiring a generation of journalists. Their presence in the ceremony that the president did not attend symbolized the fight for truth in the era of misinformation. This fight is extremely important, because in the words of Woodward: “The truth does emerge. It takes forever sometimes, but it does emerge, and (…) any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.”
Sergio Arellano is a student in the Horne School of Music, Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.
UPDATE: Plan-B Theatre’s run of The Ice Front (page 39) is completely sold out. However, a pre-paid wait list will form in the Rose Wagner box office one hour before show time. You must be there, in person, to get on the wait list. Then check back five minutes before show time. As many wait listers as possible will be seated at show time. Those not seated will receive a full refund. (Typically at least two wait listers are seated.)
You can also make a $20 donation to the Utah Film Center to gain entry to a special preview on Tuesday, November 7 at 7pm (http://bit.ly/2hncxx6). Or donate $20 to NOVA Chamber Music Series (http://bit.ly/2xzNAo5) for entry to a Wednesday, November 8, 7pm preview.