The Washington Post has done some fascinating reporting on a secret agreement made between the Associated Press and Nazi Germany in 1941. The agreement allowed for photographs by German photographers to be used by the AP and distributed as a part of its regular photo service to AP member news organizations. It raises old and difficult questions about ethics. The AP says that it did nothing to compromise its independence as a news organization. And yet the propaganda effects of some of the photographs are obvious. It is always difficult to make assessments on such matters more than 70 years after the fact. The AP was of course charged with obtaining news and photographs about world events. And yet by 1941, the world pretty much knew of the tyranny and ultimate ambition of Adolf Hitler, even if the full scope of the Holocaust was not widely known. I have always respected the AP and, during my time as an editor, gave it my full support. Even understanding the difficulty in trying to make the correct assessments on such an agreement in 1941, I am bothered to learn of it today.
News media have been filled with reports on President Trump’s first 100 days in office. It’s always been a standard news media measurement, but it’s even more important now in the digital age. If you do an Internet search on the topic, literally thousands of links will appear. I was honored last week to be on a panel to discuss the topic at the Headliners Club in Austin. The Headliners Club has for more than 60 years discussed news and major events with a membership of members of the news media and government as well as business leaders in Texas. And the Headliners Foundation of Texas annually provides excellent scholarships for students studying journalism and communications.
The second panelist was ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd. The moderator was veteran journalist and chair of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors Mark Morrison. We had a lively discussion in front of a packed Headliners Club. (The food and the cocktails at the Headliners Club are exactly as I remember them. Excellent.) Matthew and I were asked to grade Trump’s first 100 days. Matthew gave Trump an incomplete; I gave him a C. Perhaps it’s my tendency as a professor to want to attach a fixed grade. We both agreed that Trump’s biggest accomplishment has been the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch, 49 years old, is a solid conservative and should be an influence on the court for decades. His background and education are of a superb legal intellectual.
We discussed at length the various failures of the new Trump administration, and they are many. Clearly, not making good on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is a major failure. His travel restrictions from Muslim countries and his effort to block funding to sanctuary cities are tied up in the courts. His recently announced tax reform, in which he seeks a major reduction in the corporate tax rate and an increase in the personal deduction, is being met with scorn from Democrats and some general skepticism. I predicted, however, that Trump will be successful in getting some type of a major rewrite of the tax code. Even the most skeptical Democrats would agree that a revised, comprehensible tax code would be a good thing.
In assigning a grade to Trump’s first 100 days, I noted that his supporters generally have a different take on the news. For the most part, they are not seeing a daily catalog of failures and shortcomings that are the headlines on the major evening newscasts, The New York Times and The Washington Post. My comment to the Headliners Club was this: “Most Trump supporters are saying, ‘Yes, by God, we got our man elected. He’s moved into that White House and he’s giving ’em hell at every turn. Just what we wanted.'” And I think polling bears that out. His hard-core supporters like what he’s doing. They live a different reality than the mainstream news media, particularly the Eastern media. Which is why so many in the media were surprised that he won in the first place, and why Democrats remain so embittered.
I noted in an earlier blog and op-ed that Trump’s erratic and often angry campaign has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies. I think a grade of C is appropriate. He’s been average. No more and no less. But it has been pointed out, and noted at our Headliners discussion, that presidents have had a bad first 100 days and then gone on to be considered very good. Harry Truman is such an example. And there have been others have an excellent start in the first 100 days and then go on to be considered poor presidents. Jimmy Carter is such an example.
We were also asked about Trump’s characterization of journalists as “enemies of the people.” I said it was of course nothing more than Trump’s hyperbolic approach to his Twitter feed and much of his commentary in general. Nonetheless, I said that words can be hurtful. There is certainly enough criticism of modern news media, and much of it is deserved. But if we forget the traditional and necessary role of the news media in democracy and in modern society, we will err grievously. I said that we have been on a path of the last 20 years in which news media essentially have been marginalized by government. I noted the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Eric Holder Justice Department in one of the numerous and relentless leak investigations during the Obama administration. I noted the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that did serious damage to access to public information. And I said that the Federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, had been a global model for government transparency but now is crippled by bureaucracy, inefficiency and a government tendency to want to operate in secret. I said at the Headliners meeting that my friend and colleague Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News, had written a nicely nuanced column in response to the Trump tweet on journalists. Being a journalist and editor has never been easy, and today’s hostile environment, not to mention the economic situation for most news media, has made journalism and news especially difficult. Before leaving this topic, I noted that Hillary Clinton despises and distrusts the news media every bit as much as does Donald Trump. She just doesn’t tweet about it.
Of the major news reports on Trump’s first 100 days, one of the best to me has been done by John Dickerson of CBS News. The highlights are in several segments of video on the CBS website. There is also a full transcript of the interview available.
I predict Trump will be more successful than many Democrats can stand and less successful than many Republicans want. At the Headliners discussion, both Matthew and I agreed that international issues could create a crisis in which Trump could enjoy popular support. The rally-round-the-flag sentiment is historically very powerful. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is kooky and very likely mentally unstable. He is a wild card in a world of unpredictable and dangerous currents and events. But also unpredictable will be whether Trump’s tax plan and domestic policies can fuel real economic growth. The general economic malaise has been a part of the angst that fueled Trump’s candidacy and his election. The U.S. has also had a bull market that just turned eight years old and economic growth that has been steady if unspectacular. A recession is coming. Who can say when? But one will indeed come. And if Trump should be unlucky enough to be president when it comes, he will be blamed. And any good that he does will fall into the black hole of the harsh judgment of presidential history.
There are numerous reports again about limits on free speech on college campuses. In particular, conservatives are sometimes being heckled, protests are turning violent, and some appearances are even being canceled. There is a particularly nasty confrontation currently involving conservative author and speaker Ann Coulter and the University of California at Berkeley. The Coulter situation as well as several others of note are particularly sorry situations. There is trouble on the horizon when any university begins to limit speech.
Southern Methodist University does many things right, and one of them historically has been free speech. After several similar conflicts last year over free speech at various universities, I was invited to speak on the subject at the annual Robert S. Hyer Society induction ceremony on the SMU campus. The Hyer Society is the top honor society for undergraduates at SMU. As noted in my remarks, students under consideration for Hyer Society membership were asked to write essays on free speech. The best essays were read by the students at the ceremony. A separate file with my remarks can be downloaded here. For convenience my remarks on the occasion, Feb. 28, 2016, follow:
First, let me congratulate all of the Hyer Society members here this evening, especially those being inducted. You have attained an exceptional status at SMU, and you represent the very highest standard of academic achievement on this campus. And to the parents and families, let me say thank you very much. You have every reason to be proud of your daughters and sons, and we who teach them are honored that you have placed them with us for four of the most important years of their lives.
I suppose my favorite story on free speech would have to be one I read years ago in Vanity Fair magazine. It was an interview with the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He noted in the interview that it was a story that circulated widely in Europe after World War II. It was a story of two dogs, one French and one Russian, who meet in a park in Paris. The French dog is curious about why the Russian dog has come to France. “It must be because of our beautiful parks,” the French dog suggested. “We have the best parks in the world.” The Russian dog replied, “No, that’s not it. We have very nice parks in Russia.” “Well,” the French dog quickly added, “you must come here to meet our beautiful French female dogs. They are gorgeous, you know.” “No, that’s not it,” the Russian dog said. “We have very beautiful female dogs in Russia.” Somewhat exasperated, the French dog said, “Well, why do you come here?” After a thoughtful pause, the Russian dog said, “I come here to bark.”
I have been honored to travel and work on free press issues in virtually every country in Latin America. Free speech and freedom of the press continue under assault in several countries. There is no question but that the vibrancy of any democracy depends on the freedom for all to speak and write free from the limits of government censorship, and often equally as important, self-censorship. We have a long and cherished tradition in the United States, established in the First Amendment, but with a foundation in the robust exchange of ideas from the Enlightenment. British poet John Milton is often credited with giving us the concept of the marketplace of ideas. In his famed essay Areopagitica, first published in 1644, Milton said that if truth and falsehood are allowed to compete in the minds of citizens, truth will inevitably win out. As we look at what we perceive as a lack of civility and even mean-spiritedness that pervade so much of our political discourse, we perhaps need be reminded that it’s all happened before. Our founders understood that politics would be a full contact sport. The name-calling we see has a strong precedent in several elections, but especially the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson won that election and became one of our greatest presidents. The names that both men were called in that election would have made my proper Methodist mother blush, were she still alive. I think it fair to say that Jefferson probably endured the most vicious personal attacks of any president in our history. And in journalism we honor Jefferson as starting the tradition of the news media as a check on government. He went so far in his second inaugural address as to say that any government that couldn’t stand up to criticism was a government that deserved to fall. Out of that tradition has come more than 200 years of understanding and court decisions reaffirming that sharp, caustic debate, and yes, even completely offensive ideas, must be protected in a democracy.
We’ve all read the news accounts of some of the speech issues on some of our university campuses. We’ve read of speech codes and the so-called “micro-aggressions,” statements that, intended or not, can trigger intense emotional reactions, often of a racially insensitive nature. Let me be the first to say that despite so much progress on civil rights and expanding opportunities for historically oppressed groups, much remains to be done. Especially for students of color on predominantly white campuses, full inclusion into the academic and social culture of university life in many cases is yet to occur.
I was asked several years ago by a prospective student if there were free speech zones on the SMU campus. Honestly, I was taken aback. It had never occurred to me. I had read about some universities creating free speech zones, and I never liked the idea and never will. To me, if you have free speech zones the implication would be that there are areas on a campus where there isn’t free speech. I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the life of a university than to have any sense that speech is somehow limited.
SMU has a long and well-established history of free speech that many perhaps don’t fully realize. SMU today requires no religious affiliation for students or faculty, and religion is in no way part of our educational requirements for a degree. But the free speech tradition has it roots in the founding of the university in 1911 by the Methodist Church. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a staunch advocate of free intellectual inquiry and of life experience being essential to Methodism. Early Methodists in the United States were leaders in establishing institutions of higher education. Today a number of distinguished universities, including SMU, still have direct ties to Methodism. But Methodists were involved with founding a number of other universities that no longer have such ties. And they are some of our best universities, including Vanderbilt, USC, Northwestern, and Duke. John Wesley was a member of the clergy of the Church of England. He was one of the great minds not only of theology but of social progress in 18th Century England. His church provided a range of social services at clinics in London and Bristol, including free health care. Just six days before his death in 1791, Wesley wrote his last letter to a young member of British Parliament named William Wilberforce. The letter encouraged Wilberforce in his effort to abolish the triangle slave trade, at that time a significant part of the British economy. In the letter, Wesley referred to slavery as “the execrable sum of all villainies.” Almost 20 years earlier, in 1774, John Wesley had joined the abolition effort in a public way with the publication of an influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon Slavery. Wilberforce had made his life’s work the abolition of the slave trade, and he was finally successful in 1807. In 1833, as Wilberforce lay on his deathbed, he learned that slavery had been abolished in all the British colonies.
One of the seminal moments in the tradition of free speech on the SMU campus occurred in the spring of 1958. Willis Tate was the president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak. Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.
In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultra conservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.” The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU. Once word circulated that Gates would speak on the SMU campus, civic groups were quick to criticize the event. Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.
Tate withstood the firestorm and allowed Gates to speak on the campus. In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas. Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech, and the extraordinary speakers in the Willis Tate Lecture Series provide signature events each year on the SMU campus, benefiting not only SMU students and faculty but also the people of North Texas.
Four of our outstanding students will read their essays this evening. All provide strong reasoning for free speech on university campuses. Courtney Tibbetts cut right to the chase in her essay. She wrote: “While it may not be pleasant, we have a right to offend others as much as we have a right to be offended. The world can be cruel and offensive–students need to leave college prepared for that.” Matthew Reitz wrote that open dialogue and frank discussion can address the root causes of hate speech in a way that no speech code can. Katie Logsdon wrote that when universities such as SMU value diversity, it’s a given that not all will be in agreement with certain ideas that are expressed. And yet, she notes that growth frequently comes from discomfort. Chris Warley directly tackled the issue of “micro-aggressions,” noting that many such personal offenses can be avoided with honest, civil dialogue. All four of these essays are highly nuanced to point out some of the difficult issues that remain in American society and on our college campuses. And yet they recognize that only through sincere and candid conversation can true understanding emerge. Each of these students in separate ways has recognized the essence of a university.
I know that you will enjoy hearing these essays as much as I enjoyed reading them. They speak not only of thoughtful consideration of a complex issue, but also of an academic excellence celebrated through membership in the Robert Hyer Society. Especially after reading these essays, I am pleased to conclude that free speech, and, yes, barking by both canines and humans, are not only permitted but encouraged on the SMU campus. Again, congratulations to the students of the Robert Hyer Society and to your families, and thank you very much.
News media are reporting, sometimes gleefully, the departure of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News. The parting was almost inevitable since The New York Times reported April 1 that the network had paid about $13 million in settlements of sexual harassment claims. The settlements, according to the Times, came after Fox chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was pushed out of the company last summer over similar allegations. Among the accusers were Fox stars Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, both of whom have since left the network. Some of the news media have seemed gleeful in reporting O’Reilly’s downfall because, as he often stated, his was the No. 1-rated cable news program and had been for years.
There is also the reason that O’Reilly had for years criticized other news media over bias and inaccuracy and, even as President Trump has done, said other media were “failing.” Some in journalism feel that O’Reilly has played a role in the continuing decline in the public’s confidence in news media. It is difficult to understand exactly the level of culpability for Ailes and O’Reilly amidst the dozens of accusations of sexual harassment. What can be safely said is that a culture existed at Fox that very likely was out of the Mad Men era. And also that such a culture has no business in the modern workplace.
Fox News has been an enormous success for Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. Fox News began in 1996, and it was clearly intended by Murdoch as a balance to what he perceived as the consistently liberal bias of the Eastern media establishment. Fox News became the most popular cable news channel within five years. Even with O’Reilly and Ailes gone and the prime-time lineup undergoing a major shakeup, Fox News has a strong brand among conservatives and won’t be going away. Here’s also a personal prediction that Tucker Carlson will be a success as O’Reilly’s successor in the coveted evening time slot. Carlson is more erudite, nuanced and a less contentious personality than O’Reilly.
I have had a personal feeling for years that O’Reilly’s abrasive personality actually damaged conservatives. He was clearly polarizing for liberals and even many moderates. He played well with the six-pack crowd and many of those who helped elect Donald Trump. But real conservatives, what I call the sane wing of the Republic Party and not the Tea Party crazies, have needed to woo moderates on the basis of rational and sound economic policy as well as social policies that make sense for the majority. Many of O’Reilly’s histrionics made that difficult.
And as media have also reported, what really did O’Reilly in was that advertisers began abandoning the program. This made the decision easy for Fox. Advertisers have too much at stake to be associated with the lightning rod that O’Reilly had become.
It finally happened. Video of a murder has been uploaded on Facebook. It was only a matter of time. A grandfather from Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Godwin Sr., 74 years old, was approached by a sick gunman and killed. The gunman recorded the video, including audio of what apparently is the killer’s voice just before shooting Godwin. Two days later, the alleged assailant, Steve W. Stephens, 37, shot and killed himself. The video of the murder was online for about two hours and of course seen and shared.
After I wrote a piece about fake news recently and cited Facebook as a continuing source, I had a query from a young family member asking me if I thought Facebook had any responsibility for cleaning up the fake news. My response was that Facebook only had a responsibility for continuing as the cesspool for political hysteria that it had become. I noted in the piece, originally published in the Houston Chronicle, that people who depended on Facebook or any other social media outlet for real news deserved what they got. Which frequently was garbage.
The posting of a video showing a murder is another matter. Facebook does screen and remove sick and objectionable content. But the fact that this video remained online for any length of time is reprehensible. There must be better mechanisms for screening content, and they must be found immediately. It’s one thing for news of a political nature to be totally fabricated and put online. I say, Who cares? The quality of the standard political dialogue on Facebook is not just lacking in accuracy but is shrill, inane and often nonsensical. I was pleased when I asked my media ethics students, in a class of about 70, how many were using Facebook less than they did two years ago. Nearly every hand went up. Snapchat, it appears, is quickly taking over the college-age group as the social medium of choice, along with Instagram.
I am reminded of the case of former Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer who killed himself in the state capital in 1987. He had been convicted of accepting a bribe. He called a news conference in which he said he had been framed. He then pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot himself in the mouth. I discuss this in ethics each semester. There were photographs and video taken of his suicide. And the handling of his case by news media is still an excellent teaching tool for students wanting to be journalists. Believe it or not, there are still some of us who believe that news media can and should be ethical. The photos and video of Dwyer are of course available on the Internet. I have read that the video has been played in late-night clubs. That is another matter of societal sickness, but it’s really beyond the scope of this post.
The tragedy recorded and posted on Facebook is related only because of the media context. One can only feel the deepest sympathy for the family of Robert Godwin. And we perhaps will never know the added anguish over the fact that the tragic end of his life apparently was thought to be entertainment by a twisted mind. The various tools of social media have connected a world in ways never before imagined. But the potential damage and societal harm that they can create must also be dealt with by those responsible for the tools. Censorship is an awful and damaging tool of tyranny and corruption, and I remain as much a staunch advocate of free speech as ever. But there is nothing of a philosophical or legal nature that creates a right for those with sick minds to inflict their criminal activity on a digital public.
Note: This op-ed was first published online by The Dallas Morning News Dec. 8, 2015.
Like many university professors, I’ve been thinking about the potential for microaggression in my lectures. For the uninitiated, microaggression is part of the current university jargon for subtle but offensive comments or actions, deliberate or not, that reinforce a racial stereotype.
I teach media ethics, and I am thinking about my regular lecture on media violence. Even as a near-absolutist supporter of the First Amendment, I have concerns about the violence that we see in media. In the lecture I show a violent, profane 20-minute segment from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that includes frequent use of the N-word.
Why do I show this? Tarantino, in my opinion, is one of the most important film directors of the post-World War II era, and the context of language and violence in his films is important for university students to understand.
Coverage of news events from a number of our universities has created heartfelt soul searching among students, professors and administrators. But the situation at Princeton is troubling: Students there seek to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from a distinguished school of public affairs because his legacy includes segregating the federal work force. Yet he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and appointed the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court.
Where would a decision like this lead? Do we take slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s name off every school, street, bridge and building in the country? Do we scrub the image of George Washington, also a slave owner, from the currency that is a world standard in commerce? What about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who interned more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II?
Many of our historical figures had very real flaws, and democracy is a messy, imperfect, continuing process.
As previously reported, two SMU fraternities that planned a party with a racially insensitive theme cancelled it in October after strong criticism from the SMU community. Even though the Wesleyan tradition at SMU has embraced a long and distinguished history of free speech and academic freedom, SMU President R. Gerald Turner was correct to condemn the party as abhorrent. As we have seen too often, fraternity members, especially when fueled by alcohol, can do idiotic things.
Many students of color, especially African-Americans on predominately white campuses, can feel an isolation that hinders academic performance as well as full inclusion into campus life. Despite years of progress on civil rights, this remains a delicate issue, including on the SMU campus.
Yet somehow “comfort” has crept into the national discussion. University students, according to some of the protesters, need to feel comfortable. All students of color need to feel that they belong and have a sense of security in their place as a part of university life. But the discussion vis-à-vis the microaggressions seems to include a freedom from ideas that might offend.
Since when did a university education guarantee such comfort? When did challenging a student’s ideas and assumptions vanish from our mission as professors? Have we lost the concept of a truly “liberal” education, in the sense that liberal has nothing to do with politics? I hope not.
Another of my regular lectures includes a discussion of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case – one of the most racially charged incidents on a university campus in my memory. Three white members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape by an African-American dancer hired to perform at a team party.
The party should never have happened, but the players were charged on virtually no credible evidence. The performance of much of the media was reprehensible, with too many reporters buying into the “guilty, of course” narrative put forward by a local district attorney and some professors on the Duke campus. The charges were eventually dismissed and the district attorney disbarred. It took a sensitive and thorough 60 Minutes investigative report by the late Ed Bradley, an African-American, to question assumptions made in the case.
A national narrative that fits a politically correct scenario can be wrong. In the current national narrative on race, let’s address the problems with candor and sincerity. But let’s also safeguard free speech and open intellectual inquiry that are the lifeblood of universities and democracy. The Tarantino and Duke lectures will be on my syllabus next semester.
In relaunching my website and blog, it seems long overdue that I comment on the tragedy that has unfolded since 2015 over the issue of sexual assault at my alma mater, Baylor University. In August of 2015, Sports Illustrated and Deadspin reported that a football Baylor had been indicted on two counts of sexual assault against a female student athlete at Baylor. The incident had not been reported publicly by Baylor officials, and the athlete had been allowed to participate in team activities. After the player was convicted, Baylor regents hired the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton to investigate the handling of sexual assault. In the months that followed, other reports of sexual assault emerged. In May of 2016, the regents received an oral presentation on the findings by Pepper Hamilton. The university released a 13-page findings of fact that was short on specifics. Successful Baylor football coach Art Briles was fired, and Ken Starr was removed as president and ultimately left the university. The controversy has raged more than a year. Multiple lawsuits have piled up. Alumni and the public have expressed outrage. The Dallas Morning News, among many other news media outlets, has continued to call for a complete accounting of facts and those responsible.
I consider myself a loyal Baylor graduate, and I continue to serve as a member of the board of directors of the Baylor Line Foundation. Over the decades, it seems, Baylor has lurched from crisis to crisis, mostly over matters of Southern Baptist politics and spats over fundamentalism. As a lifelong Methodist, I’ve viewed these issues with some amusement and even on occasion as spectator sport. But the sexual assault issue has damaged the fundamental integrity of the university in a way no other issue ever has. The regents said initially upon receiving the Pepper Hamilton report that there was no call for a full written report because one would take up to six months. No reasonable person believed that. And we are now more than 11 months since the oral presentation. Baylor is no nearer wrapping up the situation, and the credibility of the university’s leadership is nonexistent. An influential alumni group of wealthy contributors, Bears for Leadership Reform, has called for a complete accounting as well as new standards for transparency in the university’s governance.
It is an embarrassing and shameful episode in the university’s history. There has been an appalling lack of respect for the women who are victims. The regents have been completely tone deaf to alumni, the public and the current students. Every aspect of the university’s administration and governance has been called into question, with no legitimate answers forthcoming.