Last month, my friend Selwyn Crawford was making a few closing remarks at the 26th annual Journalism Day sponsored by The Dallas Morning News. Journalism Day is an event for high school journalists and teachers in North Texas. More than 370 attended this year. The SMU Division of Journalism is a contributing sponsor. Selwyn got a little fired up in his comments, which I believe were entirely spontaneous. And in doing so he gave high school students, and all of us, the reason we should be journalists and take great pride in what we do. Here’s the video of Selwyn’s remarks.
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: An edited version of this post ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 12, 2017 under the headline “When Facts Become Optional.” The piece is online on the SMU website under “Fake News and Alternate Facts.”
Fake news and alternate facts have become the discussion du jour of the nascent Donald Trump presidency. One might suppose, even hope, that if Hillary Clinton had won the election the world of Democrats and Progressives would have remained in its tidy orbit and we could have been spared this journalistic and political crisis. Instead, the erratic and even angry campaign of Trump has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies.
There were several key moments of concocted news during the campaign, perhaps the most recognized being the bulletin of Pope Francis endorsing Trump. Didn’t happen. We also had from The New York Times the headline “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The piece detailed a tweet sent the day after the election from a marketing company co-founder in Austin with about 40 Twitter followers. The tweet concerned busloads of anti-Trump protesters who were being paid to protest the election. The tweet was shared, according to the Times, 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. Then President-elect Trump took to his own Twitter account to denounce the protests as “incited by the media” and “very unfair.” Discussion groups and blogs picked up the details, all shared thousands of more times on social media. Of course, there were never actually busloads of paid protesters. The original tweet was finally taken down, but to little notice.
In a cold and perhaps even elitist analysis, I might say that people depending on Facebook and Twitter for news deserve what they get. That we even consider Facebook a source of news says more about the damaged and deeply flawed psyche of American democracy than it does about social media.
But in a larger context of the free flow of information essential to self-governance, legitimate questions must be asked. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigned on major changes in the First Amendment and our concept of a free press. Clinton bought into the loopy concept of rewriting the First Amendment in order to change the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United in 2010. Trump pledged to change libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue news organizations. That would presumably change the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 decision on press freedom in Times v. Sullivan.
We could also digress to another discussion of serious damage already done to the First Amendment by the two previous administrations. While we all understand a legitimate need for national security, the USA Patriot Act passed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has created a disruption in the flow of information from government agencies as well as an extraordinary level of government secrecy. And there was the seizure of phone records of the Associated Press by the Eric Holder Justice Department, as well as the record-setting prosecution of leaks by the Obama administration.
This is a bit of a digression, but none of it bodes well for real news in a politically polarized environment where every news angle, legitimate or not, is taken as an affront by someone. The fact is that government in the last 16 years has shown a hostile and heavy-handed approach to the news media, and it looks like that won’t be changing anytime soon.
How does this relate to fake news? It seems like fake news is just a continuation of the pattern where traditional news media are being undermined. With the economic calamity that has hit the news media, especially newspapers but also including broadcast, there are far fewer reporters and editors to do the basic fact checking and editing of solid news. And in too many cases, the reporters and editors who have been retained are younger, less experienced, and can be paid lower salaries.
It would seem that fake news might be the emergent replacement. But the fact is that we have had fake news as long as we’ve had news media. Newspapers of the 19th Century often printed hoaxes, simply for entertainment purposes. One of the most famous was the so-called Moon Hoax, printed in 1835 by The Sun in New York. The stories detailed a British scientist who had made significant advances in telescope technology and had found that there were men on the moon. The men had wings. The paper even concocted drawings showing the creatures.
Two major contributors to American letters, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, were among the famous writers who wrote hoaxes. Sometimes the hoaxes would continue for months and spread to other newspapers in a 19th-Century version of viral media. Perhaps the most famous hoax in our history was the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 by Orson Welles. That hoax concerned a Martian invasion in New Jersey.
One can argue, and certainly it’s a legitimate concern, that the digital age with social media has opened up many more opportunities for fake news and serious harm from posts that go viral in minutes. That is quite different than printing hoaxes in a newspaper sold on the streets.
And Trump’s critics legitimately point to his relentless Twitter posts and his administration’s claim to “alternate facts.” There is real danger here with both the new president and with his White House press spokesman Sean Spicer. It’s one thing to spin stories, and all recent White House press spokespersons have done so. It’s another to state matters from the White House press podium that are demonstrably false. We are entering uncharted waters both in politics and technology.
But there’s no replacement for discerning and concerned citizens reading carefully to educate themselves in basic media literacy. One of the foundations of the Enlightenment was that human beings were rational creatures and could discern fact from falsehood. It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that Facebook and most other social media are only what they are: sometimes interesting and entertaining tools for keeping people in contact. That is, after all, the definition of social media.
It also reminds us of the legendary writer and critic A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker who said that freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one. Now anyone with a smart phone is a publisher in a global context never before imagined. Caveat lector.
On several social media posts, for some years an item has circulated about remembering places and events in Waco. Here is one such document. The last item is about remembering the old bridge at Eichelberger Crossing near China Spring. This document, apparently put together by a Waco High School reunion, calls it “Eichelberger’s Crossing.” However, I believe it correctly is known as Eichelberger Crossing. The bridge was a metal span that crossed the South Bosque River. Filling in the metal span were wooden planks on which cars crossed for more than seven decades. The bridge was closed to traffic in 1981. A portion of the bridge collapsed in 2014. The Waco Tribune-Herald reported the collapse with a story and photo, noting that the collapse occurred on the southern portion of the bridge. The Tribune-Herald reported that the bridge was built in 1925 at a cost of just more than $8,000.
I remember crossing the bridge sometime in the 1950s on one of the Sunday afternoon drives that my parents frequently made. I doubt many people still take Sunday drives, but they were a typical part of our weekends in those days. I grew up in a house on the edge of Lake Waco just south of the Waco airport. I remember having a child’s wonder at the Braniff DC-3 airplanes that took off and landed at the airport. The bridge at Eichelberger Crossing would have been just a few miles from our house. I was attending Bosqueville Elementary when we crossed the bridge. I don’t remember the exact year, but it would have been between 1957 and 1959. I remember my mother making a somewhat alarming comment about the safety of the bridge, and my father of course paying no mind. I also remember the rickety sound of the wooden planks under our car. My older sister says that the bridge was widely known among her friends as the rickety bridge. We left that house near Lake Waco in 1960 when the new Lake Waco Dam was built. The area where our old house stood is now under water.
Anyway, for years I’ve wanted to find the old bridge and renew a memory. I found the area on an internet map and, with the use of GPS on my iPhone, was able to find Baylor Camp Road. With a little effort, I found the bridge. The photos with this post were taken on April 5, 2017. There is of course a modern and safe structure right next to the collapsed bridge. But if you drive off the main road and park in a dirt area next to woods, you can walk about 30 yards and be at the north end of the portion of the bridge that remains. I walked the length of the remaining bridge and found two men fishing off the south end where the collapse had occurred.
The fish weren’t biting, according to the two men. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful and pleasant spring morning. Even without catching any fish, there could not have been a better way to spend such a perfect day with the Central Texas sun just beginning to bring warmth. One of them told me he was from Ohio, and he knew nothing about the history of the bridge. I told him briefly about my youth and my memory of the bridge, but I could tell he wasn’t especially concerned. And he shouldn’t have been. You had to have seen the bridge when it was in one piece, and even better made a rickety crossing, to really appreciate it. It was old Waco.
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.
Note: This eulogy for former Houston Chronicle editor Jack Loftis was first published on my earlier blog after his memorial service in January 2015. The accompanying art was done especially for Jack’s memorial service by longtime friend and artist Bill Hinds.
About 10 years ago, Jack called me one morning on my cell phone. I was in Los Angeles at an SMU event, and when he called it was about 6:30 local time and I was a bit startled. Jack would always say, “Tony, this is Jack,” to start our conversations. This time, literally the first words out of his mouth were, “Better get your blue suit pressed.” I knew that was Hillsboro-speak at its best. In Hillsboro, if you had a suit, it was dark blue. And getting your dark blue suit pressed meant getting ready for a funeral. It turned out that Jack was facing some difficult surgery dealing with a faulty heart valve, and he was getting himself and his friends prepared. He openly joked about his death, and as we all know he faced several life-threatening medical issues over the last 20 years. And I think it was his wonderful sense of humor that helped him cope with them and come through them the way he did.
In fact Jack had some interesting experiences with his medical issues. He loved to talk about what had happened to him and give details about his ailments and treatments. He seemed to have strange reactions to medications, especially the pain medications after surgery. After one of his difficult procedures at St. Luke’s, one night he had a dream, or perhaps more accurately a vision, about an argument that took place in the next room. Jack heard what was a loud disagreement, and he could relate specific dialogue between two people, right up until the time that a woman was killed, including a description of her scream. Chronicle managing editor Tommy Miller happened to be the next visitor to Jack, as Tommy stopped off at the hospital early the next morning on his way to work. Jack related in detail what he had heard, and he made Tommy open the door to what Jack thought was the room next door. The opened door only revealed an empty storage closet, and Jack became even more agitated. He was convinced that hospital staff had come in, cleaned up the crime scene and in fact had rearranged the structure of the room just to trick him. He told that story for years afterward.
I met Jack in 1974. Our friendship developed immediately. We had similar roots in terms of the families we came from, the geography of Central Texas and of course Baylor. On one of the first times we had lunch, Jack shared with me his favorite story. And it’s one we’ve all heard, and I’ll never forget his telling it to me. It’s the story of a man sitting on a park bench. There’s a dog sitting on the ground beside him. Another man approaches, and asks if the man’s dog bites. The man on the park bench replies no. The second man sits down on the end of the bench, whereupon the dog nails the man with a sharp bite on the hand. The startled man says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The man on the bench replies, “That’s not my dog.” I’ve thought about that lunch, and that story many times over the years. Of course it involved Jack’s love of dogs, but it also spoke of a man with a simple and straightforward approach to life, work and relationships. Jack had respect for everyone. I think I knew him about as well as anyone ever did. I saw him in good times and bad. I saw him make difficult decisions. He was approachable, likeable and by any measure he was a product of his upbringing in Central Texas. He treated everyone the same, whether that person was the president of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, a nervous intern covering City Hall, or a street person who crept into a downtown hamburger joint and wanted the French fries Jack had left on his plate. True story, by the way. He was the most decent man I’ve ever known in my life.
There’s a story my uncle used to tell. He was the storyteller in my family in Waco, and he loved to tell stories that would make my very proper Methodist mother cringe. I told Jack this story once, and he appreciated it. He liked stories about church, and I can’t tell you how many times he reminded me that he was an old Church of Christ boy from Hillsboro. This story is about the old man, bent over and rail thin and with a full mop of gray hair, and he sat on the front row of the Baptist church every Sunday. One Sunday morning the preacher was getting started on a stem-winder of a sermon, and he told the congregation he wanted to talk about the forgiveness of enemies. Whereupon the old man got up and walked briskly down the isle toward the back door. The preacher was stunned, and he said, “Excuse me, sir, are you leaving?” The old man replied, “Yes, preacher, I’m leaving.” The preacher was even more perplexed, and he said, “Do you mean, sir, that you don’t need to hear about how we should treat our enemies?” “No, preacher,” the old man said. The preacher was now a bit incredulous, and said, “Sir, do you mean to tell me that you don’t have any enemies?” “No preacher,” the old man replied, continuing toward the door. “I’ve outlived every one of those sons of bitches.”
If Jack had enemies, he indeed outlived them. But the truth is, he simply didn’t have any. That really is the measure of the man whose life we remember today.
Jack and I never really talked much about newspapers or even the Chronicle after I left and moved to Dallas to teach at SMU. He did that with others who were here in Houston, but not really with me. He tried to engage me a bit in the first couple of years I lived in Dallas, but I usually changed the subject. One day he finally said to me, “You’ve really left Houston and the newspaper business, haven’t you?” And I said, “Of course I have. I face a bunch of 20-year-old students every day who are a lot smarter than I am. They don’t care about the past, certainly not mine. They only care about the future, and it’s a good lesson.” The last time I saw him was about three weeks ago, and he was in the nursing home. And we did for some reason get into newspapers and the economic struggles that newspapers have had. And he talked about what we had done here in Houston, and I think it fair to say that working together we had some degree of success. As most of you know, it was my honor to be with Jack as his managing editor and then executive editor until I left the paper in 2003. On this occasion, Jack looked at me and said, “I think what worked for us was that you and I had a pretty good good-cop-bad-cop routine. You were the bad cop and I was the good cop.” And it was true. Jack was always reluctant to fire anyone. He was the good cop in every sense. It’s because he saw the best in everyone, and the potential in each individual, pretty much regardless of what had happened.
Sometimes after events like this, people get together and there’s a toast or a celebration of some kind in remembrance. You might be tempted, tonight or in the next few days, to have some nice Champagne, or even some Scotch, which Jack used to drink. Which is actually another interesting story. Jack consumed more than his share of Scotch in the first two-thirds of his life. He realized it was a problem. And he stopped when he became editor of the Chronicle in 1987. He simply never wanted to do anything that might embarrass the paper. From then on, when we were at social events, he’d have perhaps half a glass of wine poured at dinner. He might take a sip. Some might think he was just being social. I think he didn’t want people to speculate that he had perhaps fallen back into his Church of Christ upbringing, or, even worse, converted to become a tee-totaling Baptist. As much as he loved Baylor, Jack didn’t really appreciate some of the Baptist beliefs, especially those of the fundamentalists. And if I may digress just a bit further, the other major change in Jack’s life about that time was to marry Beverly Blake. I was with Jack just about every day for 30 years, and hardly a day would go by that he wouldn’t mention Beverly. Beverly, he loved you dearly, and to you and the family I offer my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.
But let me conclude by returning to the toast. I say skip the Champagne or fancy Scotch or anything else that might be a bit pretentious. Here’s what I’m going to do. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll get takeout pizza. Pepperoni, of course. I’ll save a piece and put it in the fridge, without wrapping. The next morning, I’ll take the cold and crusted piece of pizza out of the fridge, and I won’t dare put it in the microwave. And I’ll have Diet Dr Pepper on hand. It was one of Jack’s favorite breakfasts. I’ll eat the cold pizza and drink the Diet Dr Pepper and remember that the man who was editor of a powerful newspaper was really a pretty simple man from Central Texas, and he enjoyed the simple things in life. And today, for all the great things Jack did, more than anything he would want us to remember that he was just one of the guys from Hillsboro.
I’ve got my dark blue suit on today, Jack. And I had it pressed, just for you my dear friend.