Only tell the truth

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By Reg Mur­phy Syn­di­cated colum­nist

In these fraught times, what does a speaker say to col­lege grad­u­ates wear­ing their tas­seled mor­tar­board hats? The truth.

Most col­lege grad­u­ates have been told once too of­ten that they are the hope of the world ... that they have very bright fu­tures ... that the rest of us de­pend on them.

What they may not have been told — and surely should be told — is that their free­dom to live lives of mean­ing is no cer­tain thing.

Wher­ever they look, au­thor­i­tar­i­ans would like to as­sert con­trol over their cit­i­zens. Vladimir Putin in Rus­sia con­trols the me­dia with cold cal­cu­la­tion. Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan in Turkey put down a coup and im­me­di­ately seized con­trol of all the me­dia to stop the dis­sent.

Try to in­ter­view Egyp­tians, now ruled by a mil­i­tary strong­man, and you will find they are afraid that Big Brother is lis­ten­ing. Free­dom of the press and of speech — just empty words in China.

Au­thor­i­tar­i­ans who seize con­trol of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems in their coun­tries —or be­lit­tle those whose job it is to in­form the pub­lic — tend to stay in power. But they hold on be­cause they don’t tol­er­ate free elec­tions or free speech.

What I told grad­u­ates at Mercer Univer­sity last week was summed up in just five words: Democ­racy dies in the dark.

Those five words are not orig­i­nal with me. Try­ing to find the au­thor is not easy. They may have been formed into a sen­tence by Bob Wood­ward, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his re­port­ing on the Water­gate scan­dal for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

If it wasn’t him, good for who­ever suc­cinctly formed the thought.

We have be­gun to talk about free speech and a free press with some ur­gency in the United States. Sen. John McCain says fre­quently. “The first thing dic­ta­tors do is shut down the press.”

CBS News an­chor Scott Pel­ley says it an­other way: “The quick­est, most di­rect way to ruin a democ­racy is to poi­son the in­for­ma­tion.”

And so we now come to fake news, which we hear so much about these days. Speak­ing to the Mercer grad­u­ates, I told them the univer­sity had given them the tools to spot “al­ter­na­tive facts” or fake head­lines. Com­mon sense will spy most of the fak­ery with just a lit­tle thought.

If they are like me, they al­ready have com­put­ers full of to­tally un­true emails for­warded to them by some­one who should know bet­ter than to ped­dle such trash.

Bo­gus col­umns that peo­ple claim to have found in rep­utable news­pa­pers ... eye­wit­ness ac­counts of events that never hap­pened ... au­thor­i­ta­tive judg­ments that are just imag­i­na­tive mus­ings about pub­lic af­fairs.

The most ir­ri­tat­ing of them al­ways end with some­thing like this: “If you are an Amer­i­can, you will for­ward this to five friends. If you don’t for­ward it, why don’t you leave the coun­try?”

I told the stu­dents, “It doesn’t mat­ter to me whether your pol­i­tics are lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive, al­tright or alt-left. That is your pre- rog­a­tive. But I care a great deal about the free­doms that will help you make this a bet­ter na­tion.

“If you want to make a county com­mis­sioner or a mayor happy, I will tell you ex­actly how. Prom­ise him or her that there will never be a nosy re­porter pok­ing around to see whether that con­tract is le­git­i­mate or that cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion is in fact a bribe.

“In a life­time of re­port­ing and edit­ing on pa­per and on the air, I can tell you that most politi­cians are hon­est. But I also can tell you that a lot of them are hon­est be­cause they don’t want to be ex­posed on the front page of the home­town news­pa­per. Count­less men and women in pub­lic of­fice have stayed hon­est be­cause of me­dia watch­dogs.”

Did the stu­dents hear or be­lieve me? I don’t know. They at least were quiet and re­spect­ful, which in it­self is un­usual in this age of cam­pus un­rest over the choice of speak­ers. All too of­ten, ide­ol­ogy wins out over free­dom. Too many peo­ple have been driven off cam­puses this spring.

What I hope they paid most at­ten­tion to was my read­ing of the First Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion:

“Con­gress shall make no law re­spect­ing an es­tab­lish­ment of re­li­gion, or pro­hibit­ing the free ex­er­cise thereof, or abridg­ing the free­dom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the peo­ple peace­ably to as­sem­ble, and to pe­ti­tion the gov­ern­ment for a re­dress of griev­ances.” Democ­racy dies in the dark. Reg Mur­phy is a for­mer pub­lisher of the San Fran­cisco Ex­am­iner and the Bal­ti­more Sun. To con­tact the him, email news­room@gold­enisles. news.

Reg Mur­phy

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.