Archive for the ‘Verifying Assertions by Leaders’ Category

LESSONS FROM OUR OWN HISTORY

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

by Barry Jagoda

Reunions to celebrate the “good old days” are privileges of growing older. Three such emotional, memorable events have been experienced in April, 2017.

Joining 200 high school friends and acquaintances brought back warm memories of growing up in the suburbs of Houston 50 years ago.

Then, after 40 years, getting back with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—in Atlanta and in Plains—reminded one of the power of the ideas, the moderation and the passion that enabled the election of the 39th President of the United States in 1976.

And a 50th reunion of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University marked a passage back to 1966-1967 underscoring what had helped turn a young Texan into a reporter—a professional journalist–with commitments to keeping an eye on government.

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As the poet John Dunne wrote, “Make new friends, but keep the old—for these are silver and those are gold.” Friendships and bonds of attachment characterize these reunion meetings. As one participant, viewing a photograph from our adolescence, wrote, “We could not possibly have been that young but now it is impossible that we are that old.”

As one survives into an eighth decade a wise friend from earlier times now writes, “Health is Everything,” appreciated less if one currently suffers from no debilitating illness.   And, the half-joking admonition from another half-century long pal, “If you do get sick make sure it is something they can fix,” becomes more real as one ages into the 70s and beyond.

The luckiest among us may be those who still have meaningful family connections—children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. A very few still have a living parent. At some time in the growing up process we leave childhood homes, with their rules and their unconditional love. We develop our own set of values and new aspirations. And now, looking back over the decades, pictures of “what formed us” become clearer.

Neuroscientists and others puzzle over the competing claims of nurture and nature—our genetic inheritance and our lived life experiences. But in the lingering last years of life one sees overlap, the near impossibility of sorting out just what came along with our embryos versus what we have learned over the ages. Curiously, though, as a wise friend jokes, “At age 30 I thought I knew all the answers but now, at 70, I realize how very little I know.” This charming comment is not necessarily true: A wonderful discovery of older age is to find new old mistakes to correct, new life-lessons that can still be gained.

A goal of life, as expressed by psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, is to become “self-actualized,” to be dependent on one’s inner life for meaning, perhaps the opposite of David Riesman’s “other-directed” personality. But none can deny the deep benefits of the power of “significant others,” who have come into our lives and—with luck—are still there, in real life or influencing us from the grave.

It is perhaps at night as one tumbles off to sleep that there is best the realization of how fortunate one might be to have another with whom one might share the slings and arrows—as well as the ice cream—of being human. But life lessons are still there to be had: An art gallery curator’s recent comment helps put this into perspective with a summing up of culture that transcends, yet also populates: Asked the meaning of art, the gallery expert explains, “Art fills the soul.” And, “Where is the soul?,” asks the skeptical journalist. “The soul is where love and joy reside,” says the wise professional.

Another approach to the soul is often associated with teachings from the various religions. Listen to the Ten Commandments or understand the urgency of the teachings of the Islamic Prophet. Knowing that such creation stories are all about us, hard to miss, one can fall back, perhaps, on the Golden Rule, dealing with others as one would hope to be treated.

For a secular individual—having no belief in a deity—there is the additional challenge of sorting through ideas inherited from the centuries to find one’s own values, ethics, moral principles. And herein is a great virtue of being a mere human being. It is said that we each have primitive brains, derived intellectually from the Darwinian tradition. Our rational faculties are even taken over by these earlier constructs which try to focus us. As this understanding may be true, the human challenge is shown to be even more difficult.

Finding decency is a quest not to be undervalued. But for an older human the chance for a second look—a glance back—makes a reunion another chance to mull over what has come before. One might revel in the good fortunes but not forget what may have gone wrong. Perhaps too late for much change but at least having history’s lessons for intellectual satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT CAN JOURNALISM DO WHEN POWERFUL SOCIAL FIGURES LIE?

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

by Barry Jagoda

Three movies out this December capture among the most profound issues that can be faced in a free society: What happens when high public and private officials lie? How can objective journalism respond to leaders who feel comfortable with factual distortions?

The short answer is that assertions, from elected and appointed public and private leaders—as well from others in positions of power and responsibility—often must be reported. But in many, perhaps most, cases such statements must be verified. This is because leaders often intentionally, or through mistake or ignorance, distort the truth.

Journalists have a responsibility to report the views of leaders but official, and often questionable, statements must be reviewed and vetted against facts.

An aphorism, about truthfulness, once sounded by Ronald Reagan, is relevant: As the late President put it about potential foreign leaders: Trust but Verify.

Dramatic attention is being drawn to these issues by movies out this season: The films are “Truth,” about CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather’s efforts to expose favorable military treatment given to George W. Bush; “Spotlight,” the true story about the courageous investigation by the Boston Globe,” exposing the Cardinal and Catholic leadership in Boston for sheltering 90 pedophilia priests; and “Trumbo,” the spectacular film revealing and reminding of the damages caused to our people and country by the Red Scares of the 1950s.

The best of the three films, “Trumbo,” demonstrates the great difficulty of vetting statements by lying politicians, and what happens when free speech rights are destroyed by official demagoguery. This is the story of Hollywood creative artists whose left-wing political opinions were silenced by official Washington’s invocation of “Red fears.” These were false charges that the United States was in danger from internal enemies loyal to the Soviet Union. The crime of stifling opinion was made possible by vicious office-holders personified by Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy, a notorious liar, whose charges of contempt of Congress ended up in jail terms for ten Hollywood artists whose mistake was to express their opinions about American politics.

“Spotlight,” a wonderful movie, is the true story of how an investigative reporting team from the Boston Globe overcame huge cultural and local political odds to name 90 priests who had been found guilty of sexual molestation of parishioners. To get to the truth the Globe’s “Spotlight” reporting team had to take on the Catholic culture of Boston and years of official lies by the Cardinal and other church leaders. The best of our journalists learn they must often challenge authority, even at the risk of peril to their careers and their emotional balance. This film is a classic look at the process of “telling truth to power,” which had the result of pulling back years of despicable behavior by priests and their church bosses.

The most painful story from among the three movies is the true tale of what happened when CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather and his team of producers set out to show favoritism doled out to a young George W. Bush. The CBS team had learned that, Texas military national guard officials found a non-combatant role for the son of the then President George H.W. Bush. The CBS reporting came as the younger Bush was himself seeking re-election as U.S. President. The movie shows how the reporters were stymied by lies and cover-ups with the result that Rather, who had been the top reporter at CBS News, was fired from his job when errors were discovered in reporting procedures. In this case “Truth” was sacrificed to political power. The lying, and cover-up by young Bush—and family political allies–was left to stand.

Trying to hold powerful figures to a standard of truth and accuracy is particularly dangerous in an age when journalism organizations have come under financial pressures from a vastly changing media environment. With cable news channels adopting partisan political ideologies leaders often have an open microphone for their distortions. The rise of the Internet with unchecked digital outlets, particularly wide-open, often feckless “social media” expression, had exponentially increased opportunity for political and civic distortion.

A free and open society must have procedures for ensuring factual communication. Competing political and business entities can be helpful in creating a climate of honesty. These three film stories dramatically demonstrate that the front-line of defense for integrity in society often depends on an increasingly rare “fearlessness” from a free press.