More than a week ago, I attended a commencement at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater. The speaker was Andrea Mitchell, longtime NBC broadcaster and dogged reporter. We graduated 51 years ago from Penn, though I didn’t know her. We’ve since become friends.
She’s chief foreign affairs correspondent and hosts “the noontime Andrea Mitchell Reports” at NBC.
Though painfully aware that journalism, a profession I once practiced joyfully here on Eastern Shore, often comes under attack, I strongly believe our democracy depends on a free, unfettered press.
Repeatedly over the years, I’ve seen how the media—print and electronic—have uncovered corruption that would have gone on un- detected and unwisely tolerated. What comes readily to mind is the rampant sexual abuse propagated by Catholic priests and covered up for years by the Diocese of Boston. Of course, this awful story of abuse and power was the subject of the well-acclaimed movie, “Spotlight.”
Another recent movie, “The Post,” chronicled the courageous coverage of the Watergate cover-up by the Nixon administration. Katherine Graham, the publisher, and her editors faced incredible pressure to forgo publishing a story that addressed corruption at the highest level of government. Fortunately, they didn’t buckle under to threats and lawsuits.
And in recent months, the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine disclosed sexual abuse and harassment in the entertainment and media worlds.
Again, silence had been the rule for the victims; they found a credible voice through the media.
It’s too easy, though sometimes true, to attack journalism as a vehicle for sensationalism and increased readership and viewership. It’s too easy for some at the highest levels of the federal government to characterize substantive and critical news coverage as “fake news.” It’s a strategy intended to intimidate journalists, to still their voices.
It’s a form of bullying, democracy and freedom of press be damned.
In her well-presented and extremely serious remarks, Andrea Mitchell quoted the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said, “You are entitled to your opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts.’
Operating in our currently politically divisive and poisonous environment, the media, according to Mitchell, must be “honest and fearless.” It cannot allow itself to be submissive to shallow, constant threats and bombast by a president who brittles easily at criticism.
At the same time, journalists must “demand more of ourselves, not jump to conclusions and avoid hyperbole,” Mitchell said.
“We provide a reality check, a barrier to distortion. We are not the enemy of the people,” Mitchell said.
While defending the profession she has pursued beginning as a freshman staff member at the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station, Mitchell offered three life lessons (as every commencement speaker must do) to the thousands of graduates seated in front of her at historic Franklin Field in West Philadelphia:
She mostly avoided lofty rhetoric so often voiced at occasions such as the Penn commencement, when speakers urge graduates (most of them anxious to get on with their lives and enjoy a post-event lunch with family and friends) to chase their dreams, follow their passions, endure failure in their lives and bounce back.
As a journalist, Andrea Mitchell has taken her natural curiosity to all corners of the world. She’s understood that a good journalist studiously works to block out pre-conceptions and approach a story with a mind able to absorb a flood of facts and present them accurately and objectively. And being engaged requires an ability to listen, learn and take positive action as the students at the Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL did after a terrible tragedy killed 17 students.
I’ve listened over the years at Penn commencements to politicians, entertainers, poets, corporate leaders and non-profit visionaries. Sometimes, I’ve struggled to remain attentive and forswear my iPhone. May 14, 2018 was different.
Andrea Mitchell’s message resonated among alumni as well as newly-minted graduates. A free press guarantees a strong, resilient democracy.
Dreams belong to the young. Life’s lessons belong to all of us.
Engagement never ceases.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.