Truth matters: A commencement address to Global Business Journalism Program graduates

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Here is the text of my address to the 2017 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University on June 28, 2017.

大家好。Добрый день. Benvenuti. Welcome.

I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your graduate studies.

You are a special group – the best young business journalism minds in China, along with a unique mixture of nations: Iran, Israel, Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Turkey, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that many more of you will have an impact in the years to come, in journalism systems as disparate as Iran, the United States and China.

All of us in this room have our differences – cultural, geographical, even political – but one thing that unites us is the search for truth. As Jim Asher, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for his role in the Panama Papers investigation, said recently: “A world without facts can’t function.”

We live in an unsettling era when the concept of “truth” can be a matter of dispute. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Donald Trump, has declared that the White House is entitled to its own “alternative facts.” Whatever that means.

To the graduating class of 2017 and your proud professors, that’s just plain nonsense. We owe it to the public, whether we operate in the United States, China, or anywhere around the world, to share the truth, as best as we can tell it, and to explain what the truth means to our audience. As the 2017 National Press Club president, Jeffrey Ballou, said to fellow American journalists in Akron, Ohio: “Truth is not a game at all.”

The esteemed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Братья Карамазовы, The Brothers Karamazov, summed up the predicament of the perpetual prevaricator. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie,” he wrote, “comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”

We must respect knowledge, respect truth, and respect ourselves. We owe it to the global public to use the knowledge we have gained about China and about global economics to provide our audiences with intelligent, insightful and factual reports. With your newfound expertise on the Chinese economy, globalization, corporate strategies and much more, you can communicate clearly and comprehensively, on any multimedia platform, about issues ranging from the Paris climate change accords to the Belt and Road Initiative.

One of my favorite philosophers, Nelson Mandela, said that “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

You have something very special – tools that you can use to make the world a more informed and a more just place. Because, as our dean, Liu Binjie, said in his speech welcoming many of you to the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in September 2016, “Justice is the soul of the news.”

Barbara Cochran, my successor as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, reminds us that truth is an imperfect pursuit, and journalists are imperfect people. “All news organizations make mistakes from time to time,” she said recently, “but they are trying to tell the truth and generally do it well.”

Truth and justice. The Global Business Journalism program has been trying to live up to the highest international standards for the past 10 years. Since 2007, the GBJ program has combined rigorous academics with practical journalism training in a cross-cultural setting at one of the world’s great universities.

Thanks to the vision of brilliant minds such as Professor Li Xiguang, ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan, and ICFJ vice president Vjollca Shtylla, the GBJ program was created. Thanks to the financial and journalistic support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Bank of America, it has grown and prospered. Thanks to the commitment of Tsinghua leaders like Dr. Hang Min, Dean Shi, Dean Chen, Dean Hu, Professor Lee Miller, Professor Dai Jia, and many more, it has a bright future. Thanks to dedicated and high-achieving alumni from some 60 countries, GBJ is improving the quality of journalism – and public understanding of economic issues — in China and around the world.

I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. In his 1947 book Man Against Myth, he concluded that understanding the truth was necessary to overcome society’s myths. “With words, as with knowledge generally,” my grandfather wrote, “there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact.”

Truth. Justice. Words. Knowledge. Tsinghua. That pretty much sums it up. Congratulations on your achievements in the Global Business Journalism Program. I look forward to your truth-telling in the years to come.

谢谢。Thank you.


Top Ten: My proudest accomplishments at the Houston Chronicle

The superstar intern crew of spring semester 2012. (Photo by Pam Tobey)

The superstar intern crew of spring semester 2012. (Photo by Pam Tobey)

I have been fortunate to be able to experiment and innovate over the past six years at the Houston Chronicle. As I look back on my tenure at Texas’ largest newspaper, I am particularly proud of these accomplishments:

TxPotomac 2361. Creating Texas on the Potomac

Launched in December 2007, Texas on the Potomac developed into a valued “brand” in Texas journalism — THE place to go for news about Texans in Washington or national news of interest to a Texas audience. We proved that high quality journalism and “clicks” are not mutually exclusive. We built a large and loyal audience not only in our home base of Houston, but in Austin, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth and in more than 20 countries around the world including Finland, Norway and Korea.

2. Reinventing Washington bureau coverage for a regional newspaper

Chronicle editor-in-chief Jeff Cohen hired me to reinvent the Chron Washington bureau, and I took the challenge to the next level. I reimagined how a regional newspaper should cover the nation’s capital. Rather than duplicate the wires or the national newspapers, we tailored our national stories to our local audience. We offered analytical coverage explaining the importance of the events that were unfolding in Washington. And we covered the Texas delegation and Texans on the Potomac like they had never been covered before. We broke news story after news story on the web and then offered value-added coverage for print. We had a robust social media presence, too, offering comprehensive coverage to readers interested in Houston and Texas politics on whatever platform they preferred. All while seeing our staff shrink. And shrink.

With MacKenzie Warren before she became a famous TV anchor. (Photo by Marco Van Stralen)

With MacKenzie Warren before she became a famous TV anchor. (Photo by Marco Van Stralen)

3. Helping to launch the careers of so many talented young journalists

It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with so many talented interns from across the globe. Our former interns have gone on to journalism greatness (already) at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and many other news outlets, large and small, print and broadcast … and digital. I hope my interns learned as much from me as I learned from them. The interns’ talents and enthusiasm prove to me that there is a future in journalism. To all my interns: You have inspired me.

4. Teaching cutting-edge training programs for journalism students and midcareer professionals

Through my role as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute — the educational and charitable arm of the National Press Club — I was able to teach thousands of aspiring journalists, midcareer journalists, journalism educators and professional communicators the skills they needed to survive and thrive in today’s rapidly changing multimedia world. Whether the subject was writing for the web or building a community and brand via Twitter, I embraced the turbulent times and tried to help others navigate through rocky seas. That training has trained me for the next chapter in my life.

McCain La Voz5. Offering robust coverage of issues of importance to our Latino audience

Before Texas on the Potomac came along, there was a void in “mainstream media” coverage of Latino politics and national policy issues of interest to Texas Latinos. With the help of my TxPotomac compatriots and superb La Voz de Houston editors Aurora Losada and Silvia Struthers, we provided comprehensive coverage of important issues such as immigration, health care, border policy, U.S.-Mexico issues, Voter ID, voting rights, redistricting, education and other matters of particular interest to our Latino audience. We gave special attention to Latino elected officials and representatives of heavily Latino districts across Texas. I often wrote stories that appeared in print only in Spanish in La Voz.

Covering Rick Perry in New York (Photo by Andrea Vasquez)

Covering Rick Perry in New York (Photo by Andrea Vasquez)

6. Award-winning coverage of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign

Texas Associated Press Managing Editors gave only one journalism award for coverage of the 2012 elections. It was to our Houston Chronicle team for coverage of Rick Perry’s disastrous White House run. I was proud to have created “Rick Perry Watch” on Texas on the Potomac, the forerunner of our robust “Perry Presidential” web site. Our coverage combined breaking news, ahead-of-the-curve analysis, multimedia storytelling and interesting items culled from other outlets. The result was the most comprehensive daily report on an ill-fated campaign, one that became a must-read for political reporters covering the 2012 campaign.

“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in their citation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”

7. Starting a monthly lunch with the Texas delegation

When I arrived as Chronicle Washington bureau chief, there was widespread grumbling in the Houston-area congressional delegation about the Chronicle. To improve lines of communication, I created a monthly, bipartisan lunch with our local lawmakers and the Chronicle reporters and editors. It gave Houston-area House members a chance to tell us what they were working on and what their constituents were talking about, and gave us a chance to ask questions and develop in-depth stories. It also provided opportunities for some bipartisan legislative efforts on issues such as energy, transportation . All in all, it allowed all of us to better serve our joint constituency — the news consumers of Texas and the voters of the Houston area.

I owe bipartisan thanks to Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Gene Green of Houston for rounding up lawmakers from Houston — and more recently South Texas — each month.

8. Reaching one million monthly page views on Texas on the Potomac

When I created Texas on the Potomac, I asked how we would judge success. I was told 100,000 page views per month.

Well, we twice hit one million page views — once during the Republican National Convention in August 2012 and again in November, the month of the election. The doubters have been vanquished. Even with very little publicity, we built a franchise. It also helped that I taught our tremendous team of interns the science of search engine optimization.

"Mister Houston," a.k.a., Jesse Jones -- publisher of the Houston Chronicle and Commerce Secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Mister Houston,” a.k.a., Jesse Jones — publisher of the Houston Chronicle and Commerce Secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

9. Winning all those “Jesse” Award nominations — if not the award itself

I’ve been the Susan Lucci of the Houston Chronicle. Year after year, I’ve been nominated for the “Jesse” Award for outstanding Houston journalism but I never took home the statuette. Reporter of the Year. Editor of the Year. Innovation of the Year. Blog of the Year. Multimedia Journalist of the Year. And some more that I can’t remember right now. Congrats to all the winners! As they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

10. An emphasis on teamwork

The Chronicle is one of the ten largest newspapers in America and has drawn, over the years, some of the most talented journalists in America. I hope I contributed to that sense of teamwork — the “we” rather than the “me” — that leads to great journalism. My DC colleague Stewart Powell has been the consummate professional and a willing teammate on Houston stories. Energy expert Jennifer Dlouhy has “taken one for the team” numerous times — I’ll remember those emails at 10:30 on Sunday night as she gets a head start on the week ahead.

Special kudos to super-editor George Haj, who has the best news judgment of any editor I’ve ever worked with, Jacquee Petchel, the best investigative and projects editor in the USA, now teaching the next generation at Arizona State, Ernie Williamson, the best election night editor there ever was, Alan Bernstein, who has a deeper knowledge of Houston politics (and Chron politics) than anybody else in town, Peggy Fikac, the hardest working reporter in Texas, Dwight Silverman, the tech wizard and my favorite web consultant, and Patti Kilday Hart, my partner in journalistic crime in Dallas, Austin and Houston.