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.


Global Business Journalism students are improving the quality of journalism in China and around the world

A talented group of global journalists, including the first graduates from Nepal, Jamaica and Ukraine.

A talented group of global journalists, including the first graduates from Nepal, Jamaica and Ukraine.

I am so excited about the opportunities I have had in China to work with journalism students — both international and Chinese — and professional journalists to improve the caliber of reporting and writing in China, and to prepare us all for the Brave New World of journalism in the Digital Age. Here is a transcript of my speech at the July 10 commencement of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication Global Business Journalism Program.

Speaking to the 2015 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University.

Speaking to the 2015 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University.

I am honored, on behalf of the faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate you on your successful completion of graduate studies at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication graduation.

It indeed has been an adventure – a voyage of discovery – for all of us. You represent the best of China and the best of the world.

Over the past eight years, students from more than 50 countries have studied together, worked together, gotten to know each other here in the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. Ours is a vibrant tapestry of cultures and ideas. You have been exposed to new perspectives, whether they are from the minds of brilliant Chinese professors or veteran international journalists who have plied their trade at the highest levels in the United States and around the world. All of us have gained a better understanding of the rapidly changing world we are inheriting, the rise of China and the rapid transformation of its economy, the complicated dynamics of our interdependent global business world, the rapid transformation of our own world of journalism and the imperative to learn new multimedia and data skills to compete in the emerging journalism marketplace. You have been tested with rigor. You have passed the test. I am so proud of you.

Eight years ago, the Global Business Journalism Master’s Degree Program was just a dream, an idea conceived by some exceptionally creative souls at Tsinghua University in Beijing and at the International Center for Journalists in Washington. In just a few years, it has gained tremendous respect throughout China and around the world, attracting renowned international scholars and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists to work with our students and share their wisdom and their skills.

From the beginning, the GBJ program has been nurtured by the invaluable and incalculable support of Bloomberg News, with its unprecedented gift of ten of its priceless terminals, a series of guest lecturers and events, and a wonderful faculty member named Lee Miller.

One of Tsinghua's finest, Zhang Sihan, is heading to Columbia University to pursue a dual master's program in journalism and public policy.

One of Tsinghua’s finest, Zhang Sihan, is heading to Columbia University to pursue a dual master’s program in journalism and public policy.

And special thanks to my partner in the program, Dr. Hang Min, for her support, her wisdom and her guidance in making the GBJ program an invaluable resource for global journalism. Under her leadership, we have offered some of the most advanced classes in communication theory, as well as practical, advanced skills that will help our graduates succeed in their chosen field of endeavor, whether that be global business journalism, business, journalism, or something else somewhere on this globe.

By setting exacting standards and requiring rigorous coursework, the GBJ Program has helped to improve business journalism in China by training a new generation of highly qualified journalists specializing in economics and business. Our Chinese graduates now work at some of the most important media outlets in China, such as China Daily, Xinhua News Service, CCTV, and Radio Beijing, as well as at important international media outlets such as Bloomberg News.

That is a testament to the quality of our alumni. It also is a testament to the iron will of friends in the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication who have exhibited an unwavering commitment to our success and our continuing growth. Dr. Shi Anbin has been a champion of our cause and a special mentor to me as a newly minted college professor. Thanks, Dean Shi, for everything you have done to make GBJ what it is today, and thanks to Dr. Jin Jianbin and other school officials for their support.

Of course, as all of us know in business journalism, you can’t have an entrepreneurial venture without some venture capital. I would like to thank our founding sponsor, Bank of America, for its steadfast commitment to the program since 2007.

I would like to close by quoting from my favorite philosopher, who happens to be my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. Despite a turbulent professional career that included an unwelcome appearance before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and a spot on the American blacklist during the Red Scare Era of the 1950s, my grandfather, a distinguished philosophy professor and internationally acclaimed author, never lost his sense of patriotism or optimism.

“Even now,” he once wrote, “we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving what it can be.”

None of us know what the future will hold. But with the knowledge we have gained at Tsinghua, the support of our families – and, yes, the Global Business Journalism family – we can conceive that better future.

Congratulations to the Tsinghua Global Business Journalism graduating class. Good luck to all of you. Thank you.


The Interview: Rude, crude, sexist, racist … with a modicum of political propaganda value

Discussing "The Interview" on CCTV.

Discussing “The Interview” on CCTV.

Like many a TV pundit in our 24/7 news world, I was asked to comment on the movie “The Interview” before I saw it. My words of purported wisdom aired on CCTV’s “Dialogue” program on Jan. 2.

Now, through the wonders of Netflix, I’ve finally seen the movie that launched a thousand schemes. Here’s what I thought:

It was rude, crude, puerile, tasteless, sexist, racist, unsophisticated … and better than I thought it was going to be.

You can guess that this isn’t my kind of movie. I don’t like potty jokes. The movie’s fixation on the bodily functions of the North Korean dictator, not to mention the human orifices of its protagonist, are suitable for seventh grade boys, not (chronologically) adult moviegoers. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the execrable movie “The Love Guru“: “This film could have been written on toilet walls by callow adolescents. Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty.”

But “The Interview” offers much more to loathe. Its treatment of every one of its female characters as sex objects is odious. Its replaying of decade-old Hollywood Asian stereotypes is retrograde racism. Oh, the movie also was way too long and self-indulgent.

Those are some of the less objectionable elements of “The Interview.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a fundamental problem with a movie about the assassination of a living leader. It just crosses a line in my mind. Imagine what Americans would say if a Pakistani … or French … or Chinese … or Canadian “comedy” centered on a plot to kill the U.S. president. I don’t care how odious a leader is. You just don’t make a movie about assassinating living characters. (Remember how “The Manchurian Candidate” disappeared for two decades after the Kennedy assassination. And it was fiction.)

One more thing: “The Interview” is completely unbelievable. I am a big believer in “suspension of disbelief” for Hollywood fantasies. I’ll play along with the far-fetched concept that a CIA “babe” convinced two sex-crazed journalists to join an assassination plot. But they lost me when they got to the North Korean palace and kept talking openly about their assassination plans. OK, buddy, if the movie is about this paranoid North Korean dictator, don’t you think that he might just have been bugging your room and listening to your every word? Don’t you think you might be a wee bit careful discussing your murderous plans in loud voices? That may have gone over the heads of the potty-humor gang, but the other 99.9 percent of us are going to have a problem with it.

“The Interview” may be without redeeming social value, but it does have a bit of political propaganda value. The movie was at its best when it skewered the Kim dynasty for its gulags, its decision to focus on nukes, not nutrition, its overblown rhetoric, its paranoia and personal quirks. The transformation of the Kim Jong Un character from personable Dennis Rodman road show buddy to Stalinesque maniac was, from the perspective of political propaganda, quite effective.

I can understand why (alleged) North Korean hackers didn’t want the world to see this depiction of their dear leader. But I still can’t buy a movie that makes the dear leader into the dearly departed leader.

If you want to see the segment of CCTV’s “Dialogue” program in which I discuss “The Interview” with Tsinghua University colleague Shi Anbin, here’s the URL: http://english.cntv.cn/2015/01/03/VIDE1420295520064235.shtml

CCTV Dialogue program on “The Interview”