Freedom and Integrity of Information


Long, long ago in my freshman year at college, I was lucky enough to have the legendary professor, Dean John Drewry as my Journalism 101 instructor. If my outdated, struggling memory software is still working, I believe that year and that quarter ended his actual classroom appearances. I did not realize how fortunate I was as a first year journalism student to have the experience of being in the same classroom with this iconic professor for fourteen weeks. He was the Dean of the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, the founder of the prestigious Peabody Award, and he was a colorful character right out of Hollywood casting. He appeared every morning in a dark pin striped, vested suit complete with watch chain, wire spectacles and the authoritative air of a supreme court justice. When he settled in at the lectern, the class immediately fell into an anticipatory hush, and when he said,” Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” the 125 freshmen sitting in that ancient, tiered classroom were completely under his spell. All these years later, most of what I learned in that "eye-opening" fall quarter has long since left me, but I will always remember how the Dean's eyes and his smile delighted in the study and discussion of the subject he loved so much. By the end of that quarter, he made sure that every student in that Journalism 101 class understood the standard involved in writing and the honesty of communication that must exist if a free press was to actually mean something in a free society.

Fifty-five years later, I cringe to think what Dean Drewry might say about the state of writing and reporting that now passes for “acceptable”. The professional “standard” that guided journalists like Cronkite, Huntley and Murrow no longer exists. How could it, in a world when every self-anointed blogger or podcast host or anyone with the newest Apple phone considers themselves entitled to hop on the Internet and spread whatever "glorified fertilizer" they desire around the world with no accounting, no corroboration, no verification and not much concern for the truth. The standards of responsible journalism have almost slipped entirely into their own black hole. No one is blameless and even government and the corporate world admit they don’t have an answer for controlling the problem or dealing with the erosion of confidence and credibility. In 1965, the Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission was widely quoted when he described television as “a vast wasteland”. As shocking as that statement was over 50 years ago, it barely even moves the needle when compared to the present-day miasma of dangerous, unregulated electronic communication and the depths of the dilemma where we now find ourselves. I am sure most people in this country still support the idea of a free and unfettered press and the responsible dissemination of information, but as prescient as the founding fathers were, even they could not have envisioned the assault on free and truthful information that has been ushered in by the age of the "world wide web". Anyone who has occupied a seat in any journalism law class knows that the airways belong to the public, and the federal agency that protects the airways on behalf of the public is the FCC., and it's high time for the FCC to do its job and set reasonable safeguards on all electronic communication. Yes folks, that means Twitter, Tik Tok, Facebook, Snapchat and all broadcast media. I certainly would not disturb the sleeping lions of free press, nor would I presume to speak for the inspirational and venerable Dean Drewry who passed away in 1983, but I believe that if he were here today, he would be concerned enough to consider the possibility that the institution he loved so much and for so long, might now need a little protection from itself.