Words Awake 2! Keynote Address

"The Ethical Requirements of the Public Writer"

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Words Awake 2!
Wake Forest Writers Hall of Fame Banquet

Keynote Address
April 9, 2016

“The Ethical Requirements of the Public Writer”
Steve Duin (’76, MA ’79),
Novelist, memoirist, reporter for the Portland Oregonian


It’s wonderful to be here tonight. And my wife, Nancy, and I are especially thrilled that when we arranged our April concert schedule, we bought tickets for the Springsteen show in Brooklyn, not Greensboro.

Portland has its weird moments. I’ll cop to that. We have a naked bike ride. Our major tourist attraction is a doughnut shop. Since we legalized cannabis, you can’t go 20 feet without someone offering you marijuana … which is pretty much how I remember the Lambda Chi house.

But we have figured out the bathroom thing.

That Finley Peter Dunne line, immortalized by Gene Kelley in “Inherit the Wind,” describing the duty of a journalist and providing marching orders for the rest of us?

“Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.”

When it comes to the bathroom issue, there’s not much doubt as to who really has the cross to bear.

In these adversarial times, I want to talk about adversarial journalism, which is, in large part, what we celebrate here tonight.

So much of what we do, I’ve long believed, is motivated by a fierce desire for community.

And those of us who have a history with Wake Forest can relate to Kathleen Dean Moore’s argument that few communities match that of a college campus.

There’s always a friend down the hall. You share meals, rides, bathrooms, passwords, secrets. Almost everything you need is within walking distance. You watch over one another. Even when you are doing different work, you work side by side. You help one another figure out to calculate a curve, mock the Tar Heels, or survive a broken heart.

It’s the ultimate in village life, Moore writes: “A wonderful way to live,” and one that is incredibly kind to this “beautiful, beleaguered planet.”

And if we’re lucky, we graduate to a similarly engaging place.

On this campus, in this community, Tim Croak inspired me to spend a semester in Venice, a long time ago, and Ed Wilson invited me to spend a semester in London.

Doyle Fosso taught me Shakespeare and Michael Roman left his office unlocked at night so I didn’t have to write final drafts straight out of my typewriter at the KA House.

Tom Phillips was Tom Phillips for me before he was Tom Phillips for all of you. Judy Haughee-Bartlett provided a deep reservoir of perspective and friendship.

And Bynum Shaw, with harrowing subtlety, armed me with the perspective I needed to find a second home in the newsroom, and adversarial journalism.

While I still write a weekly Sunday column for The Oregonian, I left the newsroom after 36 years in December.

And I miss nothing more than the cry that would occasionally echo the length of the building, a roar of outrage and dismay that is best described, on this night at least, by an acronym:

W T F

A developer would outfox City Hall. A legion of bozos would take control of a wildlife reserve in Malheur County. A state Board of Education candidate in Texas would claim Barack Obama was a gay prostitute in his 20s.

And the reporter — hanging up the phone, rushing into the building or reading the news bulletin — would call out, “WTF.”

Accent on the third syllable.

WTF. This university is so darn inventive. I can’t tell you how often I’ve wished Wake could do something with that acronym.

In the newsroom I loved, that was the sentiment that bound us together in one contentious community.

Can you friggin’ believe this?

There is much to be said for comforting the afflicted. But reporters are often unnerved or suspicious of cancer comebacks, Good Samaritans, happy endings.

What binds us together instead, is our anger and disbelief at the shamelessness in the wings and the scam artists who profit by it.

That’s why we believe in and dedicate ourselves to journalism.

A frightening number of men thought could abuse their wives and girlfriends without fear of censure … and Maria Henson said, “Not on my watch.”

Someone at city hall in San Diego thought they could betray the public trust … and Neil Morgan called their bluff.

Someone considered segregation an option in the South … and Bill McIlwain suggested they reconsider.

Their response: Adversarial journalism.

We need to reclaim the phrase.  t’s gotten a bad name of late, as if it’s the errant stepchild of muckraking and entertainment.

At a time when politics are so polarized, and so much of the outrage is theater, let me put the phrase in context.

It speaks to our obligation to recognize the difference between the powerful and the powerless, those who are oblivious to shame and those who are devastated by it, those who deserve to be challenged and those who are desperate to be consoled.

I wonder if it isn’t best understood in the cynical light of the advertorial journalism so prominent today.

In his first column after replacing the irreplaceable David Carr at The New York Times, Jim Rutenberg described the mutual dependence of Donald Trump and the modern media.

Celebrities — or Republican presidential candidates, running as celebrities — need attention.  Desperate cable networks and digital-first newspapers need traffic.

As Rutenberg writes, there’s “a disturbing symbiosis between Mr. Trump and the news media.

“Things are changing so fast that no news organization knows whether the assumptions it’s making to secure its future will prove correct.  In that environment, Mr. Trump brings a welcome, if temporary, salve. He delivers ratings and clicks, and therefore revenue, which makes him the seller in a seller’s market.”

Trump is familiar with power, Rutenberg notes. “And he is using his ratings power to push the news media to break from its mission of holding the powerful, or really just him, accountable.”

Instead, we become complicit in the stagecraft. We banner their sound bites. We allow ludicrous assertions to go unchallenged in the name of balance. Like Turner Sports at the Final Four, we provide “true homer coverage” for each band of partisans.

That’s not the way Bynum Shaw approached journalism or the way Penelope Nevin approached Carl Sandburg.

That is not why Neil Morgan argued that the highest calling of reporters is to “create a sense of community tolerance and understanding” in cities that have grown too fast to recognize themselves.

That is not how Helen Tucker Beckwith covered the small towns of Idaho or Maria Henson approached the editorial page in Lexington, Kentucky.

They practiced combative, principled, and impassioned adversarial journalism.

That’s not all they did, of course. Helen wrote romance novels. Bill McIlwain penned a chapter of “Naked Came the Stranger,” Newsday’s 1969 send-up of, well, romance novels. Neil and his wife, Judith, co-wrote a biography of Dr. Seuss.

But at a dozen newspapers that no longer exist or are not long for this world — including the Bergen Record, Lexington Herald-Leader, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Times-News in Twin Falls — four of the five writers we honor tonight asked the tough questions, and put a premium on accuracy, not access.

And all five believed, as Penny Niven said of Thornton Wilder, that “the artist, through his creation, has been at al times a force that” fosters a sense of community.

They went to work every day with the understanding that their job was not to toast celebrities, but to assess their sincerity, maturity and decency.

Their obligation was to confront the noble adversary in the debate, that being best argument on the other side of an issue, not the worst.

Their charge was not to mistake for malice that which is better explained by incompetence.

Their deadline was not framed by the rush to judgment so they could win the reckless sprint to a Twitter feed.

On the death of Willie Morris, Richard Ford said Willie knew how to carry himself, which “required him not only to look for the good in others but to search for it diligently in himself.”

Our honorees knew how to press that search, and, when necessary, report the painful evidence to the contrary.

Their columns, their editorials, their biographies were meant as a sanctuary — of thoughtfulness and trust — even as the arc of the media universe turned toward injustice.

Toward disinformation. Toward rancorous and endless noise.

Le bruit ne fait pas de bien, et le bien ne fait pas de bruit.

“Noise doesn’t do any good,” Saint Francois de Sales notes, “and good doesn’t make any noise.”

I was lucky when my career began. I studied under Bynum Shaw. I was schooled by Jim Barefield in the comic view. And when I was hired in 1976 by the Winston-Salem Journal, I started in sports, where the stakes were delightfully low … and my initiation into adversary relatively painless.

I covered Wake Forest now and then, and I had sources — OK, frat brothers and former roommates — in the shadow of Wait Chapel.

And I quickly discovered how unnerving my curiosity was to the athletic department.

Football Coach John Mackovic once pulled me into his office and told me my allegiance to Wake Forest trumped any obligation I might have to readers in Winston-Salem.

Carl Tacy, the basketball coach, once kicked me out of the Wake Forest locker room — the visitors’ locker room at Duke, I might add — and his assistant, Dave Odom, told me he hoped I had an accident on the moonlit drive back to Winston.

“When you wish upon a star …”

I spent 12 years in sports. I was there when Villanova beat Georgetown, when Mary Decker tripped over Zola Budd, when the ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs.

And I was in the press tent at the Masters in the late ‘70s when Jack Nicklaus came off Augusta National after a third round in which, under perfect conditions, he didn’t move an inch up the leaderboard.

Nicklaus was the Golden Bear, the dominant player of the era. He had no end of confidence.  And when he was asked that sunny Saturday afternoon what must do to win the tournament Sunday, Nicklaus said he’d need to go out and shoot a 65.

Two hundred reporters dutifully transcribed that quote. I was young and foolish and unaware of how the game was played, so I raised my hand.

“Jack,” I said, “if you couldn’t do that today, what makes you think you can do it tomorrow?”

Dead silence. Every head in the room swiveled toward me in disbelief. “I guess you’re right,” Nicklaus said. “I might as well pack my clubs and go home”

You may think I was looking for my moment on ESPN. There was no ESPN. I thought the question was obvious … and Nicklaus eventually took mercy on me. “You start every round fresh,” he said, or something to that effect. “You begin every round believing you can conquer the world.”

I know, I know: the press tent at Augusta. Bill McIlwain was a Marine in World War II. Helen Tucker left the state where she grew up in 1948 and enlisted as a reporter in godforsaken Idaho at the age of 22. Maria Henson was a tender 23 when she first stared down Bill Clinton.

And I’m back in the press tent at Augusta.

Augusta had its revenge, by the way. In 1986, I was walking alongside the 8th fairway when a guy named Sam Randolph hooked a drive that struck me square in the back of the head. The contact was solid enough that it sent Randolph’s ball ricocheting 50 yards back down the fairway.

I was fine. A quick trip to University Hospital and that was that. Randolph? He was so shaken by the event that he birdied the par-5.

And the next day, Jack Nicklaus won his 5th green jacket, his son carrying his bag.

It was a golden age … and a golden age for newspapers. More often than not, we had the Jack’s confidence that we could challenge orthodoxy, energize a community with the power of our argument, and change the world.

And we all hurt these days for similar conviction. In the middle of ESPN’s memorable “30 for 30” on the Duke lacrosse case, the father of one of players argues, “There are no Edward R. Murrows left in the media. They don’t exist. The Walter Cronkites are gone.”

Maybe not. They’re certainly not forgotten.

I continue to believe that if some elements of the “old” journalism have outlived their usefulness, storytelling isn’t one of them.

I continue to believe that the best journalism answers the question posed by theologian Francis Schaeffer — “How Shall We Then Live?” — and in its activism, confronts the enduring adversaries in our midst:

Greed. Boredom. Pride. Despair.

But I don’t know how all of this will turn out.

I only know who brought us here tonight:

Neil Morgan. Penny Niven. Maria Henson. Bill McIlwain. And Helen Tucker Beckwith.

In the opening chapter of “Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson’s dying preacher reflects on the sermons he wrote over the last 45 years.

Fifty a year, he estimates, more than 2200 all told, averaging 30 pages each. If 300 pages count as a book, he adds, “Then I’ve written 225 books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.

“That’s amazing,” he says. “I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true.

“And I’ll tell you frankly that was wonderful.”

Isn’t that what we are called to, the generation past and the generation now taking the baton?

Sifting our thoughts. Choosing our words. Trying to say what is true.

And, I’ll tell you frankly, what is wonderful.

It’s wonderful to share a room with you tonight, at the university we all love, and which now enshrines five of its enduring, indomitable, unforgettable writers.

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