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Courage in journalism

Letters to the Portland Phoenix editors, November 30, 2012
By PORTLAND PHOENIX LETTERS  |  November 28, 2012

What does it mean to be a courageous journalist? On November 11, Colby College honored one of the best: Bob Woodward, a speaker who did not disappoint. A few hours before the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award ceremony, another drama played out, with four eminent reporters in starring roles answering questions posed by a colleague from a respected news service: Pro Publica. The event took place in the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, in a building named for its major benefactor, the disgraced former Barclays Bank CEO Bob Diamond (Colby 1973), currently the college's board chairman, would have been quite satisfied with the highly micromanaged discussion of news gathering as facilitated by electronic media. But the proceedings went off-script when the panelists were asked to comment on Colby's denial of access to reporters and others who see irregularities in the college administration's defense of its trustee-in-chief. I was privileged to witness Lance Tapley's challenge to the discussants — the way he went about drilling down to the central questions, showing how it's done, in effect — and the story he wrote (see "Woodard: 'Transparency' Best in 'Colbygate' Scandal," November 16) is a superb factual account of what took place at the two presentations.

Who would have thought that a forum on open access and transparency would, in the end, dissolve into a seminar on stonewalling and spin in real time? Just as opacity is writ large in the pronouncements from the college boardroom, the distinguished panelists refused to extemporize forthrightly on the implications of the Diamond scandal. I expected more of them and am not inclined to be as temperate as Tapley in assessing their refractory behavior. Steve Engelberg's overtly hostile responses to discomfiting questions were contemptible. The tar-baby act of a noncommittal Rebecca Corbett (Colby 1974) was disgraceful. As for Matt Apuzzo (Colby 2000), recent Pulitzer prizewinner for AP stories on national security and intelligence, we can only wonder why he wouldn't engage on the Bankster issue. A Colby graduate myself, I'd like fellow alumni to have set a better example.

As Tapley reports, the contrast with the Lovejoy honoree is striking. Considering his understandable reluctance to offend his host, Woodward's responsiveness to questions is remarkable. Transparency is the watchword for journalism practiced with integrity, he says, and so it should be for an academic institution. Indeed, according to recent statements, Colby purports to be guided by "fundamental values [of] fairness, . . . truth, and . . . deep, critical, and patient consideration of complex issues." To disengage from the malefactor at the center of the international banking fraud would not be so different from the divestment movements that so many colleges and universities have endorsed to declare principled opposition to corrupt business practices. Dismissing Diamond would arguably, by raising the ethical profile of the college, inspire new sources of philanthropic giving.

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