Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with a great group of students and faculty from my alma mater, the Moody College of Communication at UT Austin. I shared with them some of the lessons I learned when I was an undergrad, how I have tried to carry those lessons with me throughout my career, and how I hoped they would carry them forward as well.
Among the group were some bright aspiring young journalists who – I am sure – were troubled by the President’s recent Tweet describing the news media as “the enemy of the American people.” I told them that not only did I disagree with that sentiment; I viewed it as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.
In my sixty years, most of the serious threats to our nation have come from the outside: the Cold War, the Vietnam War, terrorism and the wars that followed. While at times, these external pressures encouraged some within our government to adopt a barricade mentality – hiding information from the public, acting secretly outside the bounds of the law, and encouraging behavior that had an extralegal feel to it – never has the government openly challenged the idea of a free press.
Each of us in government swears an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." The first amendment to that constitution assures freedom of speech and of the press.
The news media have not always been kind to me. However, I can tell you – as someone who has been to 90 countries and spoken to the press in almost all of them – the United States has the finest press corps in the world, bar none.
There is nothing more important to a democracy than an active and engaged press. Is it perfect? Far from it. Does the media make mistakes? Far too often.
But flaws and all, I believe the free press is our country’s most important institution.
One I am more than happy to defend.
One I did, in fact, defend for 37 years.
If we are to challenge the sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the people – and challenge it we must – then journalists must do their part.
We need journalists with the courage to speak truth to power.
But it has to be the truth, not just their truth.
Truth means getting the facts right, every time.
It means having multiple solid sources to confirm those facts.
It means eliminating bias and hubris from reporting.
Good journalists hold themselves accountable. When they make a mistake – as we all do – they own up to it, then work twice as hard to avoid making more.
But what makes journalism so essential to our democracy is that – when done right – it holds all of us accountable, to our country, to its ideals, and to each other. As an Admiral, and now as a Chancellor, I haven’t always enjoyed being asked tough questions. But being held accountable by the press has only made me and the organizations I lead better.
Just as it has made America better.
My message to our aspiring journalists, and journalists everywhere: We need you more than ever.