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Commentary: A free society is not a calm and eventless place

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 22, 2012 - Bill Woo passed away more than six years ago. But the words he penned for his journalism students (much like the reflections he wrote when he was editor of the Post-Dispatch) remain vital. Here is part of a Thanksgiving Day letter to Stanford journalism students, an excerpt we first shared a couple of years ago.

Now and then you see surveys showing that many Americans are unsympathetic with the First Amendment. At times, we the press have done our best to make it even less popular. Many of us seem to think that the amendment was written for the press, rather than for the people, and that it confers upon us special privileges or rights that are not given to others.

I think that assumption is part of the problem of the media's arrogance, about which people understandably complain. There is almost no phrase used by journalists that I dislike more than "the public's right to know," for it so often justifies not courage and independence but excess, intrusion and abuse.

As poll after poll shows, our business falls ever more sharply from the public's grace, and the press has struggled to repair the damage. You hear editors talk about "reconnecting with our communities." That's a worthy objective, but it also contains a danger of associating ourselves with orthodoxy and the status quo.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors a few years ago set up something called the Journalism Values Institute. Its purpose was to rededicate journalists to the "core values" of our profession, which presumably are better than ordinary everyday values.

The JVI put out a handbook that recommended that news stories focus not only on the good and the bad but also on the "profoundly ordinary." The trouble is, too much of our journalism celebrates the profoundly ordinary, which is another way of saying orthodoxy.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to listen to a speech by the novelist Salman Rushdie at the last ASNE convention I attended as an editor. That was in 1996, and Rushdie, as you may remember, had been living under threat of death from Iran. His novel "Satanic Verses" was said to be disrespectful to Islam. Rushdie spoke about "respect," and a few lines from his speech are my Thanksgiving gift to you.

Rushdie noted that "Fine as the word sounds, truth is all too often unpalatable, awkward, unorthodox. The armies of received ideas are marshaled against it."

He went on to observe that we live in a censorious age, and one of the most prominent weapons of censorship is a new concept of respect. Once respect meant consideration and serious attention. Now respect means agreement, and any dissent from someone's position -- indeed any inquiry into it -- is regarded as disrespect. Disagree with people and they say you've dissed them. Editors know that there is almost no story that someone will not find "disrespectful."

"I want to suggest to you," said Rushdie (and these are the words that I would like to say at a Thanksgiving table), "that citizens of free societies, democracies, do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens' opinions, even their most cherished beliefs. ... A free society is not a calm and eventless place -- that is the kind of static, dead society dictators try to create. Free societies are dynamic, noisy, turbulent, and full of radical disagreements ...

"It is the disrespect of journalists -- for power, for orthodoxy, for party lines, for ideologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity -- that I would like to celebrate this morning, and that I urge you all, in freedom's name, to preserve."

In some news organizations today, my students, a curious kind of courage prevails. It is the courage to be popular, the courage to recklessly reflect the conventional view, the courage to fearlessly exalt the profoundly ordinary. Salman Rushdie was talking about a different kind of courage, and it is the one I commend to you.

That courage requires disrespect, and it results in the relentless search for truth, no matter what the consequences; for without truth, men and women cannot really be free -- for without truth no democracy can endure.

Excerpted from "Letters from the Editor: Lessons on Journalism and Life by William F. Woo." Edited with an introduction by Philip Meyer and published by the University of Missouri Press.

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