2019: Speaker Fred Ryan

Remarks as given by Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, to the Wake Forest graduating class May 20, 2019.

Thank you, President Hatch. And thank you to the Wake Forest Class of 2019. It is an honor to be able to speak on your special day.

Yesterday, a very high bar was set for anyone delivering a commencement address. As you may know, speaking at Morehouse College, philanthropist Robert F. Smith pledged to pay off all outstanding student debts for the entire graduating class. It is an incredible act of generosity that deserves our admiration. I wish I could do something magnanimous. I was thinking instead to pay off any open tabs at Last Resort, but then I realized those bar tabs might actually be more than your student loan debt.

But I have to say it’s great to be back on this beautiful campus. Three years ago, I was sitting where your parents are, watching my daughter Madeline graduate. It was a proud and memorable day.

As a Wake Forest parent, I’ve had many opportunities to observe what a truly special place this university is. I was a little worried when one of the first things I heard was that one of the biggest events on campus is called Shag on the Mag, but I know from my own family that while your time at Wake Forest has been an incredible experience, it has been so much more. It has been more than academics. It has been a place where you have broadened your minds, growing and maturing along the way. This is where you have challenged and pushed yourselves farther than you thought possible. This has been the source of friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime. This has been your home, and leaving home can be hard – especially when you don’t know what lies ahead.

But Wake Forest can be proud that for about 98 percent of you, what lies ahead is gainful employment or a graduate program. I would urge you to be especially nice to the other 2 percent because someday, you will be working for them.

While uncertainty can be intimidating, this is a thrilling moment because what awaits you is an amazing opportunity. My role today is to share some reflections on how to make the most of that opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy responses because the answers will be as varied and fascinating as each of you. But I’d like to share some thoughts on a topic that affects all of you. It’s an issue I deal with every day. And that is the search for truth in the fake news era.

In many ways, the search for truth has been at the heart of your experience at Wake Forest. You spent your years here amassing an enormous collection of facts by reading books, by compiling lab results, by taking lecture notes and by memorizing equations. You’ve learned the crucial skills for processing, connecting and evaluating these facts. And you have sought to give them meaning in research projects, in essays, seminar discussions and most important in those late-night dorm room discussions over pizza and I’m not going to ask what else. (But I think I have some ideas.)

Part of what makes a Wake Forest education so special is that you have been taught not to settle for obvious answers or to go down the easiest path. You’ve been encouraged to relentlessly seek and discuss and use what you’ve learned to pursue the greater good. You’ve pursued the truth. At Wake Forest, you’ve been able to trust the information you’ve received and the information you’ve been given. It has come from some of the best instructors in the country and from a world-class set of peers. You’ve been able to assume that these exchanges have taken place in good faith as part of a constructive and mutually supportive learning experience.

Unfortunately, not everywhere is like Wake Forest. When you leave here, you will encounter a broad range of perspectives on the truth. I obviously come from the media industry, which in today’s society does much of the gathering and distribution of information. The building blocks of truth, you might say. And those of us in journalism see alarming efforts to obscure the truth on a daily basis.

Some of the challenges are posed by technology. We live in a time when technology has completely revolutionized our lives. It has changed the way we shop, communicate, do business, learn, make friends, get dates, get from one place to the other and even eat, sleep and exercise. Your generation has grown up with these technologies, so you make take many of them for granted. But let me put the speed of this transformation in perspective.

In 1997, the year many of you were born, two Stanford computer science students had a research project they called google.com. Today, Google has billions of users. Its name has become an official verb in the Oxford English Dictionary and in fact, some of you are probably Googling right now, “Who is this Fred Ryan guy?”

In 2006, when most of you were in third grade, a messaging service called Twitter was launched. Now, some half a billion tweets are sent each day and not all of those come from Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ll have more on that in a moment.

When you were in junior high school, a couple of college kids out west were creating an application known as Snapchat. Thanks to you and your friends, that company has gone public and those students are now billionaires.

These are just a few of the examples of how our lives have been transformed by technology so far. Today, the pace of technological innovation is dramatically accelerating. For decades, we in the United States have actively embraced digital innovation because we have mostly seen the upsides of this technology. But those benefits come with tremendous change. For the news business, this has meant operating in a mode of constant transformation, encountering unexpected opportunities and challenges along the way. One of the challenges we see comes from the rise of fake news.

In many ways, this is not a new phenomenon. Intentionally false information published as authoritative fact has been an issue for America since the beginning of our republic. In fact, in 1777, someone created seven fake letters, purportedly from George Washington, and they circulated them to cast doubt on his commitment to independence from England.

But this sort of fake news has never been as widespread or threatening as it is now. In today’s digital world, it is possible to be a purveyor of news without a newsroom, spreading poorly sourced stories or – in some cases – outright lies. The speed at which information now races across the Internet enables fake news to be weaponized, strategically targeted to achieve a desired effect, be it to move financial markets, impugn reputations, inflame regional tensions or influence political campaigns. In fact, an MIT study found that in the real-time, instantaneous environment of Twitter, fictitious stories spread faster and more widely than the truth. These swiftly evolving technologies provide a powerful reminder that fake news and other efforts to spread information through our digital networks will present new and increasingly complex challenges in the years ahead. Combatting this problem will not be easy and that work will fall on each and every one of you.

Over time, we have seen advances in technology follow a pattern: One generation discovers the science and the next generation contends with the consequences. Your generation inherits the task of balancing digital technology’s promise against its peril. How you respond to these challenges will be felt by society for many years to come.

There is another grave threat to the truth, one growing more alarming by the day that your generation must also grapple with. It is the escalating efforts to suppress honest reporting thorough calculated attacks on serious journalism. These are part of a purposeful campaign waged by officials who would prefer to wield power free from scrutiny and out of the public eye. We see this in efforts to delegitimize serious reporting by calling it fake news, by equating it with the fabricated stories delivered through social media that I spoke of earlier. In these cases, the charge fake news is used to deliberately muddy the line between what is real and what is not.  It is an attempt to put us in a post-truth era where we’re expected to accept alternative facts.

As long as there have been presidents and reporters covering them, there have been institutional and at times personal tensions between them. But for the most part, these tensions have been a healthy and important part of democracy. But today’s environment is entirely different in ways that should concern all of us regardless of our politics.

I’m not referring to the president’s twitter tirades. As demeaning as they are to the office and no matter how inappropriate they may be, we’ve generally come to ignore them. The dangerous behavior that in my view crosses a line is when the president of the United States attacks the press or any of his fellow citizens as enemies of the people. After all, enemy is a word to used to describe those who we use force against. For vulnerable and misguided individuals, these are more than just words; they can be incitements to violence. The president and his security team are well aware of the risks that come with such inflammatory attacks. These verbal assaults create a dangerous environment and he should stop them immediately before his words lead to physical harm to innocent Americans.

The Washington Post is keenly aware of this campaign against the truth. We feel the best response is the strength and integrity of our reporting. We resist efforts to undermine our work by approaching every story with intense scrutiny, thoughtful analysis, absolute objectivity and healthy skepticism. And if our reporters can’t get enough sources or if the facts aren’t triple-checked, we won’t publish. Over the years, this rigor has helped to preserve our reputation for integrity.

I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us. Regardless of who we are, where we work or what party we support, we can all commit to safeguarding and honoring the truth. We can also remember the words of former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

We live in a time when the line between opinion and fact is blurring. If you watch MSNBC’s coverage of what President Trump did today, you’ll likely hear a litany of terrible misdeeds. If you watch Fox News, they’ll present several examples of the president’s brilliance. Same day. Two totally different accounts of what happened.

The diversification of traditional news media and explosive growth of social media has contributed to our national dialogue. It has also enabled us to design our own personalized versions of the truth. Increasingly what many seek out is not information but affirmation. But if we only seek out news that confirms our existing opinions, we only have part of the story. And the parts we’re missing may be the most important.

So what can each of you do to take on this challenge?

Think critically about your news sources and understand the line between facts and opinions presented around those facts.

With your friends and family and your co-workers and in your communities, seek out perspectives that are different than your own. In our jobs and social circles, it’s easy to become trapped in an echo chamber where accepted views are repeated and promoted. If you find yourself in an environment where no one challenges your understanding of the world, move around until you find people who will. Seeking a broad range of ideas and perspectives is not just something you do for society; it’s something you can do for yourself. Having your arguments rebutted will make them sharper. Understanding more points of view will allow you to engage with a wider group of people. Having more facts at your fingertips makes you more useful. And let’s face it, a more interesting date.

The ability to seek and share ideas and arguments – even controversial ones – is not something we should take for granted. As Americans, our First Amendment guarantees free speech and a free press. The Founding Fathers made these guarantees not because they had a particular fondness for reporters or because journalists had great lobbyists back in the 18th century. They did it because they saw the free exchange of information as essential to the success of a free nation.

The experience of millions of people around the world bears this out. In the most repressive countries, sharing or just possessing certain information can be dangerous. Even deadly. Last year, 66 journalists were killed for their work. Right now, 172 journalists are in prison around the world just for doing their job.

This issue has touched us personally at the Washington Post.  Many of you have followed the story Jamal Khashoggi, one of our opinion columnists. Jamal was from Saudi Arabia, where he had a long and distinguished career as a journalist. In his writing for the Post, he often focused on his native country – in particular, the abuses of Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince had initially been hailed worldwide as a reformer but quickly revealed himself to be anything but. Under his influence, Saudi Arabia has created a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, imprisoned and brutalized women simply for demanding a right to drive and unleashed a reign of terror on the Saudi people.

Like any good journalist, Jamal was committed to telling the truth, including the truth about these abuses. But his courage came at a cost. Last fall, Jamal was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by trained assassins acting on orders of the crown prince.

Today, we should ask ourselves what Jamal’s killing means for the rest of us and how we can respond.

First, we can commit to paying attention to stories like Jamal’s and never turning a blind eye to abuses of press freedom. Because even threats to journalists happen far away, they end up affecting us here at home. To make important decisions, we need accurate information not only about our own country but from abroad. In this way, an attack on a journalist anywhere is an assault on liberty everywhere.

Above all, Jamal’s story should remind us of the power of the truth. It is so powerful that people will kill to keep it hidden. It is so powerful that people like Jamal will give their lives in order to bring it to light.

During your years at Wake Forest, you have embraced the motto Pro Humanitate. In countless ways, you have lived out this calling. And I know that many of you leave here committed to bettering yourselves so you can better the lives of others.

Exactly how this unfolds will be unique to each of you. You’ll fulfill this mission in different regions of the country, in different parts of the world. In pursuit of this calling, you will follow a wide variety of personal goals and professional paths.

But allow me to offer some advice that will apply to all of you everywhere whether you become a journalist, teacher, lawyer, doctor, artist, consultant or entrepreneur. And that is to embrace your role as a seeker and steward of the truth.

  • Always explore for new facts and new perspectives.
  • Go to trusted news sources for the information that is most important to you.
  • Be skeptical of information that seems too good to be true.
  • When speaking of others, especially if you’re attributing motives, use sensitivity and discretion.
  • Think twice before forwarding something or retweeting it or reposting it, making sure you are not contributing to the rapid spread of misinformation.
  • And most of all, respect the truth and those who work hard to uncover it.

In preparing for today’s remarks, I learned that the first Wake Forest Commencement speech was delivered in 1858 by Solomon Satchwell. And that it lasted two hours. I promise I will not try to break that record today. And knowing that I am the only thing standing between you and your diplomas, I’ll end with one last bit of advice. It may be the most urgent and least controversial thing I’ve said today.

We’re here to celebrate the incredible achievement of the graduates. The successes that brought you to this day amaze and inspire all of us. But I doubt that many of you got here entirely on your own. Each of you was helped by the efforts and devotion of someone else –

a parent, a relative, a partner, a friend who got you through the tough moments and times of doubt along the way. This is their day as much as yours. So in all the celebration and joy and excitement with your classmates, be sure to find a quiet moment to pull them aside and give them a hug and say thank you and recognize their contributions to this achievement.

 

Congratulations to the Class of 2019 and to everyone who has helped prepare you for the world and the opportunity that awaits. Thank you.