Out and About (Sort of): “Honest and Fearless” by Howard Freedlander


More than a week ago, I attended a commencement at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater. The speaker was Andrea Mitchell, longtime NBC broadcaster and dogged reporter. We graduated 51 years ago from Penn, though I didn’t know her. We’ve since become friends.

She’s chief foreign affairs correspondent and hosts “the noontime Andrea Mitchell Reports” at NBC.

Though painfully aware that journalism, a profession I once practiced joyfully here on Eastern Shore, often comes under attack, I strongly believe our democracy depends on a free, unfettered press.

Repeatedly over the years, I’ve seen how the media—print and electronic—have uncovered corruption that would have gone on un- detected and unwisely tolerated. What comes readily to mind is the rampant sexual abuse propagated by Catholic priests and covered up for years by the Diocese of Boston. Of course, this awful story of abuse and power was the subject of the well-acclaimed movie, “Spotlight.”

Another recent movie, “The Post,” chronicled the courageous coverage of the Watergate cover-up by the Nixon administration. Katherine Graham, the publisher, and her editors faced incredible pressure to forgo publishing a story that addressed corruption at the highest level of government. Fortunately, they didn’t buckle under to threats and lawsuits.

And in recent months, the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine disclosed sexual abuse and harassment in the entertainment and media worlds.

Again, silence had been the rule for the victims; they found a credible voice through the media.

It’s too easy, though sometimes true, to attack journalism as a vehicle for sensationalism and increased readership and viewership. It’s too easy for some at the highest levels of the federal government to characterize substantive and critical news coverage as “fake news.” It’s a strategy intended to intimidate journalists, to still their voices.

It’s a form of bullying, democracy and freedom of press be damned.

In her well-presented and extremely serious remarks, Andrea Mitchell quoted the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said, “You are entitled to your opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts.’

Operating in our currently politically divisive and poisonous environment, the media, according to Mitchell, must be “honest and fearless.” It cannot allow itself to be submissive to shallow, constant threats and bombast by a president who brittles easily at criticism.

At the same time, journalists must “demand more of ourselves, not jump to conclusions and avoid hyperbole,” Mitchell said.

“We provide a reality check, a barrier to distortion. We are not the enemy of the people,” Mitchell said.

While defending the profession she has pursued beginning as a freshman staff member at the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station, Mitchell offered three life lessons (as every commencement speaker must do) to the thousands of graduates seated in front of her at historic Franklin Field in West Philadelphia:

Be curious
Be open-minded
Be engaged

She mostly avoided lofty rhetoric so often voiced at occasions such as the Penn commencement, when speakers urge graduates (most of them anxious to get on with their lives and enjoy a post-event lunch with family and friends) to chase their dreams, follow their passions, endure failure in their lives and bounce back.

As a journalist, Andrea Mitchell has taken her natural curiosity to all corners of the world. She’s understood that a good journalist studiously works to block out pre-conceptions and approach a story with a mind able to absorb a flood of facts and present them accurately and objectively. And being engaged requires an ability to listen, learn and take positive action as the students at the Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL did after a terrible tragedy killed 17 students.

I’ve listened over the years at Penn commencements to politicians, entertainers, poets, corporate leaders and non-profit visionaries. Sometimes, I’ve struggled to remain attentive and forswear my iPhone. May 14, 2018 was different.

Andrea Mitchell’s message resonated among alumni as well as newly-minted graduates. A free press guarantees a strong, resilient democracy.
Dreams belong to the young. Life’s lessons belong to all of us.

Engagement never ceases.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Letters to Editor

  1. Jonathon Powers says:

    Dear Editor:

    Howard Freedlander’s piece on Andrea Mitchell’s address at Penn only serves to reaffirm three points for me: Andrea Mitchell is truly a cut above the rest; a free press is the essence of a free democracy and, Howard Freedlander is a treasure for all of us who enjoy The Talbot Spy.

    Jon Powers

  2. The only freedom expressed by the majority of the press in the United States today is constant bashing of the President. His coverage is 91% negative on a monthly basis. They feel free to lie, misquote, misconstrue and generally mislead the public.]

    Andrea Mitchell is right there among them. None of the accomplishments of this President are mentioned or touted. Constant reporting and backing charges of Russian collusion while totally ignoring the massive crimes of Hillary Clinton is a daily activity. Actually, touting the credentials of someone who is knee deep in the deception in incredulous.

  3. Kenneth Miller says:

    Fourth life lesson: Always be honest!

  4. Craig Fuller says:

    A well deserved tribute to one tough, tenacious and fair journalist.

    As a young White House staff member in 1981, I met NBC’s White House correspondent, Andrea Mitchell. Over many years a friendship grew along with respect for someone who worked hard to get the story right. Now, I confess there were times I would have said it differently or may have disagreed with a point of view. But, I always knew one thing: we would have a chance to share our side of any story she focused on.

    Times were so different. We all worked hard for many hours every day, but still found time to socialize and get to know the journalists in the White House. I was among many of my colleagues who respected these smart hard working people and also recognized that most of the public would learn what we were doing in our public roles through these correspondents. Thus, while we had very different roles, we were also locked into a relationship that needed to work.

    We didn’t call people names. We didn’t attack their credibility or honesty. And,in truth, they didn’t attack us.

    It is so different now and I can’t see how anyone is well served by the harshness of the tone and tenor of the exchanges. So, thanks Howard, for stimulating a bit of reflection on a better time and a fine journalist from that time who has never stopped working to tell the story, fairly and factually.

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