The Truth Under Assault
Addressing Fletcher graduates at the school’s Class Day ceremony May 20, NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel told how he had argued with the state censor in Egypt, surrendered his satellite phone to Ministry of Information officials in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and wore an armband identifying him as a member of the foreign press in North Korea.
But that’s nothing compared to the “static censorship” that American journalists and citizens and the future global leaders now graduating from Fletcher are up against today, said Engel, who has covered wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world for nearly 20 years and received seven news and documentary Emmy Awards.
“‘Static censorship’ distorts the truth by bombarding people with fake news, so they don’t know what to believe,” Engel said. “In the end, people get frustrated and ultimately decide all news is tainted, so they tune out.”
This kind of censorship has serious consequences, said Engel, who also received the Fletcher Dean’s Medal. “It’s not just journalists under attack,” he said. “It’s truth itself under assault when officials use their public offices to defend alternative facts, when leaders with executive powers pretend the truth is only what they say it is.”
As the world’s future champions of human rights and democracy, Fletcher grads have a responsibility to train their eyes and ears to spot the patterns amid the static, Engel said. One of the most reliable patterns, which he said he has seen repeatedly as a foreign correspondent, is the behavior of a dictator, he said.
Dictators attack the media and other institutions of government, lie about history and try to rewrite their country’s constitution, Engel said. They vilify those who oppose them and scapegoat immigrants and minorities. They claim they represent the silent majority against the privileged elite and that they alone can solve the country’s problems.
Engel listed a total of 20 distinctive behaviors of a dictator, prompting laughter from the audience at several points, the loudest of all when he said that dictators are narcissistic and almost always place family members in positions of power.
“What is the good news? You have to be the good news,” Engel said. “We can’t be complacent, and you especially can’t be complacent, because we can’t afford it. We have to work hard to defend human rights around the world and the freedom of the press in general.”
However dark these days look, there is a ray of light, Engel said. “The truth is under attack, but I do believe journalism will emerge stronger for this,” he said. “Because the more attempts to hide, confuse and bury the truth in static, the more valuable truth becomes.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.