May 20, 2007

"Who Creates Reality?"–PEJ Senior Counselor Bill Kovach Speaks at Boston University

I am honored that I have been asked to take part in this ceremony….to spend this time with you in quiet contemplation of what lies ahead.I intend to be brief.I know you have much to do before you say goodbye to this place and to this time of your life.

It is a special time…a day of becoming as you prepare to invest yourself, your energy, your dreams, and your knowledge in a new way.Whether you are leaving the world of organized learning or moving up to greater intellectual challenge of advanced study, tomorrow you engage a broader community in a deeper and more complex way armed with what you’ve learned in your time here.

Thinking about what I could draw from my life experience in journalism that might be useful for you as you begin this next phase of your life, I remembered this description of the world you are about to enter.It is the world as seen by a senior advisor to the president. Let me quote for you the way he described to a reporter how people in power see the world:

“You…live in the reality based community. [But] That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. [W]e create our own reality… [W]e’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

I guess it would have been more accurate to say the two worlds you are about to enter.The reality based world or the world that history’s actors are planning for you. When you think about it…it’s easy to see how these two worlds are possible.The world created for us by ‘history’s actors’ constructed with stereotypes, slogans and selected ambiguous facts to lead us to pre-determined conclusions; make us feel better about ourselves.Or the world of verified facts in which we actually live. A world in which we might, if we try, make a difference.Here for example are some of the realities you will face:

The economic success and enormous new wealth for Americans we are reminded of at every press briefing…or the reality document by the little known Federal Reserve Bank studies in which the great majority of Americans work in conditions of insecurity and stress [and] with household income lower than almost any other industrialized nation.

The exploding housing stock of multilayered McMansions rivaling the manor houses of old England…or the reality documented by UNICEF in which most children live in a unhealthy family relationship, in poverty and inadequate health care that is the highest among industrialized nations.

The non-existent weapons of mass destruction…or the reality confronted in Iraq by those Americans now in Veteran’s hospitals around the world.

I could go on with example and counter example of reality as history’s actors would have it compared with the world of factual reality that awaits you but I think you get the picture: My generation in many ways has been unable to reconcile the conflicts between the reality created for us by history’s actors and the reality in which we actually live.

But in many ways you are more fortunate than my generation. One of the most obvious and important ways is the way technology has empowered you and is redefining your potential as citizens.You now have the power to instantly tap into wells of information undreamed of until only recently.

You are a generation equipped better than the rest of us to navigate these data bases of information with which you can question and challenge the various realities history’s actors try to construct as the context for your lives.You are better equipped by experience to control a multi-media world in which competing interests, competing “actors” create realities designed to organize you as communities of consumers, communities of allegiance or communities of belief—communities into which you will invest your money, invest your vote, invest yourself and the welfare of your fellow citizens.

As I said your ability to access and assess information are skills you will need; skills the rest of us need to learn from you as you become more deeply involved in community affairs. To survive in the long run you have to be in the business of converting information into knowledge.You have to organize your life on the basis of what information means by asking: How did this happen? Why did it happen? What are the precedents that will help me understand what it might portend?

Armed with your skills of critical thinking—a predisposition to skepticism—you are able more effectively than we to ask “What out there can I trust?” You have been disciplined to ask if the information you are given is well sourced, is it based on verified data; can it be reconciled with the reality you actually experience?

In many ways the community you are joining is one that your years here at Boston University have been preparing you for in ways not yet clear to you.You are about to assume many unexpected responsibilities as you invest yourself in a career and make the choices to further your personal life goals.But you also are joining all of us in the larger community, one that needs you to invest yourself as a citizen and to help us by example.

Help us learn how avoid to avoid manufactured realities and to face the challenges and the rewards of the real world. Help us learn the new role of Citizen Journalist and Gatekeeper of reliable information that will build a more informed public opinion around issues of public importance. A public opinion on which to build realities based on fact and not one co-opted by those who tell us what to think, and what conclusions to draw.

Help us learn the discipline that is needed not to disappear into the distracting worlds of infotainment that disengages us from reality and engenders public apathy.

Fifty years ago I made the transition you make today. Then as now fear of danger abroad helped history’s actors create an official reality—one in which citizens who challenged even questioned that reality were labeled Un-American.It was a reality that effectively denied the benefits of citizenship to many Americans.History’s actors of that era relegated untold numbers of Americans to wasted lives; families were destroyed. Just as I suspect some of your feel today, I was nervous about the lack of balance and equity I saw out there. Also like you I suspect, I had hoped more than I actually knew that the time I had invested in college would prepare me to make my way in that world.

Then as today there were counter currents stirring in the depths of the community I was about to join. But I was training for a career in marine biology and I had paid relatively little attention to what I considered the political world out there.In one of those tricks life plays on you while you are planning for the future, I found myself standing on a street corner in Nashville, Tennessee with a reporter’s notebook in my hand as I watched a black man younger than myself master his fear to lead fellow protesters through a hail of rocks and shards of glass to insist on their rights as citizens. The young man, John Lewis, became my hero and my inspiration that day.Along with many others I was able to record some of the events of the Civil Rights Movement that he helped create to demonstrate and document the reality of a segregated community divided against itself.As a result the society that history’s actors had maintained at bitter cost for 200 years collapsed under the weight of facts exposed by the Civil Rights movement. New actors had documented a truth on which to build a new…a more just reality.

No doubt some of you will find careers that turn out different from what you imagine today.But you too will learn that your education has been preparing you in ways you have yet to realize.In my case it was a book I was urged to read though it had nothing to do with my major.The book was called “An American Dilemma” written by Gunner Myrdal.It was the most extensive documentation of the reality of racial segregation in America ever written.That book, read out of curiosity more than anything else, gave me a grounding in history and facts with which to understand, analyze and communicate what I witnessed in the streets as the Civil Rights movement unfolded.

In the end, no matter what path you walk you will find that your ultimate contribution and joy will be found in fulfilling your responsibility to others, your responsibility to community.With the guidance of teachers who have invested their lives in helping you grow you have learned how to test your conclusions against those of others whose experience and culture has taught them things you’ve never yourself encountered.You have learned to experiment and verify the information you are given; reject it at times and propose and debate your own alternative.

And now you will be able to invest this knowledge and experience not only in attaining your personal goals but in helping your community realize the ultimate promise of democracy—that the combined knowledge and experience of all the people can shape a more just and more secure society.

In this larger role as citizen your time here has equipped you well. Equipped you to realize that if freedom is to have any meaning beyond self-indulgence it must be based on tolerance and compromise.That community begins with an effort to accept that we each have an obligation to understand the position of the other and hear why they hold their position.That we can each gain from the compromise that allows us to move one step together toward larger common goals.That individual freedom is wasted unless it finds meaning in service to others.That freedom is the antithesis of zero sum thinking.

Prepared as you are to be active, aggressive and vocal participants in the debate and the decisions required of you as citizens…you can show the way that a more engaged and better informed citizen skilled in documentation can create a better reality for all of us.You can become the vanguard of citizen actor that can shape history’s realities out of knowledge and not fear; out of verified fact and not emotional opinion; out of respect for difference not stereotype; out of inclusion and not exclusion.

Prepared as you are to be active, aggressive and focused in the debate and decisions required of you as citizens you can be the vanguard that can help a new generation avoid the seductive lure of the world of escape and self-indulgence in order to accept the invitation the new technology offers you to become history’s actors and create new factual realities based on the values of freedom, personal equality, personal economic justice and equal opportunity.

I salute the achievement you celebrate this weekend and, on behalf of the rest of us, welcome you and the contributions you will make to our new realities.

Thank you for allowing me to share this time with you.