KINGSTON, R.I. – June 22, 2020 – In times of strife, the First Amendment offers a way to correct wrongs – allowing the press to question the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the public to protest and speak out against police brutality.
But that watchdog role of the news media is under siege, said Nicholas Kristof, who, with his wife and fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, Sheryl WuDunn, kicked off the Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights presented Tuesday evening by the University of Rhode Island.
“To some degree, [the press is] being challenged in a way all institutions are being challenged today, particularly those that traditionally have played a referee role in American politics and society,” Kristof said. “It’s true of the courts, the intelligence community, and civil servants, and Americans have become more polarized as President Trump has tried to delegitimize the referees of that debate.”
At the same time, said WuDunn, we enjoy a large amount of freedom, such as freedom of speech and the ability of people to share videos such as those of police abuse that sparked recent protests.
“We have technology that allows us to film things and to actually bring what we think is reality to the rest of the world,” she said. “[The video showing police brutality in the Minnesota], that’s really the result of greater transparency and freedom in our country.”
Kristof and WuDunn were the opening speakers of the three-part, virtual lecture series honoring esteemed Rhode Island investigative reporter Jim Taricani, who died last year at age 69. Taricani was a reporter for nearly four decades for WJAR-TV, known for shedding light on organized crime and government corruption. In 2004, a federal judge ordered him to serve home confinement when he refused to reveal a confidential source.
This summer’s lecture series is a preview to the annual, in-person Taricani Lecture that will begin next spring. The lectures are endowed by Laurie White-Taricani ’81 and the Taricani family.
“As a journalist, Jim was guided by a strong sense of ethics and by the power given to us by the First Amendment,” said Jeannette Riley, dean of the URI College of Arts and Sciences. “All of us in Rhode Island were shattered by the news of Jim’s passing last year, but his legacy lives on through his journalism, his impact on generations of reporters and writers and his commitment to high standards for the profession. We’re fortunate at URI to be friends with Jim’s wife, Laurie White-Taricani. Laurie and the Taricani family decided that a fitting tribute to Jim would be the highlight one of the tenants of journalism that was so important to him, First Amendment rights.”
“We’re honored to be here commemorating Jim Taricani, who’s reporting, especially on organized crime, we admired, and who’s willingness to undergo six months of home confinement to protect his sources was an inspiration to journalists around the world,” added Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times.
When asked by URI journalism student Adam Zangari ’23 about the importance of journalists protecting their sources, Kristof said it was a fundamental test of a reporter’s integrity.
“To those journalism students here,” Kristof said. “I’d say the most important thing you have in your journalism career – it’s not your writing skills, it’s not your source list, it’s not your TV presence – it’s your integrity.”
Kristof and WuDunn have spent more than three decades as reporters and authors. As New York Times reporters, they were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of the democracy movement in China. Kristof earned a second Pulitzer for his commentary on the genocide in Darfur.
WuDunn said that while reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests in China their biggest concern was protecting their sources, including wearing disguises and eluding authorities when meeting with a source.
“In China, we knew that we, as journalists, wouldn’t suffer the consequences. It was going to be our sources,” said WuDunn. “That’s how China punished foreign journalists, by attacking their sources.”
To a question from URI journalism major Leah Crowley ’22 about whether journalists should strive for truth or fairness, Kristof said that has become a hot debate today. Journalists try to maximize truth and fairness, reporting both sides and letting the public decide, he said. At times, this process has been tested. During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, journalists had to determine how to report on Donald Trump, he said. “We never saw a politician like him before who just would boldly say things that were untrue and then repeat them when he was called out,” he said.
“When there is a tension between our obligation to be fair or our obligation to tell the truth,” he added. “I think that obligation to the truth is a higher responsibility.”
Kristof and WuDunn have written a half-dozen books of nonfiction. Their latest is “Tightrope: American Reaching for Hope,” about poverty in rural America. The book was inspired by the couple’s return trips to Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, where they saw job losses leading to drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.
“We had been foreign correspondents overseas and we had covered a lot of poverty in the developing world,” said WuDunn. “We would come back to the U.S. once a year on our holidays and we started learning more about the people who were living in Yamhill … and we started realizing there was a humanitarian crisis in our own backyard. We were totally ignoring it because we couldn’t believe there was a humanitarian crisis going on in the wealthiest nation in the world.”
A lot of the inequities in income, health care and education they saw while writing the book have been magnified by the pandemic.
“One of the lessons to us was that when people lose jobs it’s not only a loss of income. But maybe even more important, it’s a loss of identity, of self-esteem,” Kristof said. “I think it’s worth bearing in mind when up to 40 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the COVID-related crisis.”
The U.S. response has been to make unemployment benefits widely available, while in Europe a greater effort has been made to preserve jobs, he said.
“I think that was a historic mistake and will make it harder to recover from that crisis down the road,” he said.
The Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights is hosted by URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, the Journalism Department and the College of Arts and Sciences. The three-part series continues with events in July and August.