Media are changing, but the need for watchdog journalism isn’t

A group of about 100 gathered Aug. 31 at the “Silent Sam” statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to protest, seeking its removal from the school grounds.
A group of about 100 gathered Aug. 31 at the “Silent Sam” statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to protest, seeking its removal from the school grounds. cseward@newsobserver.com

Below is the keynote speech delivered Sept. 26 by University of North Carolina journalism professor Cathy Packer to mark the university’s annual First Amendment Day.

Good morning, and happy First Amendment Day! Thank you for being here and for supporting our civil liberties.

Since being invited to speak today, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned about the First Amendment during the almost 30 years I’ve been studying and teaching media law and the First Amendment here. I’ve examined hundreds of court cases, read hundreds of law review articles, and attended dozens of legal conferences. I’ve taught thousands of students and advised 11 doctoral dissertations. I have talked about law with my colleagues and students in my classroom and my office, in the hallways of Carroll ... and at happy hour.

So yes, I’ve learned a lot about media law and the First Amendment. But I think the most important and lasting lessons I ever learned about free expression I learned here as an undergraduate, not as a professor.

In the early 1970s, I was a student in the news-editorial sequence in our J-School. I also was a volunteer writer for a newsletter published by a campus environmental group. I wrote about weddings for The News & Observer until I was promoted to obituary writing. And I protested against the Vietnam War here and in Washington, D.C.

The first lesson I learned from my professors was that the free press is a powerful force for good and journalism is a noble calling. Those who produce quality journalism deserve respect. My own experience also taught me that reporting really was the most fun you can have without breaking the law. Oddly enough, even writing those obituaries was fun.

As a student, I also learned that a transparent government is the only government that will do what it is supposed to do, which is to serve its people. Nothing good happens behind closed government doors.

Finally, I learned that public universities are the best places on earth to learn how to be a smart, caring, and engaged citizen. I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and working at public universities, and I am very proud of that.

Of course, I know that many things have changed in journalism and at this university since I was a student. The financial decline of the traditional news media has been heartbreaking for me to watch. But that has not diminished our need for government watchdogs – whichever medium they use to deliver the news. Our citizens still need quality information about government at all levels and about other issues that affect their lives in significant ways. Today our J-School is producing graduates who can address that need for quality information in innovative ways. That must be at least as much fun as obituary writing, don’t you think?

And after all these years, I still love my public university. I love it despite those damn bogus classes. I love it despite the university’s vilification of The News & Observer for exposing that scandal. The N&O’s stories were great journalism, in my opinion. And I love Carolina despite its failure to be as brave as I think it needs to be in protecting free speech on campus.

Carolina still is a wonderful and exciting place where young people see, hear, read and say things they’ve never before encountered or even imagined. This helps them to create their own views and values.

Of course, because we have a more diverse student body and faculty than ever before, we have more diversity of opinion on campus – and more disagreements. In that way, we’re no different than the rest of the country.

But in other ways we are different from the rest of the nation – or at least we should be. We should celebrate our diversity and learn from it. That’s what we’re here for – to learn. And the free exchange of ideas still is the best way to learn.

That process of learning from each other requires tolerance and civility, which we don’t see much of nationally. But we don’t have to act like everyone else. We can be better than the protesters in Charlottesville and at Berkeley, better than President Trump. We live, work and study in great public university. We can model what it means to be free citizens who take full advantage of their opportunities to speak freely about important issues, are unafraid to hear other people’s ideas, and even are willing to suffer real hurt to serve the greater good.

The goal is not merely to speak freely. It’s to use that free exchange of ideas to change Carolina, to make it more inclusive, to find smart and peaceful solutions to our problems, and to learn. Let’s start by peacefully pressuring the state to allow us to move Silent Sam off the quad. And as we’re doing that, let’s listen to each other. Then maybe we can accomplish more than just relocating Silent Sam. We can give the tarnished phrase “The Carolina Way” a new meaning that will inspire people well beyond the boundaries of our campus.

I hope First Amendment Day always will remind us to speak, to listen when others speak, and to appreciate this great gift that is Carolina.

Thank you.

Cathy Packer will retire in December after more than 30 years as a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism.