Saturday, December 9, 2006

Graduation Remarks--WVU School of Journalism, May 2006

Dec 9, 2006

Graduation Remarks: Perley I. Reed School of Journalism at WVU

(Salutation, Acknowledgement: faculty, grads, guests.)

I was in this auditorium once before to hear Dr. Bruce Chabner, Chief of Oncology at Harvard Medical School, give a lecture on the status of cancer treatments.  That was in June 2004.

Dr. Chabner told us that day that only one cancer drug, Gleevec, was a “magic bullet” when it came to curing cancer.  Gleevec is very effective in treating a type of leukemia.  While Gleevec is a true miracle drug, scientists have yet to match its success in treating any other type of cancer. 

I remember standing in line nearly 50 years ago to take the first oral polio vaccine.  The Sabin polio vaccine was the miracle drug of its day.  Polio was still a scourge in the 1950’s.  But then came the cure—a drop of red liquid on a sugar cube.

You cannot imagine how I felt as a young boy knowing that miracle cures were served on sugar cubes.  Never again, I thought, would I hear my mother say, “It’s time to take your medicine.”, and then have to swallow a bitter tonic.

The same day that I took the polio cure, one of the grown-ups said, “It won’t be long until there’s a cure for cancer.”  How wrong he was.

I suppose it was that day when I started thinking about cancer and about waiting for its cure. 

Six years ago, I proposed that West Vrginia University should publish a report called “100 Lives.”  The book would consist of interviews with 100 cancer patients being treated here at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.  I believed that these interviews should be conducted by journalists so that they would be objective write-ups.  I also believed strongly that journalism students would be the best candidates for the jobs.  Here’s what I proposed:

The Student-Reporter

At the outset, one might conclude that only an experienced reporter need apply for this assignment.  In this case, however, the novice might actually have an edge because of bias.  Demographics being what they are, a college student is far less likely to have experienced the effects of cancer than would have a seasoned reporter.  When I say, “experienced”, I also mean to include knowing family members or friends who have been through the ordeal.  To know where the patient is headed, or worse, to think you know where the patient is headed based on one case, is a form of bias that will detract from the objectivity of One Hundred Lives. …

Not long after I submitted the proposal to President David Hardesty’s office, I received a call from the Cancer Center saying that the project was being considered.  Then came the first meeting with the Journalism faculty.  Dean Christine Martin chaired the informal get-together and George Esper, the veteran reporter and professor, sat in as chief inquisitor. 

At the time, I never gave it much thought that the Journalism school might be skeptical of the plan.  I came to realize, however, that Dean Martin probably thought I intended for her students to create some sort of PR-piece for the Cancer Center.  That’s when George Esper asked me directly if “100 Lives” was to be a puff-piece or a true, journalistic endeavor.

I answered his question correctly.

I had hoped for an accurate reporting of the havoc that cancer plays in a person’s life and, beyond that, the effect it has on family members.  The journalism students who worked on the project, which became known as “Cancer Stories”, certainly delivered a product that exceeded all expectations.

Going back to Dr. Chabner’s visit, then-professor Maryanne Reed was able to meet with him briefly and give him a galley proof of “Cancer Stories” and the accompanying video.  He was most gracious in his review of the project and wrote to her:
     "I, along with my wife, had the great privilege of watching “Cancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Hope” and found it to be an extraordinary window into the personal experience of cancer patients.  I have never seen anything as personal and revealing about this experience.  The subjects are not patients; they come to us as family members, parents, friends and their lives are like ours.  Their stories are so gripping and so wrenching.
     "You and your students have made a remarkable contribution."

I believe that “Cancer Stories” is genuine and holds its integrity for one reason—its lack of bias.

Because this project was such a novel concept, nobody went into it with his or her mind made up.  No one—not the doctors, not the patients, not the students—knew what to expect. 

In most every medical report, comments from the experts permeate the text.  In most every medical documentary, there is endless footage of static medical equipment or test tubes. 

In “Cancer Stories”, the words and the images of the patients carry the report.  And the reporters were never intrusive.  If anything, the reporters allowed the reader and the viewer to accompany the patients and their families as if they were there themselves.

In the closing chapter of “Cancer Stories”, I wrote:
     "That our young reporters blended into the fabric of this tapestry so completely as to be unnoticed and yet captured the realism of each day in the life of a cancer patient is a testament to this university, its faculty and staff, and its students….
     "To this end, the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism students were faithful and unbiased reporters and they have delivered a remarkable and honest catalogue of the facets of life as well as the range of emotions that we call the human spirit."

Dean Maryanne Reed suggested that I also talk to you about the importance of journalists in our society.   Since I am a contributing writer of opinion columns, let me confess my bias in favor of unfettered journalism at the start. 

If I were a good communist (instead of a good columnist), then I’d be condemning journalists to the work farms.

Having worked in both the private and public sectors has given me the insight that the people in charge are not very fond of criticism.  Part of that attitude is plain, old-fashioned human nature.  From time-to-time, we all wear our pride on our sleeve.

But part of it is that leaders and their press officers hope to control information.  Control of information has always equaled power.  And that applies to everything from backyard gossip to the press releases at the highest levels of government.

Our Founding Fathers knew of this peril.  Perhaps their wisest decision was guaranteeing freedom of speech.  Were it not for the 1st Amendment, “truth” would be a relative term that changes from day to day. 

George Orwell’s “1984” is, of course, a work of fiction.  But his fictional tale of Oceania is rooted firmly in reality.  When there is no free press, the Minister of Information decides what is true and what is false. 

If we understand what happens when there is no free press, we must also consider what happens when the press itself is derelict or corrupt.  Ayn Rand’s fictional newspaperman in “The Fountainhead”, Ellsworth Toohey, is the best example of a failed press that I know of.

Ellsworth Toohey famously said, “Don’t set out to raze all shrines – you’ll frighten men.  Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed.”

In modern society, I believe that we have enshrined mediocrity.  And I believe that we have enshrined mediocrity to a dangerous degree.

But I still have hope that this generation of young people will reverse this course.

At West Virginia University, greatness is learned.  There is no better proof of that motto than the accomplishments of the students and recent graduates of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism. 

From “Cancer Stories” to “Starting Over” (the Katrina project), journalism students at WVU have produced reports of exceptional quality.  They have learned that facts speak for themselves and that the truth, however painful, always wins the day.

We owe these youngsters much more than our applause.  We also owe them the professional respect that they have earned.

Thank you.

* * * * * * *
From:  WVU Journalism School Magazine   Summer 2007


Allen Delivers Convocation Address for December Grads
By Kate Grosel

David G. Allen, a Clarksburg, W.Va. native, delivered the School of Journalism's December convocation address on Dec. 9, 2006.

Allen is a frequent contributor to The State Journal. He writes about West Virginia politics and economics.

"David Allen has a truly original voice," said Dean Maryanne Reed. "As a writer and a journalist, he calls them like he sees them. His commitment to honest and accurate reporting is an inspiration to our students and graduates."

In his remarks, Allen urged students to seek truth in all future journalistic endeavors. He reminded students of the First Amendment's protections for press freedom.

"If we understand what happens when there is no free press, we must also consider what happens when the press itself is derelict or corrupt," Allen said.

In his address, Allen focused on the School's groundbreaking convergence project, "Cancer Stories."

In 2000, Allen was asked to serve on the WVU Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center's Advisory Board. Subsequently, he proposed that SOJ students interview cancer patients, following their progress throughout all treatment stages.

His vision and support led to the project, "Cancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss and Hope," an Emmy Award-winning documentary and a book published by WVU Press.

Allen lauded the School's special projects that give the students real-world experience.

"From 'Cancer Stories' to 'Starting Over' [the School's innovative project on Hurricane Katrina]' journalism students at WVU have produced reports of exceptional quality," Allen told graduates and their families.
"They have learned that facts speak for themselves and that the truth, however painful, always wins the day."

Friday, December 1, 2006

For Government, Trailers Make Sense

Ten years ago, I attended a meeting at Jackson’s Mill. One member of our group arrived a few minutes late. He entered the meeting room with a panicked look on his face and asked us if we had heard about the fire at the Governor’s mansion. Before we could collect ourselves from news of this tragedy, he uttered the punch line, "It burned to the axles before the fire crews got there!"

Well, it was funny and we all laughed.  But we knew in our hearts that the Capitol complex was run like a rundown trailer park.

When the late Bill Ritchie was re-appointed Highway Commissioner in 1985, one of his first tasks was to repair the fountain in front of the DOH office tower on Washington Street.  In its less than 20-year life, the fountain hadn’t worked for years because of lack of maintenance.  The empty concrete vessel had become a joke.  State workers called it the "Yeti trap" and chirped that, sooner or later, we would finally catch the elusive abominable snowman.

Upon taking office, Gov. Bob Wise learned that the Capitol’s priceless chandelier nearly fell from its haunt because of "lack of maintenance."  The lamp’s support cable had frayed to its last strands.  Shortly thereafter, we also learned that structural steel in the dome had cracked.  And we also learned that the dome itself needed extensive work.

Then, we learned that the Capitol’s roof leaked.  The reason?  Once again, a "lack of maintenance."  Money for repairs was not forthcoming, so the job was initially recommended as an Economic Development Grant project.

And since, we have learned that the Capitol complex elevators failed to meet building and safety code requirements.  The answer to that "lack of maintenance" question was to quit inspecting the elevators all together.

What started out as a redecorating project at the Governor’s mansion in 2005 quickly ballooned into a structural repair nightmare after the contractor removed the tarpaper.  Again, a "lack of maintenance" had allowed little problems to fester into big ones.  We have coughed up $3 million to rehab an 80-year-old building that could have been razed and built new for less money.  But then again, it wouldn’t have the charm and ambiance of Tom Hank’s money pit, would it?

And now for the pièce de résistance-the Capitol cafeteria.  This eatery gave new meaning to La Cuillère Grasse (The Greasy Spoon.)   In fact, if the kitchen grease had caught fire, then the Capitol would have burned to the axles before fire crews got there!  Fortunately, nervous cockroaches drew attention to the fire hazard which, in turn, prompted the health department to close the cafeteria.  I am told that cockroaches are sensitive to fire hazards and need no special training to alert humans that danger is at hand.

Don’t laugh.  The two prior state capitol buildings weren’t lousy with cockroaches and they each burned to the ground!

To blame government workers or elected politicians for failing to maintain government buildings is pointless and irrelevant.  Unlike homeowners, government workers have no ownership interest in government-owned real estate.  Unlike homeowners, the government has no interest in creating equity because the property will likely never be sold.  Unlike homeowners, government never dies nor does government ever move to another state.  And government is never financially at risk for its farm-the taxpayers and their grandkids are.

The run-down condition of our most majestic buildings is a story that clearly defines the difference between individual property rights in a democracy and government control of property.  When government is in sole charge of property, the decline begins.  And then political leaders ceaselessly solicit more and more tax money to address the needs of the state. 

"Give us $3 million and we’ll fix the mansion once and for all." 

"Give us $15 million and we’ll fix the roof leaks once and for all." 

And so goes the begging until you are mentally conditioned to expect such cycles as inevitable.  Then they become so.

State workers and elected leaders can do no better than they have done in the past.  But the fault is not theirs.  It is ours. 

We should never have expected them to take care of fountains, elevators, crystal chandeliers, or gilded domes in the first place.  If these people wanted to manage real estate, they would have hired on with Donald Trump, not the state.

We should have bought each agency its requisite number of trailers and, when they were trashed, replaced them with new trailers. 

As for the governor’s residence, we’d probably be obliged to buy him a nice double-wide.  (Without a fire place, of course.)