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Cynics, skeptics, free press, fair press

Commentary

By Al Neuharth

12.01.03

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Al Neuharth, founder and senior advisory chairman of the Freedom Forum, gave this address Sept. 25, 2003, at the dedication of the Al Neuharth Media Center at the University of South Dakota.

Many in the audience must be wondering, “Why is this new media center being named for this guy and especially why now?” After all, most buildings are named for people who are dead.

I think I’ve figured it out. As I approach my 80th birthday, (USD President) Jim Abbott just got tired of waiting.

In any event, my sincere thanks to Jim for this idea and to the members of the South Dakota Board of Regents and President Harvey Jewett for approving it. Special thanks go to Ted Muenster and Susan Tuve and their USD Foundation associates, and to Charles Overby and the Freedom Forum trustees, for coming up with most of the $5 million to pay for it.

Listening to these remarks about successes, I couldn’t help reflecting that this dedication celebration is taking place on the site of the first of my many failures as a student on this campus.

Some of you are old enough to remember that we are gathered on the very spot where the football Coyotes played their home games, then called Inman Field, before it was replaced by that grand DakotaDome up the street.

Campus invasion by WW II vets

In the fall of 1946, I was one of the ragtag bunch of a couple thousand World War II vets who invaded this campus under the G.I. bill. From the beginning, I was much more interested in extracurricular activities than in the classroom. I thought I might be able to help talk my way to a degree by working at the university radio station, KUSD.

As a freshman, I did KUSD news and sportscasts. I even got to broadcast some basketball pre-game and halftime comments about Coach Rube Hoy’s basketball Coyotes. These games were played in the building called the “New Armory” because the ROTC was headquartered there. Fifty years and $5 million later, the New Armory has become the new media center.

After the start of my sophomore year, I had my big chance. Monk Johnson, a very good junior sportscaster, did the regular play-by-play about Coach Harry Gamage’s football Coyotes. But Monk missed a game because he was sick, and KUSD boss Jim Slack picked me to substitute.

I was scared to death but tried not to show it in the press box high atop the south concrete stands of Inman Field.

My older brother, Walter, came to the game I broadcast, carrying a portable radio. Midway through the first half, fans in front of him kept turning, scowling, and finally one growled, “Will you turn that damned thing down or off?”

Bewildered by the question, my brother asked, “Don’t you want to listen to the game while watching it?”

The fan’s retort: “Not with that idiot broadcasting it.”

Short-lived sportscaster

My brother, bless his honest heart, told me about the incident. Later, I listened to a tape of my play-by-play and realized how bad it was.

The next Monday morning I went down from the top floor of the old student union building, where KUSD was located, to the ground floor where the Volante had a corner office and applied for a job as a sportswriter.

I was better at writing than talking, so later that year I became the sports editor and the next year the editor of the Volante.

I’m especially pleased that some of my Volante associates of those days are with us today. They include my predecessor as editor, who taught me a lot, Jim Kuehn, then of Mobridge and now the retired editor of the Rapid City Journal.

Let me also express my special thanks to the many other South Dakota and Midwestern friends who are here. There is not time to name everyone, but I am grateful to you all.

Except for a little Army trek of over three years during World War II, including both Europe and the Pacific, I spent the first three decades of my life on these pristine prairies of South Dakota.

I probably never would have left if it weren’t for another of my failures.

Some of you remember or have heard about a little weekly paper called SoDak Sports. Bill Porter of Madison, who had been both USD student body president and Volante business manager, and I started that statewide sports tabloid, printed on peach newsprint, shortly after graduating from here.

We thought we had been hot shots on campus, and we were sure SoDak Sports would make us rich and famous newspaper moguls. Instead, we lost all the money we had begged and borrowed — more than $50,000, which was a lot in the ’50s. SoDak Sportswent belly up in less than two years.

30-year-old runaway

Broke and in debt, I was so ashamed I ran away from home — at age 30 — went all the way to Florida and got a job as a reporter on The Miami Herald for 90 bucks a week.

Initially, I was a little bitter and blamed South Dakota for that failure. But gradually I got it — my first business venture went broke because of mismanagement, and I had mismanaged it.

Once you’re able to admit that you’re the one to blame when things you do go wrong, it’s much easier to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over. As a constant reminder of my SoDak Sports screw-up, I’ve carried peach-colored memo pads, the same color as SoDak Sports, with me for 50 years, on which I write notes — sometimes nice, sometimes not — to myself or friends or associates.

You’ll see both SoDak Sports and one of those peach memos on display when you visit the media center.

Let me also take note of a very special feature that will greet you when you tour the building. Our Freedom Forum’s motto is “Free Press, Free Speech, Free Spirit.”

In the huge hall as you enter the media center, you’ll see 12 big banner pictures of these South Dakota free spirits from various fields who made it big:

  • Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Their presence is especially meaningful because of the emphasis the media center is placing on the training of Native American journalists.
  • World champion cowboy Casey Tibbs.
  • World War II flying ace, governor and founding president of the American Football League Joe Foss.
  • Nationally famous politicians and public servants Tom Daschle, Hubert and Muriel Humphrey, Gladys Pyle and George McGovern.
  • Best-selling, homespun prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  • Creators of those two world-famous monuments in South Dakota, Mt. Rushmore’s Gutzon Borglum and Crazy Horse’s Korzak and Ruth Ziolkowski.
  • Longtime NBC news master Tom Brokaw.

It’s appropriate to mention that in one of his books, Brokaw recounted how his excessive “free spirit” on this campus caused the inimitable Professor William “Doc” Farber to ask Tom to take a semester’s leave from USD to get some of his lust for beer and women out of his system. Tom followed Doc’s advice, and look where it got him.

Those nationally renowned South Dakotans came from little towns like Avon, Custer, De Smet, Doland, Pine Ridge, Webster and cities like Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, Yankton and Sioux Falls.

Learn it here, make it anywhere

They are striking examples that no matter where you come from in South Dakota, if you apply what you learn here, you can make it anywhere.

Here is what I learned from my SoDak Sports fiasco: In our system of free press and free enterprise, you cannot successfully shove unwanted objects down unwilling throats. Actually, readers liked SoDak Sports, but advertisers turned their thumbs down. That experience did convince me that if you indeed do build a better mousetrap — or a better media product — people literally will beat a path to your door.

It’s an old cliché, but it’s still true. Only in America!

So, despite my many mistakes made around here, there is no mistake about this: The seeds for this country’s biggest circulation newspaper, USA TODAY, were sown on the sacred soil of South Dakota.

Since leaving home a half century ago, I’ve worked and/or traveled in all 50 states — most of them many times — and crisscrossed six continents. But my years growing up in Eureka and Alpena, USD summer “vacations” working on newspapers in Aberdeen and Mitchell and Rapid City, and especially the four years here on this campus, set the stage for my future ventures and adventures.

Against that background, it would be phony if I did not acknowledge a sense of emotion and pride at seeing my name on this truly first-rate new media center at my alma mater in my native state.

But as you tour the building later, please keep in mind that so far this is just a lot of fancy brick and mortar which houses the most modern media technology and equipment available on any college campus anywhere.

Now the USD administration, faculty and students must make sure that this center becomes a special spawning ground for print and broadcast journalists of tomorrow.

  • A place where they can learn about past and present practices, but also experiment with new approaches or new ventures.
  • A place that encourages big successes, but where they also can muse over little failures.
  • A place where they come to understand that even though the world is a pretty serious thing, they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously when reporting about it.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a place where they become totally committed to both freedom and fairness as journalists.

The fact is that the greatest danger to the First Amendment in this country today is that far too many people think the press is not fair. Far too often, they are right.

Some unfairness in the media is the result of human error by journalists, most of whom really do strive to be accurate. Some, unfortunately, is the result of deliberately practiced cynicism.

College minors in cynicism

That’s partly because a minor in cynicism often is admired, if not required, at some prestigious Northeastern Ivy League universities and a few other snob schools across the country.

Those friends of mine here today from some of those institutions are exceptions, of course! But the fact is too many college classroom cynics have become decision makers in the media.

Cynics believe the worst about everything and everybody. Cynical journalists are determined to find dirt under every carpet, whether it’s there or not. That’s unfair.

Cynics make bad journalists. Skeptics are good journalists.

Skeptical reporters are nosy. They question everything and everybody, from their own mother to the president of the United States — or even the president of their university! But they report the good as well as the bad, the glad as well as the sad. That’s fair.

It is my hope that this university will turn out a lot of future media skeptics, to counterbalance the cynics coming off some other campuses.

As the engravings on that front wall will always remind USD students, faculty and visitors, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press, but we in the media must make sure it is a fair press.

May this magnificent new media center here in the USA’s treasured heartland always remain dedicated to both press freedom and press fairness.

If it isn’t, I may someday slip out of my grave, come back and scratch my name off it!

Thank you. Good luck. Godspeed and God bless.

Related

About the Al Neuharth Media Center
Information page for the Neuharth Center at the University of South Dakota.  03.04.05

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