| 03.17.2018

“Freight train of change” – Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist discusses race and the media


These are strange times, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. told a packed International Ballroom Thursday evening – strange, unsettling and unprecedented.

In his   2016 Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium keynote address, titled “The Broken Pendulum,” Pitts said that since the Civil War, black history in the U.S. has always followed the same pattern – two steps forward, one step back.

Kira Hunter | Argonaut
Leonard Pitts Jr. gives his keynote address for the sixth annual Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium Thursday evening in the Bruce Pitman Center.

“But I am reassured by the knowledge that better times always come back around,” Pitts said. “I keep waiting for the pendulum swing that would bring it all back.”

Yet this election has put race and race issues on the forefront of American politics in the most brazen way since candidates still sought endorsements from the Ku Klux Klan, Pitts said.

Pitts said politicians have used race to stir fear in the electorate for decades, but have usually done so with code words. With the rise of candidates such as Donald Trump, Pitts said some of that coded language has begun to fall away.

“It”s important to draw a line about using race to stir fear as openly and blatantly as Trump,” Pitts said.

He said the fact that the American public that elected Barack Obama twice by a significant margin is the same public that accepts Trump”s statements speaks volumes about where the U.S. stands as a country currently.

In such an unprecedented political climate, Pitts said voters and reporters alike cannot afford to simply go with the flow. Instead, he encouraged the audience – and especially young journalists – to be active members of society who are willing to stand up for what is right.

Pitts said reporters have been “too kind” when it comes to calling politicians such as Trump out on their politically incorrect statements. Pitts said he attributes this to a heightened fear of media bias and the false belief that journalism needs to objective.

Pitts said there is a difference between opining and making a judgment call in journalism – while opinion has no place in journalism, he said news without judgment is an “oxymoron.”

“Be brave,” said Pitts, directly addressing the young journalists in the audience. “By that I mean have the guts to see the truth and to report what you have seen.”

Pitts said it was journalists who brought the Civil Rights Movement into people”s living rooms by slowly reaching the consensus that segregationists were on the wrong side of history and integrating this into the cultural narrative with their reporting.

He said he hopes journalists will once again step up to tell the story of these strange times.

“What you can strive to be is fair,” Pitts said. “What you can strive to do is tell the whole story fearlessly – you can strive to ensure that every reasonable voice on every reasonable side is heard.”

Reporting contributed by Hannah Shirley.

Marisa Casella can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu or on Twitter at @marisacasella1

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