Remarks for Edward R. Murrow Program For Journalists

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Mayflower Hotel
Washington, DC
October 29, 2012

Thank you for that introduction and thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today.

On behalf of the Department of State, I am very pleased to officially welcome you to the 2012 Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. And I also want to congratulate you.

There are more than 130 of you are here today – chosen because of what you do on the frontlines where truth speaks to injustice, and to power. You are important because you help provide the information on which any free and civilized society must depend.

Information matters. It is the oxygen with which society breathes. I would even say that information rights should be up there with water, air, and human rights.

Edward R. Murrow understood the importance of information. He understood the power of facts and standards in American journalism. And he was prepared to take a stand as long as it was based on solid reporting.

I studied him when I attended Tufts University. That’s where his papers are kept, at the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University. That exhibit also describes known and lesser-known aspects of Murrow's work and life, placing them in the political context.

I left Tufts convinced that I needed to work in either news, or history, or international affairs. Truth be told, they are similar fields—information, facts, truth, cultures, world politics.

So I went to ABC News and became a foreign affairs producer—roaming from South Africa to Iran, Cuba to China. When I later got to the White House, I saw how hard it was to navigate policy in places where I had navigated news.

When I joined the Board of an organization called Internews, I also came to understand the value of building local, indigenous, independent news outlets so that local voices can empower the information cycle.

And then I came to the State Department, where I now oversee the Department of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, which is known as “R.”

You see, at the State Department, we designate office symbols to our departments. And our department was called R. Why was that? Well, there’s the real reason, and there’s my poetic version.

The truth is, “R” was one of the few letters available for us to use. But I have my own theory.

Edward Roscoe Murrow was the first director of the United States Information Agency – which in 1999 became part of the Department for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He was the founding father of public diplomacy – this Edward “R” Murrow …. Stands to reason we’d call our department “R.”

Okay, so that’s what you might call “poetic truth.”

But of this truth, let there be no doubt: Murrow’s legacy lives on. Freedom of the press and freedom of information are front and center in the frame of our public diplomacy.

We scrutinize news media restrictions and intimidations as part of our annual review of human rights. We determine whether foreign governments participate in or condone violations of press freedom. And with dedicated colleagues such as Michael Posner, our Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, we work every day to protect and empower journalists.

Too many pay with their lives. Since 1992, the Center to Protect Journalists reports that 943 journalists have been killed. And this year, 48 of your colleagues and counterparts have been killed, including 24 in Syria alone.

Hundreds more each year face intimidation, censorship, and arbitrary arrest … all because they believe that a free society depends on an informed citizenry.

This is dangerous work, but it is important – especially when you think about the alternative. Think about what happens when information is cut off. Very often, governments step forward to control the information. That leaves entire societies cut off from facts and truth. They don’t know where to turn for help … don’t know which rumor to believe … can’t find facts.

Obviously that is unacceptable. We need information to bring light and awareness. We need it to help reduce the darkness and ignorance that breed intolerance and misunderstanding. Civil society needs it. Economies need it. And human beings need it – because an informed citizenry is an enlightened one.

The Edward R. Murrow program is one of the ways that we can support the people who safeguard these freedoms. Over the past seven years, it has brought close to 1000 leaders like you to examine the role of journalism in the U.S.

So you are in good company!

The program is part of our International Visitor Leadership Program, which has brought thousands of emerging leaders to the U.S. They have professional appointments with their U.S. counterparts, meet American families, and learn about our system and way of life.

We see the value of these exchanges time and time again. Alumni go on to create productive and positive futures when they return home. They become leaders in politics, civil society, private industry and the arts. And they have a deeper understanding and strong memories of our country, which benefits the citizens of both countries.

This program gives you a chance to exchange ideas, share best practices and make friendships that will last a lifetime. You will soon be visiting places such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Tucson, Arizona.

During these visits, you will meet with fellow journalists and our University partners across the country. They have been preparing for your arrival for many months and are excited to see you next week.

Exchanges like these are the pillars of what we call “people to people diplomacy.” When you meet with American professionals or visit with an American family, citizen diplomacy takes place. You tell them about your country. They tell you about the United States. There is really no substitute for a face-to-face conversation in an office or across a dinner table.

It is our hope that you will share the same experience that a previous participant did several years ago. When she recently returned to the United States, she spoke about her experience with our visitor program.

She said, “I came a stranger, I left a friend.”

I hope all of you will feel that way three weeks from today.

Thank you – and my congratulations to all of you once again.