Delivering the 18th annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA, CNN chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper told the audience it is the news media’s vital role to act as watchdogs and keep the public informed with facts.
“I don’t believe that it’s our role to sugarcoat any of it,” Tapper told a virtual audience of more than 1,000 people on Feb. 2. “And we all need to know that those who push the lies will continue to attack us as well. And they will try to attempt to rewrite history. They will try to tell Americans that up is down and the moon is the ocean. We need to be honest about what’s going on. We are now all watching.”
Each year the lecture, a tribute to Pearl, who was abducted and murdered by terrorists 19 years ago in Pakistan while working as South Asia Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, features a prominent journalist who discusses journalism’s unique role in supporting democracy. The lecture is sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, UCLA Hillel and the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.
Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father and Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, invited Tapper to deliver the lecture because of his dedication to fighting for truth. A veteran D.C.-journalist, Tapper hosts the one-hour weekday program, “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” which debuted in March 2013, and also has hosted CNN’s Sunday morning show, “State of the Union,” since June 2015.
Tapper opened the lecture by expressing outrage over the recent Pakistan Supreme Court’s ruling to let Pearl’s murderers go free, noting that the Biden administration has called this an affront to terrorist victims everywhere. Tapper vowed to stay on top of the case and work to ensure accountability through his reporting, and expressed hope that the U.S. will extradite the terrorists.
“But it’s all a reminder that when it comes to the fight for justice, and the fight against extremism and hate, vigilance must be eternal,” he said. “We’re never going to arrive at a place where we can just relax and not worry about it … whether you’re active in politics, or you want to go into the legal system, whether you’re a community activist, whether you want to be a journalist, you just want to be a well- informed citizen. That vigilance is the responsibility of all of us.”
Tapper said that his and other news media’s allegiance is to readers and viewers, and their role is to tell deeply reported stories with facts, context and analysis, and that Pearl was guided by these principles.
“His former editor said, ‘I had to tell him, ‘Dammit, Danny, write! No more phone calls!’” Tapper recounted. “He always wanted to make more calls because there were so many dimensions of the story he was curious about. He had a curiosity about the world — a recognition that more information, more facts, more viewpoints, would enhance all of our understanding of the world.”
Tapper also spoke about the need for journalists to be clear-eyed and precise with the public to counter the perpetuation of lies in the national discourse, most recently those alleging fraud in the presidential election, which were found to be without merit by courts and election boards across the country.
“If we have any hope that the facts we share, that the truth that we aspire to protect has any hope of surviving the assault by lies that we are now witnessing, we in journalism need to be extra diligent, even more so than before,” he warned.
He also blamed the storming of the U.S. Capitol on the rage created by the repetition of lies, citing Fox News, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani and others as the source of those. That misinformation, Tapper said, helped mobilize far right groups and radicalized Trump supporters and along with fringe conspiracy theories, those lies continue to survive, through social media and amplification by some Republican elected officials.
Tapper said that the Republican party is trying to figure out how much it wants to embrace conspiracy theories and lies, and how lying about some things can lead to the propagation of other lies that espouse hate and bigotry. He also warned against lying in the name of justice.
“How far is the distance between any of those lies and the desire to blame the evils of the world on a minority group whether Mexicans or Muslims, or Jews or any group? What is the distance once you start lying — willfully, eagerly? And how can any one of us sit back and let it happen? Because we’re all seeing what happens when you let these things become mainstreamed.”
He criticized his own reporting of Donald Trump during his first presidential campaign.
“Yes, I called him out on his lies. But maybe I didn’t fixate on those lies. Because I allowed him to move on and change the subject. I’m still grappling in many ways with what I could have done differently, what I should have done differently.”
In his opening remarks, Judea Pearl noted this year’s lecture occurred close to both the 19-year anniversary of the day he and his wife found out their son had been killed, and the recent acquittal of Daniel’s murderers in the Pakistan Supreme Court.
“It was, and still is incomprehensible for us to understand how the kindest of hearts could fall prey to the lowest of beasts,” Pearl said. “It shocked his journalist friends into realizing that they no longer are protected by that invisible aura of safety, which they imagined to have.”
Past Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture presenters have included David Remnick of the New Yorker, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Daniel Schorr of NPR, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.