Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jim Ludes on the Pell Prize and Story in the Public Square

Pell Center director Jim Ludes begins the ceremony honoring Pulitzer winner and twice Pulitzer finalist Dan Barry with the sixth-annual Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square April 23, 2018, in Newport, Rhode Island.

Dan's eloquent address in accepting the honor can be read here, and my introduction of Dan here.

Wayne Miller, Dan Barry and Jim Ludes.

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Friends, my name is Jim Ludes and I’m the Vice President for Public Research and Initiatives here at Salve Regina University, as well as Executive Director of the Pell Center, and it is my distinct privilege and honor to welcome all of you to campus for the presentation of the 2018 Pell Center Prize.

Before we begin, there are a handful of special guests I want to take a moment to acknowledge.

Sister Jane Gerety, the President of Salve Regina University.
Janet Robinson, the Chair of Salve’s Board of Trustees, and the former President and CEO of the New York Times Company.

Thank you both for being here and for your tremendous support of the Pell Center and “Story in the Public Square,” in particular.

I also want to acknowledge:
Janet Hasson, the publisher of the Providence Journal.
Alan Rosenberg, the executive editor of the Journal.

Tonight is the sixth anniversary of the remarkable relationship between the Pell Center at Salve and the Journal in the form of “Story in the Public Square.”  Thank you for your continued support for what we’re trying to do here.

And I do want to also take a moment to recognize

His Excellency Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence.
Tom Heslin, a former executive editor of the Journal who worked with tonight’s honoree earlier in his career.

Thank you both for joining us.

I know that no one came to tonight’s event to hear from me, so I’m not going to be very long, but I do want to say a few brief words about Story in the Public Square and share with you some exciting news.

A little more than six years ago, my friend and partner in this enterprise, G. Wayne Miller, and I met for coffee in downtown Newport.  Wayne had just finished his biography of Senator Claiborne Pell, the launch of which we had hosted here at the Pell Center, and Wayne wanted to know if there was more we could do together.

“What do you have in mind?” I asked.

“Something about storytelling,” he said.

I scrunched up my nose.  “I was thinking about something political,” I replied.
And over the following hour we achieved a compromise that I think Senator Pell would have admired.  We would create a project on the role storytelling plays in public life.

In retrospect, it seems like a blinding flash of the obvious.  Storytelling plays a central role in the politics of this country—even more so than sober analysis and facts.  That’s not a recent phenomenon, you can think of the first American patriots in Boston as gifted storytellers—propagandists, even—whose depiction of the “Boston Massacre,” for example, was substantially different from the way the event actually unfolded.

That’s not to pass judgment on the rightness of any cause—but it is to acknowledge that stories big and small have long shaped the way Americans think about important issues.  Lincoln referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “the book that caused this great war,” referring to the American Civil War.  From the temperance movement to the political warfare of the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Iraq War, and today’s era of so-called “Fake News,” narratives told by leaders, journalists, and citizens of all stripes, in print, in broadcast, in social media, or sitting in a diner with friends shape our understanding of issues and define the boundaries within which policy makers and political leaders can act.

Our goal in Story in the Public Square is to unpack those stories, to shine a light into some dark places so that we better understand the motive and the intent behind the stories that dominate American public life.  We hope that the public that is exposed to our research and our programming begins to ask these questions themselves. 

We’re doing a lot of work at the Pell Center, more broadly, on the issue of foreign disinformation and the threat to democracy.  Some analysts will tell you information has been weaponized in the last several years.  I will take it one step further: narrative—meaning story in all its forms—delivered by microtargeted social media has been weaponized.  In a very real sense, we are talking about precision guided munition of the mind that threaten democracy. 

Our hope as a democratic republic that values free speech and a free press is a critical thinking citizenry that can understand and dissect the stories they are being told.  If you believe as I do that “democracy is a race between education and disaster,” then Story in the Public Square is firmly on the side of education and democracy.

Six years after that coffee-shop meeting—after a couple of successful conferences that validated our central insight; after presenting the Pell Center prize to a really dazzling assortment of storytellers:
Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist Dana Priest of the Washington Post;
Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong;
Best-selling author Lisa Genova;
Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Javier Manzano;
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki.

And then having taken a crash-course in television production—Wayne and I were thrilled, fifteen months ago, to debut “Story in the Public Square,” as a weekly public affairs show where we like to say “storytelling meets public affairs.”  The show launched on Rhode Island PBS and nationally on SiriusXM satellite radio’s Politics of the United States—that’s the POTUS Channel, number 124.  Our mission is still the same—we want more and more people to understand that we are bombarded by stories every day, some of them are truthful.  Some of them are not.  But all shape our understanding of the world around us and the actions we take as citizens and, collectively, as a democratic society. 

And so, now, some news.  It is with particular hope about the impact of our work, that Wayne and I announce to you that Story in the Public Square, the half-hour public affairs program that began right here in Rhode Island, has gained a national television distributor and will be available to PBS stations across the United States later this year.

That’s not the end of our journey.  Much work still needs to be done.  But it’s a milestone and one that would not have happened without the support and encouragement of so many people in this room.  On behalf of Wayne and I, we thank you, and hope you’ll stay tuned for what comes next.

Now, please join me in welcoming my collaborator and co-host to the stage, ladies and gentlemen, G. Wayne Miller.

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