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‘Frontline’ Producer Opens VMI Honor Conference

FullTextImage/img/@alt"Frontline" producer Martin Smith opens the 2013 Honor Conference at VMI. -- VMI Photo by Julie Rivera.

LEXINGTON, Va., March 4, 2013 – Frontline producer Martin Smith opened the 2013 Honor Conference at VMI with a discussion of how truth-seeking journalism can encourage more honorable behavior by public officials.

Smith, a 28-year veteran of broadcast journalism, is a past winner of the coveted Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club, as well as an Emmy. He and his production company, RAINMedia, have most recently been in the news for their January 2013 production, “The Untouchables,” an expose of the U.S. Justice Department’s failure to prosecute the Wall Street bankers involved in the 2008 financial crisis.

This year’s honor conference is a follow-up to the 2012 Biennial Leadership Conference, held at the same time last year, which was entitled, “Cheating, Lying and Honor in America’s High Schools, Colleges and Universities.” The 2013 gathering has attracted more than 270 students, teachers, and faculty members, with roughly two-thirds of them coming from high schools across Virginia. The current conference is entitled, “Building and Strengthening Honor Codes: Inspiring Honor and Respect.”

In his remarks, entitled “Deciding Your Story,” Smith didn’t often use the word “honor,” but he did talk about how a lack of honor’s close cousin, integrity, has manifested itself in the world today. Much of Smith’s work as a documentary producer has revolved around exposing a lack of integrity among public officials.

Notable situations he’s investigated in his almost three decades of work include the George W. Bush administration’s statements about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Producing films that bring ethically questionable behavior to light isn’t just a game of “gotcha,” for the purpose of embarrassment, Smith explained.

“Journalists are obligated to reveal things as they are so people like you can be nudged and prodded to go out and make the world a better place,” Smith told his audience.

“Journalists, along with the First Amendment protections that sanction free speech, are part and parcel of what make the world a better place,” he continued. “So much of TV is a vast wasteland of screaming idiots, but imagine a world without the news. What would you know?”

Smith spent much time discussing how investigative journalism can identify problems before they explode onto the national or international stage – but only if people pay attention.

As one example, Smith mentioned his 1998 work, “Hunting bin Laden,” which was meant to highlight the threat posed by the al-Qaeda leader. Smith recalled his producers at Frontline as saying, “Why should we run this? Who is this guy?” In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Smith received inquiries about getting a copy of the film from both then-Vice President Dick Cheney and England’s Queen Elizabeth II.

“For me, it’s most satisfying when the reporting we do has made a clear difference, when it’s helped people to understand our world, not through telling them how to think, but by giving them the information they need to make their own informed choices,” Smith commented.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Smith said that he does not approach the news with a political agenda – and he feels that reporting is a skill in decline, one in danger of being replaced by biased, blog-based punditry. In terms of news choices, Smith offered the analogy of food choices. “We can eat junk food or we can eat real food,” he noted.

Smith concluded, “We [journalists] remain aggressive and we remain disruptive. … We live in a democracy. Good journalism should rattle people, make people upset enough to go out and make things better, to be involved citizens and care, and to go out and vote. After all, government belongs to us, or at least it should.”

Smith’s talk was followed by a short vignette, “Caught in the Act or Not?” played out by VMI cadets Louis Burton ’16 and Sarah McGinnis '16. In the vignette, Burton and Ford commiserated about their overwhelming workloads and agreed to share notes and “help” each other through a difficult semester. The dramatization was meant to leave the audience with a question to ponder: had Burton and Ford crossed the line when it came to honor? Attendees were invited to think about that question in terms of their own school’s honor code in a 40-minute breakout session.

At the end of the breakout session, they gathered again in Gillis Theater to hear from representatives of three schools – The Citadel, the University of Mary Washington, and Washington and Lee University – talk about what would happen at each school should such a situation be reported.

The 2013 Honor Conference continues with more vignettes and discussion of honor codes today. Tomorrow, the conference will continue with a morning session on due process, consistency, and accountability, followed by a variety of workshop sessions. More workshop sessions will take place in the afternoon, to be followed by a talk, “Sportsmanship, Citizenship and Ethics,” to be given at 3:30 p.m. by Edward H. Jurith, U.S. representative to the Foundation Board of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

– Mary Price