RIAS Berlin Commission’s Annual Awards Ceremony

RIAS Berlin Commission’s Annual Awards Ceremony
Berlin, June 12, 2017
CDA Kent Logsdon

Thank you, Petra Gute.

Erik Kirschbaum, all the best in your new role as Executive Director of the RIAS Commission.  You have some big shoes to fill.  Rainer Hasters has done a fantastic job.

Dr. Willi Steul, thank you for your hospitality this evening and also for your ongoing support of the RIAS Berlin Commission.

The spirit of the original RIAS radio station lives on in this landmark building.  It also lives on in the work of the RIAS Berlin Commission.  I would like to congratulate and commend all those who have played a role over the past 25 years in shaping this landmark 21st century organization, dedicated to the fundamental principles of a free press.

Ethical and transparent media coverage is foundational to free and open societies.  It promotes accountability and sparks public debate.  Societies built on good governance, strong civil society, and an open and free media are more prosperous, stable, and secure.  That was the lesson learned from the original RIAS broadcasts during the Cold War.  And it is a lesson that serves us well in the incredible complexity of today’s media landscape.

Social media and ideologically targeted media sources create silos where people can easily isolate themselves.  This ‘siloization’ can create echo chambers of misinformation.  How many times have you heard people say, “It must be true – I read it on the Internet”?

In recent days, we hear a lot about fake news – and how it can erode trust in the media.  But in many ways, fake news is not as disruptive as the echo chamber or “filter bubble” effect which can perpetuate blind spots that shape our sense of what the big issues are in ways that we are not even aware of.  But in a way, neither fake news nor filter bubbles are anything new.

The Internet has enabled the sharing of knowledge in ways that previous generations could only have dreamed of – even 25 years ago when the RIAS Commission was established – but it has also lent proof to the observation, often attributed to Winston Churchill:  “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.

Or as Goethe wrote some two centuries ago: “Es hört doch jeder nur, was er versteht.”  (A man hears only what he understands.)

In a perfect world – and in fact, the Internet makes this possible – media consumers would know what’s trending across ideological, demographic, and geographical divides: left and right, red and blue, stateside and this side of the Atlantic.

And to a large extent, this is what the RIAS Commission accomplishes through its exchange program and also its annual awards to excellence in journalism.

Out of an instrument originally and temporarily designed to disseminate information, the RIAS Commission has become an instrument that fosters debate and dialogue among people on both sides of the Atlantic.  It reaches a broader audience and a wider selection of media outlets and platforms than ever before.  RIAS journalists cover the range of political, social and cultural topics on the transatlantic agenda.  The Commission provides opportunities for journalists on both sides of the Atlantic to research and report on aspects of each other’s country – and the world around us.  You might agree or disagree with some of their reporting.  But again, that’s the great advantage of a strong media landscape, anchored in a democratic society.  Diversity of opinion, dialogue, and informed comment lead to responsible action.  The original RIAS effect is still there, but with a much higher multiplier and a much broader potential common denominator.

For their work to this purpose, I congratulate all of the journalists to be honored tonight.  And I thank the many others who, although they will not be receiving an award this evening, continue to reward all of us with their insightful commentary and objective reporting on the multifaceted transatlantic relationship.  In particular, however, I would like to thank the current participants, the fellows, and all the alumni in the RIAS exchange programs.  Since the Commission was established in 1992, we have seen many examples of how their commitment has paid off.  For many of the alumni, the RIAS Commission had a life-changing impact.  Even in this age of global travel, four of the German exchange candidates had never been to the United States before.  Think of the impact that this program has had in the past 25 years.  And think also the many ways in which the  partnership between the US and Germany has become richer, more diverse and more productive than ever before.

I would like to thank our German partners for their support, and all of those who have contributed to the success of the RIAS Commission.