Duke’s Provost Lecture Series has brought a slew of diverse, thought provoking individuals to campus in recent months. In the series’ final installment, New York Times Correspondent Damien Cave, a notable reporter during the Iraq War, the Haitian Earthquake, and the Mexican Drug War, came to discuss his experiences. His narrative was insightful, and his background was awe inspiring, but as with many speakers who come to campus, the greatest value, as a listener, was thinking about how the words translate in our own lives.
Mr. Cave gave a chilling account of his time in Haiti, but stressed that journalism has suffered in recent years as a result of sensationalism in the media. He depicted a gaggle of eager reporters piling into one of the few remaining automobiles in Port-au-Prince to trek down to the one street in town that was being looted; this looting, though isolated in reality, became one of the enduring images of the earthquake’s aftermath. He felt this was an unfair appraisal of what was a highly nuanced and highly tragic occasion. He stressed that as journalists have sought to make a connection to their audience, especially in a time of so many competing forms of media (of varied quality and substance); they’ve done so at the expense of context. In a sound bite driven world, anything that takes more than a sentence to describe has been forsaken for those stories that immediately tug at our heartstrings.
To be sure, there are few current Fuqua students who are likely to pursue a full-time career in journalism after graduation. It is not the sort of career that demands an MBA in the first place, and anyway, the art of journalism is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to really define the business now. But there are certainly lessons to be taken away. We were all brought to Fuqua, ostensibly, because the school saw us as future leaders of America. If it’s what we desire, we have the opportunity to be both highly visible to the public, and to have many constituents, many people who answer to us. Both are exciting and prestigious opportunities, but as we take them on, we begin to have more responsibilities, too. We’ve haphazardly moved into an age in which transparency into the lives of decision makers is greater than it’s ever been. This is only going to get more pronounced as more people throughout the world have access to more information, more quickly, than we could have ever imagined only two decades ago. We can look at the unrest in Northern Africa right now with despair, but really, this is a natural evolution, one that’s been hastened by the ability of the governed to understand how people in the rest of the world have come to live.
The point of this long winded diatribe is not to frighten, but to remind that every decision we make that affects other people will be scrutinized in the future. It will no longer be “just part of doing business” to sugarcoat reality because we have an important client who has been kept in a state of ignorant bliss. The use of deceptive practices to obfuscate the truth from shareholders, through creative language or clandestine transactions, will be easier to detect and will be more summarily punished. The days of CEOs publicly professing confidence in their crumbling businesses, or politicians extolling the virtues of failed projects are soon to pass. As leaders in business, we need to understand these inevitable truths, and make sure that we build organizations that are committed to honesty, integrity, and respect for shareholders, customers, and the public. We can rue the fact that we have to modify how business is done, and that there are inevitable costs associated with doing so, or we can celebrate the fact that only those businesses which show accountability will survive, and society, at large, will benefit.