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Barry Bearak Honorary Degree Presentation

Presented by John Podesta, Special Counselor to President

June 07, 2008

Mr. President, it is my privilege to present Barry Bearak, Knox College Class of 1971, New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, for the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Barry Bearak and I have maintained our friendship for 40 years, overcoming the distrust that often divides journalists and those of us who practice politics for a living, instead monitoring each others' progress in our own attempts to as seemingly all Knox College graduates think they can make the world a better place.

Knox College has a long tradition of producing passionate and progressive journalists. Samuel McClure, credited with founding the "muckraker" school of journalism was a member of Knox College's Class of '82 -- that's 1882. The muckrakers, exposed the corruption of big-city political machines and anticompetitive trusts. Barry is different -- he doesn't so much rake muck as find himself stuck in it. When his life-long desire to be a Chicago sports writer was not to be, he headed South to his first beat as a city reporter with the Miami Herald. He arrived in that town during the period chronicled by Miami Vice and Scarface. When he wasn't dodging bullets, interviewing death row inmates, or using his high school track skills to avoid being killed during the Liberty City race riots, he managed to find the love of his life, his wife and reporting partner, Celia Dugger.

From Miami, Barry, joined the Los Angeles Times as a national reporter where he had the freedom to roam the country interviewing all manner of people with hard luck stories. Barry's own luck seems to have infected Los Angeles. During his tenure the city experienced a devastating recession, the boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games by 16 nations, the Northridge Earthquake, and the Rodney King riots.

Moving to New York, Barry and Celia joined the New York Times, had two sons, and became co-chiefs of the Times' New Delhi bureau. Covering the India subcontinent, Barry became one of journalism's top Afghanistan hands. Growing a beard and donning an Afghani caftan and pakul, he managed a passable imitation of a Pashtun, traversing the Kyber Pass while the Taliban government was still sheltering Osama bin-Laden.

Barry was in Kabul on 9/11 covering the trial of eight aid workers accused by the Taliban of preaching Christianity. He was taken into custody before being expelled from the country; a pattern that would repeat itself. Barry is now co-chief for the Times' Johannesburg bureau.

Apparently finding life in South Africa too slow, Barry went to cover the Zimbabwean elections earlier this year. These elections were marked by voter fraud, violence, and the arrest of two foreign journalists including -- guess who? I'm not saying Barry has a karmic affinity for disaster. But I am saying it is best not to share a room with him when traveling abroad. This is not someone who parachutes into war zones; he is someone who goes to places that become war zones after he arrives. The truth is that it is not wars, chaos, or mayhem that Barry excels at covering. It is his special gift of telling stories about the lives of people we would never know and describing their common humanity across great distance of place and culture. He has a rare ability to listen carefully and write beautifully about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, or at least ones that we are not used to experiencing.

Whether he is focusing a spotlight on impoverished Afghanis caught in the crossfire between extremist guerillas and invading armies, or moving into a homeless shelter in New York City to better understand the lives of people who we generally don't look in the eye when we pass on the street, or forecasting what the decline of the American labor movement would mean to real people in Illinois, or telling the story of people who have lost absolutely everything they loved to the tsunami in Indonesia, Barry Bearak makes us see that we are one people living in one world.

That is why the citation for his 2002 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting reads simply and fittingly: "Awarded to Barry Bearak of The New York Times for his deeply affecting and illuminating coverage of daily life in war-torn Afghanistan." There are many talented people today in mainstream journalism and the new media who try their hand at informing the public.

But very few of them spend their lives trying to find out what it's like to raise a child in Bangladesh where the only drinking water is contaminated with arsenic, or risking jail to tell the story of a nation walking a tightrope between democracy and chaos, or probing why someone would take their own life when faced with the agonizing conflict between working to support your family or crossing a picket line manned by your life-long friends. Without people like Barry, our ability to think and to judge, and to control our own government and lives is compromised forever. Barry Bearak has always been self-effacing, more interested in others than himself.

He imparted his decades of experience and wisdom to young journalists during a stint as a visiting professor at Columbia University School of Journalism, but he keeps coming back to the beat.

I think his dedication to the stories real journalism has to tell, and the truths that remain unrevealed is too strong to let him walk away. And for that, we should all be grateful. And, so, in honor of his international and humanitarian commitments, his dedication to the best ideals of journalism, and his career-long search for something so important that the founders of this college made it our motto, veritas, it is my pleasure to present Barry Bearak for the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

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Printed on Monday, November 20, 2017

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