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Media bias and the threat to democracy

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Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you here tonight. It is a unique privilege for me, and one I hope to justify through my comments this evening.

Senator Santoro

May I acknowledge Anton Block, the President of the Jewish Council of Victoria, Dr Paul Gardner, chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Associate Professor Douglas Kirsner, chair of the ADC public affairs committee, Lesley Gaspar, coordinator of the ADC lecture series, and Mrs Robyne Schwarz, president of Jewish Care.

I have chosen as my topic, "Truth and Representation: media bias and the threat to democracy".  Such a topic is fraught with peril, because the relationship between the concepts and practices of truth and democracy has not always been an easy one.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper noted that ever since Plato used his theory of truth and representation, set out in the famous parable of the cave, to justify totalitarian rule by philosopher-kings, tyrants have relied on claims to know the truth to justify their tyranny.  History has provided us with countless gruesome examples of how truth-claims can be used to deny human rights and to thwart democracy, from Burma to Yugoslavia to Cambodia to Nazi Germany.

A free press is vital to democracy, as it can be used to expose truths that governments would rather keep hidden. But the role of the mass media in mediating the relationship between truth and democracy has not always been successful. The Nazis would not have had the success they had in persecuting the Jewish people had not the ground, in which their hatred grew, been well-prepared by many, many years of anti-Semitic prejudice in the German press.

If the fourth estate loses sight of its role as protector of truth, or fails to understand what that role really means, then it runs the risk of either becoming little more than a servant of state or corporate power at one extreme, or at the other, a victim of hubris whereby it comes to believe its role is simply to oppose the democratically elected government.

I believe that it is the latter risk that is more prevalent today in Australia today. The problem with the media assuming this attitude is that it can easily slide into an elitist disdain for the voting public and for democracy itself. Moreover, it can undermine, rather than advance, the search for truth, as it seeks to impose on the public what are no more than the prejudices of those who hold the pen.

Tonight I wish to provide some evidence for my belief that an important section of our mass media is at grave risk of sliding into this elitist and anti-democratic frame of mind, if it has not done so already.  Many – and not least those who are the worst offenders – will dismiss this as me simply riding my usual hobby-horse about the ABC, but it is not. It is an important element of a wider, more important effort in the service of our culture and our values and our democracy.

More specifically, we must rescue the concept of moral truth from the dustbin of history into which post-modern moral relativism seeks to discard it.  If we want to protect basic and fundamental universal human rights, and in so doing inoculate our democracy from the possibility of repeating the horrors of the Holocaust, or the Gulags, or Pol Pot's Year Zero, we must remember that human rights rest on a foundation of moral absolutes. If our culture continues to undermine the concept of moral truth, it will not long be able to stave off a descent into forms of barbarism that are still fresh in our collective memory.

The central role of the media in this effort cannot be over-estimated, and that is why I have been so focused on it in the Federal Parliament since entering the Senate in 2002.  I have taken as my motto here the words: "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom."

That motto is especially timely today. Recent weeks have seen terrorists yet again unleash their work of destruction. In Mumbai, as in London a year ago, indiscriminate slaughter has proven the terrorists’ weapon of choice. And in the Middle East, Hezbollah and Hamas – evil twins born of, and sustained by, the same evil parents – have provoked violence, knowing full well the cost their naked aggression would impose not only on innocent Israelis but also on many tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians and Lebanese alike.

Faced with these outrages, it is not enough for us to shake our heads and hope that the world will set itself right.

Rather, we must protect and assert the values that underpin our Australian society: values in which there can be no place for terrorism’s supporters and fellow-travellers.

To that end, we must affirm our commitment to those throughout the world who are on the front line of the fight against terrorism – a commitment which is not merely intellectual and emotional, but also practical: that is, we must contribute as fully as we can, to ensure that terrorism, and the vile threat it poses, is defeated and ultimately destroyed.

The Howard Government’s commitment to fighting terrorism has been and remains steadfast.  Absolutely steadfast.

  • We have provided, and continue to provide, assistance to countries such as Indonesia to fight terrorism.
  • We have important troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in our immediate region.
  • And we have asserted, and continue to assert, our enduring friendship with Israel, as it faces enemies committed to its destruction.

Ordinary Australians understand the importance of facing off the terrorists. They know that if we stand back, the bombs that killed so many young Australians in Bali and so many poor, hardworking people in Mumbai, and that now cause so much death and destruction in northern Israel, will soon enough kill us and our children.

But the struggle ahead will not be over quickly – and if we are to sustain it, we must rely not only on the good sense and decency of ordinary Australians, but also on an informed and factual understanding of the world we are in and the responsibilities it places upon us.

The role of the Media

In an open, democratic society such as Australia’s, the media plays a central role in shaping our understanding of the world. It is mainly through the media that we are informed; and it is from the media that we get many of the images and analyses that help determine the way we see the world.

It is because the media is so important that we provide large-scale financial support to the ABC and SBS – so that the community will have access to the impartial information it needs and deserves.  It is a clear indication of the on-going government support for the ABC that public broadcasting received a substantial funding increase in this year’s triennial budget allocation.

I want to state clearly here tonight my belief that both the ABC and SBS in so many ways provide a valuable service to Australian public life. Australia would be a poorer place without so many aspects of the services provided by the ABC and SBS.

However, the public broadcasters lets themselves down regularly by failing to apply the same rigour to the task of self-critique that they would claim to apply to the task of representing the truth to their audience. The ABC, for example, has a charter requirement to cater to all Australians.  But if it was truly capable of honest self-assessment, the ABC would be more willing to recognise, acknowledge and correct the deep-seated and institutionalised bias that is manifested in its recent reportage of both domestic and international affairs.

Some very recent examples I can quote here tonight are staggering.

Merely a week ago, Fran Kelly, the presenter of ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program, chose to interview Robert Fisk on the events in the Middle East. Mr Fisk, she said, is a much praised and award winning journalist. And indeed he is – for he has received praise from no less a judge of character than Osama bin Laden himself, who, in a videotaped message on the eve of the 2004 presidential election in the U.S., commended Fisk by name for his incisive and “neutral” reporting. Did Ms Kelly disclose any of this? Obviously not.

As an aside at this point, I would like to quote the same Mr Fisk from an opinion column in The Canberra Times last week.  In it, he quotes – without challenge or question – terrorist leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah claiming that in its rocket attacks on Israel “Hezbollah originally wished to confine all casualties to the military”.  Fisk then goes on to criticise the – quote – “cruelty of Israel’s response” – unquote – to those unprovoked and deadly attacks.  It’s no wonder that he attracts rave reviews from Osama bin Laden!

To take another example, let’s consider for a minute SBS’s coverage of the conflict in the Middle East on its flagship 6-30 PM news for Sunday July 16th. Israel’s military actions in Lebanon were described as variously “murderous”, “illegal” and “contrary to the laws of war”. As for what Hezbollah had done, and its disastrous consequences for the people of Lebanon, the report SBS chose to air – and I emphasize the word chose – cutely said this: that Hezbollah “had some little explaining to do”.

The Prime Minister John Howard decisively attempted to stop the rot on the AM program on July 14th when he was asked, and I quote: “Has Israel gone too far?”  Mr Howard asked the reporter why the question must always be couched in terms of what Israel has done wrong and whether it should be condemned.  He was, of course, appalled by the loss of life on both sides of the conflict. But – and to quote again – the Prime Minister said “the assumption that it was started by Israel in this particular instance is wrong”.

That the Prime Minister should feel the need to highlight to a reporter the skewed nature of the question he was being asked is indicative of a deeply-ingrained culture – a reflex anti-Semitism – in parts of the media.  Such questions betray a belief that Israel is always at fault and has no right to defend itself in any way against attacks from terrorists such as Hezbollah.

To say that this is outrageous, and a disgrace, is an understatement.

What makes bias so dangerous, and also so difficult to control, is that it is not only what is said, but rather what is not said, that can be profoundly misleading.

Take the reporting – again on the ABC’s AM program – of the statement by Mr Chirac that Israel’s response to the invasion of its territory and the kidnapping of its soldiers was “disproportionate”. Now, how often did you hear Tony Eastely note that this was the same Mr Chirac who merely a few months earlier, had said that were France subjected to a terrorist attack, he would not rule out retaliating through a nuclear attack? The simple answer: not once.

Nor did Mr Eastely make the same point when Mr Putin criticised Israel’s response to the kidnapping of its soldiers as “disproportionate” and called on Israel to negotiate with terrorists. Surely, one might have expected our national broadcaster to ask how consistent this was with Russia’s own behaviour in Chechnya – but no, yet again, the ABC chose the convenient course of silence.

Equally, how often have you heard the terms “indiscriminate”, “illegal”, “contrary to international law” and “disproportionate” applied by the ABC and SBS not to Israel, but to Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ practice of shelling civilian towns in Israel? The answer: not once!

And when the ABC and SBS interviewed Lebanese Government Ministers, who merely washed their hands of Hezbollah’s actions, did you hear the interviewer ask how Hezbollah has been allowed to build up its arsenal in Southern Lebanon? No, of course you didn’t – because they wouldn’t even have thought to put the question, much less to fearlessly pursue the point.

Similarly, how balanced is it for the SBS to selectively run commentary from the BBC – commentary which is systematically and aggressively hostile to Israel – rather than say, also running the stories aired on US channels?

Another form of bias is sympathetic language. To give just one example, the ABC refers to Kassam Rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian terrorists as “home made rockets.”  This has the effect of makings the Palestinians seem like the underdogs, battling away against the might of the Israeli military with home made weapons. In truth – as you all know – Israel is a small country with a small population, virtually surrounded by hostile and in some cases increasingly fanatical countries. The terrorists it faces are well-organised, aggressive and persistently violent.  They are financed and armed by Syria and Iran, which are countries far larger than Israel. They cynically exploit the Western media’s desire to convey graphic images of casualties by locating themselves in civilian areas, ensuring that women and children will be among the worst victims of the conflicts they ignite and promote. They are hardly the home-made Dad’s Army the media language would suggest and would want us all here in Australia to believe.

The decisions to portray events in this way smack of deliberate, thought through, deception.

They are what biased journalists do when they want to hide from claims of bias, while still slanting the way the news is presented. A few token interviews, ritualistically presented, with Israeli spokesmen or commentators, or others more sympathetic to Israel’s predicament, only make this deceitful purpose all the clearer.

Blatant bias about Israel is nothing new. But the scope of the problems is far broader. When terrorists targeted the London underground, time and again our public broadcasters’ reports linked the terrorists’ murderous actions to the Britain’s participation in the Iraq war – suggesting, if not stating, that the ultimate fault lay not with the murderers but with the Blair government. The further, important, inference was that – just as Blair had brought the wrath of the terrorists onto London – so the Howard Government was exposing Australians to unacceptable risks: risks that, according to many ABC commentators, had already eventuated in the Bali bombings.

Given that, one might have expected the ABC and SBS to at least comment on the fact that India could hardly be claimed to have any role in Iraq – a war it had actively opposed. Rather, here was further proof, if more proof was needed, of terrorism’s indiscriminate character. But far from it: no such thought was expressed.

It would not be fair to say that issues of media bias are limited to the public broadcasters, for they are not.

I’ll give you a recent, telling example.  On July 10, this year, Paul Sheehan wrote a commentary piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about the much unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, headed: “A petty crim who took on the world.”

I thought that was a rather promising title.  And in fact Sheehan did note that al-Zarqawi was really just a petty street thug, with 37 criminal charges and convictions, including for sexual assault, who simply took the opportunity to recast his personal brand of petty vandalism and mayhem as a form of Jihad.  And we all know the rest of that history.

But then Sheehan tells us that “it is important to note that while he was a Jordanian by passport, he was a Palestinian by blood …”  Why is that important?

Well, it’s apparently important, because it makes the story easier, and allows us to find a root cause for psychotic and undirected violence.  It allows the journalist three paragraphs later to write: “Israel, preoccupied by the battle for its own survival, is hurling fire accelerants into the passions of millions of young Muslims …”

In other words, the pervert and murderer al-Zarqawi is the creation of Israel, not of his own twisted desires and opportunism.

Sheehan, finally, passes this judgement: “The moral legacy of the holocaust has now passed into history”.

Sheehan is by no means the worst commentator we have. In fact, he is generally among the better ones.  But there are deeply troubling similarities between the approach he adopts in the article I have cited, and that persistently and explicitly adopted by our public broadcasters.

Those similarities rest on a common core of moral relativism. That relativism has become ever more deeply pernicious  – because it not only refuses to make judgements based on the values on which Australian society rests, but also, and increasingly, serves to obfuscate the facts, with the purpose or effect of conferring legitimacy on what is plainly illegitimate. It allows those who would manipulate truth so as to present a biased point of view to do so while claiming that all they are doing is providing a balanced, impartial account.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the old left-wing adage that: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. That adage has been cited by the ABC and SBS as the reason they refuse to call terrorists terrorists.  Instead, they use terms such as ‘rebels’ and ‘militants’, which apply an air of legitimacy to those activities.  But there is no moral equivalence between dissent and murder.

I believe a media which fails to distinguish between good and evil, and which equates ‘balance’ with studied relativism, fails its constituency: if we are not willing to call terrorism evil, then we have lost any sense of truth.

If some journalists on the ABC and SBS are frankly sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah, or even on balance believe they have the stronger case, why don’t they have the courage to say so, rather than hiding behind a pretence of moral relativism? The cause of truth is not well served when those who have so much power to shape perceptions refuse to disclose, and be held accountable for, the perspective they take.

I noted earlier that the public broadcasters are not alone in adopting this attitude: those of you who are readers of The Age will doubtless know what I mean.

But there is a fact that distinguishes the public broadcasters from their privately owned counterparts: they are tax-payer funded. You and I have a choice about whether or not to buy The Age; we do not have a choice about whether to pay for the ABC and SBS.

There may be good reasons for this. But tax-payer funding must bring with it added responsibilities. Among those responsibilities is a commitment to values of truth, honesty and editorial balance that are not well-served in the examples I have cited tonight.

The Senate Estimates Process

Holding the public broadcasters to account for the manner in which they undertake their activities is an essential function of Parliament.

In three years as a Senator for Queensland in the national Parliament prior to becoming a Minister, I developed something of a reputation for my questioning of ABC and SBS management at Budget Estimates Committees.  And while I have been frequently criticised for my activities, I firmly believe media bias is an issue of concern to many Australians.

The findings of a Morgan Poll on the subject published 18 months ago were alarming – or at the very least should have been alarming – for members of the media.

Two thirds of Australians surveyed said they believed Australian newspapers were biased. 86 percent of Australians believe that newspaper journalists are biased, 75 percent of Australians held the same view about talk back hosts, and 73 percent about TV reporters.

Fewer than 40 percent of Australians believed that radio news reporting was accurate and fair.

Only 18 percent of Australians believed radio announcers were honest and ethical.

And a separate poll of Australian journalists found that 40 percent believed News Limited was the most biased media organisation, followed by 25 percent who thought the ABC was the most biased.

And of even greater concern for media organisations, was a finding that Australians’ regard for the ethics and honesty of journalists had fallen since December 2003.

These are very large numbers and must concern the profession of journalism.  And they more than justify the interest in the work of our public broadcasters at Senate Estimates hearings – an interest, I am pleased to say, that has been vigorously continued by my Liberal Party colleagues Senator Ronaldson and Senator Fierravanti-Wells since my elevation to the Ministry.

The work we have done has been a hard slog. But we have had some success. In fact, three years of forensic questioning by all three of us at Senate Estimates Hearings paid off in May this year, with an admission of the ABC’s double standard on terrorism, to which I referred earlier.  Some of you may be familiar with this outcome, but for the sake of everyone else, please permit me to provide you with some brief background.

The ABC adopted a policy around 2001, that when it came to referring to groups as “terrorist organisations”, they would be guided by the United Nations. It meant nothing to them that the Australian government had proscribed groups as terrorists. They would worship at the altar of the UN.

In 2002, then head of international operations at ABC News, John Tulloh, issued a memo to journalists and I quote. “Do not refer to Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organisations. There have rightly been complaints about this usage. Those groups are not on the UN list of terrorist organisations and must not be referred to as such.”

So there is a very stark indication from the ABC that they bowed to pressure.

Over the course of the next three years, I found dozens of examples where ABC journalists had referred to some 20 different groups as terrorist organisations, even though they weren’t on the UN list. While ABC management had been quick to act when it involved protecting Palestinian terrorist groups, there is no evidence that the ABC took any action when it came to those other terrorist groups.  They could be described as terrorists – but the Palestinian groups could not.

The ABC was asked to explain this apparent double standard at Estimates hearings. What was their policy and how was it applied? They could not give a coherent answer. They muttered things like “appropriate circumstances”, “blatant acts of terrorism” and “demonstrably a terror group”.

The ABC was asked why its journalists had referred to Jemaah Islamiah as a terrorist organisation after the first Bali bombings, even though JI – at that point – wasn’t on the UN list.

They said it was because of the links between J-I and Al-Qaeda. I asked what evidence of those links journalists had when they referred to J-I as a terror group. Again, they failed to answer my question.

I then gave them numerous examples of evidence of links between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, and asked if they would therefore call Hezbollah terrorists for the same reason.

True to form, they failed to answer that question as well.

But we persevered. I asked then managing Director of the ABC Russel Balding this question:

What is the difference between terrorists in southern Russia killing children in a school and terrorists in Jerusalem killing school children on a bus?

Incredibly, he couldn’t even provide an answer to that question.

But we were not deterred by the ABC’s obfuscation. We persevered, until the ABC news chief John Cameron painted himself into a corner, where he could no longer say that while there had been a blatant terrorist attack in Israel, and the bomber was demonstrably a terrorist, the group that sent the bomber was not a terrorist group.

The ABC tried desperately to wriggle out of the issue by saying that they would describe them as a terrorist organisation in the context of an individual act of terrorism.

In other words, they are a terrorist organisation one day, but not the next.

Mr Cameron, the news boss, then issued an internal memo to journalists explaining the ABC position. Or, I should say, attempting to explain it.

Allow me to quote from the memo – which has been leaked by concerned whistleblowers.

“That is not to say that we label an entire organisation as a terrorist organisation in perpetuity on the basis of acts of terror committed by its members.”

So the ABC is suggesting that some sort of statute of limitations or moratorium should apply to terrorist groups. If Islamic Jihad doesn’t send in a suicide bomber for, what, six months, it should no longer be referred to as a terrorist organisation.

And notice how they attempt to put some distance between individual terrorists and terrorist organisations.  It really is as farcical as that.

Another small win at Estimates came in the revelation that Mr Cameron had banned journalists from using the expression “our troops in Iraq.” The ABC tried to justify this by claiming that, as they are not the ABC’s troops, then strictly speaking their journalists shouldn’t say “our troops in Iraq”.

The fallaciousness of this argument was revealed when Senator Fierravanti-Wells and I produced no fewer than 670 subsequent braches of the “our” rule, including our diggers and our Anzacs. But the only time the ABC did anything about it was when it concerned Australian military involvement in Iraq.

The ABC acted, in other words, to vigilantly ensure its journalists did not refer to our servicemen and women, who are serving our country in Iraq, as “our troops”: this even though the “policy” – and I say “policy” in quotes, because it so plainly lacks any rationale --  on which that prohibition was based was being flagrantly disregarded in many other areas.

The double standard this involves is obvious; the slant and bias that underpins it, is deeply troubling.

The danger to democracy

I’ve given you a lot of examples tonight to validate my thesis, and I hope that you have not regarded their use as tedious.  It is necessary when you mount an argument that you provide genuine and recent examples of the kinds of behaviour you are criticising.  Some people – including my critics who will pick over this speech – may claim that these examples are isolated or trivial.  In response I would say that the examples and the evidence are far from isolated, though time has forced me to discard dozens of further persuasive instances of bias and distortion of truth and fact. Moreover, the pattern I have pointed to is anything but transient, especially when it is repeated hour after hour, day after day. 

Rather, the trend is deeply disturbing because it points strongly to a pattern of behaviour in the media which seeks to justify, or at least excuse, the actions of terrorists, and to downplay the role of western governments and – I’m prepared to say it – “our troops” in combating terrorism in its various forms.  What I have talked about tonight is evidence of the moral relativism which I outlined at the beginning of my remarks, and of that relativism being used to slant the news in ways that bear no relationship to the search for truth.

This bias is  all the more serious because it makes the fight against terrorism harder.  To win this fight, we must be united in our abhorrence and condemnation of the actions of terrorists.  There is no room for moral equivocation, and the justification it provides for the senseless slaughter of innocents.

When the public is conditioned to abide, and even accept, terrorism as a legitimate form of political expression, the terrorists are heartened and gain strength.  When that conditioning weakens the resolve of the electorate to reject evil in all its forms – be it terrorism, dictatorship or genocide - our democratic institutions become vulnerable.

This is the real danger of bias in the media – not just because it subtly changes the collective attitude of the nation, but because such a shaping of collective attitude can then corrode the pillars of our democracy and our way of life. In the short term, it undermines our determination to pursue the fight against terrorism in all of its forms; in the longer run, it displaces and even replaces a commitment to fundamental values with a moral relativism that is inconsistent with a sound democracy and a healthy society.

The Way Forward

So what is to be done here?  From a political perspective, we will hold the line.  We will continue to speak out in support of truth and good, and we will continue to criticise the excesses of the media, particularly that part of it which is publicly funded.

We need more people to do this, and I am encouraged that there is an increasing willingness in the mainstream press to give space to the Andrew Bolts and the Mark Steyns and people like them.

One of my colleagues outside the Parliament recently asked me why, if the Government feels a need to fund program production, it restricts this to the public broadcaster.  Why not, I am asked, rely on a fully independent Board to fund program production not only at the public sector broadcasters but also at commercial channels? Wouldn’t such a fully contestable arrangement provide the competitive disciplines our public sector broadcasters now seem to lack?

Now I’m the Minister for Ageing, and not the Minister for Communications, but let me communicate my strong belief that we need to explore those ideas and others in an open and constructive debate.

As many of you know, I am, in my role as a Senator, most concerned about the protection of core values.  I am proud that these days we acknowledge the heritage of these values, and in this area as in others, I am committed to ensuring that we stand up for what it is that has made and continues to make Australia the great country it is.

I know that you too, are deeply committed to this nation – a nation to which the Jewish community has made such an outstanding contribution.

Today, with the threats that bear on us, it is more important than ever that that community speaks with one strong and clear voice in support of the Government’s stand against international terrorism and its fellow-travellers.

It should not be the role of the national broadcasters to misrepresent that threat, to downplay it, or to somehow represent Israel and the United States as the cause, simply because of the left-wing prejudices of a large number of strategically-placed journalists and producers.

I would urge all of you who care about this issue to be ever vigilant when it comes to bias in the media.

It is through that vigilance that our public broadcasters must learn that it is not acceptable for them to have one language for talking about the murder by terrorists of innocent children in Southern Russia and another language for talking about the murder by terrorists of innocent children in Haifa, Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem.

The fact is that the death of children is tragic and abhorrent, regardless of nationality, race or creed. But those who fire from behind the backs of children, knowing full well the carnage they will cause, should not be rewarded with precisely the media attention that they seek; rather, they should be forced by the media to take moral responsibility for the atrocities they commit.

It is this willingness to confront the issue of moral responsibility that is lacking and that we must set right.

We must rescue the concept of truth from the moral relativism that would reduce it to nothing more than a slogan to support one political ideology over another.  We must assert universal human values that are grounded in our human nature as creatures imbued with an innate dignity that must be respected, protected and nourished by our social institutions and laws.

It is a recipe for social suicide if we allow arguably the most influential and important social institution of democratic communities, namely a free press, to slip into an uncritical acceptance of the illogical post-modern doctrine that there is no such as thing as capital T truth, and that what I call true and good might be diametrically opposed to what you call true and good, yet somehow both are equally true and good.

Yielding ground on this core point would make our commitment to a free media a suicide pact – one of whose victims would surely be the very freedom of expression that is so important to our Australian democracy.

I, and I am sure, you, are not willing to be parties to any such pact.  It is for this reason that we must not merely continue, but redouble, our efforts to make the media accountable.

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you tonight.  Thank you for supporting what is true and good.  And thank you for your friendship.

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