Imua 'Iolani

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Honolulu, Hawai'i

Keables Scholar Jelani Cobb Visits ʻIolani

     As 2020 approaches, more people are starting to pull away from the traditional sources of news, such as newspapers and the printed word. The next generation is now grasping social media as the best way to receive information. Since social media began in 1997, it has democratized the spread of knowledge, from one entity broadcasts or an online newspaper to individual websites from which one person can reach a broad audience, depending on one’s number of followers. Now more than 2.77 billion people are tuned into the new online media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. With that many voices, the spread of inaccurate information is bound to happen. Fall Keables Scholar Jelani Cobb addressed this issue and more in his speech to four classes of ‘Iolani students, including Newsroom, on November 29. Talks to the `Iolani and island community continued throughout the week.

     In talking about “fake news” and respecting First Amendment rights, Dr. Cobb reminded the audience that this is not a recent phenomenon. He used historical and personal examples to illustrate this, one being from the McCarthy Era in the 1950s when Senator John McCarthy accused people he disliked of being communists. McCarthy would tell so many prolific lies that  the media, was forced to constantly change the way they reported their stories while fact-checking his comments. For example, a newspaper heading at that time might say “McCarthy says Russians are Invading America (They Are Not).” This example exemplified Cobb’s views on the importance of truthfulness in journalism.

     “This lack of truthfulness is not a new issue. Are misleading or false statements lies? We ask ourselves this question, in some form or another, every day,” Cobb said gravely, surveying the room.. “We should have a very high bar for calling someone a liar. When confronted with information that goes counter to your beliefs, you don’t change your beliefs, you change your opinion of the person who accuses you.”

     The conversation shifted when Cobb opened the floor for questions. Eager students raised their hands, anxious to pick Cobb’s mind about questions ranging from jobs in the journalism industry,  and Cobb’s opinion on Donald Trump’s stance on journalism, and why people are liable for believing fake news.

     “I knew someone would ask me this.  In my opinion, the main cause [of succumbing to fake news] is believing you are smarter than everyone else,” Cobb said jokingly. ”

Cobb also encouraged students to take a skeptical approach to current issues and to always ask questions.

     “We have become passive recipients of information,” Cobb said,  his deep voice echoing through the Seminar Room. “Anytime someone says ‘they,’you should immediately interrupt them and ask ‘who?’ ‘They’ is almost always an indicator of sloppy thinking.”

With this last piece of advice, ‘Iolani students gave the impressive Keables Scholar a well-deserved round of applause. According to the `Iolani School website, the Harold Keables Scholar program, established in 2018, compliments ‘Iolani’s long standing Keables Chair program. Each fall, ‘Iolani’s Keables Scholar program brings to campus an outstanding writer whose clear commitment to education can open students’ eyes to the power of the written word. Both the Keables Chair and the Keables Scholar programs are supported by the generous donations of hundreds of ‘Iolani faculty, students, staff, and ‘ohana to the Harold Keables Fund.

     Dr. Jelani Cobb is Ira A. Lipton professor of journalism at Columbia University and a writer for The New Yorker addressed several `Iolani classes and members of the island community during his week-long stay. Cobb received his PhD in American History from Rutgers University and has taught at Spelman College and Rutgers University. He has spoken to audiences nationally and globally on worldwide problems such as race, politics, and culture.


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