In Memoriam: Cokie Roberts and Her Legacy of Pursuing the Truth
Image: LBJ Library
Although the news of journalist Cokie Robert’s passing came about two weeks ago, we wanted to take the time to honor her memory and her legacy of hard-hitting, honest journalism. Cokie will be remembered as pithy, unrelenting, and as a woman who blazed a trail in the male-dominated media landscape. But more than anything, her pursuit of the truth and the fundamental facts of every story that she reported is something that is to be cherished. Especially during this time where the media is being unscrupulously attacked by the President of the United States and where facts are malleable to fit political ideology rather than objective reality.
This op/ed she penned with her husband just days before her passing struck us as timely – even more so now than at the time, given the impeachment-level lies and distortions being told. The Albany Herald published it on September 16th, the day before she died. So news of her passing overshadowed her last words of wisdom. Here is an excerpt.
“Sharpie-gate really matters.
Yes, President Trump’s erroneous insistence that Alabama would be hit by Hurricane Dorian — and his ham-handed alteration of an official map to support his mistake — has spawned countless hilarious memes. But the larger implications of this incident are far more serious. It starkly symbolizes this president’s ferocious war on any facts or findings that contradict his warped view of the world.
He’s single-handedly destroying the ability of his own government to make sensible policy because he refuses to accept the work of professionals — scientists and economists, intelligence analysts and agronomists — who remain dedicated to their standards of independent nonpartisanship.
… When Trump inflates the size of his inaugural crowds, or denies hush-money payments to former girlfriends, he’s being outrageous, but not dangerous. But when his delusions undermine government policy, the consequences can be deeply damaging.
…When he denies that Russia tried to help him win the last election, he cripples our ability to protect the integrity of future elections.
No issue illustrates Trump’s war on facts better than climate change.
…The political leadership at NOAA bent to the president’s pressure, contradicting their own analysts and issuing a statement supporting Trump’s fallacious claims about the risk to Alabama. But the professionals in the agency are fighting back and defending their integrity.
Craig McLean, NOAA’s chief scientist, said the heads of his own agency had acted “inappropriately and incorrectly” when they undermined their staff’s forecast that Alabama was not in danger.
…“I have a responsibility to pursue these truths,” he added. “I will.”
McLean speaks for a vast army of professionals — judges and journalists, analysts and researchers — who share his determination. The best way to constrain the Lord of the Lies is to pursue the truth, wherever it leads.”
I (Monica) thought back to Roberts’ powerful essay when I learned last week that another NOAA political appointee had apparently bent to the will of the climate-denying President and his men. Chris Oliver, the Assistant Administrator of NOAA who leads the National Marine Fisheries Service, repeatedly refused to answer questions before a Senate Committee about whether climate change is impacting U.S. fisheries. The Senate was conducting oversight into fisheries “disasters” which trigger the potential for federal financial assistance to compensate fishermen who are impacted by such events – and Oliver repeatedly refused to discuss whether recent or future ocean warming would likely result in more fisheries disasters in the U.S. Indeed he said he had “no specific data to make a direct connection between that increase [in fisheries disaster declarations] and climate change.”
Just one day earlier, the United Nations issued another urgent climate change report – this one on the impact of warming on the oceans and Polar regions. According to the report, the consensus view of the leading scientists from around the world is that ocean warming will have devastating effects on many fisheries and will definitely shift many as they follow colder water, thus also having huge food security impacts on the communities that depend on those fish stocks. Oliver would have to have been on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean not to have read about this report – it made news world wide. Oliver, by the way, is a trained fisheries biologist who spent 16 years managing NOAA Fisheries in Alaska before assuming his current political job. It is simply not plausible for him to deny that ocean warming is impacting fisheries – particularly in Alaska.
The only conclusion I can draw is that he feared telling the truth – that he cared more about saving his political job than managing precious U.S. fisheries resources. The lies the President tells have consequences and ripple effects – and the public will be harmed by his and Chris Oliver’s lies. Every day that we are not managing our fisheries according to the best available science is a day in which we are losing the battle against time to turn the tide on climate change. We must call them on these lies, and do it for Cokie.
For me (Miro), the passing of Cokie Roberts impacted me more emotionally than I anticipated. When my family first moved to the United States in the early 1990s I barely spoke any English and school was an often frustrating experience where I wasn’t able to express myself or articulate what I felt to my teachers and my peers. I would frequently feel powerless and when I’d get home from school I would watch the news and marvel at anchors like Connie Chung and Cokie Roberts. It wasn’t because I was fully able to understand what they were saying but because they spoke with conviction and captivated their audience –even as a six-year-old, I knew that was the type of woman I wanted to become: one who could inspire people to listen to the meaning of my words.
My journey to co-founding Our Daily Planet was not linear but I got to a point in my life where I felt that there was a lot of improvement to be had in how climate and environmental issues were communicated to the public. Looking back on it, I think that the lessons I learned from watching (and learning English from) Cokie Roberts as a child stuck with me. I’ve always looked up to strong women who command an audience and I think that there is room for so many more of us in the world of politics, policy, and media. Cokie called it like it was and didn’t shy away from digging into controversial issues because she believed that the truth would prevail and drive the story. While that may seem like wishful thinking these days, I owe it to Cokie–a woman who has inspired me so much–to fight for the truth and to support the journalists who work tirelessly to bring it to us each day.
Our deepest sympathies go out to Cokie Roberts’ family and to all who loved her and looked up to her. May she rest in peace.