Few students may recognize Visiting Lecturer in Public Policy Stephen Fuzesi, Jr. from around campus, and fewer still may realize that in the past he has served as vice president, chief counsel, and secretary of Newsweek, Inc. Here only for the spring semester, Fuzesi teaches the class “All the News That’s Fit to Post: Issues for Content Creators in the New Global News World” through the Center for the Study of Public Life. Fuzesi sat down with The Argus to discuss his career at Newsweek, international freedom of speech, and synergies.
The Argus: What is on your bookshelf?
Stephen Fuzesi: I’ll start off with this book we were talking about in class, Eric Schmidt’s “The New Digital Age.” I think it’s a really interesting book looking forward to how technology and globalization affect how the future will develop and look. One interesting thing it has is how our virtual identity might actually become more important in the long run than our physical identity. As he notes in here, “most parents realize that the most powerful way to help their child is to have a privacy and security talk even before their sex talk.”
My real bookshelf really tries to include historical and forward-looking kind of books. Thinking about free expression and thinking about the future of media, it’s always really important to also take a book like Anthony Lewis’ book [“Freedom for the Thought That We Hate”], which focuses on the role of the First Amendment in American journalism, and see how it bridges to where we are. One of the interesting similarities is that in American culture, we always believe that truth prevails just as long as it can be freely spoken. In that way, the Internet is the same philosophy, that as long as it’s open and transparent, as long as you allow information to flow, ultimately truth will prevail.
A: What got you interested in all of these issues of digital age media and freedom of speech?
SF: Partly it’s my personal life, and partly it’s the intellectual aspect of my personal life. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, so I was born in a time that Hungary was a dictatorship. I grew up as a young person recognizing the importance of access to information. I spent a lot of my life as an international lawyer, so I got very sensitive to how those cultures impact each other. I spent a very substantial part of my life as general counsel at Newsweek, working with media organizations and media values. In the last 5 to 10 years, as each one of us goes personally through changes in the way we consume news, I started reading and writing and talking much more about that and trying to put it in an intellectual framework.
A: You had a long career at Newsweek. Can you tell me a little more about that and the sort of issues, controversies, decisions you had to deal with?
SF: When you’re a general counsel of a traditional media organization, you have two functions: one is to deal with the entity as a corporation, as a business, but second, what intrigued me more is to help editors and writers collect information and be sensitive to the risks and opportunities in publishing it. What I enjoyed the most was working with editors and writers on controversial stories and collecting the information, and secondly international expansion. Probably the highlight was Newsweek’s original cover of the Monica Lewinski-President Clinton relationship and the initial writing about it.
From an international perspective, what I enjoyed most was working with foreign partners, starting Newsweek magazines in foreign languages. In my time period, we had Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian, Polish, and what’s important to see there is we tried to be involved with supporting and working with emerging economies, emerging democracies, emerging societies in developing a fully credible, nationally distributed news magazine, which contained national news from the United States combined with local news written to an international standard.
A: Why did you leave Newsweek?
SF: It was 2010, and Newsweek was until then owned by the Washington Post, and when it was sold, I left. I was general counsel of Newsweek and Newsweek International, and I had by then gotten quite active in speaking at universities, teaching some individual seminars, and quite active in nonprofit organizations that relate to international free expression, so I thought that would be a great next step.
The critical changes I see are the impact of technology and the impact of internationalization. That’s what I’m trying to write and work and think more about, and get younger people interested in either creating news, or people who would regulate it, work in it, or work in politics and political activities which are impacted by the news. What I’m trying to do is take core concepts to good journalism like truth, trust, reputation, and help people see how those concepts are perceived differently in different cultures and how those concepts have been evolving as we have more technology and speed involved with the delivery and collection of news. We evolve much more into a world in which social media and search media have a very direct impact on the news we have access to and the nature of the news.
A: What brought you specifically to Wesleyan?
SF: I think Wesleyan was particularly interesting to me because of the student community here and the nature of Wesleyan, which I think is one of the most inquisitive and creatively oriented student bodies. The second thing that attracted me to it, and what I hope to remain involved in maybe in the times ahead, is the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. I think Wesleyan is looking at it, how to reinforce it and strengthen it, and that to me was an interesting challenge to work with.
There are a lot of synergies here at Wesleyan that can be built based on the Wesleyan student body, the Wesleyan culture. There are tremendous creative energies and creative interests. One of the interesting challenges is how to take Allbritton and combine those creative energies and creative thinking with a little bit of policy focus.
A: Was it difficult for you to teach this class at Wesleyan, where there are no journalism offerings?
SF: That’s really the opportunity and the need. I think a lot of students are interested in either going into journalism or in the impact of news on politics and culture, and there is certainly a lot of faculty interest. I thought I could bring a perspective and help meet some of that interest. I think the Allbritton Center, with its multidisciplinary focus, is a great place to have classes like this.
A: What are your plans for when the semester ends?
SF: Plans for next year are flexible at the moment, partly because I want to devote a lot of time to organizations I’m involved with. One’s called the Center for International Media Assistance, which is in Washington and focuses on support of media development globally, and secondly with Words Without Borders, which is the largest website for translated foreign fiction literature. With Wesleyan I particularly hope to continue to see if this course can be taught in other ways, and also remain involved in thinking through the future and growth of the Allbritton Center.
One of the special things at Wesleyan I learned is what a special community this is. I’ve been to lots of universities, but for better or worse I’ve never experienced such a community of faculty that’s [so] close to each other and students who really love spending time and being together and learning together. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to see this model of multidisciplinary learning. It’s a great example of how, in a modern, technologically fueled time, a university community can still be built where people are so supportive and respectful of each other, perhaps because of such a diverse set of interests unified by a common love of learning.