Quote of the day, Jan. 21

The late Matt Duffy at the Federal National Council election symposium he held at Zayed University in the fall of 2011. (Photo by Zajel staff)

Matt J. Duffy, on a free press

“The benefits of a free press have been widely documented. By accurately reporting the news, citizens gain an understanding of their local, national and international issues, while journalists can also serve as an independent monitor to those in positions of power. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Dr. Amartya Sen, famously notes that no country with a free press has ever endured mass starvation such as the 1943 Bengal famine suffered under repressive British censorship.”

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I first met journalist and professor Matt Duffy, who died last Wednesday in Roswell, Ga., on an international video conference call when I applied for a job on the College of Communication and Media Sciences faculty at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. He, along with Jack Hillwig, were the only ones who asked me questions about my research and, as Matt would put it, what I professed as a professor. Of course, there was only one answer: freedom. My Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Florida had been about the history of the First Amendment, or at least one narrow episode in that history.

Yet, while I thought I was a professor of freedom, the truth is that not only am I an amateur freedom lover, in 2011 I was about to become colleagues with not just a professional freedom fanatic. Rather, this man would be a (professional) martyr for freedom.

And that was Matt Jones Duffy, who earned his master’s degree in journalism at the University of Georgia and his Ph.D. at Georgia State University. In the next 15 months, I would see a man teach his two great passions, journalism and freedom, on the highest level. And that level, in teaching, is the level of inspiration. A generation of young Abu Dhabi women suddenly caught the fire and passion of journalism. Three of them went on to work for The National newspaper. One worked for CNN’s Abu Dhabi bureau. Others had internships at Sky News Arabia, Al Jazeera and various Arabic-language newspapers. One received her master’s degree in journalism from Newcastle University in England. A male graduate student wrote an occasional op-ed column in an Emirati newspaper and now is about to embark on his Ph.D. in mass communication in the U.K. At least a half a dozen of his students have gone on to get their master’s degrees.

And all of this against the grain of society where mothers and fathers don’t want their daughters to work in the news media.

One of those students, when I told her last year that Matt was dying from cancer, told me that I must tell him how important it was for him to know that he changed her life. She told me to make contact with him over this past summer to let him know.

Sadly, I was not able to do that. When I had seen Matt the previous summer, he had told me he was having to take leave from his position at Kennesaw State University and that he was not going to survive this time. He wanted to spend the rest of his live with wife Ann and their two children. He also told me he would take a shot at one more experimental drug.

I never saw him again, even though we had moved home to the U.S. Every time I emailed him, Ann would say they were doing something else or were off traveling. I got the picture. Family first. And only family.

Now, with Matt gone, I remembered all the things he taught me about journalism, even if I was a decade older. He taught me not to put down the digital world. He encouraged me to get on Twitter. “Bulla, that’s where all the journalists are now.” He taught me to say good-bye to print, something I can’t quite do, but I get the general drift better than I did when I was living in Iowa. He taught me to travel, travel, travel. To see the world, and not just the usual places that Americans and Europeans feel safe in. He went to Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan. When he heard me propose taking a group of students to World Press Freedom Day 2012 in Tunis, he said go for it. One of our students approached the sheikh who was the president of the university, and the sheikh said, “Go.” I always wondered if Matt had somehow paved the way toward that yes answer from the president of the university. We would have gone too, but the Arab Spring came and the streets of Tunis were not safe at that time, so we had to cancel the trip. Yet that was the way Matt was: Take a chance.

How did he get that way? I don’t know for sure, but I understand that when he was at East Carolina University as an undergraduate, he did an investigative series that netted about 20 stories on the issue. The university administration was left very uneasy. Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. How many student journalists go that many miles to uncover the truth? I suspect there was a great teacher behind him at ECU, but only those with him at The East Carolinian know that. They should tell that part of the story.

Matt never changed his standards, and his curiosity about the way the world worked was always on. He taught his ZU students the same way he taught his students at Georgia State, Berry and Kennesaw. He would train his critical eye on anybody or anything. He encouraged one ZU student to investigate why so much food was going to waste at the Women As Global Leaders conference. Instead of avoiding the powerful, he went to their majlis and talked to them face to face. Instead of playing the pretend game that is the staple in Western Asia, Matt would tell it like it is. There is very little real journalism there. Most of the column inches in the newspapers are cut from press releases, from government edicts, or are written by journalists who have no choice but to avoid the red line or lose their jobs. You can be critical, but never of a regional government. And he was just as curious about everyday culture in Abu Dhabi as he was about national media law. He knew where every good tea shop was and where to get a five-dirham shave from a Bangladeshi barber.

Matt should be given a Congressional Medal of Honor for the wild notion of starting a Society of Professional Journalist student chapter in the capital city of the U.A.E. And, while I am at it, Georgia’s journalism hall of fame should induct him as soon as possible. His career took him to newspapers in both Boston and the suburbs of Atlanta. He wrote a column on journalism for the Gulf News. He was a blogger from the beginning of the genre and a prolific social media poster. His East Carolina journalism days alone are HOF material.

This is a sad time for his family and friends, and most of all he will be missed for that glint in his eye, his willingness to share a few minutes over coffee, his striped trousers, and his bubbling enthusiasm for learning and for young people.

For those of us who worked with him on SPJ and Zajel, he will always be heroic, no matter what happened in the summer of 2012.

Of course, wherever he is now, I know that other than his family, there is one other thing he is thinking: “Go Pirates!”

R.I.P., Matt.

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