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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Guest Opinion: The legacy of Bob Beyers is a lesson for Stanford Guest Opinion: The legacy of Bob Beyers is a lesson for Stanford (January 15, 2003)

by Spyros Andreopoulos

Since Bob Beyer's death last October, I have found myself preoccupied thinking of him, trying to distill just what it was that made him a singularly poignant and beloved human being.

At Stanford we collaborated and shared a deep interest in journalism. But there was something more that drew so many of us to him.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Joel Shurkin, who worked for Bob for 12 years, recently wrote: "If Bob isn't the patron saint of public information officers, he should be."

Indeed, especially at universities when it is all too easy for a campus journalist to become dispirited by the myriad problems of large institutions, Bob always managed news problems with a sense of optimism and possibility.

Bob ran a unique operation. He believed that journalism, even university journalism, should be about informing, not preaching, and showing both sides of the story.

His writing was simple, direct, with strong, active verbs. But accuracy was everything. And, always, fairness.

He believed passionately that the institution was best served by complete honesty; that university PR operations should run under the same ethical standards as newspaper newsrooms, totally independent of the bureaucracy and administration. And he consistently proved he was right.

Bob's shop resembled the newsroom of the New York Times, in miniature. Over the years his staff included a collection of the most talented writers, editors and photographers, some of whom went on to higher positions or to gain national recognition. Their meticulous reports for the Stanford Observer and Campus Report are now the historical record of how Stanford evolved into one of the world's great universities.

When writers applied for a job, Bob gave them a test. Shurkin, recalling his own job interview, said, "Every question he asked me concerned ethics and how one would handle politically tricky stories. If you answered like a traditional public relations person would, you would fail."

When I arrived at Stanford in 1963, Bob's reputation was national. Stanford ranked number one in a survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on which campus news services journalists considered most reliable.

Bob was known for his candor and courage in reporting developments most PR people would ignore. He believed that a university is a marketplace of ideas. They must be reported and let people decide what to do with them, even ideas you didn't like. He could list millions of dollars Stanford received in grants or licenses on faculty inventions because of his press releases.

He believed the best way to handle bad news was to tell the truth. Bob was the inventor of the pre-emptive press release. If something bad was going to happen, Bob put out a full news release before the press found out. His theory was that in getting the story out first you defused it, and spared yourself from having to explain later not only what happened but also why it was covered up. Potential scandals that could cling around in the media for weeks or months would go away in a few days.

When Bob put out a release, reporters believed every word. He never lied. He never obfuscated. He never weaseled. And reporters and editors knew it. The rules were simple. You reported and wrote the whole story. The only people who got to see what you wrote before publication were Bob and the source, who would check it for accuracy only. No one else; no dean, administrators or department chairman.

The result was unique: Not only did the working press trust the News Service but so also did the Stanford faculty, staff and students.

Bob was adored by the faculty and despised by some in the university bureaucracy. The legend was that administrators would clear their desktops when Beyers came to visit. They knew that, like every good reporter, he could read upside down.

For years, however, he was protected by a succession of university presidents and university-relations vice presidents, most notably Lyle Nelson and Bob Rosenzweig. When these men retired or left for new posts, the clock began ticking.

A new style of management was in place at Stanford, and it brought in a consultant to recommend what should be done. The verdict was that Bob was a national treasure and should continue as editor-at-large but someone else should manage the News Service.

Broken-hearted, Bob took early retirement. He had made a fatal philosophical mistake: He believed that if you loved an institution it would love you back.

As soon as he was gone, he was vindicated. The university experienced the indirect-cost scandal, the biggest in its 100-year history. Soon the lawyers started writing the press releases to counter devastating government disclosures, many of which were exaggerations. The university sank into disgrace. It would not have happened if Bob Beyers was handling the press or if the administration had followed his principles.

Bob later helped the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Pacific News Service, among others, during their formative years. And he and his wife, Charlotte, launched Peregrine Productions, the Emmy-winning documentary television company dedicated to health education.

Bob was an evangelist for his beliefs, but always in the most decorous and civilized manner. Whether he spoke to you as a professional on educational issues or as a friend advising you on personal matters, he managed to project a sense of direction and hope.

Bob Beyers was my last hero.

Spyros Andreopoulos is the director emeritus of the Stanford Medical Center News Bureau. He can be e-mailed at . Robert Beyers directed the Stanford News Service from 1961 to 1990. A memorial service was held Jan. 6.


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