Time M.E. Rick Stengel to Butler Grads: ‘Knowledge Is Not Free’

By Steve Cohn

On May 12, Time managing editor (since June 2006) Rick Stengel–who played basketball while an undergrad at Princeton more than three decades ago–was the commencement speaker at Indianapolis’ Butler University, which was the NCAA men’s basketball runner-up in 2010 and 2011.

But basketball was not on Stengel’s mind last Saturday. Rather, it was the importance of separating information, which "is everywhere, and it’s largely free," with knowledge, "which is scarce and valuable–and you might just have to pay for it."

"Information is data; knowledge is understanding. Information is statistics; knowledge is insight. Information is foreground; knowledge is background," he said.

Stengel gave this close-to-the-vest example:

“Information feels like it’s free because it comes to you in a frictionless way with a click on your keyboard. But the information – the knowledge you get from a Time story about the Middle East comes at the cost of keeping correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Jerusalem.That’s not free. And those people are often risking their lives to bring you that information and knowledge.

"A comment on a blog is free. But you will have to pay for the insight of [Time columnists] Joe Klein or…Fareed Zakaria for there is a deep investment that has been made in their experience, their talent, their contacts, their perspective. That’s worth a lot."

A lighter–and newsworthy–moment came when a baby’s cries induced Stengel to quip: "Somebody breastfeed that baby."  It followed the controversy over Time‘s May 21 Are You Mom Enough? cover story.

Stengel, who was a Rhodes Scholar, was presented an honorary doctor of humane letters (Honoris Causa) degree from Butler. This was his third commencement address while at Time, following those delivered at Wittenberg University (Ohio) in 2009 and at Wheaton College (Massachusetts) in 2009