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See also, Commencement Remarks by Mitchell Marcus, Chair of the Faculty Senate.

Risk It

Commencement Remarks by journalist and broadcaster James Lehrer.

It is a supreme honor and pleasure to be with all of you here this morning, in this great Pennsylvania sunshine. I am most particularly pleased to be honored in the same breath with Joan Ganz Cooney, Eric Hobsbawm, Irwin Jacobs, Richard E. Smalley, and all of you, our sister and brother graduates in the class of 2002. If we are in fact known by the company we keep, it will never get any better for me than it is right now. Thank you very much.

Let it be known that Philadelphia played a slightly unusual part in my life. For nearly two years I yelled out the word, "Philadelphia", into a microphone, several times a day. It was in the 1950s in the south Texas town of Victoria. I was going to a small junior college at the time, and I worked at night as a ticket agent at the Continental Trailways bus depot, and, among other things, here is what I did...

"May I have your attention please. This is your last call for Continental Trailways 8:10 p.m. Silversides air-conditioned thru-liner to Houston and Dallas. Now leaving from lane one next to the building for... Inez, Edna, Ganado, Louise, El Campo, Pierce, Wharton, Kendleton, Beasley, Rosenberg, Richmond, Sugarland, Stafford, Missouri City, Houston, Huntsville, Buffalo, Corsicana and Dallas. Connecting in Dallas, for Tulsa, Joplin, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. All aboard! Don't forget your baggage please."

That proves that if you learn something early, and it's totally irrelevant, you'll never forget it. I also would like to suggest that the University of Pennsylvania could have looked long and hard before they found another commencement speaker who could have done what I just did, or as my wife would say, and would have.

And speaking of commencement speakers, please be assured that I am well aware of the fact that the commencement speaker is the least relevant person at a commencement.

I have been to hundreds of commencement exercises; I have been there as a reporter, an undergraduate, a graduate, as a parent, an uncle, a neighbor, as a friend, and I promise you I can not remember what any of the commencement speakers said, I can't even remember what any of them looked like. So, I know that all of you are here to graduate, or to honor and appreciate the graduation of a loved one or someone you cherish; because I understand that, I promise not to keep you long.

I have been honored mostly for my work in journalism, so I think it's only right and proper that I say a few things about the practice of journalism in America today. Unfortunately those few things, I regret to say, are mostly not very good right now. In fact, I have made a point of going from commencement address to commencement address, street corner to street corner, door to door, sometimes, it seems, spreading words of alarm, lamenting why, I believe, journalists have fallen in the public esteem opinion polls down there with Congress, lawyers, and now even with the accountants. No offense to any members of those groups who are present here today.

Journalism is in trouble, in my opinion, with the public for reasons that are obvious to all. A tendency at times for broadcast journalism in particular to be something more akin to professional wrestling. Something you watch rather than to believe. The savagery of some of the our practices--predatory stake-outs, coarse invasions of privacy, talk show shouting, no-source reporting--the blurring of the lines between straight news, analyses, and opinion.

A touch of arrogance--that seems to have afflicted some of my colleagues--it can be seen in their words, sneers and body language. The message being that only the journalists of America are pure enough to judge all others. A new and growing confusion about the need to be entertaining, a tendency to see news as an entertainment commodity, rather than as information, and the list goes on and on.

Now, If I had been talking to you eight months ago, I would have left it here, on a rather sour, down note. But, September 11th did come, and it brought tragedy to the lives of thousands of Americans and others, fears to millions, and God knows what else to us and the rest of the world that it will bring before it's finally over. But, amidst the horror and the awfulness, there have been some heartening things happening, and one of them is what it has done to American journalism.

I believe that, for the most part, the story and its many pieces and tentacles have been responsibly covered by the mainstream news organizations, electronic as well as print. But, more importantly, it has brought home a message, loud and clear, to some of my sister and fellow practitioners. That there is, and has been, a serious world out there that deserves to be covered seriously. Now that all of us have learned about Afghanistan and the Taliban and Pakistan and Uzbeikistan, and countless other new places and people. And as we discuss and debate the power of the United States, there's never been anything like it, this power and the debate about how we exercise it. The threats to our peace, and our way of life, I am finding more and more journalists saying: it's taken a tragedy of enormous proportions, but maybe, just maybe we are returning to our roots. And those roots are in the business of information, not entertainment. If you want to be entertained, go to the movies or the circus, or the carnival. But if you want to be informed, read my newspaper or magazine, watch or listen to my television or radio broadcast.

We'll see how long this lasts, but I am hopeful also by the coverage more recently of the crisis in the Middle East. It has, for the most part, given me more reason for hope. I know of no more difficult and incendiary a story to cover than the Middle East. People on all sides feel strongly about what happens there.

And it takes great effort sometimes for journalists to keep on an even and steady course when it comes to reporting that story, much less the further and separate steps of offering analysis and opinion about it. And before that, I believe coverage of the Enron story and its many parts also showed an additional glimmer of hope. Although coming to the story late, I think, again, most of the press that I have observed have gone at the story with a seriousness the story deserves.

It has also, I think, jarred a few in business journalism into realizing that cheerleading for Wall Street as well as particular stocks and companies isn't going to be get it any more. Covering business and finance means covering annual reports and various deals and accounting practices as well.

Then, of course, along with all of these reasons for optimism about the future of journalism--comes the Letterman/Koppel matter. Is the individuals aside, what matters in that saga, I believe, is what, if anything, it says about the future of serious journalism, as practiced, at least, on television in large organizations with needs that are not exclusively journalistic any more.

The fact is, the possible moving of one late night 30-minute television program, does not mean the end of television news as we know it. There are now more ways to receive news than ever before. With the coming of the two C-span channels and the cable news channels--and the growing number of news web sites--there are more outlets for news now than there have ever been. The issue may be only one of transition. Maybe we are moving to a time when the major commercial broadcast networks--C.B.S. and N.B.C. as well as A.B.C. --get out of the news business; they go about the business of entertaining, and leave informing to others. That may be a huge tragedy--if and when it happens--or could be only another of those important milestones, called change, called tomorrow. And as they say in journalism--only time will tell.

And, I must say, the increasing prospects of wall-to-wall O.J.-like coverage of the Robert Blake murder trial prompts me to have some serious shudders about what that telling could be. But, as I said, we'll see.

Now, and finally, some true-blue commencement speaker advice for my fellow and sister members of the class of 2002. I hope you didn't think you were going to get away from here today without a little of that.

First and foremost, do not a mistake what is happening here today. The fact that you are getting a diploma from one of America's finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated. Some of the dumbest people I know have degrees from some of America's greatest institutions of higher learning. They took their diploma in hot little hand, and proceeded to never read a book again, to never entertain another fresh or new idea, and, most tragically for their society and country, never again paid attention to much of anything other than themselves, to much of anything that was happening around them, or to others. Please, please do not do that. Leave here today caring about your mind, and your neighborhood, and your government, and your country, and your world.

This post-September 11 world and its many problems and challenges require the wisdom, energy and commitment of us all, and for you and me, more than everyone else, there is a special responsibility to get involved in the debates about the solutions and to stay involved in the efforts to implement them.

That's because we are the privileged ones, the educated ones, the fortunate ones. We are the ones who got the great educations. We are the ones who got the encouragement and the help from parents, or teachers, or preachers or friends, or God. So involvement and responsibility are not options for us, they are obligations, and not just obligations to others, but to ourselves, for our own sakes, for our own sense of ourselves.

Now, this is not about governments or institutions it's about us. You and me--individual Americans--individual citizens of the world. Again, it's not a political philosophy I am talking about, it is a state of mind. And I urge all of you in the class of 2002 to accept it, adopt it, and shout it this morning in this great place and in all other great places you go to from this day forward. But after you have shouted it awhile, I would also ask, please, that you hold down the shouting. Be civil. Be gentle. Be fair. One of the most serious losses we have as a society suffered in recent years, in my opinion, has been that of civil discourse.

There is meaness of communication alive in the land right now. I see it in the mail, I see it in the e-mail, I hear it on television and the radio and read it in the newspapers and magazines, the controversies involving the Middle East have definitely heightened the passion of the rhetoric and the discourse at the moment.

But there will always be differences, because there must always be differences in a democratic society. We are civilized people. We should disagree in a civilized manner. We should acknowledge the right of others to disagree with us. We should acknowledge the possibility that sometimes--some very rare times--we might even be wrong. And, strange as it may seem, we might learn more from listening than from talking, and more from talking than from shouting.

My second piece of advice is borrowed from Robinson Davies, the late great Canadian writer, who gave the commencement speech at Dowling College, on Long Island, New York, in 1992. He said to the graduates: "Get yourself a good anthology of poetry and keep it by your bed. Read a little before you go to sleep. Read a little if you wake up before the alarm goes off. Read a little if you wake up in the middle of the night. When you are idle during the day--on public transport, or at a committee meeting--let your mind dwell on what you have read. One book will last you a long time. Indeed it may last you a lifetime."

I would say, amen to that.

And finally, let me pass on something that comes in the form of the ultimate recycled quote. It is what a fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma said in a commencement speech to a fictional graduating class at a fictional state college in the fictional town of Hugotown, Oklahoma. He said,

As you search for your place in life I hereby advise you to take risks. Be willing to put your mind and your spirit, your time and your energy, your stomach and your emotions on the line. To search for a safe place is to search for an end to a rainbow that you will hate once you find it. Take charge of your own life. Create your own risks by setting your own standards, satisfying your own standards. Take charge. Congratulations to you all. At is unlikely that any of you will have occasion to remember either me or my commencement address. I don't blame you. But if by chance something does linger, I hope it's just that there was a guy up there who kept saying, risk, risk. The way to happiness is to risk it. Risk it.

It is the ultimate recycled quote because it is from a novel published in 1990 called The Sooner Spy; I wrote that novel. I stole those lines verbatium from a real commencement address I made myself in 1984 to my oldest daughter's college graduating class. So, it's a quote of a fictional quote that began as a real quote. Like I say, the ultimate recycled quote. But I mean it as much today as the day I said it the first time in real life in 1984. My fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, asked me to say he means it as well. He also joins me in congratulating each and every member of the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2002.

I'm delighted to be one of you. I'll see you at the reunions, along with Mrs. Cooney, Professor Hobsbawm, Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Smalley. And, please whatever else you do, always remember, what I said at the very beginning, wherever you go, don't forget your baggage please.

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 34, May 21, 2002


May 21, 2002
Volume 48 Number 34

A National Medal of Science for a pioneering Penn physicist.

SEAS selects two recipients for its annual awards.
Wharton gives awards to dozens of its faculty.
The concern about bicyclists on campus picks up momentum.
Search Committees are formed to advise on selecting two new deans.
Next Tuesday is PPSA's annual meeting and election.
Baccalaureate and Commencement speeches and photographs.
University Council committee year-end reports on Bookstores, Communications, and Community Relations.
The largest voluntary canine blood donor program in the US gets new wheels.

Recognized Holidays for faculty and staff, and revisions to the Academic Calendar.

A dozen new CCTV locations for public spaces are added to those previously approved.