Click here for a photographic essay.
also, Commencement Remarks by Mitchell
Marcus, Chair of the Faculty Senate.
Commencement Remarks by journalist and broadcaster James
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.
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...
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
would say, amen to that.
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,
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.
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
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