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Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2003 Commencement

American University
School of Communication/Kogod School of Business
Commencement Address
Charlayne Hunter Gault, Johannesburg bureau chief of CNN
May 11, 2003

I consider it the greatest honor of all to be invited to take part in a moment that marks your milestone achievement. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you, and to join your ranks as an honorary member of this class.

May I first congratulate all of you and those who are a part of your success today - your loved ones and your professors, some of whom probably weren't loved at some point during this journey. But if I remember back to my own graduation day, if memory serves - I think by the time I got to this point, all was forgiven and in my case, all encompassed a lot.

In just three years time, the other black student and I along with many if not most of the 20,000 -odd other Georgia Dawgs had made a great historic leap forward, one that should not have been necessary, but was nonetheless. Many hearts and minds had been changed, as the face of hate focused on two young students were exposed for what it was: ugly and out of place - not only on the grounds of an institution dedicated to learning and enlightenment, but in a country whose ideals inspired those two young students to seek their rightful place in that place of learning and enlightenment.

That there was a serious breach in the practice of those ideals was repaired, however late - 170 late to be exact - but repaired nonetheless, in time for me and my high school classmate to prepare ourselves, as what young Georgians had for generations, to joyfully dance out into a waiting world, fulfilling our dreams, dreams that my late colleague, an orthopedic surgeon, fulfilled brilliantly before he passed away a few years ago.

Still…fulfilled dreams that I also find myself walking in, sometimes incredulously, every day. And while we are not here today to take a walk down memory lane, memory gives us the foundation we need to position ourselves to move forward into the future, with confidence that we have learned from our errors or the errors of history.

I hope that your capacity to look forward in the final weeks of your senior year has not been clouded by the recent memory of the war on Iraq, or should I say, perhaps, the "fog of war" since there's still so much uncertainty in the world outside the United States about just what the war was all about and if, in fact, it was a "just war"

But I do hope that this momentous event that inserted itself into the finals weeks of this part of your formal education will form part of your memory bank, yielding some useful lessons for the future…not least your need for good information, from both near and far.

I tried to make a contribution to that. Living as I do in a part of the world where most people had a view at odds with what the polls said was that of most Americans - i.e. supportive of the war- I thought it was an important part of my job as a journalist who makes an effort to provide good information to share those views with our international television audience and the reasons for them.

Here, memory also played its part - not mine, but theirs…the memory of South Africa's history of colonialism and white domination. That was more on their minds than the possibility that the people of Iraq might soon be rid of a murderous tyrant.

Listen to none other than the distinguished Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Desmond Tutu. He said: "It's a kind of deja vu. Where white people were always able to tell us what they thought was good for us. The United States is saying 'we know what is good for the people of Iraq. And we're going to give them that. That is sad," he added.

Likewise, it was memory of a painful, oppressive past that drove an award-winning Talk Show host, celebrated for his balance, to tip it…Tipped, it seems, by memory. He told me:

"I think many South Africans, given their experience are opposed to the colonization of Iraq."

I asked the South African Talk Show host if this passionate anti-Americansim in South Africa extended into ordinary Americans and was surprised by his answer. He said:

"I think it is Bush and his government more than anti-American. But unfortunately, it is being done in the name of America. So by extension, it is going to fuel an anti-American sentiment in time."

My effort at eliciting these comments was aimed - not at being provocative, but at insuring that the mix of news the global public was receiving was news that could be used. News to help those who were trying in earnest to sort out their feelings, attitudes and positions, not by pandering to popular or patriotic sentiment, but by opening a window on a layer of the multi-layered, elusive commodity called TRUTH…seeking to reflect the reality of the space I inhabit and am responsible for interpreting, in the hope that it will provide my viewers with what they need to better understand the multiple realities in what is now and has been for some time a global neighborhood, though there has been a woeful reluctance in some quarters to accept that reality!

Possibly because the space I inhabit is in a country where democracy is new, the freedoms conferred are not taken for granted, but practiced with robust fervour. Like freedom of speech, a right that memory warns should be cherished, defended and protected in democratic societies, both old and new.

In South Africa, debate is part of the elizir of life. As Steve Biko the late South African activist and martyr in the cause of trying to gain those freedoms for a democratic, non-racial South Africa once explained it:

"Westerners have on many occasions been surprised at the capacity we have for talking to each other - not for the sake of arriving at a particular conclusion but merely to enjoy the connection for its own sake."

In perhaps another hallmark of this infant democracy, the debate over the war - though decidedly one-sided, was carried on mostly in an atmosphere of tolerance.

If there was one thing that troubled me in the debate, it was an aspect of the criticism of the media. We - especially the international, US-based media - were regularly and roundly criticized, most often the charge that we were being "mouth pieces" for the US government, and that the "embedded" journalists were "in bed" with the military-viewpoints, I could but won't debate that here today, because it would take us too far off the plot.

I will say this much: We are asking questions of ourselves. Questions like: did we ask the right questions? Did we insist hard enough on the right answers? Were we patriotic? And did we confuse patriotism with flag-waving? Were we not skeptical enough? Did we stand for censorship? Self-censorship? Now those questions feed debate that won't die anytime soon, and shouldn't.

But what bothered me about the attacks on the media, was the criticism that we weren't giving the members of the public "all" the information they needed. It disturbed me because the critics didn't seem to think they bore any responsibility for educating themselves. As much as I love my profession and the medium in which I work, I would be the first to say that no one should rely exclusively on what we, alone, provide in order to be considered informed. Being informed is different from being educated, but no one among you who considers yourself educated arrived at that conclusion on the basis of reading one book. Being educated gives you the tools to help you become informed. And like democracy, like life, being informed is a work in progress, requiring due diligence and determination to get it right.

Not to say that criticism doesn't have its place. Criticism, that I, myself could make, relying on memory that is seared in my consciousness - the memory that led to the hiring of so many black journalists in mainstream US media…the memory of the 1968 civil disorders in American cities that caught just about everyone by surprise because no one had been listening to the simmering rage building up in America's black ghettoes…until it exploded.

A Presidential Commission blamed many institutions, including the media for having no ears that could hear or eyes that could see what the rest of America needed to hear, needed to see…And it was at that point that editors were convinced that the best way to serve the public was through diversifying the eyes and the ears and colors, later genders in the newsrooms of America. That was how many qualified journalists of color and of a different gender got into mainstream.

And just as an aside on that note, but an important one. I heard a news commentator say on television last night that the case of the New York Times reporter who fabricated reports was an example of the paper's efforts of too much diversity. Don't let anybody tell you that this one unfortunate case is the fault of diversity. Diversity has enriched the newsrooms of American and the journalistic product. For anyone to disparage that or blame this problem on diversity is talking rubbish.

Likewise, in the same scenario writ large, Americans were taken by surprise by the awful events of 9/11, in large part because since the end of the cold war, the media have been ignoring the rest of the world and the simmering rage out there. Media decision-makers are saying even now that Americans aren't interested in the rest of the world…especially Africa and the developing world. But is that true? And if it is, do the media not bear some of the blame? We are providing information, but how good is it?

The public, in my view, hasn't been heard from enough on that score. At the same time the criticism that has emerged has often been uninformed, if not lazy. "The media didn't do my homework," kind of refrain.

What we in the media desperately need is the kind of informed criticism that comes from the public doing its homework, enabling its members to seek out the good from the bad and to reject that which is provided through a prism of politics, theology and ideology-whether of the left or of the right. That's feel good, fast food stuff, not the kind of brain food that will help educated consumers make wise healthy choices about the world they want to live in.

As the American University Class of 2003, you are in a position to be part of a new 21st century vanguard, exposed on this campus to a microcosm of the world-a wondrous mix of culture, classes, ethnicities, and inclinations that even in its passive existence has prepared you for a world that is far more challenging than you or any of us might have imagined, when you embarked on your journey to the horizons of knowledge offered by this institution.

The Scottish novelist John Buchan, in "Memory Hold-the-Door" once wrote: "To live for a time close to great minds is the best kind of education." I hope that applies to you and the mix of cultures you have experiences over the past four years.

It is an experience perhaps more important than you now know, for just as the great African-American historian and visionary W.E.B. Dubois once posited that the problem of the color line would be the problem of the 20th century, were he alive today, he might add culture. Understanding the culture of our neighbors next door or our neighbors across oceans is already one of the key challenges of the 21st century, for as you can see, the converse is leading to pain, suffering and instability throughout the world.

It is my sincere hope and wish that you return often to the memory of your time here, allowing it to form the basis of a sweet refrain that will play over and over in your head as you dance through life…that you will never lose the gift that flows from your exposure to each other, as much as your exposure to what the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold described as a knowledge, and understand of the best that has been thought and said in the world - including, perhaps the Chinese curse, which before I was educated and informed, I thought was a blessing: "May you live in interesting times…"

Times that you can affect in a positive way by being informed, as well as educated, by using your experience in this dynamic mix to help those less fortunate - and by this I don't mean materially - to appreciate the rich AND challenging neighborhood we inhabit…to be able to ask, as we journalists are challenged to ask, the right questions that lead to good information…like what are our neighbors thinking, doing, feeling, suffering, criticizing and why? And if by your insistence you are fortunate enough to get that information, then I would hope you would be tolerant and respectful enough to listen and try to discern its meaning. Part of the challenge of new global realities is that we learn to see the things that we have not yet learned to see and appreciate the validity of a different perspective.

My hope would be that such an approach to life will lead to a different kind of "coalition of the willing," a coalition willing to work at not being surprised, by being good global citizens and neighbors…where living in interesting times WILL be a blessing.

On that note, I'll leave you with the blessing from an anonymous, alas, poet, included in the book of a dear South African Friend, Wendy Luhabe. Her book is called "Defining Moments," written to help bridge the gap between cultures in South Africa created in another time, when their world was old and run by men who used culture to divide rather than unite.

From a liberated South Africa, hopeful about its future, from me, hopeful about yours…

I hope you dance

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted?
God forbid that love should leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance…I hope you dance
I hope you never fear the mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean takin' chances but they are worth taken
'Loving might be a mistake but it's worth makin'
"Don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter
When you come close to sellin' out reconsider
Give the heavens more then just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance…I hope you dance
Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder
Where those years have gone
I hope you dance…I hope you dance
I hope you dance

Congratulations and thank you, again for dancing with me this day!

 

American University
Commencement Addresses

President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)

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