Spring 2001 Commencement
Kogod School of Business and School of Public Affairs
Good afternoon dear graduates, parents, families, friends, guests, President Ladner, Board of Trustees, university faculty and the faculty of the Kogod School of Business and the School of Public Affairs. Congratulations to you the graduates. I salute you for your fortitude, your foresight, your faithfulness to the cause of learning and to the family support you have found as you’ve sought and secured your degrees in public affairs and business. Right here I’d like to say it’s also a great day, and I’d like to ask people here to join me in a hand to all the mothers here in this room today, it’s Mother’s Day.
You step forth today into a world that has in fact been profoundly transformed during the years you have spent on campus here in the nation’s capital. I would like to pause here, before I go to that, to recognize the presence at American University of its own great public radio station WAMU-FM 88.5 on your FM dial. That’s if you live in the Washington area, but if you’re in the world, you can also hear it on www.WAMU.org and it can be heard in Kazakhstan and Karachi and Cairo and Cairo, Illinois via the World Wide Web, and that’s part of what we’re gonna talk about today, what you face as graduates going forward.
That radio station was founded in 1961, nine years before NPR was founded, and WAMU now has a weekly audience of 450,000 listeners in the Washington metropolitan area alone, that gives to American University and to who you all have been part of, what you’ve been part of, and to the values that you have deepened and broadened here, given you a vital presence in the thinking of thousands and thousands of people here in this metropolitan area. WAMU is a national leader in public radio, widely respected for its local news, for its award winning nationally-famed talk shows, “The Diane Rehm Show,” “Public Interest with Kojo Nnamdi,” and a remarkable devotion to Blue Grass and to other traditional music.
A few years ago, a year ago, I would’ve made the following recommendation to the graduates, as the first graduating class of the real new millenium I would’ve suggested that you run, don’t walk to the nearest U.S. patent office and officially declare yourselves firstname.lastname@example.org. Well that was last year. My point is this, the future you face is as unpredictable as it is promising beyond our imaginations, the volatility of the future reflects the transforming power of the astonishing digital revolution, remaking the way we acquire and exchange information and grow human knowledge. Every aspect of exploration of our existence from the cosmos above to the living cells within us, is being altered by the information age powered by the digital revolution. This digital age is analogous to the arrival of the age of electricity more than a century ago and it has the same capacity to change unpredictably and fundamentally the way we live, toil and interact at home at work and in between. We can look just briefly at one sector of the economy, the media world, to track some of the remarkable positive and negative impacts of this revolution. There are pertinent lessons for all of us here today, whether our interest is in public affairs, public management, public administration, or local, national, and global business and business practice. The advent of one of the digital age’s offspring, the ubiquitous World Wide Web has turned the multi-billion dollar media world upside down. Traditional information industries, book and newspaper publishers, recording and film companies, broadcast, cable and satellite networks, face environments of competition and innovation barely perceived just five years ago. Just take one small device, which is now starting to make its way into the consumer world; it’s called TiVo, a smart box for your television set that will enable the consumer to do many things interactively. Here’s just one thing that offers profound change to our economy and to the world economy. That little box will enable you, the consumer, to watch a television show in virtual real time as it is being broadcast but eliminate all commercial breaks in real time. This smart box will only get smarter and cheaper, but what will it do to the national advertising industry, one of the creations of the past century just in this country alone. What will its impact be on those who wish to advertise their ideas and their items and the things they have created in the consumer world? What will the affect be on the national economy if the TiVo box continues to develop consumer’s ability to shut off what they don’t want to see or hear?
Five years ago, there were many predictions about what this world would be like. Here’s one. In 1995, barely five years ago, a visionary media executive looked at the emergence of the Web and after surveying the old economy, the media conglomerates of the old economy, he made the following prediction to a friend of mine. He said somewhere around the year 2000, a big old-line publishing and entertainment company is going to get together with one of the new Internet start-up companies to combine content and distribution in a single seamless amalgam. It’s going to be a modern version of the old Hollywood studios, which both made films and distributed them through their own wholly-owned chains of theatres. Then he sharpened his prediction; the two companies would be Time Warner and a start-up called America Online. Here was the prediction he made; Time Warner would buy AOL. So he got it very right and very wrong. Now that AOL a distribution company owns Time Warner, an editorial and entertainment conglomerate with scores of news and publishing identities, each with its own deeply-valued presence in the marketplace of ideas, we must ask ourselves as consumers, how the old-line journalistic traditions of Time Inc. embodied in a clear separation between business office and the editorial precincts of the news operations will stay intact, and in the Internet age how will they stay intact, and this comes home to every decision we will face and you will face as you go forward in the world whether it be public affairs or private business. For the Internet easily breaches the nature of the firewall that always insulated the best newsrooms in the nation from business decisions about advertisers or underwriters who might have business interests in conflict with news gathering activities. In the pre-interactive world a Sunday book review would run reviews of books and book ads on the same pages, you could read a favorable book review and see an ad for the same book almost simultaneously. But if you wanted to buy the book, you had to pick up the phone or dial-up a Web site or go to a bookstore, each a separate act. Now go to the Web and take a look at a similar situation, you can see a book review and a buy button on the same screen. You read the favorable review, perhaps see an ad for a good book right on the computer screen, hit the buy button and you’re there, one act. The interconnected world of interactive media possesses all kinds of issues for firewall worriers, at NPR we worry, we’re worried, and I think you all going forth in public affairs and business need to worry as well. Can we put a buy button on something like npr.org Web site and maintain the firewall? Well, it might be easy, one would think, but think again. We know that whenever a book is favorably reviewed or discussed on an NPR program that book title zooms upward on booksellers’ Web sites and at bookstores everywhere. But NPR is not a bookseller, so the sales figures for a novel or a work of non-fiction are of no relevance to our business office. But suppose a popular Web site offered a place on its literary homepage for NPR reviews together with a buy button, and offered NPR a percentage of any book sale made through the NPR-branded site on that literary portal. Can we go there, and the companies you all will be part of, will you be going there? In public affairs issues will these issues come up? I guarantee they will.
What is our duty, privately, to our private non-profit corporation, and to nearly 300 member stations who are always interested in any acceptable step that would reduce their payments to us for the programming we provide to them? Though we, ourselves, at 635 Massachusetts Avenue NW, not so far from here, are interested in exploring these matters. It is our responsibility to find the money to pay the cost of operations for what has become the only broadcast network in America that is expanding, not contracting, its foreign coverage. In the complex Internet world, where traditional relationships can be altered because of the interactive nature of this revolutionary and fascinating space, there are no simple answers. We intend to explore them all and in a search that will allow us to make use of proven economic models on the Web without impinging on the independence of our broadcast journalism and cultural presentations. In its 31 years NPR has built a reputation for editorial integrity and independence of its news and cultural programming that is without parallel in the nation or in the world. At NPR we have very strong standards that guarantee the authenticity of our sound. We cannot make up sounds in a studio or manufacture sound effects. Once Susan Stambourg, of “All Things Considered,” tried to prove whether or not a wintergreen Lifesaver gives off a green flash when you crunch it in your mouth. She not only took a scientist into the darkened studio to observe the effect, but a microphone was adjusted to pick up the crunch of the wintergreen when she chomped on it. You can actually hear the sound of the wintergreen going “snap.” The question is, was there a flash of green light? You’ll have to listen to the show. That’s an amusing example of NPR insistence on informing and capturing what is real. Our microphones have gone to the top of Mount Everest, to the depths of the deep oceans, inside abandoned mines, recently to capture the sounds of thousands of bats as they stirred and took wing into the night. In reporting on the annual migration of whales for example, we took our microphones aboard a wooden dory and rowed out into the Gulf of California recently. No outboard engine, this is public radio after all, and captured the astonishing sound of a whale exhaling after a very deep dive. We received a letter from a vision-impaired listener who wrote us to say thank you for broadcasting that whale’s breath, that great powerful whoosh finally allowed me to understand exactly how big a whale really is.
In the new digital age, where will those standards of authenticity be upheld? An MIT digital periodical recently reported that digital TV cameras now have the power to alter an image while it’s still in the lens, before it is ever transmitted beyond the apparatus itself. These powers of the digital age can be a blessing. But what about the truth and how will it come home to you? Here’s an example of how the truth can be manipulated without you knowing it and you think it’s one thing and it’s another thing. On December 31, 1999 the major television nets in the U.S. broadcast extensive coverage, which you may remember, of the celebrations around the world marking the double passage of the century and the 1000-year millennium. And we know that the year 2000, in fact, was just the end of that millennium and not the start of something new but we’re people who’re always in a hurry anyway. So we took that celebration and that moment to mark. The TV nets anchored their coverage from special news booths overlooking Times Square, where the festivities would climax. All the nets were there; they all saw pretty much the same thing, Times Square, surging crowds, the New Year’s ball. Some of you may have been there in fact. But when CBS News’ cameras looked down on Times Square they saw something on a building across the way that CBS News didn’t like. It was an ad on the side of a building for NBC, a competitor. Without a warning to its viewers, CBS News ordered a digital remake of the ad. They changed it from an ad for NBC to an ad for CBS. And out it went, a faked image of reality. When the New York Times, in a front-page story a few days later, asked about the alteration, it was sort of “caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, you may ask, who cares anyway, a New Years Eve party and fireworks is hardly a serious news matter, and after all we’ve had a fake ten yard line on most football—games collegiate and professional-televised in this country for the past ten or fifteen years. But the question must be asked, what do we demand when we go to the marketplace of ideas and seek authenticity, accuracy, and what at the Washington Post we used to call, one clear crack at the facts. These issues lie close to the bone in a democracy such as ours, and indeed for people everywhere. Thomas Jefferson knew the power of access to facts to accuracy in reporting. He said, “ A people can not be both ignorant and free.” The power of that idea of Jefferson’s lies at the absolute heart of the American democracy. Because of Jefferson, the American Constitution was amended by its own Bill of Rights, the ten original amendments to the Constitution. Jefferson shaped the Bill of Rights itself and it is not an accident that the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights is the amendment that prohibited the state from intervening in the Freedom of the Press. Jefferson once said that given a choice of government with newspapers or newspapers without government, he would always choose the latter. The power of the democracy, this enduring experiment in self-government under the rule of law, rests in the speed and the depth and the freedom of transmission of ideas across this society. And we are, as Americans, participants in the most information-using, information-wasting, information-soaked, and information-rich society ever to exist in human history. We are the beneficiaries of Jefferson’s vision of what it takes to achieve civil self-government, free access to ideas, generated and transmitted, shared and discarded, adopted and used and stored independent of government control, independent of government censorship, dependent upon the wisdom of the people ourselves to make the right choices when we have the right information, the correct information, the factual information, the truthful information necessary to the task.
As you go forward into this world of public affairs and private business, of public service and public business, as you make your way into this world, you will confront over and over and over again the issues of authenticity of information, of control of information, of censorship of information whether you work in a public agency or a private business. I can guarantee it. The Internet, as I’ve suggested, is simply another realm where these issues cannot be avoided. Indeed because of the multiplicity of identities on the Web, ten million to the ten millionth power of Web sites, the question of who is behind each home page, what interests are being served that can not be seen and are not going to be disclosed to you, the matter of the integrity of sourcing is actually sharpened. You carry with you the values you have acquired this far in life, illuminated most recently by the education you received here at American University, the nature of our lives is such that even when we don’t actually think it is happening, we are invoking and living by these values in every aspect of our lives. As you go forth into the world the values that have shaped this society, a true reverence if you will, for fact-finding and truth-telling, can guide you and shape your futures in ways that will strengthen civil societies everywhere, including our own. We in public radio need you as listeners, and this society needs you as participants and activists committed to seeking and telling the truth. We salute you; we envy the adventures, the challenges and the fulfillments that lie ahead of you. Thank you and God speed graduates.