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Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 1999 Commencement

American University
School of Communication and School of International Service
Commencement Address
Barry Levinson
May 16, 2000

Thank you very much. Thank you. That is very nice. It is true I began here in broadcast journalism, studied it thru the years 1963 thru 1967. Actually it is how I got into tv initially through this school. There was a professor here named Jim Silman who took an interest in me and ultimately mentioned that channel 9 had a training program and perhaps I should go over there and put my name in to see if I could get into the training program. It paid $50 per week. And I loved every minute of it.

I would go from the morning news, take a class here, run back over there and do the Ranger Howe Show, run over take a class, run back over and do the news show and we did all the facets of tv. This school was very, very responsible for giving me the interest to explore broadcasting and it was television. The training program was interesting in that we made a lot of mistakes. I can't watch Cross Fire, Robert Novak. He was a guest columnist one day at channel 9. I was supposed to put makeup on him and no one told me how to do it. So I picked up one of those big powder puffs and I powdered his face and I did not want to get too close to his eyes. And they called him to go on and they gave the cue to speak into the camera and I was wearing a headset and the director said, “oh my god, he looks like he's dead.”

Look at that and I looked at the monitor. And his face, looked like a snowman and black holes where his eyes would be. And the director said who did this, who did this? And I said I did. He said what is your name? I said Barry Levinson and it's my first day. He said this could be your last day in television.

We even used to do the weather maps. We would have to film them on a polaroid background and put them into a slide projector and someone would say stand here and there it would be and the wall would turn into whatever the person was speaking about. In this case it was the weather. I had put the slides into the projector but I had put them in incorrectly. The map came up and it was the national weather map. The map was upside down. Some of them were very good at picking up those miscues.

There were a number of mistakes we made. As we began to learn and it was the early days of television. I was always surprised about certain things. We used to do the late show and at this program it would get over at 1 a.m. in the morning. You had to put in the commercial breaks. You would go to the slide saying the Late Show and then the commercial. You put a piece of paper in there. I didn't do this one night but it was another trainee. The movie was called “The Man from the Alamo ” with Glenn Ford. The first commercial break at about 12 minutes in, all of a sudden the screen goes white, goes 10, 9, 8, 7 and then it goes to a slide and then to a commercial. Rather than the person wondering what's wrong here, he decides to let it go. The next break, it suddenly said “The End.” What happened is that they put up the last reel first and then they went to the slide, the announcer goes-- “and now for the beginning of the Man from the Alamo .” What I was amazed is that no one called up and said why are you show the last reel first. They just watched and to this day I don't understand that particular thing.

But that was the early time of television in its infancy. It was an innocent time. It was an invention just finding its way. Who knew it to become so influential in our lives today? In ways we don't understand. We understand the effects of a car; it ultimately moved us from place to place; to suburbia, to one place to another across the country but it also changed the landscape forever. It ultimately polluted the air and people died. We can see the results of it but television is much more complicated and it's much more difficult to see how it has affected our lives.

Who knew that from television 35 million people could watch wrestling per week? To be honest with you I've never called someone watching wrestling I've never called someone and they've said to me can I get back with you I'm in the middle of wrestling. Or I have to go home because wrestling begins in 20 minutes. Who knew that new invention would lead to the Jerry Springer Show? Where people have the inability to communicate with one another so much so that they have to jump out of their seat and attack another individual. And you have to ask yourself who are these people? Is this what they do at home? That they have an argument over the remote and then they attack one another. Or do they do it just for the camera? Then you have to ask yourself as those people who produce the show, it is just entertainment. And it is, but so was it during the Roman times when you would basically feed the Christians to the lions.

The Romans could sit there and watch the Christians running. They could say he is very quick or I like that. They were entertained by it but that didn't make it right. That didn't make it worthwhile. I think the same thing applies to some shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than aspiring to being a little better and to challenging us. Instead what is the lowest common denominator is because more people who watch make more money and that is the end, and I don't think that is enough.

Who knew that in today's age you could watch on cable television what is happening in Kosovo, the women and children and the suffering of that and you could also watch the Dow Jones running at the bottom of the screen? On one hand we are affected emotionally by what is happening and on the other hand we are finding out how our investments are doing. I don't understand that and I don't know why no one seems to complain. It is like a mixed message of emotions. what is happening in the world and what is happening in investments happening simultaneously on our screens is something that I don't understand. And I am surprised that no one seems to complain about that.

I'm surprised and wonder that if you go over to Capitol Hill and you go into the House of Representatives and someone is speaking, almost no one is there. If you go to the Senate and some one is speaking, almost no one is there. You say where are they? They say they are watching upstairs on closed circuit television and if you go upstairs they're not there. They have aids who watch and tell them what is happening on the floor that they are too busy to be on the floor on a daily basis working to solve the problems of the country. For 200 years, they debated and argued, and they came up with answers to complicated questions. Today they don't do that on a regular basis. Ultimately I don't think it is beneficial to any of us because they are a little busy and they have to raise huge sums of money to pay for tv spots that are so expensive. Many ways television controls all aspects whether it is soap or how we elect a politician. I don't understand why in today's world it is so important for a politician to be tv friendly. That the person has a good sense of humor and the person seems like someone who could be in our living room and we are comfortable with. If we use that as a yardstick, then Abraham Lincoln could never be president of the United States today. And Thomas Jefferson who apparently was a very poor speaker could not be president of the United States today. So if we use that we may eliminate 85 to 90 percent of the people who may have the ability to be president are incapable because they are not tv friendly.

At some point we have to re-evaluate and make better judgments than picking the person who is the nicest. Because if we use that as a yardstick we might as well elect the president the same way we pick Miss America . We could have one evening; we could have the various people from various states; they can march down the aisle; we get a good look at them. We see how they dress. We could also have a little talent contest... Then we have the big question of why would you want to be president of the United States . They would probably say they're finding a way to reduce taxes, like to be tougher on crime and they'd like to do something about the educational problem. One way, if we did that it may eliminate the obligation, they have to all the special interest groups that basically have to feed their pockets to pay for all the television spots to get elected. That is a serious problem because the 30 second television spot has become so influential and so important that by the time you get elected you have to spend an enormous amount of time raising additional money to run again.

Which brings up the question why so many problems are truly not addressed. It is a complicated world that we live in and all politicians understand that the soundbite is imperative. But what it does is eliminates that there is no simple conclusion to one particular problem. What we are faced with today is that someone wants to come up with a quick answer to it. One little band-aid that is going to solve the problem and it doesn't happen that way. At some point in time, we are going to have to expect more from our politicians and better answers than that quick soundbite. That is the situation we face today.

The issue of education disturbs me and why there is so little progress for so long. Today, we have a population where 25 percent is illiterate. Twenty-five percent can't read a street sign and we have yet to find an answer to it. We have been able to put a man on the moon faster than we have can deal with education in the United States . It seems to me that there has to be better answers, and if we can put the politicians on the floor to debate the questions, we may get better answers to it. It's only one particular area that we need to deal with but it is more and more vital. I think we face as I mentioned to you that it is very complicated. There are a number of issues that are inter-related to one another and that quick answer will never ultimately bring it about.

We have the problem that took place in Colorado , and now everyone wants to point fingers in various directions, and in doing that it doesn't necessarily resolve any problem. We can look to the media, and say can the media do better and can movies do better? Yes. But it is a problem of schools, of communities, of parents, of guns, in America . All of those issues need to be addressed. As long as everyone wants to stand up and give their soundbite, we aren't going to get any answers to it. TV has enormous impact and at some point we have to have demand more, better answers from everyone involved. Because otherwise, we are getting simple, band-aid solutions.

This is an amazingly powerful nation and for us to not resolve some basic questions that we have I think is slightly irresponsible. You can't point to one issue or another but some point in time if you were to take guns on their own and say in the United States there's too much violence and many guns in film or on television. Then we can talk about that at the same point in time, if you have the gun and accessibility to the gun, it becomes a problem. There are less people killed in Great Britain with guns than in Washington , DC ; less people are killed in Japan than in Washington , DC . Then you have to say to yourself, what are these problems? One, it is too easy to get guns and if a child isn't brought up with proper values or has some mental disorder and you can get that gun, you have a serious problem. Until we address and it and put television aside, and get down to business, we can't resolve some large issues that face us today. I think if you look to tv and this fact.

I don't think any of us realize that television breeds a certain degree of cynism. Because whatever the camera is pointed at we are less than satisfied. When the camera is pointed at the police department, we see that there are problems. There can be racism, improper training, many, many things. Ultimately they are individuals, and they can ultimately make mistakes. When you point the camera at the legal system, we are less than satisfied. When we point the camera at any institutions, it is less than what we hoped it to be. So it is not an easy world when you can't find that type of leadership.

Lets take an example. Apply this. Take World War II, a simple case of good versus evil, which is what most people would say. It was very easy to know the good guys from the bad guys. Now, lets use D-Day as an example. That was considered a shining hour where people sacrificed there lives for the liberation of Europe for democracy. Now if you put that under the microscope of television and say television was there on the beach on D-Day. What would we report? Equipment broke down, soldiers were confused, some died by friendly fire, some couldn't reach their objective, why? What was wrong? What were the mistakes. We would want investigations, we would want inquiries, we would recall General Eisenhower, maybe he should be court martialed, why didn't we go (a different route). All of these things we would want to investigate because we would look at that so rather than see a shining hour of bravery and victory would be looked at under a microscope in a very different way.

Now we may not have a world of heroes anymore because television demystifies everyone. No one is as good as we had hoped but what does that mean for you, this class here today when you can't look to others for the answers or the heroes? The heroes in the future or going to have to be you. You are going to have to demand more from this society that you live in, you are going to have to demand more from the politicians, more from all the institutions to do better work. Ultimately you are going to have to take that responsibility as parents raising children, making a community that is more responsible, schools that are more responsible to the individuals that offer more supervision to individuals that may need that. But here is where the heroes can begin.

You will have a professional life and a private life and you are going to have to mix the two that benefit you, your family, your community, your country and it starts here. For me the future was 1984 or 2001. So for me this is the future, for you this is the end of 1999 and you will go into what that future may bring and you will ultimately make those decisions that have a huge impact on this coming century and that responsibility rests with all of you. I think the opportunity is all there and I think you all have the ability to excel and to make an effect on this next century. So I will look to all of you and hope that you can accomplish that. Thank you very much.

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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