Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2004 Commencement

American University
School of Communication/Kogod School of Business
Commencement Address
Judy Woodruff, CNN Senior Correspondent
May 9, 2004

President Ladner, Provost Kerwin, Dean Kirkman, Dean Roomkin, administrators, faculty, distinguished guests, proud family members and most of all, graduates of the American University class of 2004. I live about six blocks from here. What a great day to be in the neighborhood; what an honor it is to be with you today. Thank you for letting me share in this special occasion.

I will make one commitment: this will not be the longest commencement speech ever given. Research indicates that was given at Harvard in the early 19th century. It was six hours long, with half delivered in Latin; the other three hours in Greek. Afterwards, the students were given a test on it.

Instead my inspiration - for length -- will be Henry VIII, who said to each of his wives: "Don't worry; I won't keep you long."

You, the class of 2004, will always look back on a tumultuous college experience. And it won't be just the fire alarms at 3 o'clock in the morning. Being at a college in the nation's capital has shaped your experiences in more ways than you ever dreamed. Those of you who entered college in the fall of 2000, had barely found your way around campus, when you were witness to the closest Presidential election in American history.

Then, as you were settling in to your sophomore year, 19 young men from the other side of the world changed the United States forever by piloting four commercial jetliners into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an empty field in Pennsylvania.

It wasn't long before the nation sent thousands of our young men and women -- most your age -- to Afghanistan to launch a war to change that country, and one year later, to Iraq. As we sit here celebrating this morning, we should take a moment to remember the brave men and women wearing the uniform: whatever we think of those wars, they are serving our country.

Allow me first to address the graduates of the Kogod School of Business. Congratulations. I'm sorry you're stuck with someone who has never worked on the business side, except briefly as a clerk in an appliance store during high school. But, speaking as an outsider, I think you enter a much more exciting, a more uncertain, but a more socially responsible field than my classmates who graduated with business degrees from Duke decades ago.

Whether you go into the profit, or the non-profit or public sector, make a difference, as the education at this great institution has so prepared you; always remember the values you learned here. As in my profession of journalism, the business world has been badly tarnished in recent years by malefactors of unlimited greed: the Enrons, Tycos, Worldcoms and a few others.

These don't typify the business community any more than a few reporters who fabricate, typify journalism. But in both instances, they are reminders that we have larger responsibilities than simply pursuing the passions of the moment: the quarterly earnings report, the quick scoop, or the story with edge. Standards and quality matter; you know that because you've learned it here, at American University.

I wish you all success; to those who achieve it financially, don't forget your alma mater.

By the way, whatever your field, if you don't have a job yet, don't worry; it will come in good time. My advice: think about using the time while you wait, to do volunteer work that will make a difference in someone else's life. And keep on doing that, in some form, throughout your life.

To those of you who will pursue a career in communications, congratulations. We want you and we need you.

Speaking about the arena I know best, journalism, I can tell you it is an exciting time to be in our field.

It is exciting because of the proliferation of opportunities.

When I was in your shoes - back in the dark ages - the options were few. I drove to Atlanta during the spring break of my senior year at Duke University, to interview with the news directors of the three TV stations there - offering my services as a secretary. Two dismissed me; I had no newsroom experience at all; but the third, who badly needed a receptionist, said he'd bring me on board to answer the phones and clean the film. My heart swelled with pride as I stood up to thank him for the job offer, and as I turned to walk away, he added: "Besides, how could I not hire someone with legs like yours?" With just those few words he had dashed my aspirations, and he had reminded me of a double standard I pretended didn't exist. The good news is, much has changed.

Today, you have far more options. You still have the opportunity to grow at the CBS Evening News , or NBC or ABC or at any one of hundreds of local network affiliated stations; but you also have a larger and appetizing menu from which to choose: the Jim Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, CNN or one of the other 24 hour cable outlets, national and local, or the more unconventional offerings like Jon Stewart - the venue of a surprisingly large number of young news junkies - and so many other places, now spilling over into the internet.

It's exciting because the news is exciting. Whatever your views on the Iraqi war, it marks a seminal turning point in American foreign policy; someday we may look back upon these times and say, as it was written about the early days of the Cold War in the late 1940s, that we were present at the creation.

Politics is not, despite the short-sightedness of some editors and producers, a turn-off. This is a presidential election with big stakes - big stakes for the economy, big stakes for the United States Supreme Court and the legal landscape in America, big stakes for national security and America's role in the world. Whatever you think of the candidates, the story is fascinating as well as important.

There are a plethora of other assignments that are exciting. Business, which used to be the overlooked graveyard of journalism, is now a great story. Health, Education, Immigration, Medicine all are exciting stories.

But we also need you because our profession is going through more than its share of turmoil in a not altogether easy time of transition.

An invaluable journalistic watchdog, called the Project for Excellence in Journalism, recently published a comprehensive analysis of the State of the News Media 2004. The profession, it concludes, is "in the middle of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television."

In a nutshell, it says quality news is available, but so is "the trivial, the one sided, and the false." It makes clear that profits or the bottom line play a larger role than ever.

Newspapers, broadcast television and local television and cable -- all, to fatten profit margins, have made insufficient investments in newsgathering. Over the past decade, this study found, newspaper profits soared 207%; newsroom jobs increased only 3%.

The situation is no better in television. Local stations have what is in effect a license to print money - with profit margins of 40% or higher. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the news is too often mindless or sensational - reflecting the "if it bleeds, it leads" syndrome.

Over the last decade and a half the number of TV network on-air correspondents has declined by more than a third.

Separately, I want to note - and in the context of some parochial pride about the international resources of my present home, CNN -- that in a more globally interdependent world, foreign correspondents, once the signature of the great network news divisions, have been shamefully curtailed. On September 11, 2001, there was not a single CBS, ABC or NBC correspondent based in a predominately Islamic country. And then afterwards we wonder why our two cultures so misunderstand one another.

Lest I let cable news off the hook, one only has to consider the obsessive coverage of O.J. Simpson or Gary Condit, or the Laci Petersen murder case - or in some instances even multi-vehicle traffic accidents.

The news media in general, have been plagued recently by scandal. Jayson Blair, a young reporter for the New York Times, the gold standard of American journalism, was a serial fabricator. Some critics suggested that since Mr. Blair was an African-American and had been promoted rapidly, it was a result of the perils of affirmative action.

But then, a few weeks ago, we discovered that Jack Kelly, the celebrated foreign correspodent of USA Today, had the same mores and standards of Jayson Blair; he just did it on grander world stage. Yet we heard precious little suggesting that Mr. Kelley's ethnicity was a factor in this disgrace.

No, these stories, and unfortunately, others, are about standards. When even the best news organizations fail to measure up it is not sufficient to say that bad stuff happens or there are rotten apples in every barrel or any other clichés.

We must look in the mirror and ask hard questions: are we too quick to promote young reporters who have not paid their dues, covering city councils or writing obituaries or reporting on hurricanes, no matter their race? Do we sometimes place more of a premium on edge or colorful anecdotes than on solid steady reporting? Do we create star systems that reward the wrong qualities? Do we establish an environment in our news room that encourages constructive criticism and dialogue?

So go into television or newspapering. But don't go into it with the notion of being one of those big TV stars in what is charitably called the argument culture; don't go into it expecting to bring down the powerful.

Go into because you know that a free and honest flow of information is the currency of a free society. And go into it expecting to pay your dues: write obituaries or edit film and cover county commissions and boards of education. Know that what matters most - even more than getting it first or getting it with an edge or getting it colorfully - is to get it right. It's pretty basic. It's been forgotten too often.

Go into journalism to be one of those who champion that notion that quality, irrespective of what the bean counters and management consultants say, is rewarded:

My message is: come on in, but don't join the crowd. Set your sights high. Fight for integrity. And don't be afraid to be a lonely voice. It is now clear that America began a war fourteen months ago on a flawed premise: Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. government assured us he did. This presidential campaign will debate the government's performance in that matter.

But let's not overlook that most of the press put aside skepticism; we were enablers. There were a handful of exceptions, most notably Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. So when you plot your career path in the months and years ahead, let me urge that the Walter Pincuses, as well as the Jim Lehrers, Ted Koppels, Bob Edwards and the late Mary McGrory, more than the hyperventilating talking heads of my business, be your role models.

Likewise, to the business school graduates, I say look to the leaders you admire most for their integrity, and make them your role models.
I congratulate all of you for your achievements, and your parents for their sacrifices. Don't leave here today without giving the family members who made it possible for you to get an education, a big hug.

Thank you.