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Last Updated May 14, 2008

2008 Commencement

American University
School of International Service/School of Communication
Commencement Address
Kenneth A. Paulson, editor, USA Today
May 11, 2008
[as delivered]
Mp3 Download
(9 MB)

Well thank you, this is an extraordinary honor. I'm very glad to be here today, and to help celebrate your accomplishments at this extraordinary university.

First of all, my heartiest congratulations to the graduates of both the School of Communication and the School of International Service, and a special salute to the parents and grandparents, friends and family members who have helped make today possible.

Today's graduates have certainly accomplished their goals. They have received an extraordinary education at a fine university. They've also signaled through their studies that they care deeply about the world around them.

That's certainly the hallmark of graduates of the School of International Service, where you've developed both the skills and perspective for global engagement in the twenty-first century.

Of course, chronicling that changing world will be many of today's graduates of the School of Communication. Where journalism graduates once dreamed only of working for the hometown newspaper, the landscape is now wide open, with multiple platforms and multiple media, and locations from Baghdad to Burma just a mouse click away.

I know there's some understandable anxiety among some of the communications graduates about the job market, but I will tell you the skills you've developed here—assessing complex topics and communicating clearly about them—will serve you for the rest of your careers. And that applies to journalism and international relations as well. Believe it or not, subject-verb agreement is still a very big deal.

Smattering of applause for grammar. Thank you.

You know I've had the opportunity to talk to a few of today's graduates and I've been so impressed by how committed they are to their vision of the future. They know what they want to do with their lives and their careers and there's just a focus that's remarkable. And I have to confess, that was not my circumstance when I was graduating from the University of Illinois School of Law.

I had majored in journalism, but I had to struggle with which way I was going to go. I had a great opportunity my final year of law school. At Illinois they had a program where if you're a third-year law student, you could go and defend criminal defendants under the watchful eye of the public defender's office. And so, what an amazing experience: I argued cases to the jury; I prepared those cases; I presented evidence. It was extraordinary. And I have to tell you after one full year of that program, I had a perfect record: Everyone I defended went to jail.

Which left my options kind of limited, actually. I supposed I could have taken an ad out in the yellow pages and said “Are you Guilty? Feeling bad about it?”

Well, sometimes life gives you a nudge in the right direction.

And as it turns out, journalism proved to be a pretty good choice for me. The world did not need another mediocre lawyer and I'd actually been interested in working for newspapers since I was in grade school.

You know when I'm asked how I first became interested in journalism, I have to confess that the truthful answer is "Superman." I loved the TV show and comic books.

I'm not sure how many of you went out as trick-or-treaters dressed in a three-piece suit with a press pass in your hat, but my pulse quickened just at the sight of Clark Kent .

Because when you think about Superman, when he wasn't leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he was Clark Kent, “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper,” who by the way, helped fight "a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.” I knew I was never, ever going to be Superman, but I thought I had an outside chance of being Clark Kent .

And I have to be honest that Superman and Clark Kent can still raise my spirits. When I've had a particularly tough day at USA TODAY, I'll go home and—they've got a DVD box set of the Superman series—and I'll take that out and watch that. And I'm down to watching it three times a week now. So, I am making progress.

Of course, the real heroes of journalism don't wear capes. They are the courageous men and women throughout the world who have used the power of the press to make a real difference.

They are the reporters and editors who have chronicled injustice and oppression, courageously reported stories that would otherwise would never have been reported, and rallied global support for those in need.

And many have paid a price for their courage. The recently-opened Newseum has re-dedicated its Journalist Memorial and on the walls are the names of 1,843 journalists representing 115 countries, all of whom died in the pursuit of the truth.

Heroes all .

And yet despite those sacrifices and despite the outstanding work done by so many, there's no question that the public doesn't view us as so heroic anymore. Journalists are widely viewed with suspicion and cynicism.

As an editor, that saddens me, but I also know that all of us who work in a free press need to do a better job day-in and day-out.

For one thing, we have this bad habit of referring to ourselves as “the media,” as though newspapers, magazines, Web sites, bloggers, talk show hosts and paparazzi are a monolith that meets every Wednesday at the National Press Club to map out our national agenda.

We actually meet on Thursdays.

The truth is that there's an extraordinary range of information providers out there, each with their own approach and standards.

I'll be honest with you. I think there's too much use of anonymous sources in our business, particularly in this town. The public will not trust us if they don't know where our information is coming from.

Our industry also has a disquieting tendency to focus on heat rather than light, emphasizing conflict over consensus, and throwing all of our resources at the controversy of the day rather than the essential issues of the era. I gather you've heard of Rev. Wright…

There's also no question that the line between news and celebrity has blurred as Britney and Lindsey have become household names. And yet I understand the temptation for America 's editors. If you post a story about Britney Spears getting out of rehab, your Web site will get 20 thousand views. If you post a story about the city council meeting last night, your web site will get 500 views.

If only Britney would show up at more city council meetings…

You know just this week there was a flap over the racy images of a fifteen-year-old Miley Cyrus, wrapped only in a sheet. Before the controversy broke, I received a message from one of my editors saying that USA TODAY had the exclusive right to publish that in our newspaper and it was set to go to press that night. Now that photo indisputably would have driven traffic to our web site, and driven the sales of our newspaper, but in the end, we said “no thank you.”

We don't run photos of half-naked minors in suggestive poses. That is not who we are. In the end everyone seemed to have that photo but us, and the more outraged the talk show host, the larger the image was.

I have to tell you though, we're okay with that. Everybody had to make their own call, but in the end, every news organization has to say, from time-to-time, “that's just not who we are.”

So I do see the warts of our profession, but I also will tell you that I am incredibly proud to be a journalist in part because of the good work that is being done and in part because of events that took place in this country 219 years ago.

You know, it's easy to forget that our current form of government didn't emerge full-blown after people shot at each other at Lexington and Concord . No, it was a methodical path. We had the Articles of Confederation, which didn't serve us all that well in this country. It was a weak form of government. And so the Federalists said they had a plan. They were going to improve the quality of the nation and improve the infrastructure, and boost the economy with a strong central government. And they had a blueprint for this called the U.S. Constitution. And they went to the American people and said “Here it is. Let's go. We're about to reboot America .”

Now that's not an exact quote, but “rebooting” is exactly what was going on there.

Starting over in a fresh way. And a funny thing happened on the way to ratification of the Constitution. The American people said “No, thank you. We don't want that.”

You may have missed that in the fourth grade. They don't teach that particularly well in school in America . But the American people rejected the Constitution first time out. They said “We don't want a strong central government. We had one called a king. Didn't work out well. We'll pass on this one.”

And after debate and discussion and exploration eventually came a consensus that we had to have a Constitution and a new form of government. And the American people through their representatives came back and said “I'll tell you what, here's the deal: We'll give you the power you seek, but you've got to give us some guarantees. You've got to promise you won't put soldiers in our home during peacetime; that you will not subject us to unreasonable search and seizure; that the well-regulated state militia can keep and bear arms.

And perhaps most important: we demand the right to worship the God of our choice, to say whatever we want. And if we're not happy with the way things are going with this government, we reserve the right to petition for redress of grievances; and if we're truly unhappy, we can assemble in the town square and raise our voices in protest.

And one more thing we need to have before we ratify this Constitution: We don't know who you are going to put in charge. It could be George Washington, for all we know, but we don't trust even him with that much power. We need a free press to keep an eye on the people in power. We need somebody to act as a watch dog.”

And so what happened that day, was essentially a contract between the American people and their government. I have to tell you my greatest surprise in law school … actually, my greatest surprise in law school was graduating. But my greatest surprise in law school classes was contract law and how it was symmetrical. It explained the relationship between two parties perfectly. And I would say that that day in 1789, when this deal was cut, was the exchange of the power of the government for the power of the people, including a free press.

And unless we daily keep an eye on that contract, we run the risk of the values we have as a nation and our commitment to liberty and justice becoming null and void, just as any other contract is, if we don't stand up for the principles we believe in. That historic day gave every journalist in the business, and every aspiring journalist in this room, a mission, a job—and had nothing to do with Britney Spears.

Those five freedoms of the First Amendment have in fact fueled social progress throughout this nation's history, and the right to speak and write freely have opened up endless possibilities.

Has there ever been a time more packed with possibilities than right now? You know it's often been said that America is a melting pot. But the pace of diversity has picked up dramatically and that melting pot is now a 14-speed blender and we are all enriched as a result.

You only have to look as far as the headlines. For the first time in this nation's history, a parent can say to a child, without regard to race or to gender, that you can grow up to be president and for the first time, that's not a platitude. It's a possibility, if not a probability.

This is a diverse nation richer in ideas and influences than ever before. And even more exciting is how those ideas can be shared in ever more intriguing ways.

Today we can get the news on paper, online, through cell phones, PDAs, satellite, antenna and cable. But in the end, though, the medium is truly less important than the quality of the content.

Every medium of information has strengths and weaknesses and you are in a unique position to choose among them. And if you choose wisely, it can make a great difference both for you and this country and the world beyond.

You know it's customary at this stage for a commencement speaker to wrap it up and to say “You are about to change the world.” But I have to tell you, there's no need for that. You have already changed the world.

You changed the world when you decided that you weren't going to pay for music anymore. You changed the world when you discovered that the most efficient way to communicate was with your thumbs, and that traditional punctuation was purely optional. You changed the world with your use of MySpace, Facebook and social networking, bringing new meaning to the word “community.”

This is a generation that has changed the way the entire nation looks at media, information and communication.

You're part of a smart and engaged generation and you're going to make media choices different from my generation. Some of you do read the newspaper—bless you—while others turn primarily to the Internet. And others graze, culling information from a wide variety of sources.

But you know what? You're also a generation that has rejected the prefabricated and manipulative. I can't say that about my generation. We bought The Monkees, hook-line-and-sinker.

But you demand authenticity and integrity in your music and culture. Don't sell yourself short by accepting anything less in your news sources.

There are some who say they get their news by reading blogs from the left and then from the right and they find the truth in the middle. With all due respect, when you read distortion from the left and distortion from the right, you just double the distortion.

There are some who say they get all the news that they need by watching about 15 minutes of local television news. And I am sure we've got future broadcasters here who will do the industry proud, but the truth is most that most local newscasts do a great job of covering local car crashes, sports and weather—lots and lots of weather—but a complete newscast script will not fill a single page of a daily newspaper, or the chapter of a book.

Just as the founding fathers “rebooted” this country in 1789, you have the clout and capability to drive this information nation in a positive and powerful way. You can demand substance over sensationalism. Reporting over rumors. Perspective over polarity.

As you head out to work across this country and around the world, you are going to discover that you are the most coveted marketing target on the planet. You are young, smart people with credit cards. Every news and media organization in the world has you in their sites.

You can be selective—and you can demand—and deliver—the best in news and information.

Whatever your preferred medium, it's important that we don't settle for journalism lite. If we settle for journalism lite, we'll end up with democracy lite—and we cannot afford to let that happen.

Today's graduates are literally walking into a world of opportunity. And whether you end up as a journalist or judge, a diplomat or a director, politician or poet, editor or envoy, please pursue those dreams with passion and a commitment to doing the right thing every single day.

I believe there's a bit of Superman in all of us. And in the end, truth, justice and a commitment to freedom make all the difference in the world.

Congratulations to all of you.


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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