TRANSCRIPT: Commencement speech for the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism (May 15, 2015)
First of all, thanks to Dean Ernest J. Wilson and to the director of the School of Journalism, Willow Bay, for inviting me this morning to USC. I’m honored.
It’s great to be here in Trojan territory to celebrate you, to celebrate your new building and media center -the envy of any school-, to celebrate the incredible diversity in this university -we’re from all over the world, from China to the barrios of Los Angeles-, to celebrate the collaboration between Fusion (the company I work for) and USC Annenberg to train and inspire young journalists, and to celebrate the fact that many of you -one in seven, I was told- will be the first in your families to graduate from college. Well, that’s a great reason to celebrate.
I guess I was invited to talk about the future. Your future. So this is what I know for sure: I’m an immigrant and I am a journalist. These two things define me.
To be an immigrant means that I left everything behind me. Everything: my family, my friends, my house and the sense the life was going to be predictable. As a young reporter, I was censored in Mexico. Back then in the early 1980’s you couldn’t criticize the president. So, of course, I did a story that criticized the president. I quit before I was fired, I sold my car -an old Volkswagen Beetle-, got a little money and moved to Los Angeles as a student.
I was only 24. I didn’t know anything about this business but I did know that I didn’t want to be a censored journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the United States. This country gave the opportunities that my country of origin couldn’t give me and I hope that it continues doing the same with the immigrants who came after me.
Now, let’s fast forward to the present.
I have been an anchorman for almost 30 years. Before you were born I was already covering the news. But here’s the problem. Many years from now, when you’ll tell your kids that an anchorman gave your commencement speech at USC, they will ask you: “Mom, Dad, What’s an anchorman?”
Most likely, you’ll have to put me in the same category of dinosaurs and other species about to be extinct. I’m not kidding.
I’m sorry to say but you are entering journalism and public relations in the middle of a storm. In our profession we are living the equivalent of climate change, with the fundamentals of the business melting like icebergs in the summer, being flooded by social media and looking outside the window with anxiety and uncertainty.
Everything is changing. Actually, everything is migrating to your cell phones. Newspapers are not being read in paper anymore. And guess what? We are producing television programs for people who don’t even own a television set. Now, a quick fact check: in journalism we don’t know yet how to make a lot of money with the new technologies, so don’t expect a big paycheck. Not now, at least.
On the other hand, I have to confess that, as a journalist, I cannot compete with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram. I just can’t. If there is an earthquake in China, a plane accident in France or a shooting in downtown Los Angeles, someone with a cell phone will be better positioned than me to report about what happened. The iPhone is the most successful and profitable consumer electronic invention in the history of the world. And it shows.
The new rule is digital first.
So, is this the end of journalism? Is everything lost right before you started?
No. Absolutely not. So don’t fight change. Embrace it.
I came here this morning to tell you that journalists are needed more than ever before. I came here this morning to tell you that public relations is really about communicating the truth and connecting people to people.
Look, you don’t believe everything you read in social media, right? Well, that’s precisely the point.
You are in the business of telling the truth, in the business of speaking truth to power. You are in a business in which credibility and trust are the most important things. With millions of tidbits of information, videos and, honestly, a lot of trash, your responsibility is to put that information in perspective, to tell us what is relevant and what is not, and to be fiercely independent.
Please, don’t be partisan. Don’t be a Democrat or a Republican. Just be a journalist.
Now, this is what you can do for me and for the rest of us. This is very important. You have to challenge authority. Be a rebel. Your most important social responsibility is to prevent the abuse of those who are in power. Question them.
Ask tough questions. Don’t be scared. There are no forbidden or silly questions. And your attitude should be that if you don’t ask that question to the President, to the mayor, to the Senator…no one else will. Don’t look around. It is your responsibility. That’s why you chose to be a journalist.
Taking responsibility is also vital for ethical and successful public relations professionals.
Your integrity and reputation is your only career-long capital.
Working in-house, PR pros need to be able to ask tough questions of their CEO, or their elected officials, or executive director — whether they are working at a for-profit, government or non-profit. They need to counsel transparency, and always push for the truth to be shared.
I know, for sure, that secrets are never secrets and that questions are your greatest weapon.
Now, how do you know if it’s the right question? It’s very simple. If when you think of a question it makes you tremble and your hands start sweating, then you know that’s a question you have to ask. Do it.
Yes, I’m asking you to take a stand. Don’t be neutral. Neutrality is for referees in a football game. The really -really- good journalists always take a stand with those who have no voice and with those who have no rights. Maybe you don’t know it yet, but actually you chose to be a fighter. Don’t quit now.
To be a journalist, more than a profession, is a behavior and a mission. You can’t go to bed or go on vacation and stop being a journalist. If you can do that, quit now. This is not for you.
If you want to be famous, well, you better try Dancing with the Stars. A few days ago I interviewed George Clooney who is one of the most famous people on the planet. And he told me that his fame depended on a lot on luck. He said that if the television show in which he was a doctor, E.R., had been shown on Fridays instead of Thursdays, his career would not have been as successful. I’m not sure about that. But if George Clooney says that fame is a lot of luck, don’t fight with George Clooney on that one.
Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll become rich doing this. As I said before, we’re in the middle of a communications revolution and no one really knows where the money is. But if hell is doing over and over again things that you hate to do, journalism and public relations is exactly the opposite of that. No day has ever been the same for me in decades.
And that is paradise.
Finally, the great thing about being a journalist is that your job description includes being a rebel. Find what you are passionate about and speak up.
Also, journalism will keep you forever young. Journalism is an art that happens only in the present and then disappears, very fast. There’s nothing you can do about your age, but there’s a lot you can do to be present, here, now.
So take a stand, be present, be bold, ask tough questions, tell the truth and, please, enjoy the ride. This is the most marvelous profession in the world because the world is your newsroom.
Now, go out there and start playing.