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A Commencement Speech Delivered
by James Fallows
at the Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University
June 1996

Dean Janeway; members of the faculty and staff; friends and family; and -- especially -- members of the class of 1996 at the Medill School: Greetings! On behalf of your parents, your brothers and sisters, your teachers, your friends, and the constellation of other supporters who have aided your progress through this institution, I am delighted to use the words I heard at my own college commencement ceremony and officially "welcome you into the company of educated men and women."

I have another and more peculiar kind of welcome to offer, which is to the company of the world's journalists. On-duty journalists; in-training journalists; potential and wanna-be journalists; virtual and cyber journalists; and people who, no matter how they ultimately earn their living, still feel that because of the training they received here and at similar institutions, they are journalists inside.

This greeting, to the company of journalists, may sound strange because many of you receiving degrees today may never actually work for news organizations. (This is not a warning to anyone in particular but an observation of past trends.) It may sound strange because the company of journalists is a group to which no one actually needs a welcome or an invitation at all. You cannot declare yourself a doctor, a lawyer, a CPA, or a former member of the Beatles. But anyone can decide to be a journalist and, from that moment, he or she is. Our craft is defined in the doing, not in the preparing-for.

But most of all a welcome may seem strange because of the perceived condition of journalism today. People are not welcomed onto chain gangs; they are not welcomed into sick wards; and so, in the view of many of our fellow citizens, we should not be welcome and congratulated but rather sympathized with or perhaps even scorned when we say at occasions like today's: Look, America! Here come more journalists! Polls suggest that Americans are now happier to see a crop of new lawyers graduate than receive more of us, a thought to sober us all.

I have spent much of this year arguing with my colleagues -- and now yours -- in journalism about the things that are wrong with our business. But I would like today to talk with you about the importance of our role, the appeal of our craft, and what the prospects are that during your time as journalists we will make this a calling in which people may not be loved but are respected, and deserve to be.

Among the many-score graduates receiving degrees today, I imagine there are many-score routes, motivations, and stories of how you developed an interest in journalism. Let me tell you my story for a moment, because it helps me clarify what I am proud -- and concerned about -- in today's news business.

When I started college, I was sure enough that I wanted to be a doctor that I loaded on as many chemistry and biology courses as my brain and schedule would hold. With an eye toward covering medical-school tuition, I also took on jobs in college -- one of the most lucrative of which turned out to be selling advertisements for the student daily paper, the Crimson. I am sure that Medill students don't behave this way, but when exam period rolled around the normal editors and writers of the Crimson were suddenly thrown into a panicked attempt to read the books and finish the papers they had neglected through all the months before. But in exam period the Crimson still came out, and someone had to fill it -- and so the task often fell to the methodical plodders of the business staff, who were more likely to have kept up their work.

So it was that, when making up the advertising dummy for the paper late one gelid January evening, I heard fire engines roaring. I grabbed a reporter's pad, and after running and sliding through the snow I saw the Harvard Economics Department going up in flame. Years later, when writing about trade issues, I came to wish that other economics departments, say at the University of Chicago, had met this fate. But at the time I concentrated merely on the spectacle -- especially how, in weather so cold, water froze as soon as it came out of the firehoses and could not stop the fire. Standing near me on the sidewalk I observed a man who looked more distraught than interested to see the building burn down. I learned that he was a young researcher from India, named Subramanian Swami, who as he watched the fire was seeing the last fourteen years of his academic research disappear in flames. You'll be relieved to hear that it all turned out fine for Dr. Swami -- pushed on to a different career path, he returned to his native India, where eventually he became Finance Minister. The moment also had a career-changing effect on me, for as the first question I asked for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.

Through my remaining years in college I spent less and less time with amino acids and more and more with lead slugs -- yes, it was hot type then -- and typewriters -- yes, typewriters then, too -- and the 3:00 am final proof check before the presses rolled. I worked on a tiny weekly newspaper in Alabama, and a large daily paper in California, and monthlies of all descriptions, and every other outlet I could find. I began to realize that it would be very difficult to find as much fulfillment or challenge in any other occupation. I began to think about what was enjoyable in being a journalist, and what was significant.

The joy of doing what is involved in journalism is a secret we share among ourselves -- perhaps the main trait that distinguishes the "company" of journalists that you are now entering from the run of ordinary humanity. Newspaper, magazine, and book writers are, believe it or not, officially classified in the manufacturing sector of the American economy -- and while that at first may sound preposterous it does recognize the making in what we do. We learn about a subject, and there is a result. We haven't just scored points in a meeting, or shaken up the company hierarchy. The result of our effort is a thing -- an article, an editorial, a photo, a broadcast that people see or listen to. Anyone who has been part of our kind of manufacturing knows the daily sense of miracle that the thing we are producing actually appears. The paper comes out each morning, the news broadcast begins on time -- and when we consider the thousands of feats of coordination, and delegation, and headline-writing, and story-cutting required to meet the deadline every single day, we are entitled to feel amazed and proud at what people working together can do. Think merely of the headline: civilians flip past them, but anyone who has tried to write them knows the kind of everyday poetry they can represent. A test of whether you really are journalists yet is whether you can admire the artistry despite lamenting the message of a headline I saw two days ago. It followed the fourth game of the NBA Finals, and it said: "Sweepless in Seattle." Stories and articles are longer than headlines, but in a sense all of them present the headline-like haiku challenge of conveying a complex message in limited space.

As time went on I found other satisfactions in journalism, which have kept me enthusiastic about it even as the joy of meeting deadlines and watching fires has worn off. We have a right, in this line of work, to spend our lives learning a succession of new subjects. We can invest a day, a week, a month, a year satisfying our curiosity about a business, a politician, a different part of the earth -- and then, unlike people in the normal world, we can go on to do something else. Without exposing ourselves to the unbelievable personal scrutiny visited upon those in public life -- scrutiny that is inflicted, of course, by our colleages in the press -- we have the privilege of joining debates about the biggest issues of our time.

And, we can do things that matters. A doctor, a priest, a teacher, a parent can have a direct and beneficial impact on someone else's life in way that journalists rarely achieve. Indeed it is in the nature of our work that an effective journalist, like an effective police officer, will have many of his direct dealings with people who wish he wasn't there.

But collectively we can and must matter to our culture as a whole. We are the intelligence system, the sensory nerves, for a democratic society. We are the main and sometimes the only means through which people can know about trends, problems, possibilities they don't happen to see for themselves. We are reminded how much we matter when we visit societies where the press is muzzled and journalists are endangered, and we see people's hunger for our product, news. We are reminded, too, when we think of the structure of our government and recognize that our industry, uniquely, is protected by the constitution -- not because we are so lovable as individuals but because in the clockwork design that is our democracy, a healthy press was considered to be an essential cog. It connects the government to the people and both of them to reality, and if it doesn't work, neither does the system as a whole.

You are no doubt aware of the mounting evidence that this crucial transmission gear is battered and flawed, that some teeth have broken off, that it is failing to engage at moments when engagement is critical if the system is to go. You have heard in classrooms here, and will hear in newsrooms and bars for years to come, contending analyses of what has gone wrong: why the habits and culture of reporters may get in the way of effective self-government; why we have often emphasized what is urgent rather than what is important; why in our necessary role of watchdogs we have needlessly destroyed reputations and chewed up lives; why we have made people feel like spectators rather than participants in the process of self-rule; what it means that so much of our business is now part of giant corporate combines, and whether it is possible to sustain good journalism on that basis.

I often think, when I hear and participate in such debates, of the words I recited a thousand times from the prayer book I used as a child: "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us." They did not mince words in the Book of Common Prayer, circa 1549. But such prayers, and their counterparts in any religion, are important not as sheer self-abasement but as means toward improvement, and so should today's journalistic debates be.

Because journalism cannot be regulated or steered by outsiders, our craft depends more than any other on constant self-examination by those inside. Through your life as professionals you will -- or should -- be continually involved in scrutinizing and improving what we do. You will be considering ways to re-engage your readers without simply pandering to what members of focus groups think they want to hear from you. You will help contrive ways for journalism to survive as a business while recognizing that -- like medical care, like education -- it must always be more than just another profit center. You will, I hope, discover ways to restore vitality to the mass media - the major broadcast and print outlets that give us the information we share in common as citizens -- at a time when our information supply, like other aspects of our national life, is becoming more fragmented and balkanized on economic, educational, and racial lines.

In short, you will have a lot to keep you busy. But let me suggest a single goal to work towards, a challenge that if met will help many other problems solve themselves. Whatever sort of journalist you become, I suggest that the test you ask of yourself, the daily goal toward which you strive, is that of making what's important interesting.

Let me explain. Certain spectacles and emotions have through history been engrossing in themselves. Violence. Sex. Mystery. Death. Beauty. Greed. Betrayal. Gossip. The drama of the mighty brought low. It is no challenge at all to interest your audience in these inherently interesting themes. While these passions may have been the raw material for great literature, from Homer to Jane Austen, a journalist who "attracts" an audience to the Charles-and-Di saga or, of course, OJ, need barely have broken a sweat. Building a following for these themes is like setting high-jump records in the weak gravity of the moon.

Nor, on the other extreme, is it much of a challenge to make important topics seem dull. Journalists do it every day!

The test of your skill -- indeed, the measure of your ultimate impact as journalists -- is neither to satisfy appetites people already have, nor to rehash "substance" in an unappetizing way, but rather to bridge those realms and make people care about what counts. If you're only dealing with the fluff, you're not a journalist but an entertainer -- and sheer diversion is not what the First Amendment was meant to protect. But if you neglect your duty to entice and entertain, no one will read, watch, or listen to what you have to say. The era of assigned reading, after all, ends on graduation day.

Therefore you will, I hope, join the long tradition of journalists who struggle to convey truths that matter in novel, gripping ways. James Agee carried out a baroque form of this experimentation when he traveled through the rural South and wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the 1930s. William Shirer, Theodore White, Edward R. Murrow, and their astonishing contemporaries experimented with new forms of factual narrative, with shadings in tone and voice, to convey realities from a world fighting and recovering from the Second World War. Scholars like David Reisman and many others, scholarly journalists like William F. Whyte, found new ways for the America of the Eisenhower era to understand itself. The reportage of the Vietnam era was an explosion of journalistic styles. During your own time at Medill you have seen talented writers and broadcasters search for ways of exploring America's ancestral problems of race and its new problems of economic security.

The examples could go on -- and the explosion of new forms will go in your time as journalists. Your opportunity, and our hope, is that you will discover new and better ways of engaging readers in the news of their world. My friend and mentor Charles Peters, founder of The Washington Monthly, has a phrase he uses when he wants to rev up writers to accept a major challenge. Sometimes, he says, you have to "play Notre Dame" -- you have to test yourself against a first-rate foe. Charlie is nearly seventy years old, and his allusions to pop culture are some times out of date. So on the basis of the recent record, let me say to you that some times you have to "play Northwestern." You will be "playing Northwestern," and doing honor to your training at Northwestern, when you make the trends of your times as urgent to your readers as they will ultimately seem to historians looking back at us.

By law no commencement speech can end without a list of Benjamin Franklin-like practical suggestions. So here they are.

Call your mother frequently.

In your own role as mothers or fathers, spend more time with your children than you think reasonable. You will never regret it, and you will regret doing anything else.

Pay attention to your habits, because pretty soon they become your life.

Always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them. This way you get the anger out of your system while minimizing the amount of your time that is controlled by those you dislike.

Disbelieve both the best and the worst that others say about you. Realize that whatever you say about people will inevitably get back to them.

And: Be grateful for your time at Medill and Northwestern; remember to "Play Northwestern" in taking on the big challenges of your time and of your craft; be proud of your role as a journalist; and by the way you live out that role, make others understand your pride.

Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows.

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