Transcript: Robert Krulwich 2011 Commencement Address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism

The following is the full transcript of Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism on May 7, 2011.

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Announcer: Introducing Robert Krulwich.

Robert Krulwich – Journalist

Okay, well. All right. So, ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2011, today you’re on the brink, you’re about to cross over. Last week, you had projects, deadlines and meetings and not a second to spare. And next week? Well, for many of you next week will be luxuriously relaxed with just a touch, or for some of you maybe more than a touch of ”Uh Oh” because your tomorrows may be looking just a bit too relaxed, and “I don’t know what’s next-ish” feeling, and that’s  what I want to talk about today. I want to talk to you about your tomorrows in journalism. I know, that it is hard to find a job.

I’m guessing you look at the world of newspapers and magazines and broadcasters and webcasters and Huffposts and Daily Beasts and sometimes the whole bunch of enterprises feels like the City of Troy, you know, this high walled, Fortress of Journalism, occupied by people who somehow got in before you did and now they’re looking down at you, a little newbie standing there on the beach and you’re looking up, thinking: “Hey! How’d you get in there?– and they’re not telling, so.

But the question’s still a good one: How these days does anybody get a good job in journalism, a job where you are surrounded by good people, people you envy and admire, people like the folks you just spent two years with at this school? I mean not all of them – but I imagine that each of you by now have one or two or maybe three or maybe five friends that you made here that you know are really good at what they do, and sometimes better than good, and sometimes better than you.

So how do you taste more of what you tasted here, which if I can presume includes the thrill of occasionally writing a good sentence, of asking exactly the right question at exactly the right moment, of making two pieces of tape fit perfectly together, of getting to meet new people, going to new places, seeing great things unfold before your eyes, little satisfactions of journalism, how can you have more of that? That’s all you’re asking, right? That’s all you want. That, and a salary.

And yet it seems so hard right now. You can send resumes, you can phone friends. You can phone friends of friends, you call up people, you try to make a quick impression, but does that get you the job? For some of you, yes. Some of you, not yet.

It took 10 years for those Greeks to figure a way into Troy… ten years on the friggin’ sitting on the beach until the cleverest guy in the group – the “wily’ Ulysses – figured out a way, involving an oversized horse, which makes you wonder: how wily do you have to be to get a job these days?

And the other possible horrible thought – that because you were born in 1979, 1980, or ‘82, ‘87, or whatever, graduating as it happens into a job-stricken, wildly changing economy, that maybe you’re just doomed. And I think maybe some of you might think that from time to time but to you — and to your parents, I say: No.

I am here to tell you that I think really – I never went to journalism school but I thought about this a lot – I think you are stepping into a world that is riper and more pregnant with newness, and new ideas, new beats, new opportunities than most generations of journalists before you. You are lucky to be you, very lucky, although of course you’re probably not feeling it at the moment.

So I want to tell you a feel-bad story that I think might make you feel good. It’s about a guy who got a job as a correspondent at CBS News, in its day, the best place in the world to work. And he got it at the age of 23. He’d had a short stint at the Charlotte News in North Carolina; he’d written some good pieces and he got a call — literally, he got called and was asked to come to the CBS Building, then on Madison Avenue in New York, where he was offered a writing job on the spot. These things once actually happened. And because he was fast, a natural stylist with a keen eye, it happened to Charles Kuralt. That was his name, Charles Kuralt.

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And he knew how lucky he was, because at that first job interview, as he walked from the elevator to the guy he was supposed to talk to, on his way down the hall, he passed a door – it was closed, but on it, lettered in gold, were the words “Mr. Murrow”, as in Edward R. Murrow, who was at that moment – yep, whenever you mention his name – who at that point was the anchor of the evening newscast. And when Charles looked around he looked at the mailboxes with names on them that he saw, those names, you may not know them now, but they were legends and also always accompanied by a choir of bells, when you hear Eric Serveried, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Daniel Shorr, Robert Trout. This was friggin unbelievable: to be one of Murrow’s boys, at 23 when you are almost –.

And then, not long after that, he got a big break. As I say, he was a news writer, Charles Kuralt writing copy off in a corner, sometimes for Murrow, but he’s pretty much an indoors guy, and he’s dreaming of course, of getting outdoors where things are happening and one night – in the middle of the night, on the graveyard shift, 2 o’clock in the morning, the bell on the wire ticker goes off and a airplane has just fallen short of the runway at LaGuardia Airport and is sinking right now in the East River.

So, Kuralt and the night editor, they flipped a coin for who’s going to go, Charles wins and runs downstairs, jumps into a cab and says “Take me To LaGuardia.” The problem is, no sooner are they out of the midtown tunnel, then the cab gets snarled in some kind of pre dawn, fire engines-heading-to-the-airport  traffic jam, so Kuralt leaps out of the cab, and runs through the tangled cars up the highway, sees a guy on a motorcycle weaving his way through the traffic, so he waves his hands wildly, flags him down, says I am a news reporter, there’s a plane in the water, I got to get the story, “take me!” and the guy says okay, points to the back of the motorcycle, “Hold On’ and, like a stunt driver, zigzags through the cars to the airport and Kuralt is one of the first on the scene, jumps over fences, gets interviews, and makes it onto the evening news. After which he’s anointed “correspondent”, the youngest ever at 23 years old.

So Charles Kuralt not only could write nicely. He had a voice, he had a calm and a style that was… well, let’s just say when I got to CBS, I felt about Charles Kuralt, the way Kuralt felt about Ed Murrow. I thought he was remarkable. There have been just few reporters in my lifetime that I admired more.

So fast forward 40 years, to 1990 or so. Now I am on the same floor with Charles Kuralt, right next door. And I loved to wander into his office because, it felt kind of like a privilege to me. Every time I walked through his door I felt that I had a hall pass to yak with Zeus, if only I could disguise my obvious admiration, because I really liked him so – too much probably.

So one day, it was a late afternoon, near to Thanksgiving, and the sun was very low in the sky, and when I walked in, Charles was at his desk, he was sitting there, back lit by the sun, like a saint. And at first of all I could see was his silhouette but when my eyes adjusted, it was kind of strange. He was holding what looked like a reefer between his thumb and index finger which wasn’t a habit I would ever associate with Charles Kuralt. It was rolled, like a joint, very tight, but I could tell this bit of paper had been carved out of the front page of a Wall Street Journal that was lying on his desk. He had seen something in the Wall Street Journal front page, and then with his pen, he’d drawn a circle around whatever it was so many times over and over – that the piece had gotten loose and this fragment had been twisted – he twisted into a skinny little shape and when I walked in, he put the twisted thing down on the desk top, all alone, and he looked at me, and he got up, a little unsteadily, he pointed to the paper, and then he left the room.

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And I wondered, what is it? What’s he got?  So I looked at the newspaper, and on the front page there was a story about CBS. This was a while ago, so I may not have all the details right, but it seems that CBS had paid a huge hunk of money to get a new station manager to work at WBBM, their premier Chicago station, and the story of this producer was that he had been hired by a Miami station that was very low rated, nobody watched it, until this guy, who’s name I don’t remember any more, got the idea to hire very buff, very curvey, very news-delicious newscasters, both men and women, and have them deliver many of their reports from the beach, often in beach wear and sometimes, in the water, where they got kind of wet, showing  off their extra beautiful parts.

Now this station in a multi-station market had leapt from a something like a 4% or 5% share to a miraculous, like a 50% share. Half the people in Miami who were watching news on television were now watching this guy’s station and when I opened the little twisted bit of paper, Charlie’s reefer, the paragraph that he had circled over and over, that paragraph said that CBS, Edward R. Murrow’s CBS, Charlie Kuralt’s CBS, had just hired this guy to be their new station manager.

And that’s when Charles came back into the room, and slumped down in his chair and looked at me like a man who had lost a friend. Or like a man betrayed. And the thing is, as I tell you this story now, I’m sure a lot of you are thinking, “Of course. CBS is a business and if a business can get a 50% share of a market, if any business can get a 50% share of any market, if there’s a way to do that, you’ve got to know someone’s going to try. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. Beachwear in Chicago can be a little tricky come October, but, this isn’t shocking, this is what businesses do.

But when Charles Kuralt went to CBS, it wasn’t a business. It was a calling. It had saints. It had heroes. It had character. And it protected its own. If you went into battle, in World War II or in Korea or in Vietnam, for CBS, if you found yourself under fire, or in harm’s way, and you survived, you were honored the way soldiers honor each other. Charles and his cameraman Freddy Deitrich, had been fired on Vietnam. They were caught in an ambush, and a soldier they’d been covering, by the name of a Lieutenant Son, from the South Vietnamese Army had come over to see if they were OK after this ambush and at that moment, a sniper shot Son through the head and he fell over dead right where Kuralt was. Right next to him.