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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Robert Krulwich 2011 Commencement Address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism
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.
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.
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.
And after that, Charles knew, because this is how it worked back then — everybody at CBS would remember his service, would remember what he’d risked to get a story and after that, he pretty much had a lifetime contract. Even if, later, they didn’t like you that much, they wouldn’t fire you. I’m not saying CBS was always honorable. It wasn’t. I’m not saying it was always noble. It wasn’t. But it offered men like Kuralt a deal: It said to you: “You give us your heart, you give us your best years, we will protect you. We will pay you. We will keep you. And you will be part of us. And you will be proud to be part of us.”
And Charles Kuralt bought that deal hook, line and sinker, but on the afternoon I’m talking about — in the 1990s, after a bunch of ownership and management shuffles, by the time he read that story in the Wall Street Journal, he knew that the bloom was off his rose, that CBS was becoming, like so many companies before and after, a place where they would go for the quick fix, hire the hottie, then fire the hottie, love you on Monday, leave you on Thursday, or maybe even Wednesday… or Tuesday, and he hadn’t seen it coming. He had believed in Edward R. Murrow. He didn’t believe in this.
And I remember saying to him on that day, in that office, me on my side of his desk, and him on his side, in the setting sun, “Here’s the difference, Charles, between my generation and yours. Here’s what my friends would never do, but your friends DID do: we would never trust a company that hires us, no matter how good, how proud it is at this moment, to stay loyal to us or to protect us. We will never put faith in a corporation, even a good one, because we can’t. Because everything we know tells us that we will be disappointed, that we are vulnerable. And you, sitting here, Charles, are just another example of what my friends already know.”
Though I am telling you, thinking of him riding on a motorcycle, gunning his way up the Grand Central Parkway from a plane crash, clasping the hottest story of the day to his chest and taking it home to Edward R. Murrow, a young news gladiator working for the best company on earth, it would be so wonderful to be able to walk into a place and not have to worry again about anything but your work. But that world has vanished. Poof! Which is just to say that the notion that if you could get yourself today into the New York Times, into The Wall Street Journal, into CBS, NBC, Time, Newsweek, they’d take you in, and protect you, well those days – they didn’t last long — maybe one, one and a half generations got that deal. And for you, the generation after me, I am going to tell you what I told Charles, you can’t trust big companies to keep you safe. I know most of you don’t and I’m just here to remind you, that a job at NBC, or ESPN, New or the York Times, NPR, may look safe today but things change. They always change. And companies won’t protect you from that change. They can’t. And these days, they don’t even try.
Which brings me back to where I started.
If you want to make a life in this business, if you want to begin, and survive and flourish, how do you do it? How do you start? I think there’s a way.
There’s always a way, but lately I’ve noticed a pattern emerging. And I’ve seen it work for a number of people who are close to your age, and I’ve watched them step from obscurity to notice to a little money and then to a actual salary, and they are following this particular route. It isn’t easy. But here’s what I’ve noticed.
Some people when they look for a job in journalism they ask themselves, what do I like to do and who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? Who can get me to a ballpark? Who can get me to Wall Street or the politicians, or to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And then you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” And then you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait. I don’t know exactly what’s going on inside them; but they have this hunger. It’s almost like an ache. Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked, I just have to jump in and I have to do it. I was one of these people. When I was a teenager I loved political conventions. My mom watched them on TV, she was really into politics, so I watched with her and there was something about nominating conventions, all those senators and mayors and political bosses in a huge, blazing room with the banners and balloons and funny hats, choosing and bargaining, will it be Kennedy or Stevenson, the cameras, the lights, the drama, I just… when I got a little older, I just wanted to see it for myself.
So at age 20, I think it was, and this is just really kind of crazy behavior, I decided I’d just go. There was a political convention in Chicago in 1967, one year before the riots in 68. It was a political convention for left wing anti-war activists who were planning to nominate Dr. Martin Luther King for President and Dr. Benjamin Spock the world famous baby doctor/pediatrician as the Vice President, it was called The New Politics Convention. And I thought, that’s a convention, I’ll cover that.
But I didn’t know what cover meant exactly — except that when you watched real reporters on TV, I noticed they all had “credentials”, something rather impressive hanging around their necks. So, to prepare, I went to Art Brown’s Art Supply store in New York and I got some pre-inked letters, called LettraSet , because in those days nobody had printers and fonts at home. All you had was a typewriter, and no one’s going to fall for a credential that’s typed. No. So, for $2.50, I got myself a sheet of pre-inked Bodoni bold letters, fifty a’s, fifty b’s fifty c’s…and letter by letter, rubbing with a stylus, I forged an I.D. for some reason from the Yale Daily News. I didn’t go to Yale. I went to Oberlin College. I was on the Oberlin paper. But some sick impulse told me Oberlin wouldn’t be impressive enough, so I painstakingly created a Yale Press card with a Yale logo and with all these different looking signatures with different colored pens, and I then I laminated it, twice. I thought lamination is the crucial thing here. The more plastic you put around your ID, the more credible the forgery.
And when I went to the Hilton Hotel in Chicago I was looking pretty good except for the fact that the Yale Daily news had actually sent a reporter to the convention, who later became an undersecretary of state, his name was Strobe Talbot, and he was two people behind me on the registration when we were waiting to get in, so for the next three days, I had to constantly make sure that Strobe Talbot and I were never, ever in the same room. But the thing is: they let me into the convention with my thing. And I just did it. I learned what reporters do by watching them, and then copying what I saw. I ran up corridors. I ran down corridors. I interviewed people. I took frantic notes. I’d rush from ballrooms to the convention pressroom and I would type like crazy, what exactly I don’t remember, because nobody had sent me there; I was typing nothing to nobody. It was a complete pantomime, the whole thing, but I was in kind of a heaven.
At one point there was a fight in a corridor, and while the fight was still going on – and this was Chicago, people actually really were hitting each other – I squirreled on my belly underneath the fighters to get a quote from the first victim, whose name happened to be Maliewsky, or some long Polish name with lots of vowels, not easy to spell but I already learned everybody needed correct spelling, so squirreling on the floor, I say to him, “How exactly do you spell Maliewsky? M, A, L, I or is it E? and with his head pressed to the carpet, he gives me the spelling of his name, and I squiggle back out, and ten minutes later I’m standing in the pressroom, once I was sure Strobe Talbot wasn’t there, and I’m spelling Maliewsky the correct way and then, I am generously sharing my quote with the reporters! Oh man, I was like.
And then I went home, by total chance, I was seated on the plane next to – the plane by the way cost $30 if you were under 22 in those days — next to Dr. Benjamin Spock, the now anointed vice presidential nominee. So I had an exclusive interview with THE GUY! It was an exclusive for nobody but I was so excited, we shared a cab downtown and I left my clothes in his cab. The next day, my mother called me because my parents’ address was on the bag, and she said, “Do you know Dr. Spock? Because he just left your clothes in our lobby.” And there was no way I could tell my mother what I’d done. No way.
I still have trouble explaining it to myself. I just wanted to be there. And, I should tell you I wasn’t, like, planning a career or dreaming dreams of a life in journalism. In fact, I had just seen Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird and I wanted to be him, in that movie. That was the dream.
So after college and national service I went to law school. Journalism wasn’t my first love or my only love, but the seed had been planted. And then later, when I graduated law school and had this deep, haunting feeling that I’d made a mistake, and I’d didn’t have the talent or the character to be Gregory Peck, then asked myself… well, what can I do? What am I good at? And I thought, well, I’m good at explaining things, and I like learning stuff and I like meeting people and who gets to do that? And I thought yeah, my weekend in Chicago.
And the thing is, at that moment, after law school, I was desperate to be good at something, just something and Journalism, I thought, might save me from being a nobody.
And, because I’d had that crazy weekend, I had a sly feeling, maybe it could be better than that. Some combination of desire and desperation gave me my next plan: I went to my living room, with a tape recorder and I composed a ten part series about Presidential Impeachments. Richard Nixon at the time was being investigated by Congress — this was the Watergate period, and I wrote ten questions I thought might be on dumb peoples’ minds: If a president is impeached does he go right to jail? No. He goes on trial. Who runs the trial? Who’s the judge? Who’s the jury? If Senators are supposed to weigh the evidence like jurors, what if 6 of them are in the bathroom during important testimony. Normal Jurors can’t go to the bathroom, but I bet Senators can? Who is Nixon’s lawyer? Who is the prosecutor? Does the President go to work when he’s being impeached? And so on…
And I took all these questions, and because I’d gone to law school, I answered them and performed a question and answer 40 minute drama, for some reason, in the style of Howard Cosell, the great ABC sportscaster. Why I did my impeachment lesson as a sportscast, I have no idea. It was not a… uh… big success, but one radio station, a community, underground, lefty kind of station, found it curiously plausible. And that’s all it took, one. That tape got me my first job
But the impulse, to explain, to write, to tell, began here, on my insides. Journalism doesn’t have to be your first love, it doesn’t have to be your only love. You can come to it in desperation, because you can’t think of anything better to do with your life, that it’s this or the abyss. But once you get going it does help if you love it. There are different things to love. Some of you, no doubt, have learned to love the spotlight, you want to be the narrator, the on-camera, the presenter, the voice, the big byline. Others of you might have chosen producing, or designing, or managing, staying out of sight, shaping the product.
Some of you like speed. Find something, get it right, get it on, go home. Some of you like it slower: go somewhere, hang out with people, mull it over, write a draft, you talk it over.
What you love can differ, but the love, once it comes, that feeling of waking up with a kind of eagerness, a crazy momentum that pushes you into your day, an excitement you realize you don’t ever want to go way that’s important. If you don’t have that feeling, maybe you’re lucky. You can lead a more sane life. But if you do – I say congratulations. You have what it takes to begin.
What you do next? Well, the obvious option is to go to Conde Nast, Sports Illustrated, MTV. They’re there. You can go in and pour coffee for the person who sharpens the pencil for the person who writes the copy and work your way all the way to the top. That’s what Charles Kuralt did. And in his day, with his talent, he did it very fast.
But here’s another way. It’s not easy. Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. Nobody will pay you. Nobody one will care. Nobody one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then you do it again.
Now I understand that if you’re married, or have a kid, you can’t not make money. And I know that it is not fun, it’s the opposite of fun, to juggle rent payments with car payments, to fudge medical bills, to play roulette with your credit cards, to have bills that must be paid month after month after month, that don’t go down, and I know about friends and siblings who didn’t go crazy, who didn’t try to become professional storytellers, who became normal things, like dentists or sales people, or whatever and they are now moving into homes, and they are now buying real furniture and they are now making you feel like you are slipping backwards in the world for the sin of having a dream. I know about that.
But let me tell you what I’ve also seen. I’ve also seen, in my most recent area, science journalism, I’ve seen people do just what I’ve proposed. I’ve seen people, literally, go home, write a blog about dinosaurs in one case, or neuroscience, biology. Nobody asked them. They just did. On their own. By themselves.
After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate on financial terms that were insulting, but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to, they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves and now they’re getting paid for it!
How they managed, I don’t know. Some of them worked by day and wrote by night. Some of them lived with their parents. Some must have struck deals with spouses or with friends. But I notice, because I talk to them, and now I often work with them, I notice that they get courage from each other. They’ve got a kind of community. At first it was virtual; they wrote each other. Then they met each other. Now they support each other. Watch out for each other. One day, I imagine, they will get and give each other jobs. And they share a sensibility, a generational sense, that this is how “we” do it.
News, after all, is a spin of words and pictures. It’s a kind of music. There are beats in a newscast, a newspaper story. Ed Murrow sounded like Ed Murrow. Huntley and Brinkley sounded different. Anderson Cooper, different still. When you grow up in different decades, you laugh at different jokes, hear different machines, I heard typewriters, you computers, I had pinball machines, you Mario Brothers, you hear different ads, jingles, songs, sounds.
When you talk or write or film, you work with the music inside you, the music that formed you. Different generations have different musics in them, so whatever they do, it’s going to come out differently and you will speak in beats of your own generation. The people in charge, don’t want to change. They like the music they’ve got. To the newcomers, they say, “Wait your turn”.
But in a world like this, rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers, that’s you, you here today, you have to trust in your music, that’s how you talk to each other, that’s how you talk to your generation. And that’s how the country changes.
After all, when it began in the 1930’s, Time, the weekly news magazine, was a radical idea created by young Henry Luce and his college friends. The New Yorker got its beats from young James Thurber and his buddy E.B. White, and their boss Harold Ross, I was at Rolling Stone when Jann Wenner put together his amazing gang of writers, designers, critics, photographers. Then Ira Glass did it again with Gen Xers. Each of these groups have a shared feel; they are expressing something that belongs to their age, their time.
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You’re going to build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in but more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.
And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve already got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back, and they will be your strength.
If you choose to go this way, you won’t have Charles Kuralt’s instant success. It will take time. It will probably be very lonely. A living room is not a news room. And it never feels like one. You know you’re alone. And on the way, you get get scarily close to not being able to afford a living room.
But what I’ve noticed is that people who fall in love with journalism, who stay at it, who stay stubborn, they very very often win. I don’t know why, but I’ve seen it happen over and over.
So, here, for what it’s worth, ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2011, here is my final graduation advice. Some of you will say, “This is like a silly fantasy by an old guy. Pay no attention to this man,” however, you invited me, so here’s what you get:
If you can, fall in love, with the work, with the people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams. Whatever it was that got you to this school, don’t let it go. Whatever kept you here, don’t let that go. Believe in your friends. Believe in what you and your friends have to say and that the way you’re saying it – is something new in the world. And don’t stop. Just hold on and keep loving what you love and you’ll see. In the end, they’ll let you stay.
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