Doctor of Humane Letters (NU '08, honorary)
Former Editor-in-Chief, The Ecnomist
Medill School of Journalism Graduation Ceremony
21 June 2008
Thank you very much, Dean Lavine, for that wonderful introduction. And I can see wearing this robe and putting on this hat, it is your equivalent of not having bylines -- to make me look like one of you. And I am wonderfully honored to have been here yesterday at the university ceremony, and now today at this wonderful ceremony at Medill. The gowns, the glamour, the degree, there is always a danger that such things will go to your head -- like this cap. But at such times, I like to remember a wonderful remark made by Henry Kissinger. Someone asked him, “Dr. Kissinger, what's it like to be famous?” And he said, “The great thing about being famous is that you can bore people, and they think it's their fault.”
Thinking, though, of what you all are about to do, to make your first full steps forward into journalism or into your other chosen fields, it brings to mind another story. It is a story about a candidate to be the British prime minister opposing the incumbent government. He made a speech in which said the following: "Under the current prime minister, this country has been brought to the edge of a precipice. Elect me, and we will take a bold step forward.”
Given all the whining, the bleating and the soul-searching to which the media is prone today, some of you may think you might be walking off a cliff today. But what I want to say to you, as you already know as top-class journalism students, is that you shouldn't always believe what you read in the newspapers.
I believe that all the change that is taking place in the media is opening up a truly exciting world of new opportunities, one that is making journalism -- good journalism -- more valuable than ever. In fact, I think that most of the trends that we can see in our world are moving in your favor, not against you. For the things that make journalism valuable, a task worth doing, a product worth buying, a truly eternal, the ability to make sense of the world. To describe and explain what's going on and why in a clear and enjoyable manner. The ability to guide the reader or listener or viewer through the bewildering forest, the cloud, the swamp of information and opinions that surround them. The ability to reveal truths that powerful people in institutions would rather not be revealed. The ability above all, to win the reader's, the viewer's, the listener's trust by being independent, by being objective, by being above all on their side.
All these values are, in my opinion, becoming more important to our audiences, not less. In a world in which there is more choice, more information, more fluid societies and economies, more and more influence from abroad, where there are no longer any fixed points or anchors or frameworks. In such world, the need for top quality, independent journalism is just going to grow and grow. The technology with which the new media is obsessed, the changing consumer preferences of which old media is very often also obsessed, these mean that the form and the settings for that journalism in all fields is also changing.
Nevertheless, our task in that changing world is what it has always been: to persuade the reader, or the viewer, or the listener that we are worth paying for, that we are worth trusting, that we are worth becoming loyal to. To act as their representative, their agent, their eyes, their ears, their processors of information, their reliable friend.
Yes, the media is changing, but change in every other field that we write or broadcast about is our friend. It is our life's blood. It is what gives us a story -- and a job. And the same is true of the media. It is an exciting story, the change that is going on in journalism, amid what I continue to think as an exciting and ever-changing world.
It is now your story. Go ahead and write it. I will be your reader.
Thank you very much.
Copyright 2008 Bill Emmott. All rights reserved.