Commencement 2007

Commencement Address, Albert R. Hunt
May 13, 2007


President Gearan, fellow honorees, faculty, family, friends of Hobart and William Smith and above all, to the Classes of 2007, I, too, celebrate your achievements today.

What a President you have.

We are following in the footsteps of some of America’s great journalists [as HWS commencement speakers]: Andrea Mitchell, Gwen Ifill, Mark Shields, John King.

Mark [Gearan], never a man of modest ambitions, was determined he could do even better this year, 110 percent better.

He did. Woodruff got you the 100 percent, and I’m here with the 10 percent.

We have a very special connection to these Colleges: my brother [St. George Hunt ’71] was a graduate of Hobart, and my niece Andy – whom I have just embarrassed for a second time – has her cap and gown on this morning. I received an e-mail the other day from one of my Bloomberg [News Service] colleagues, June Oishi, a 2005 graduate of William Smith.

All three talked about formative experiences here. My brother attended Hobart during the Vietnam War, and traveled to Washington for an anti-war protest. While protesting the sins of the American establishment, they spent the night at the home of a classmate, whose father happened to be the director of the CIA.

The Classes of 2007 are a very impressive group: graduates like Jane Erickson – who won a Fulbright and has spent four years of continuous community service here and overseas – personify the Hobart and William Smith experience.

There are, however, several realities that Andy, Jane and all the other 426 of you face after this glorious day. You’re going to fail.

When you fail, remember the good company you are in: Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade, Gertrude Stein submitted poems to editors unsuccessfully for 20 years before one was accepted, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, Henry Ford went broke five times before starting his little motor company.

And remember America’s most fabled failure: a man who failed at business, was ridiculed as a lawyer and lost political elections. That was Abraham Lincoln.

The reason we are so certain that you will fail is because you have that potential to do great things. You cannot succeed without taking risks.

Or as the poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

Most of those failures, then, are only way stations; remember that when it hurts.

Then remember, as important as it is to have goals and objectives and dreams, life is serendipitous.

Judy was graduated from Duke University some years ago. She tried to get a job in broadcasting. The only offer she received was to be a secretary, with the pay so low she had to get a night job; and the station manager said he hired her only because “your legs are so good.”

She has done pretty well with her mind ever since.

Unlike my exemplary niece, I was a bad boy in college: I was thrown out in the middle of my junior year. I went home and got a lowly job as a copy boy, a go-fer, at the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. This led to an exhilarating past 40 years in journalism.

When fate happens, be ready to seize the moment, to fully embrace new challenges and opportunities.

And while I hope a number of you are financially successful – and donate lots of money to Gearan Hall or Gearan Field – most important is the quality of your career, of your life.

The late John Gardner once said: ‘An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of these great Colleges is your devotion to community service and public policy; it is why you honor Marge Shanahan and Senator Michael Nozzolio today.

So I want to close by talking about the relevance that my profession, the media, has to the enrichment of communities and the body politic.

What separates our society from many others – including great economic successes like China – is the belief in the people’s right to know, an informed citizenry. That is under siege today.

We have sent and lost thousands of young American men and women into harm’s way based on a false premise; the media – with few notable exceptions – were enablers.

We live in a far more interdependent world, yet some of our best newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Baltimore Sun, have eliminated all foreign bureaus, and the three television networks have only half as many foreign correspondents as a quarter century ago. On Sept. 11, 2001, CBS, NBC and ABC did not have a correspondent in a predominantly Muslim country, and then we asked “Why don’t we understand each other?”

Some of the crown jewels of American journalism, from Ted Koppel’s Nightline to the Knight Ridder newspapers, have disappeared over the last year.

I spent almost four decades at The Wall Street Journal. It is cause for concern that beacon of journalistic excellence may be taken over by a man whose business genius exceeds his journalistic values. And then to discover the editor of that great newspaper, for two weeks, sat on the knowledge of a takeover bid while separately vested interests made millions.

It thus is no surprise that most of you pay more attention to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert than Charlie Gibson or Katie Couric. You believe that the printed page belongs in the Smithsonian, next to the typewriter and Model T [Ford]. You can go to blogs: blogs for celebrities, sports, fetishes or politics.

I am a huge Stewart and Colbert fan. And blogs have created a participatory democracy in journalism that is healthy; the current scandal over potentially criminal abuses by the Department of Justice was in no small part revealed by a blogger.

Yet consider a couple of the most important journalist stories of recent years: One, the revelations that our injured and disabled Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were being mistreated at the Walter Reed [Army] Medical Center.

Two Washington Post reporters spent full-time for four months uncovering this story, clandestine late-night visits to verify mistreatments and hundreds of interviews. In all, a year’s worth of manpower went into this story.

It was well worth it; it gave voice to the powerless – the most vulnerable who had fought for this country – and held the arrogantly powerful accountable. It produced real change.

A year earlier, under scathing criticism, The New York Times broke the story that the government has been illicitly eavesdropping on many Americans, without a court warrant, in the aftermath of 9/11. Several top reporters worked on that piece for well over a year.

These resources are not available to bloggers or Stephen Colbert. If we allow, Anna Nicole Smith to command more attention than genocide in Darfur, the powerless will suffer, as will the vibrancy of our democracy.

So I urge you not to fall prey to that easy and unearned cynicism that it doesn’t matter of that you cannot make a difference. Do not let us in the media relinquish our responsibilities.

And, on a final, lighter note: today after you hug your Mom and Dad, stop by Parkers, have a couple of pops, and reflect for a moment on what a grand experience you have had these four years. Congratulations and good luck.