Commencement Weekend May 15-17, 2009 - Commencement Address
Commencement Address by Christiane Amanpour
On Behalf Of The International Women’s Media Foundation
Transcript of recorded address:
Thank you so very much for those very fine words of welcome. Thank you, too, to President William Durden, all of the faculty and the staff, the parents and family here, and most especially to you, the Class of 2009. And, I don’t know whether anyone had a chance to read Associate Professor Francese’s fantastic and warm and funny column in the New York Times recently, but I would just like to say I love your mandamus and your honoris causi and furthermore e pluribus unum.
I am delighted to receive an honorary degree from this distinguished institution, especially so, since it’s not me that’s being honored, but it is rather me accepting it on behalf of the International Women’s Media Foundation of which I am a member. For almost 20 years the IWMF has worked hard to advance the career opportunities for women in journalism. And, it has an important global scope. Each year, the IWMF recognizes women from the hottest spots around the world for the courage that they demonstrate daily in their work—women from Columbia, Mexico, from Iran, Iraq, Russia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Women who not only brave bombs, bullets and kidnappings but who also demonstrate exceptional moral intellectual courage as well as the physical courage and stamina that’s needed to tell the story as it is wherever it is, without fear nor favor. And, at this point, I would just like to say that it is enormously gratifying to be here at an institution which had its first women students 125 years ago. Just four, I hear, but nonetheless a fantastic precedent.
This mission of the IWMF dovetails perfectly with Dickinson’s mission. From your earliest days more than 200 years ago, you’ve stood for a strong, well-informed, fully engaged global citizenry. And, today, I believe, this is more urgently required than ever before. So again, thank you for asking me to come here and share a few thoughts about the world that you are about to graduate into.
It is without doubt a tougher world. It’s tougher for you, the graduates this year, and your recent predecessors to try to get a foothold in this economy. It’s a world of unprecedented challenges, but I believe it’s also a world of incredible and unprecedented opportunities.
Let’s just start with the basics: talent and dreams. I happen to be, among other things, a soccer mom. Yesterday, I took my son to his weekly soccer game. And, I just want to quote the great Brazilian soccer star, Ronaldinho, who once said simply and with enormous exuberance that, “God gives gifts to everyone.” He said, “some can write, some can dance. God gave me the skills to play soccer, and I am making the most of it.”
And, so I believe, this is me now. I believe that we are all given special gifts and talents, and whether we make the most of them, whether we make our dreams a reality, is what counts. I also strongly believe that talents, that sheer love are not enough. They are good, but they don’t last; and so, hard work is what really makes the difference. I believe that you have to spend a lifetime perhaps, at least your earliest years, battling the word “no,” not taking “no” and turning it around and seeking somewhere that will give you a “yes,” but taking “no” and forging through it and battling it to keep on your chosen path.
So today, as I look out towards you, I hope more fervently than anything that you find something that sets you on fire—a passion, a mission a commitment that gives you the joy and the desire to do something that you love, to believe in it so much that it makes you want to work all day and all night—something that makes you willing to sacrifice, something that will instill in you a very deep sense of commitment and especially a sense of mission, something that will eventually demand your courage—not just your physical courage, but also your moral and emotional courage. And you will know when that happens. You won’t know right now sitting here that it will happen, but I can tell you it will happen. You will be called on in some way to be brave at least once and maybe several times on the road ahead. Just like those women that IMWF honors each year.
That’s essentially what happened to me. I came from what you might call a privileged and comfortable background. I grew up in a safe and loving family surrounded by friends, by great education, by a great childhood. I grew up in Iran, and when I was about 20 years old, the Islamic Revolution hit my country and overnight we were all strangers in our own land. We lost everything. We lost home, we lost possessions, we lost friends. We saw those people whom we had grown up loving and respecting taken into jail, taken into the torture chambers, and even executed. Our world, my world, turned upside down.
But at that point, at 20 years old, I decided I knew instinctively that I couldn’t let this loss and this failure define me. But instead, that I would take it and use it as my driving force. And, again I say, please never ever be afraid of loss or failure—use it. I came here to America, where I had read if you have a dream if you want to work hard if you have a mission, then perhaps you can make it in this world.
I went to the University of Rhode Island, and I loved every hard won step along the way. I loved being there at the University of Rhode Island here in the United States where I learned everything about the morals, the dreams, the values of American culture. And, it is extraordinary for me to stand here today at Dickinson in this place which is so steeped in the history of this nation—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War—the real moral beacons that go out to the world and inspire people like me, generations before me and generations who will come after me to want to come here and to live up to these ideals whether or not they live in this country.
I loved joining that new upstart that was CNN. It was my first ever bottom-of-the-rung job and it was nearly 26 years ago. I traveled down to the headquarters in Atlanta with my suitcase, my bicycle, and about $100. I came in on weekends and nights and I practiced, practiced to plow myself and my way up to where I wanted to be. I didn’t necessarily think it was the top, I just knew that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. My history in Iran, my experience meant that I wanted to be able to go out and tell those important stories of cataclysmic world events and try to explain them in the way that I wish someone had been able to explain them to me at that time.
I enjoy taking risks, traveling, having fun doing it. And along the way I did have to manage that old boys’ network and the prejudice idea that a woman might not be the perfect person to dress up in a trench coat and send into the fox hole. It was fun, as I say, not taking no for an answer. From the first Gulf War to Bosnia to the breakup of Yugoslavia, from genocide and wonder, to the famine lawlessness in Somalia, from Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and points beyond, to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from where I have just returned, I am constantly amazed to be part of these cataclysmic world events and to be the eyes and ears of our viewers back home and of CNN’s hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
But eventually, I knew that I was in a position of unique privilege and unique responsibility because CNN is a powerful platform. And I began to ask myself what am I doing with this, what is this platform for, what should I be doing with it. I was fortunate, I was very fortunate to have a brilliant mentor. He happened to be the boss, Ted Turner who created CNN. When I say mentor, it was not as if I was able to run up to his office every two days and ask him for advice. He was way too elevated for that. But, he did teach and lead by example, and I learned by watching.
Ted Turner changed the world more than 25 years ago—28 years ago now—with CNN and the phenomenon of 24/7 news. We were called back then “chicken noodle news” and we loved it for the information revolution that we were creating because we were his foot soldiers. We were the young college graduates who hadn’t gone to graduate school because we thought we would use this startup to be our practical graduate school. We adored it being derided and disparaged while we were helping to create this revolution. How so much has followed us and imitated us since!
Ted Turner was cable before cable was cool. And then, he championed environmentalism, he had championed nuclear disarmament, peace and friendship between those Cold War superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. He finished up by pioneering the world’s first modern billionaire philanthropy. Before he went into cable news, he was “Captain Courageous.” He learned to battle the oceans and win America’s cup before he became a businessman. Ted Turner, though, finally gave away $1 billion to better the world and he did it before Bill Gates did and before Warren Buffet ever thought of doing it. So that when your boss is someone who has always put his money where his mouth is and has always stood for something and has always been ahead of the curve, it leaves a lasting and valuable impression.
So again, I ask what are we doing with our platforms, our power, our privilege and what will you do with yours when you get it? I know the answer, but in my profession it is becoming a little harder to come by. I’ve recently been telling myself that when my nine-year old son starts asking me, “Mommy, why are you going away again to these dangerous places?” that I had better still have a good answer for him.
So I want to tell you why I continue doing it. Even though my profession is awash in a sea of sensationalism and a shortage of seriousness, I do it because I remain convinced that good journalism still matters, and as a good colleague once put it to me, our historic role is to inform the world not to enrich our shareholders. And, yet, today the world of print journalism is in an unprecedented crisis. Venerable old names like the Boston Globe are under threat and some fine newspapers have already folded and gone under. Just yesterday, Arizona’s oldest continuously publishing newspaper printed its last edition. As I said the Boston Globe has been under threat and even the New York Times is being eyed by eager buyers. Newspaper is not wastepaper. These are institutions that not just reported the news, made the news, reported history, but also held accountable our highest elected officials, our entertainers, our sportsmen—all the people we look up to and those we should be able to trust. And along the way, newspapers and television hit the cutting-edge of society and were the driving force of social reform in this country.
Everywhere I go around the world, even in emerging democracies, the press has played critical roles in being on the cutting-edge of reform. Today, as difficult as this business is, I still see great work being done by young journalists. I still see young people who want to come into this noble profession and I still urge them to do it no matter how hard because it is one of the most rewarding and most important professions if it is wielded correctly and responsibly. People can do it by focusing on content because so much attention is being paid to all the platforms today—the twittering , the blogging, all of that, But that cannot replace good content because they rely on prime resources which are the journalists who go out to be the eyes and the ears and bring back the information.
The great philosopher, George Santayana once said that “history is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” That indeed may be possible if we rely on the brigade of pajama pontificators who really do never go there. But, if we commit to remaining the eyes and ears of people who can’t go there, we can still do this job brilliantly and be measurably enriched and empowered by facts, figures and the understanding that journalism brings. This is history, and how we tell the history of our times is why I do continue to encourage journalists to strive to achieve to work hard at this.
A strong and robust press force even in the most elevated democracies such as this one is vital. They are the underpinnings of democracies. People who are committed to reporting without fear nor favor have to be those who continue to be on the cutting edge. I do so because I do believe that a strong and positive force in our world is journalism and it can definitely make a difference. I do it because I believe that we must always, always speak the truth whether it’s comfortable to do so or not. I do it because we need to remind ourselves that no matter who’s in power we must never be afraid to disagree, and never be confused into mocking and mistaking dissent for disloyalty. That is what the great Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of broadcast news once said: “ Never let anyone browbeat us into believing that they have a monopoly on the truth or on power. And never be afraid of power but always hold it accountable.”
And I do it because those of us who wield this and have been given a voice have to use it carefully. I do it because I realize that I’ve been given a gift not just to be able to tell stories, but to be able to work for something as powerful as CNN to reach people and, therefore, to make use of this powerful global platform to try to tell the truth. That has really made all the difference in my career and in my life.
So I really think especially you Dickinson graduates that whatever you decide to do in your life, whether you decide to go into business, politics, arts, science or whatever, do well for yourselves and your families but also consider doing good for your communities for your country and for our world. Especially today, people here in your own neighborhoods and perhaps your own communities, probably people who are even at this college or related to this college are suffering terribly through this economic crisis. The measure of how great you can be, a measure of how great each person can be, is how much we try to help where we can.
My advice would be for all of you wherever you go whatever you decide to do to definitely, definitely travel. Take a year off in college, a year during your professional careers to go and travel around the world. Because in that way, you can go forth not jut as a tourist or as an observer, but you can even use your passion and your desires and your business model— whatever it might be—to better the world, to bring back the lessons you learn, and to better and enrich your own lives and your own communities. If you choose science or medicine, you could consider how you could use a little of your time and talent to help those who have less, to help those who don’t even have health care here in the United States, and particularly those in the poor disenfranchised other half of our world. Consider perhaps joining one of those NGOs—Doctors Without Borders, Physicians for Human Rights—any one of those places who would be more than eager to take bright, clever young graduates such as yourselves.
If you become an educator, see how you can help a few of those hundreds of millions of children around the world who have never seen the inside of a classroom, but who yearn more than anything to be able to read and write. As I say, I have just come back from Afghanistan and even the US military out there tells me that this war is not going to be won by bombs and bullets but by the measure of books and education and alternatives that can be presented to the young generation of people whether it be in Afghanistan, Gaza or any of the other places around the world. And whenever I ask all children out there, they always tell me their first wish, their biggest dream is for education. If they have a chance at an alternative economy at a chance of a decent life, I promise you they would not choose extremism. If women and girls are educated they raise the standards not just of their own families but of their communities.
Just as I found that journalism can make a difference, I know that all of you, too, can make a difference. Whatever you do, don’t ever choose to sit on the sidelines. Don’t ever choose or believe that because you are Americans you are entitled. Life has changed. The world is different now. Americans in this last election showed how they could mobilize and this remains vital, not just in the cause of politics, but especially in the cause of shaping this country, other countries, and our shared world. Now more than ever young American students like yourself need to be competitive in our global economy. You need the skills to survive in this era of globalization and I know that Dickinson has taught you well, taught you that it is not just about going out there and winning the highest salary, but it is winning the battle to keep universal values, ethics, and humanity alive.
For the past eight years, I have had the unfortunate job of reporting very sadly from around the world on the lack and the loss of America’s credibility and its influence. And almost overnight this has now changed. It is changing. It might be slow, but Americans I know are grateful that this country’s place is being slowly restored in the world. If I could snap my fingers and make a wish, I would dream of a new kind of army for the 21st century, an army of young American citizens going around the world brandishing good will, good ideals, the highest ideas and values and being role models—people such as yourself.
So again, please travel. You can do it on a shoestring and it will change your minds, and it will change your life. It will open your minds and your hearts to the possibilities which are out there despite the unprecedented challenges that you all face right now. So go forth and make your mark. I’ve been out there; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The world is waiting for you; not only that, it needs you desperately. So on behalf of the IWMF which recognizes and trains those who show the courage and commitment and passion to make a difference in our world, I thank you again for this honor. Good luck. Go forth with happiness and gusto.
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