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Howard Fineman

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Carrying the Torch in a Digital Age

Posted: 05/15/11 09:30 AM ET

This post was originally delivered as the commencement address at Colgate University on May 15, 2011.

In the fall of 1966 I arrived here as a freshman with a copy of the student handbook in my pocket. It described a tradition called the "Colgate Hello." You were supposed to wear a maroon beanie and say hello to everyone on campus. Colgate was still all male and lily-white. The idea of tweedy young men in weird hats saying "hi" to each other on a campus in the woods was, well, quaint. Today we'd call it something else. The custom faded.

Until now.

To all of you -- to President Herbst; to the faculty and staff; to the board of trustees and alumni leaders; to parents and families; and most of all, to the Class of 2011 (of which I am now an honorary member) -- to all of you, I say:

HELLO!

Or, to put it in your generation's witheringly ironic voice:

"HELLO."

Maybe I should speak softly. It's early. There was the Torchlight Procession last night. Afterwards, many of the Class of 2011 paid homage to the famous "Spirit That Is Colgate," known these days as Keystone Light. In my time it was Utica Club.

I joke, but the Colgate "spirit" is real. It's what this place is about: the friendships you make, the mentors you find, the ideas you confront in a peaceful community of intellectual, civic and, yes, athletic ambition. If I am any guide -- and today I am supposed to be -- this lovely college will be a constant star, a steady torchlight, as influential as family, faith or profession. Friends I made here remain my friends. My great teachers still guide me through the years. The town of Hamilton and its genial people, the beauty of the campus and the Chenango Valley, forever remind me of what is best about our country and its history. And I still love the Raiders.

Colgate is tucked away in Upstate, but most of the nation's leading politicians, and certainly most of the governors of New York, find their way here. Mario Cuomo, who gave the commencement address years ago, noted that the speaker at this kind of event is like the corpse at an Irish wake. His presence is necessary, but he isn't supposed to say very much.

When I was asked to speak, I sought advice. Murray Decock '80, vice president for advancement, told me, "just be funny." President Herbst urged me to say something significant about journalism. My colleague Chris Matthews, said, "Eleven minutes. Don't speak for more than eleven minutes." Gene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Washington Post, told me thirteen, max. A member of the Class of 2010 warned me not to be too "advice-y."

I'm going to ignore that last part. I am going to urge you to use your Colgate education to save not only the country but freedom itself. It's no small task.

To be speaking to you now is the honor of a lifetime. I thank all who made it possible, but especially professors Balmuth and Hudson, who taught me in classes long ago. They had more than enough academic evidence to deny my diploma, let alone blackball me as an honorary degree recipient.

I am aware of my precarious position. For one, I don't think I'm worthy. I feel the way Jon Stewart -- America's most influential journalist -- did when he spoke at his alma mater, William & Mary. "I can't help but wonder," he said, "what has happened to this place? Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I am honored. As an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better."

A Colgate commencement speech isn't always a good omen. Four presidential nominees have spoken at commencement: great men, but campaign losers every one. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was the last to speak at outdoor exercises. A heavy downpour ruined the ceremony by Taylor Lake just as he was telling the graduates, "Anything is possible." You know the rest of the story. You can't make this stuff up.

Also, as a speaker, I know that you, students, may not be listening. And why should you? This is the first lecture since kindergarten to which you do not have to pay attention. I don't remember a single word of what my graduation speaker said.

But I think I have something worth saying to you. I'm Class of '70. You're Class of '11. Although 41 years apart, our classes are kindred spirits.

In my day, things were changing at a dizzying pace. In the spring of 1968 I attended the last, best toga party of the era, at the Beta House, of course. We had wine skins and turkey drumsticks strewn about, and a fountain in the living room. Yet that same spring I was one of 500 Colgate students who occupied the Administration Building for three days. To protest what?... fraternity discrimination. By the following year, African-American students had formed the Association of Black Collegians. For most of my time here, we had to drive to Skidmore or Vassar to meet women; by my senior year, Colgate was admitting its first coeducational class. As a Maroon cub reporter, I wrote about silly pranks and fraternity rush. As editor-in-chief, I wrote editorials about Vietnam, Cambodia, the draft lottery and the first Earth Day.

Forty years later, you are living in a similar time of rapid change. You have grown up in and with the digital world. When you were in grade school, the following things did not exist, or barely existed: iTunes, smartphones, iPads, Google, Wikipedia, Skype, eBay, Flickr, Craigslist, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare -- in other words, your whole existence.

In the '60s, our challenge was to deal with social change at home -- racial and sexual -- and a new global consciousness engendered by Vietnam, jet travel, television and America's post-World War II, superpower role.

Your challenge is to navigate in and lead in a digitally connected world. It is an exciting, even exhilarating, time. The breathtaking promise of it is why I left Newsweek after 30 years and joined the Huffington Post. Each one of you has access to more information than anyone in history -- times a million. The Internet empowers the powerless -- from Tunisia to Tahrir Square. It connects old friends and new, across the street and around the globe.

In my day at Colgate, we sat in front of a television at an appointed hour to be told the news from Vietnam by a network anchor. To get access to the AP wire, you had to work in a newsroom. Now each of you has the planet updated on your smartphone, any time, any place. Instead of an anchorman talking at you, you are immersed in Web pages, blogs, apps, emails, video, pictures, tweets, texts and instant messages. You can read them, but, just as important, you interact with them in the same place.

At the Huffington Post we gather, send and receive news through all of these pipes, at all times, all over the world. I'm preaching here, but go to our site. The richness and variety -- the reporting, the pictures and video, the blogs and the commentary -- are more than any reader could possibly absorb.

But, and there is always a "but," the truth is that the digital world is also a dangerous one, in which the real can be less vivid than the virtual, and in which facts -- verifiable facts -- can be disastrously malleable or elusive. We need to have our wits about us.

Luckily, there are lots of Colgate leaders in this media-centric world we have created. Colgate does not have a journalism or filmmaking program. As a small liberal arts university, it should not. Still, no college of our size has produced more leaders in these fields. For example, Colgate people today run NBCUniversal, CBS News and Fox, to name a few. There are legions of Colgate screenwriters and directors, and Hollywood types everywhere from mailrooms to corner offices.

I thought it was a good idea to survey some of them for life advice for you. Here's what they said:

"Nothing is beneath you," said Jeff Fager '77 , the head of CBS News. "To the contrary: accept and excel at everything in front of you, no matter how medial or tedious -- and you will excel in life." Jeff obviously is in the market for interns.

Ken Schanzer '66, who runs NBC Sports, emphasized humility. "The single most important attribute," he said, "and most often ignored, is the ability to listen." Can I add, as a reporter, that Ken is right? It's the hardest thing.

Howie Katz '71, who was once a Maroon sports writer and later head of ABC Sports, now runs the NFL Network. He stressed fearlessness. "Take chances," he said. "Be true to your values, speak your mind and don't be afraid to lose your job." Howie and I have never discussed his career path. I might have missed something.

Gloria Borger '74 of CNN was the first woman editor-in-chief of the Maroon and a Watson Fellow. Her sage advice: "Remember, it is not who you know, it's whom you know." Obviously, Gloria was an English major.

Steve Burke '80, the president of NBC, said that when he gave the commencement speech here he noticed one thing: almost every graduate who crossed the stage was wearing flip-flops. His implied advice: casual confidence is good!

Chase Carey '76, president of News Corp., stressed friendship. "Always pursue your goals with passion and energy," he said, "And if things get really tough, call a Colgate friend for a beer." Spoken like a true FOX Family Guy guy.

Speaking of beer, I had to seek out the Colgate men who have had a profound influence on American culture. I refer of course to Broken Lizard, the Hollywood comedy group that got its start here. Cinema buffs know that Broken Lizard created two masterpieces, Super Troopers and Beer Fest. I should add that the members of the troupe are -- what else? -- Betas.

Here, courtesy of the great Kevin Heffernan, are a few of Broken Lizard's most important nuggets of wisdom for new Colgate graduates: -- and I quote here --

  • If possible, set up a business where you work for 20 years with your best friends from Colgate, getting paid to make people laugh. It's totally fun.
  • When you make a movie about cops, make the cops cool and funny. It will keep you out of jail.
  • If you're ever on a tour bus with Willie Nelson, just say no.
  • If you are unsure about what to do with your lives, try the entertainment industry. It's really easy, there are a lot of available, high-paying jobs and you don't have to show your birth certificate.
  • If you ever act in a movie, don't do a nude scene on a cold day.
  • When you receive your diploma and shake hands with President Herbst, he likes it if you give him a little pinch on the cheek and tell him he's cute.


So much for life advice from some of our most illustrious alums. Now it's my turn. And since I am in journalism, I'll focus on that.

As wondrous as the new media era is, we need your help. This is where your Colgate education comes in. It gives you the inspiration and the capacity -- and the duty -- to be your own editor and reporter. The Colgate emblem, remember, is an upraised arm holding a torch to light the path towards the truth. Think of yourself as having embodied, symbolically, that image last night. You have the minds and means to help journalism thrive, and to see that American democracy survives along with it.

Technology is what makes your involvement possible -- and necessary. My business of journalism is in the midst of the biggest transformation since the advent of television, if not the printing press. But technology also enables people to spin cocoons of comforting and convincing, but false, reality.

If there is no shared reality, there is no shared society, and no way to agree on anything. In this new age, speed is all and now is not soon enough. As Mark Twain observed, a lie can run halfway around the world before truth can even lace up its shoes. Today's situation is far worse. A lie can cover the globe in a nanosecond and the truth may never be heard.

What are we supposed to do? Well, in this new era, professional editors are more important than ever.

But professional editors cannot police the entire mega-swarm of content. Which is why editing and reporting are the responsibility of us all. If war is too important to be left to the generals, then the news business is too sprawling and chaotic to be left just to people who call themselves journalists.

Being informed is no longer a passive process, if it ever was. You have to be an active participant in becoming and staying connected to the world. Here is my brief guide about how to do so. It's journalism 101 for civilians:

  • Never assume. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted that the real danger is not the flat-out lie, but the half-truth, the twisted truth, the truth taken out of context. The best antidote to propaganda is skepticism.
  • Never rely on one source, be it a person, a newspaper, website, tweet, or a government official. Even the New York Times, a paper I revere that is edited by friends I admire, can be wrong. So, by the way, can the Huffington Post. Know your sources, their motives and biases. We all have them. There is no one perfect authority on this earth, at least when it comes to public life and politics. Heaven is another matter.
  • Decide, as the late David Foster Wallace said, not how to think, but what to notice. Choosing what to notice is a journalistic decision. It is also a moral one.
  • Treasure verifiable facts. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who spoke at a Colgate commencement in 1977, had a famous dictum. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," he said, "but not to his own facts." A photoshopped picture is not a fact, neither is half a quote.
  • Leave your comfort zone; read the "other" side(s). If you watch MSNBC watch Fox, too. And vice versa. It won't kill you. Scan websites as far away from your own thinking as you can stand -- and talk to people whose views differ from your own. As Nietzche said, whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger. Ok, maybe you should avoid Glenn Beck.
  • A Skyped person is not in front of you; Google Earth is not the actual Earth. Talking to people face-to-face -- iris-to-iris -- is indispensable because, sadly, it is increasingly rare; traveling to distant countries and cultures -- as you did on your Colgate study groups -- is crucial because doing it virtually is way too easy now. You need that third dimension.
  • Be respectful, but wary. The Google algorithm can help you find what you need before you finish typing the search term. But it also can fuel the tyranny of crowds, and the human instinct for conformity. The way to win the search-engine race, after all, is not through originality, it's to say what others are saying. Crowds can inform -- look at Wikipedia -- and they can spark democratic revolutions. But they can also mislead or enslave.
  • Honor our country, which, despite its flaws, remains what Abraham Lincoln called it, "the last best hope of earth." I am an American Exceptionalist. You should be, too. We have a unique freedom to be our own editors, reporters, bloggers, commentators -- you name it. But we have to earn the privilege of remaining exceptional. We have to protect our free speech rights by exercising them.
  • Finally, remember that personal relationships -- the friends you made and the mentors you had here at Colgate, your family, your loved ones -- are truer guides to reality than any technology ever can be.

So there you have it: A lot of hectoring by me.

If the instructions sound familiar, it is because you already absorbed them here. Colgate is the answer, not the problem. The paradox of our Upstate isolation -- which was the old knock on Colgate -- is now the saving essence of it. Colgate offers the opposite of a fragmented, distracted, virtual world. It is an intimate, face-to-face community, a cheerful oasis of learning, research and possibility. So take the power of technology and temper it with the habits of thinking and the skills of relationship building that you learned here.

Do that, and we'll all be better off.

So now, members of the Class of 2011, go forth and carry the Colgate torch into the digital future. And as you do, take with you our love, our best wishes and our faith that you will forge a better, more comprehensible world.

And, as the guys of Broken Lizard say, don't do a nude scene in the cold.

 

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