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J-school graduates, commence worrying

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 28, 2006

From a commencement address I delivered last week:

I want to congratulate you all upon your graduation from the University of Maryland College of Journalism, and wish you luck as you prepare to embark on exciting careers in telemarketing or large-appliance repair.

My point is, this is a challenging time for journalists.

And because you are word people, you understand that "challenging time" is a euphemism often used to describe disasters of epic proportions. For example, Richard Pryor was facing a "challenging time" when he ran down the street half-naked and on fire.

What are your challenges, specifically? Let us begin with, quote unquote, getting a job. Good jobs in journalism have become scarce as newspapers shrink and die, broadcast media fragment to smaller niche audiences and the public appears more and more willing to receive its "news" online from nincompoops ranting in their underpants.

But, it's not like there is no hope. There are still high-prestige, well-paying positions in journalism. Unfortunately, they are filled by tired old coots who aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Me, for example. It'll take a hydraulic winch to pry me loose from this gig.

Two decades ago, I worked with your dean, Tom Kunkel, at the Miami Herald. Back then, the Herald was a newspaper the thickness of the Singapore telephone directory. Today, when carriers fling the Herald onto suburban driveways, it settles to the pavement gently, like a sycamore leaf in the breeze. When Tom and I worked there, the Herald was the flagship of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, which no longer exists, having recently been purchased by the McClatchy chain, which sold some of the papers to the MediaNews chain, which sold some of the papers to the Kmart chain, which is using them as packing material for Scooby-Doo sippy cups. My point is, and I mean this sincerely, this is a challenging time for newspapers.

But enough with the bad news. There's plenty of good news, too. Vitally important accountability journalism is still being practiced by fearless men and women who question authority and speak truth to power, right up until the time power incarcerates them. The public doesn't seem to care. Our industry is not exactly riding a crest of support. The most recent job-approval rankings place journalists between "loan shark" and "ho'-bag skank."

We are not without blame for this. It seems as though every week we hear stories about some journalist somewhere who has gone bad -- plagiarizing someone, making something up, extorting cash from sources, robbing a convenience store and pistol-whipping the clerk. As a columnist, I am particularly dismayed by the smug, self-congratulatory attitudes exhibited by some of my brethren. We columnists should know better, inasmuch as we are the only people in America intelligent and principled enough to tell people what to think and how to behave.

Most of all, it is imperative that we journalists state the truth, without fear or favor. We must be prepared to take unconventional, unpopular positions on grave matters of public interest. Accordingly, I would like to leave you with four points to ponder.

(1) We need more Jews in the media. You can never have too many Jews, is my position.

(2) Objectivity is a good thing to strive for in journalism, but not at the expense of failing to confront the obvious. My own newspaper, for example, has written extensively about Vice President Cheney without once pointing out the self-evident fact that he is -- and I offer this as a trained professional observer -- Satan.

(3) You know that guy, Anderson Cooper, the CNN correspondent with the elegant white hair and the really sincere attitude who manages not only to report the news but also to feel the news resonate deep in his soul? Can't we put him in jail?

And, lastly:

(4) Our field is changing rapidly. Technology is overtaking us at an unheard-of pace. The journalists of tomorrow may not look anything like the journalists of today. I mean, literally. For all we know, they might have gills and three buttocks. That's how fast things are changing. But rest assured that, however dizzying the rate of change, when what's at stake is the sacred art of truth-telling, there is always one constant. One thing will always stay the same: Your editor is going to be an idiot.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

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