This was adapted from Gene’s recent commencement address to the graduate journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley.
Before we begin, I’d like to address the elephant in the room. Yo, elephant.
No, there is actually a metaphorical elephant in the room. I get gigs like this only because I won two Pulitzer Prizes, which is an achievement less impressive than it sounds, for two reasons. First, to win one you have to gain the approval of not just one committee, but two, which means nothing really good will ever survive. If human evolution had been overseen by two committees, the dominant species on Earth would be iguanas. Second, have you ever seen one of these things? (I hold up my Pulitzer.) As Dave Barry has noted, it resembles a junior high school diploma.
The fact is, I have in my house a far more impressive-looking document. It’s bigger than a Pulitzer, on thicker paper and it’s in color. It was presented to my 2-year-old son in 1986, from his day-care center. It says “Danny Stayed Dry All Day!” So.
In preparation for this speech, I have been watching videos of recent commencement addresses, and frankly I’ve been appalled. They tend to be delivered by barely coherent, wizened old codgers like me, who start out by reminiscing about the good old days when newsrooms spent money as if they were drunken sailors — (this is literally true — I not once but twice was permitted to put on my expense account fact-finding excursions to whorehouses) and after waxing nostalgic for a while about the days when you could dig into petty cash to rent a Chinook helicopter to cover a high school soccer game, these commencement speakers will then blink themselves back into reality, as if they just realized where they were, and to whom they were talking, and they’d say, of course YOU’RE going to be having to supplement your income by taking in laundry.
That’s alarmist claptrap. You might have to ghostwrite high school term papers for the kid sister of the 30-year-old dotcom billionaire who owns a company that makes an app that can summarize any book in 35 words or fewer, and whose company rents office space to the aggregator for which you work in a cubicle farm rewriting brights about cats eating pizza. But you are not going to be doing laundry.
Today I’ve got only good news for you. First off, contrary to a recent highly publicized survey by Careercast.com, being a newspaper reporter is not the worst job in America. Believe me, I know. I once edited a story about a man whose job was to watch people on parole urinate into cups, to make sure they weren’t cheating. So that’s worse. But here’s the great thing about that story that says much about the advantages of a career in journalism. In choosing a reporter for that assignment, I surveyed the newsroom, considered the available talent, and picked a cub reporter named Eric Wee. Bam!
There may well be more lucrative jobs than journalism, but few are as satisfying. Nowhere else are the opportunities for iconoclasm and subversion as great; nowhere else can you spend your days cataloguing the entertaining, excitingly clueless human species.
Consider satire. One of its great benefits is that no matter how obvious it is that you are kidding, there will always be some people too ideologically constipated to understand. A few years ago, after it was reported that Vice President Dick Cheney, the evil puppetmaster, had signed a contract to write an autobiography, I wrote that I’d learned that at the author’s insistence he would be paid with “a gunnysack filled with unblemished human heads.” I got several outraged letters from conservatives, demanding that I either prove this charge or retract it. I don’t care what your salary: You are not going to make that happen as an investment banker.
If this is to be an effective commencement address, I need to conclude with three rules for a successful future.
1. Stick to your principles, but don’t be an idiot. Do a good job on the boss’s kid sister’s high school term paper.
2. Change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.
3. Stay dry all day.
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