Washington Post Publisher Frederick J. Ryan, Jr. delivered the commencement speech at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law Class of 2018 graduation ceremony in Los Angeles on May 11, 2018. Below is the full text of his prepared remarks.
Thank you, Dean Guzman. And thank you to the Class of 2018 for that warm welcome back to USC. It is an honor to be part of your special day.
Just to assure all of you that there is life after law school—even long after law school—I’d like to point out that several of my law-school classmates from the class of 1980 are also here today. It’s great to see they let you out of the Home for Old Lawyers for the day.
I’ll begin with two confessions. Purely voluntary. So, no need to whip out your Rules of Evidence. First, I honestly have no idea who the commencement speaker was 38 years ago at my graduation from USC Law School. Whoever it was wasn’t especially inspiring, and I took away no lasting wisdom. So one goal for me today is clear: If any of you are invited back here as speaker 38 years from now, I hope you won’t say the same thing.
And for my second confession: At my law-school graduation ceremony, I received a special and unexpected award. It was the “Most Improved Student Award” for the person whose grades had improved the most over the three years. I was quite honored and flattered—until I learned that the award had a lot more to do with where I started than where I ended up.
A graduation ceremony is hardly the time or the place to question your choice of degree. But I feel compelled to point something out to you. If you’d decided to study communications instead of law, you’d be over at the Annenberg School ceremony today listening to Oprah.
I should know better than to compete in a commencement-speech face-off with Oprah Winfrey. But my job as commencement speaker is made a bit easier by the fact that you are choosing to pursue the legal profession at a unique and interesting time. While most of my career has been spent in journalism, I see important parallels between the press and the law—and especially the challenges facing both professions in today’s environment.
For centuries, both a free press and the rule of law have played a vital role as the anchors of our freedoms. Vigorous reporting and the legal discovery process both bring to light information that wrongdoers would rather keep hidden. A newspaper’s storytelling, and the legal system’s guarantee of a day in court, give voice to those who might otherwise be silenced. An independent, fearless press—and the rule of law rather than men—make our country a place where the powerful can be held to account by those they govern.
Both of these professions are essential to America’s identity as a nation of laws under our unique Constitution. Today, however, both of these noble professions are being tested—by the impact of advances in technology, as well as by people deliberately seeking to chip away at these institutions and disrupt our civic order.
The outcomes of these trials are unpredictable, yet consequential. It’s no exaggeration to say that how you respond to these challenges—how you choose to practice the vocation you are about to begin—will be felt by your profession and by society for years to come.
We live in a time when technology is completely revolutionizing our lives. It’s changed the way we communicate, shop, do business, learn, make friends, get dates, get from one place to the other, and even exercise, eat, and sleep. Your generation has grown up with these technologies, so you may take many of them for granted. But let me put the swiftness of this transformation in perspective.
In 1997, when most of you were in pre-school, two Stanford computer-science students had a research project they called Google.com. Today, Google has billions of users. The company that started in a garage now builds self-driving cars. Its name has become an official verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, some of you are probably Googling right now: “Who is this Fred Ryan guy?”
In 2006, when most of you were in middle school, a messaging service called Twitter was launched. Now, some half a billion tweets are sent each day—and not all of them come from Pennsylvania Avenue. (If any of you are live-tweeting these remarks, please use #BetterthanOprah.)
When most of you were in junior high, Steve Jobs was on a stage not far from here announcing an invention he called the “iPhone.” Today, there are more than 2 billion smartphones in use around the world.
These are just three examples of how your lives have been shaped by technology so far. Today, as you embark on new careers, the pace of technological innovation is dramatically accelerating.
The tension caused by rapid change is affecting every industry—transforming business models and creating opportunities. At The Washington Post, we are not just embracing these changes. We are actively experimenting and working to disrupt long-established practices, even when they are our own.
Our newsroom is a laboratory for many of the innovations taking place in media today. We’ve built a team of more than 300 engineers, many of whom are embedded in the newsroom alongside over 800 journalists. They work side by side to present stories to our readers more quickly and vividly than ever.
And as new technologies emerge, we want to be on the front line. Our goal is to deliver the best Washington Post experience on all platforms and devices in use today—and, more important, on those yet to be invented. These efforts are showing encouraging results: They are reinforcing our belief that there is a successful and sustainable business model for high-quality journalism.
I would suggest that this experience offers lessons for lawyers, too. So far, compared to other industries, the legal profession has been relatively shielded from technological disruption. But it would be naïve to assume that the status quo will remain forever. In fact, the legal industry is ripe for transformation.
Startups are already using the web to provide basic legal services. Algorithms are powering Online Dispute Resolution software that improves the mediation process. Artificial Intelligence could transform the document review and discovery processes. Blockchain technology might revolutionize areas of contract law. All of these developments—along with technologies yet to be deployed—could completely up-end the legal profession.
As new lawyers, you should embrace the opportunities this disruption can bring. It may be tempting to resist change—after all, lawyers can be cautious and risk-averse. Often you’re paid specifically to mitigate risk, to give clients protection against the unexpected, to provide assurance that every T has been crossed and every I dotted.
I’m not arguing against thoroughness in the practice of law. But keeping pace with disruptive change requires innovation, and innovation requires a willingness to experiment. And the reality is most experiments fail. In these failures, though, lie important lessons that may become the seeds of future success.
A favorite quote of mine from Winston Churchill—himself no stranger to disaster—defines “success” as the “ability to move from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
So, in your work and in your lives, I urge you to invite the risks that come with experimentation. Take chances, even—and especially—if you fear you might fail.
Another great challenge you will face is determining how the power of technology will be used—for good or for ill. Over time, we’ve learned that advances in technology tend to follow a pattern. One generation discovers the science and expands the limits of what is possible. The next generation has the difficult task of contending with the consequences—often unintended and harmful—and deciding the moral and ethical limits. Your generation inherits the task of balancing technology’s promise against its peril.
For decades, we in the United States have actively embraced digital innovation because we’ve mostly seen the upsides of technology. It has promoted commerce, improved education, and saved lives. But we can’t always assume that technology’s applications will be positive. In the wrong hands, the same innovations can do grave harm.
An example of the abuse of new technology is the use of Artificial Intelligence in China. There, AI is the underpinning of a project called “Xue Liang,” which, in English, means “Sharp Eyes.” This is a vast effort to create a sophisticated surveillance state. The program uses facial recognition and location tracking to constantly monitor citizens, observe their behavior and relationships, and assign them “social credit” scores. The Chinese government then uses these scores to separate “trustworthy” citizens from those who might pose a threat to the regime.
The recent problems afflicting Facebook, too, remind us that technology can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, Facebook has connected billions of people across the globe and has revolutionized the way business is done on the internet. On the other hand, this has raised concerns about privacy and decreased confidence in our electoral process.
And then there is the challenge of “fake news.” In some ways, this phenomenon is not new. In fact, last summer, a story in The Washington Post told of seven fake letters, purportedly from George Washington, that were released in 1777 to cast doubt on the general’s commitment to the cause of independence from England.
This sort of “fake news” has never been as widespread or threatening as it is now. We grew up with the internet, expecting everything on it to be true. But we have since learned that plenty of people are willing to exploit this belief for nefarious purposes. In today’s digital world, it’s possible to be a news purveyor without a newsroom—spreading poorly sourced stories, or in some cases intentional outright lies.
The speed at which information now races across the internet enables “fake news” to be “weaponized”—strategically targeted to achieve a desired effect—be it to move financial markets, impugn reputations, inflame regional tensions, or influence political campaigns. In fact, one recent study even found that fictitious stories spread faster and more widely on Twitter than the truth.
These challenges create an opening for new lawyers. We need bright legal minds willing to seek the balance between optimizing technology’s advantages to society and safeguarding against its potential overreach. I encourage you to remain open to this path, and to pursuing an area of legal specialization you hadn’t previously imagined.
While technology represents one major stressor on journalism and the law, intentional efforts to undermine our work represent another. Today, we are witnessing purposeful, calculated attacks meant to discredit journalism and the rule of law, conducted by people who would prefer to wield power free from scrutiny and out of the public eye.
At The Washington Post, we are keenly aware of efforts to discredit journalists who are simply doing their job: to keep the American people informed about the conduct of our public officials. These accusations and reprisals typically come in response to unfavorable coverage. Threats to take away reporters’ credentials, intentionally spreading misinformation, calling journalists “enemies of the people”—these are all efforts to undermine an independent press.
There’s also the tactic of attempting to delegitimize serious reporting by calling it “fake news.” In these cases, the charge “fake news” is used to deliberately muddy the line between what is real and what is not. Fair and accurate reporting by respected news organizations that is critical—that contradicts a leader’s narrative and pokes holes in his claims—gets dismissed as fictitious. The goal is to challenge the veracity of unfavorable reporting so that the public will ignore it and tune out.
There is an enormous difference between “unfavorable news” and “fake news.” It is wrong to conflate them. Doing so is an attack on the truth. It is reckless—and it is corrosive to our democracy.
Our legal system has been subjected to a similar assault. During the 2016 campaign, a federal judge here in the Southern District of California, Gonzalo Curiel, was attacked for his Mexican heritage in anticipation that he would make an unfavorable ruling. In another case, Western Washington District Judge James Robart was belittled as a “so-called judge”—and had his ruling ridiculed—after writing an adverse opinion against an executive order.
In addition to judges, institutions at the core of our judicial system, including the FBI and Justice Department, have come under attack from both sides of the political aisle. Each side claims political bias when it perceives a particular investigation is not going its way. Such actions can diminish confidence in the rule of law and those we trust to independently administer our system of justice.
So, how can we thrive in chaos, both natural and created? We can begin by remembering that we must stay true to the core values of our profession.
At The Washington Post, we are committed to never letting the attacks on our work and our profession deter us from carrying out our mission. Our journalists remain relentless in their pursuit of the truth and in shining light in the dark corners of power.
Consider some of the stories that were recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize. They weren’t revealed because the government or other powerful figures announced that they had erred. They were uncovered through the determined efforts of hard-working journalists at news organizations across the country.
The Russian interference in the 2016 election is one of the biggest stories of our time. It wasn’t revealed because the Russians publicly confessed to it. Reporters at leading news organizations have worked diligently to stay on top of the story and keep America informed.
Harvey Weinstein and others in the film and TV industries didn’t announce that they had used their positions of influence to harass and abuse scores of women. It was reporters who had the difficult conversations with the victims—supporting them and encouraging them to go on the record—that gave rise to the global #MeToo movement.
These important stories—and so many others—came to light because of journalists who never lost sight of the fundamentals of their profession and who do their best to live up to the purpose of the First Amendment.
Essential to both journalism and the law is an understanding that those who practice these professions occupy positions of immense public trust. We are expected to conduct ourselves honorably, to live and work with civility and integrity. It is incumbent upon both lawyers and journalists to always exhibit fairness—even to those who may not be fair to us.
Today, as you receive your degrees, you become the newest stewards of this public trust. You can reinforce the foundations of our freedom—by being ever-mindful of the great responsibility that comes with this profession; by engaging with adversaries civilly, always trying to find common ground; by remembering that those with whom one disagrees most fiercely are still fellow citizens; by honoring the traditions and institutions that have preserved the rule of law, while never being afraid to challenge in areas where the profession is not living up to its obligations; and by realizing that someone can be your opponent and not your enemy—and that your goal should be to defeat your opponent, not destroy them.
This is how to build a reputation for trust and reliability that can help you survive through times of doubt and periods of transformation. This is how you can restore some of the respect for civil conduct that our country has recently seen diminish. This is how you can serve your clients and your profession. And I think you will find, over the course of many years, it is how you can build a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I know that I’m the only thing standing between you and your diplomas. So, I’ll end with a bit of advice. It may be the most urgent and undisputed that I’ve offered today.
We are all here to celebrate the incredible achievement of the graduates. Your amazing success stories are as big and bold as the American dream itself. But I doubt that many of you got here entirely on your own. Each of you was helped here by the efforts and devotion of someone else—a spouse, a partner, a parent, a friend—who got you through the tough moments and times of doubt along the way.
This is their day as much as yours. So in all the joy and excitement of celebration with your classmates, be sure to find a quiet moment to pull them aside and say “thank you,” and to recognize their contributions to this achievement, too.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018 and to everyone who has helped prepare you for the world of opportunities that awaits.