Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keynote Speech for Lambda Pi Eta Honor Society

Thank you members of Lambda Pi Eta for bestowing upon me this honor; I am delighted to be here tonight among such outstanding students.  I am especially proud to be teaching at Hofstra, one of the top communications programs in the country.  

While this event is cause for celebration, I wish to reflect briefly on the memory of my dear friend and former colleague, the great Mike Wallace, who died earlier this month.  He was 93 years old.  Earlier today hundreds of people gathered in Rose Hall at the Lincoln Center to pay tribute to this legendary journalist. 

Mike’s take-no-prisoners interviewing style and fearless investigative reporting made 60 Minutes the greatest news magazine ever created.  He spent 38 years as a 60 Minutes correspondent, but his career spanned 68 years.  In that time he won 21 Emmys, five DuPont-Columbia Awards and five Peabody Awards. He also won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1996. And in 1991, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.  In 1960 he earned a star on the famous Hollywood Boulevard.

Yet, Mike did not become a journalist until later in his life.  In 1962, his eldest son, Peter, was killed in an accident in Greece.  When Mike went to retrieve his son’s body he vowed to do something meaningful with his life, to make a positive difference.  He decided, at the age of forty-two, to give up a successful career as an entertainment show host and instead embarked on a career in journalism.   He was called.  He became driven by his desire to get to the truth.  And he did so with passion and purpose.

There is a message here for all of you, whether you are in journalism, television, radio or public relations.   Success begins with passion and purpose, no matter what career you may pursue.

I too can personally attest to the importance of passion and purpose.  My interest in journalism began during the Cuban Missile crisis in the early 60’s.  I was a grade school student captivated by the black and white television images of the tense and dramatic standoff between the US and the Soviet Union.  Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads were stationed in Cuba—just 90 miles from Florida.

In 1963, the nation came to a standstill as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  For several days television news organizations guided Americans, gathered in living rooms around the country, through these difficult and shocking events.  The Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam war dominated television news throughout the 60’s, as did Apollo’s landing on the moon.  Because of the sheer magnitude of the events, and the role journalists played in reporting them, I felt a calling too.

I was fortunate to get a job as a news copy boy at CBS in 1970—at $200 a week—but I would have paid them for the opportunity.
Since then, my journey has been filled with many twists and turns, but I would not trade it for all the gold in Fort Knox.  I have had many mentors—including Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.  Yet, in the end, I had to work hard, round the clock, and prove myself everyday.  My reward was getting the story first, but first getting the story right, no matter where in the world I had to travel.

As an assignment editor at Channel 2 news in Chicago, I led our Emmy awarding winning coverage of an elevated train disaster in the early 70’s.  As a Chicago bureau producer for CBS News, I covered tornadoes, floods, blizzards and auto strikes.  As a White House producer, in the CBS News Washington bureau, I travelled overseas with Presidents Carter and Reagan, to economic summits and state visits.  I was the lead network producer for President Reagan’s historic trip to China in 1984—which included stops in Beijing, Xian (home of the amazing terra cotta statues), and Shanghai.  I would make several other visits to China for CBS News—and later one very special trip with my wife to adopt our daughter.

Many people ask me who my favorite president was—I have spent time with Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes.    I would have to say Ronald Reagan—because of his humor and his wit.  While our nightly coverage of his presidency was often very critical—I enjoyed talking with him.  The first time I met him was in Santa Barbara, where he spent much of the summer during his time in office.  He walked over to me at a picnic the White House had for the press.   I introduced myself and explained I was responsible for the huge camera and lens overlooking his ranch that recorded images of him clearing brush.  He said, “Well I told the secret service that one day I will walk out on the porch and do this.”  With that he placed his hands on his heart, faked a stumble or two, as if he was having a heart attack.  He then said, “They didn’t think that was very funny!”  I said, “I don’t think that is very funny either, Mr. President.”  He then laughed and introduced me to Nancy Reagan.

On the other hand, there were many scary moments as a Washington producer.  In 1982 CBS News sent me to Beirut to oversee the CBS News coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Upon arriving on the outskirts of the city—just beyond the burned out hulks of Syrian tanks and PLO personnel carriers--we stopped for lunch at a beautiful French restaurant in the Shoof mountains—it was peaceful--serene.  As my driver and I drove into the city we were shelled—bah boom, bah boom—the ground shook, the car bounced violently and my driver raced away from danger.  Some welcome ceremony!  I would spend a month there—watching up close the horrors of war, the din of destruction.  Sniper fire, mortars and wildly inaccurate katyusha rockets kept me on edge every moment of my stay.
Assignments like these earned me a promotion to CBS News Washington Bureau Chief.  It was the network’s most prestigious bureau, frequently providing more than 50% of the CBS Evening News content. 

Two years later, in January 1989, I was promoted to New York as vice president and assistant to the president—CBS News’ number two executive—overseeing worldwide newsgathering and all news programming, including 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, CBS This Morning and The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.    In this role I had to blend my news producing experience with management, personnel and budgets.  We hired Scott Pelley.  When Diane Sawyer decided to leave 60 Minutes and CBS News, I replaced her with Steve Kroft and Meredith Vierra.  Later we added Lesley Stahl to 60 Minutes.  It was an amazing challenge.

Then in 1995 Rupert Murdoch recruited me to become president of Fox News.  There I began to build a news organization.  But one year later Rupert hired Roger Ailes as chairmen of news—a breach of my contract.  I knew Roger from Washington—a successful television executive and a hard-nosed politician.  He asked me to stay on, ”You know the news business,” he said, "I don’t!”  But he then said some things that troubled me.  He wanted to create an “alternative” to CNN and network news.  Then he asked me why I was a “liberal”.  He noted I worked for the “Communist Broadcasting System.” (meaning CBS News).   He later asked the same question to many on my staff.   I am a journalist.  I don’t do alternative journalism.  I resigned.

In 1998, Sony asked me to take a look at Telemundo, a US based Spanish language network that they had just purchased.  Telemundo had no national news organization and their local news operations were not very good.  I came up with a comprehensive news plan, and they asked me to come on board as head of news.  “I don’t speak Spanish,” I protested.  Their reply: “But you do speak news!”

For more than seven years I built a competitive network news organization, a weekend news, a morning news, a newsmagazine, and, my favorite, A Rojo Vivo con Maria Celeste.  In English, “Red Hot, with Maria Celeste.”  Ahh, journalism at its best.!  The job was based in Miami—where I was given an apartment—and I commuted home to New York on weekends.  I was able to do at Telemundo what I had set out to do at Fox.  And I was proud to accept Telemundo’s first Emmy award for our 133 hour—non-stop coverage of the September 11 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center.

For me, all of this was a remarkable journey.  And now the joy has continued for me, here at Hofstra, because of you students.   
Earlier this month, my best bud Roger Ailes warned journalism students at another university, “Change Majors.”  He continued, “If you’re going into journalism if you care, then you’re going into the wrong profession”.  What a bunch of poppycock.  Of course, Ailes is not really a journalist—he’s a businessman driven by political power and profit margins—and he is very successful.  But he doesn’t understand the special calling that aspiring and practicing journalists have—the pursuit of truth.  When journalists are successful it is of immeasurable value to society.  The barriers to entry are low, anyone can be a publisher and the globe is becoming more interconnected.

Therefore, I say this is a most exciting time to be a journalist.  The challenge today is NOT only to learn how to be outstanding reporters and writers, it is to harness the Internet, social media and multimedia tools, along with the traditional broadcast and cable news platforms, to truly engage to audience in a meaningful conversation.  Yes, business models for news are rapidly evolving, but the mission is the same.
This applies not only to journalists, but to broadcast and public relations professionals as well.  Today every company is a media organization.   Communications are internal, external, crisis, strategic, government affairs---and they all should connect.
So as you enter your chosen career field, here are some keys to success:

Performance—give whatever job you have 110%.  Be focused, determined and unrelenting in your role.  Top performers are rewarded.
Be productive—the more quality work you produce the more valued you will be by the organization. 
Be prepared.  Be an expert in your field, continue to be a student, and be well informed.
Be patient—make the most of every opportunity you have.
Be professional—and not petty, not jealous, not unpredictable or unreliable.  Work with integrity and by the rules.
Practice—refine your writing and reporting skills, add value for your audience. 
Be proud—be proud of yourself, of your colleagues and of your profession.
Yes there will be setbacks; you will make mistakes, but turn each one into a learning experience.  It’s all good.  Yes you may be anxious, unsure, even fearful of what lies ahead.  You don’t think I was anxious in Beirut, or Mike Wallace was a bit anxious when he asked the Ayatollah Khomeni if he was a lunatic?  But rather than letting fear paralyze you, let it impel you forward to meet the challenge.   After all, you will be Hofstra graduates, have Pride and Purpose.
I often have said I have never worked a day in my life—because I love what I do.  And Mike Wallace always loved what he did—even though there were plenty of bumps on his journey.   One of his producers, who had travelled through hundreds of airports while on assignment with Mike, said nearly everyone recognized him. And most of them said just two words to Mike—“Thank you.”

Journalism was Mike’s chosen field, it was his life—and what a great life it was.  Journalism is my life—and I love it. My story, Mike’s story, can be your story.  So, as you embark on your careers, remember, it is all up to you.  And have fun!

No comments: