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Media Relations

Susan Zirinsky, School of Communication
Commencement Speaker

Text of Speech (As Delivered)

Susan Zirinsky Word Bubble

A "word cloud" representation of Susan Zirinsky's commencement address.

Thank you very much President Kerwin, Provost Bass, Dean Kirkman and Gail Hanson. I am extremely proud to accept this honorary degree and proud to be addressing the graduating class of 2009. OK, indulge me for a moment. Will the graduating class please stand up. Now I want you to repeat after me. I - will - get - a job! OK, feel better? Parents, feel better? Thank you.

Charles Dickens had it right—“It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times.” But he hadn’t counted on this graduating class. You have a skill set and knowledge of the world that is far more advanced than any other class graduating in the history of this country.

That does not mean you won’t start at the bottom, but walking off this campus you have a knowledge and an understanding and understand the impact of technology like no one who has walked before you.

Let’s get some of scary stuff out of the way right at the top. Unfortunately, it’s possible to contemplate big time cities and communities without a single newspaper to call its own.

After more than 100 years, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, as a newspaper, is gone--a limited Web site with limited reporters. The Rocky Mountain News—sorry RIP. Thank God, they saved the Boston Globe.

OK, we know it, it’s tough out there. So where do you fit in? How do you walk out of here today and start the rest of your life? There is no MapQuest that you can download for directions. The core of who you are will determine if you succeed.

Truth—the technology is moving so fast. Not a single person can really tell us where it’s going. No one can say, truthfully, who will survive and what, if any, of the conventional ways we get information out will survive.

In this brave new digital world, good content should be valued. The Wall Street Journal had it right; they charge. Barry Diller was interviewed recently and he said, “You are going to pay for content and information you want.” It certainly worked for iTunes at 99 cents for a song. It’s going to work in the future.

If you told me three years ago that I would be begging to have the broadcast that I produce downloaded on cell phone, sell it on iTunes, and get it on 25 digital partners for CBS, I would have asked for some of that crack you were smoking.

Journalism some say is in a crisis. I say it’s at a major crossroads. A creatively challenging crossroads.

I do know this: American democracy as we know it cannot exist unless its people have access to independent and accurate sources of information.

I don’t think we need fewer people in journalism because of the technology—I think we need more of them to help form the brave new world.

Gone are the days when success would be getting job at CBS, NBC, ABC, a job at the New York Times or the Washington Post. The seismic changes in this industry, and the proliferation of news, has really given you a lot more opportunities than I had and a lot more platforms to reach out and touch people. But there’s a catch, always a catch. It’s harder in this cacophony of voices to have a unique voice, and to break through. This is your challenge.

When I think of the journey that I have taken in my career, and I think of those that I followed and still follow–people like Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Dan Rather, yes, I’ll still say Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, and Katie Couric—we all share a common thread. We kind of never grew up. We have almost like a childlike curiosity about the world and we share something else, this incredible insatiable desire find out what’s going on. Maybe obsessively noisy, but I’ll do it the other way.  And, also the search for truth. We share something else.... an overwhelming passion for what we do.

Let me say it, if you aren’t driven to get out in your chosen field and find a job, don’t do it. Find “it.” Find the “it” that will make you want to do “it” more than anything else.

You, the graduating class, you have a gift and you may not even know it. You are not bound by the past. If you have an idea, or you see a new way to communicate, you can take it and run with it. Facebook, Twitter has exploded in the last six weeks, MySpace—they were just ideas on how to communicate. Age—experience — if parents weren’t here I would curse, but I was told I’m not supposed to curse up here. It means Jack nothing. Your limitations are your own; you want it, go get it and the passion will take you there.

I was working at CBS in the Washington bureau as the dean said during my senior year here at AU. I was so low on the food chain I couldn’t even get name on the phone list. I did a lot of night duty, Friday and Saturday nights. I didn’t date a lot, so it gave actually gave me some place to go. But, it was during Watergate —the Nixon White House was being held accountable for dirty tricks during the campaign. It was a scandal that would ultimately bring down a President and bring down the men around him. Me? I was chasing Attorney General John Mitchell in the back alleys of the Jefferson Hotel. I was going to every garage in the Maryland, Washington, and Virginia because my news desk assignment editor thought I could find deep-throat, the main source for the Washington Post’s stories in Watergate. And then I would go back to the dorm to go to bed.

I found my lover—and it was CBS. Don’t tell my husband that. It was the greatest seduction of all times. I knew absolutely, positively I wanted to be a journalist. And that is what you have to look for — that feeling that you found the right thing. It may not come right away, but you’ll know it when it hits.  Trust me, it’s much better than e-harmony or

There are obstacles in front you, no one can avoid it. The newspapers today…the unemployment rate, it’s downright scary. But in every era there are obstacles to overcome.  There were large mountains for us to climb, too, when I got out and I’m not going to tell you the year. When I first got to the Washington bureau, I never thought a second about being a woman. That is until I was asked to put an envelope from the White House on Lesley Stahl’s desk. She was breaking stories about Watergate every day — she was, and still is, a very dynamic reporter. But that one day, that envelope in hand, I came face to face with something that was absurd! I couldn’t find her office because, you know what? She didn’t have an office. I found in the back hallways of CBS the tiniest desk I had ever seen. It was a secretarial desk from Alice in Wonderland. And I thought, oh, my God, she doesn’t have an office because she’s a woman — she’s not part of the full team. Oh, yea baby, we had some mountains to climb and overcome.

My jobs throughout my career — part time desk assistant, secretary, researcher, associate producer, White House producer and up through the ranks—have given me incredibly rich, experiences. There has never been a single job that I have thought was a waste. For every job, every boss, every colleague you work with, they will give you something to take with you--even when I got fired. Really, I was fired as the first woman senior broadcast producer on the Evening News. I was fired by a guy who didn’t like me because I had not ever taken cocaine and he couldn’t relate to me—seriously! I even got something from that guy. I will tell you that I have his desk at CBS today and once a day, I spit on it.

Every experience touches you. I was the White House producer for 12 years for Jimmy Carter, and two terms of Ronald Reagan. On one Christmas trip to Plains, Georgia, I was driving my crew crazy about setting up—where would we set up, it was a holiday, how could we get stories on the air? We were coming in the day ahead of the president. Cell phones weren’t quite the thing yet so had walkie talkies. One of my crew member walkies me and says, “Wow you must have some big friends here in Plains, Georgia.” And I said, “What do you mean?” We pulled in to the parking lot of the Best Western just outside of Plains, Georgia and there on the highway largest marquee I had ever seen was “Welcome Susan Zirinsky, CBS News White House Producer.”

I went in and asked the manager, a guy named Jimmy Murray; kind of a salty guy. I said,  “What’s up with the sign?” And he said, “Well you’re the first Jew we’ve had here for Christmas, so we thought we would welcome you properly.” Every event touches you. I want to say one thing that I find very important. If nothing else I say here today sticks with you, I want this to be it. Embrace the feeling of fear. Feel it and use it.

I have worked at CBS my entire adult life. Even when I got fired they wouldn’t let me leave. But I will share with you, to this day, not a day that goes by that I don’t feel the edge of fear. Fear is my most powerful life force. It’s empowering. It makes me better prepared for my job. It keeps me thinking about the “what if.” It pushes me creatively. And it has definitely led me places.

There’s something odd about having fear as your main motivator. I may not have done cocaine, but this is a very powerful drug. The more fearful I am, the more I crave it. Maybe that’s the point. There wasn’t a war zone I didn’t volunteer for, even ones you may not even know about—the war in the Falklands between Argentina and Britain, the U.S. Invasion in Panama, the first gulf war.

Fear teaches you to think on your feet. During the first gulf war, just after the allied forces had taken back Kuwait and sent the Iraqis back to Baghdad, I took a chance and put Dan Rather and some of us in a Saudi military motorcade from Dahran into Kuwait city. That night, the Iraqis had just blown up the oil pipelines. Our plan was to anchor the evening news from Kuwait City that night. And with the Iraqis having blown up the oil pipelines it was bizarre, there were oil fires everywhere. It was two in the afternoon it was pitch black. I had begged a reporter from the BBC to drive my jeep because women are not allowed drive in Saudi Arabia. Rather and a few other CBS people were just ahead of us. My jeep got separated from the military escort. I had lost Dan Rather—not a particularly good career move. And what was worse, he had all the satellite phones and he did not know how to use them—thus is the problem with anchors. We could not see a foot in front of us. The four people, we took turns walking in front of our jeep with a flashlight to see the road, to make sure we were not going run over a land mine. We could see smoldering tanks on the side of the road and the smell of dead bodies was overwhelming. We walked 20 miles into Kuwait city.

Eventually—thank God—I found Dan Rather and the rest of the CBS team. They had set up the equipment. New York was seeing our signal and we indeed anchored the CBS Evening News from a beachfront restaurant in Kuwait city called Shrimpies. The war was over.

Pretty scary. Pretty exciting. Pretty amazing.

What will set you apart from the person sitting next to you? What might make you more successful than they will be? Make no mistake, luck will play into this. But who you are—and your personality—absolutely matters. Never underestimate the dynamic part of who you are and your personality. I can interview three people— a Harvard, AU, and CCNY; City College in New York. I don’t care—sorry— where you went to school, although I might see the AU person first. The person who will get the job is the one with focus, whose passion is like lightening in a bottle. I want to be inspired when I meet someone.

When I walk into a meeting—here’s a headline— I know I’m not the smartest person in the room. Those who succeed are the ones who are not afraid to embrace new ideas, other people’s ideas. They welcome taking risks and want to push the creative potential at every turn. Those who succeed know when to push back.

Bob Schieffer taught me a very important lesson about succeeding especially in Washington; when you are covering the powerful, never let them scare you and never let them forget that those who hold office in our country are accountable to those who put them there.

On Katie Couric’s second day at CBS we were airing a primetime special called “How Safe Are We?” It was five years after 9/11. The centerpiece was a taped interview with President George Bush. Minutes before the interview, two key presidential aides rushed in to brief us about a breaking story. The White House was going to acknowledge for the first time that they kept high profile Al Qaeda prisoners in secret CIA jails around the world and they were moving those prisoners, as we were speaking, to Guantanamo.

They had just begun briefing when another aide rushed in and said the President is on his way. His aides got flustered and said you have enough information. I said, “No we don’t. Stop the President we’re not ready.” They looked at each other. Katie kicked me under the table. I said, “Stop the President. We cannot do this interview until we know the information.” They stopped the president; we did our interview, the interview made amazing headlines that day. You will know when the time is right to push back.

When someone says no to you about an idea…No…is Hello.

When Diane Sawyer was still at CBS years ago we were doing a documentary on the changing face of Russia. An interview with the former President of Russia Boris Yelstin was to be the centerpiece. I had to convince him to do his first western TV interview. We were nowhere. I was in the Kremlin, a last ditch meeting in his office. It was two football fields sized; huge. About two hours into this meeting I saw my career flashing before my eyes. This was not going to happen. And then I had the No is Hello moment. I walked to the back of the room opened my backpack and I pulled out an 8x10 glamorous shot of Diane Sawyer.  I did know that Yelsin carried a little lust in his heart and, man; he liked his vodka. I walked up, crossed the room and I slam this magnificent full body I might add of Diane Sawyer on his desk and I said, “This is who will be doing the interview.” He picks up the picture, it’s quiet, his face turns bright red, his ears are flaming and in a loud booming voice he says, “Da, interview arranged.” I wished I had done that two hours earlier.

So, many of you sitting out there, if not 98 percent, will have jobs in the digital world. Your most importation mission—get it right.

There is no going back! The digital age holds the keys to new kingdom and you are about to unlock the gates. But you must take the lessons of history with you.

Journalism, whatever the platform, has to be guided by the same standards and ethics that have served us in the past. If we can stay true to our standards and ethics in journalism in whatever form it takes, it will survive.

What has kept the press alive for as long as it has are the editors, trained reporters, and those standards and ethics that bind us. Credibility has to be your mantra whatever your platform and whatever your profession.

Keeping your moral compass intact is vital. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Dealing with the devil will never work out in the end. The price she’s asking is always way too high.

I saw the devil recently. There was a twist on a story we had done on a serial killer. I got a hold of his lawyer and the lawyer said you’ll have to call his agent. That’s right the serial killer had an agent. The question now from his agent was how much would CBS be willing to pay for his artwork; you see he had become an artist while serving 500 life terms. He probably also found God. A competing network, I was told, was offering upwards of 20 thousand dollars; surely I would want his artwork if we were going to update his story. I walked away.

There will be times in your professional life where you have to make incredibly hard decisions—ethically and morally.

I had what I thought was a life and death decision to make when covering China’s student revolution. Tens of thousands of student protesters had taken over Tiananmen Square in the center of the government’s main buildings. They wanted freedom to decide what their major would be and what city they would live, not options in China. It went on for weeks. The Chinese military attacked the kids in the square hoping to bring an end the takeover. So many kids died. It was chaos in the weeks that followed. A professor called me and asked if he could come see me with a dissident named Fang Li Xiu.  Fang had been very helpful to CBS. The Chinese were convinced that Fang had orchestrated the student revolution in Tiananmen.  The professor said he was running for his life, the police are after him, would you hide him. I did not call to discuss this with the bosses in New York. I did what I thought was the right thing at the time. We hid Fang for days. It was big news, a leading Chinese dissident has disappeared. When it became just too dangerous, I called a friend of mine at the U.S. Embassy.  I always thought he was CIA, but I never knew for sure. I had a hot package, I told him. I wanted to know if the Americans would be interested in my package. And he laughed and he said, “Don’t speak in code.” So I said, “I have Fang Li Xiu and he wants asylum.”  And the phone went dead. A few minutes later my phone rang. He was on a secure line. Now he was talking in code.  He said, the embassy was willing to take the package and he told me where to deliver it.  They would definitely accept it.  Click.

In the early morning hours we drove Fang to the U.S. embassy. Fang spent two years there before the Chinese and Americans worked out a deal for asylum. He now lives in the United States. I never looked back. It was the right decision.

Two small footnotes: there was a lawyer working for me in China.  He was teaching English to law students there in China—an American. He was the guy who I asked to drive Fang to the embassy that night. A couple months later, when we got back to the United States, that lawyer called me and he said, “I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I want to be a journalist. That event and those months with you changed me and defined me.” That lawyer was ABC’s Bob Woodruff. Bob Woodruff, as you know went on to be an anchor and then almost lost his life in Iraq when he was in a tank that hit a land mine. Thank God Bob’s doing great today.

A second footnote: after Tiananmen and what I had seen in China about human rights, my husband and I decided we would adopt a Chinese baby girl. I convinced Zoe to come with me today and they got on a later shuttle.  They are now in Allentown enjoying the foggy weather.  I’m sure they would have liked my speech.  Zoe is 13, which means challenging and amazing. 

Look for those events in your life. They can define you. They can make everything clear.

A rookie firefighter I met when I did a documentary on 9/11 said when reflecting on that day, “Some people go their whole lives and are never tested.” I was tested that day and so were a lot of other people.

To you, the graduating class of 2009, it’s time to test yourselves.

Martin Luther King said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge.

Take the baton. It’s your chance to run the race.

Zirinsky was one of five commencement speakers. Click here to access transcripts and watch video of all commencement speeches.