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2009 Commencement: Susan Zirinsky

Thank you, President Kerwin, Provost Bass, Dean Kirkman and Vice President Gail Hanson. I am extremely proud to accept this honorary degree and proud to be addressing the graduating class of 2009.

Just for a moment – I want everyone graduating today to standup…

Now, I want you to repeat after me. I – WILL – GET – A – JOB ! Feel better? Parents, feel better? O.K. 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 a knowledge of the world that is far more advanced than any other graduating class in history. That DOES NOT MEAN you won’t have to start at the bottom. But you are walking off this campus knowing and understanding the intricacies and the impact of technology.

Let’s get some of the scary stuff out of the way right here right now:

  • It is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper.
  • After more than 100 years The Seattle Post Intelligencer --as a newspaper–is finished, although it lives on as a web site with a greatly reduced staff. The Rocky Mountain News …Rest in peace…The Boston Globe – thank god, survived.

OK, it’s tough out there. So where do YOU fit in – how do YOU walk out of here today and begin the rest of your life?

There is no MapQuest giving you 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 you where all of this is going. No one can say who will survive and what, if any, of the conventional ways we get information out will survive.

In our brave new digital world good content should be valued. Barry Diller was interviewed recently and he said, “You are going to pay for information that you want.” It certainly worked for iTunes’ 99 cents for a song.

If you had told me three years ago that I would be fighting to have the prime time news broadcast that I produce play on a cell phone – sell it on iTunes and get it on a digital audience network for some 25 CBS partners – 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, to help form the future.

Gone are the days when ultimate success would be judged by working at CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times or The Washington Post. The seismic changes in the industry--the incredible proliferation of news--has given you so many more opportunities – to reach out, inform and touch people, in spite of the economy. But there’s a catch. It is harder in this cacophony of voices to actually have a unique voice--one that will break through. This is your challenge.

When I think of the journey I’ve taken in my career…and I think of those who I followed and still follow; those who are so successful – Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Katie Couric (my own 48 Hours  team of Erin Moriarty, Peter Van Sant, Troy Roberts, Harold Dow)--there is a common thread. We look at the world with an almost childlike curiosity. We have this insatiable desire to know what’s going on – to find out the truth –and we all share something else: an overwhelming passion for what we do.

If you are not driven, if you don’t feel the burning desire to get out and to find a job in your chosen field, don’t do it. Find “it.” The “it” that will make you want to do “it” more than anything else.

To you, the graduating class of 2009, you have gift, and that gift is that 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, MySpace, Twitter – they were ideas based on new ways to communicate. Age –experience – doesn’t matter. Your limitations are your own. You just have to want it and let that passion drive you.

I was working at CBS in the Washington bureau during my senior year here at A.U. I was so low on the food chain I couldn’t even get my name on the phone list. I did a lot of night duty, especially Friday and Saturday nights. (I wasn’t dating, so it gave me some place to go.) But it was during Watergate. The press was holding the Nixon White House accountable for dirty tricks during the campaign. It was a scandal that would ultimately bring down a president and all of his men. And me – I was chasing the Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell in the back alleys of the Jefferson Hotel. I was going to every garage in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia area looking for Deep Throat, the Washington Post’s most critical source. And then I would go back to the dorms to go to bed.

I found my lover. And it was CBS. It was the greatest seduction of all times. I knew absolutely, positively what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a journalist. And that is what you have to look for – that feeling that you have found the right thing. It may not come immediately, but when it hits, you’ll know it. It’s better than Match.com or eHarmony. It’s the best date ever.

There are obstacles in front you – big ones – not of your making. But there were some pretty large mountains for us to climb as well. When I first got to the bureau I never thought twice 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 ) an incredibly dynamic reporter. But that one day with that envelope in hand, I came face to face with something absurd! I couldn’t find her office because she didn’t have an office. She had a desk. And not just a desk--it was the tiniest desk I had ever seen. It was a secretarial desk in a back hallway that looked like something from Alice in Wonderland -- so very tiny. She was there because she was a woman – not a “full” member of the team. Oh yeah, baby, we had some pretty heavy obstacles to overcome ourselves.

My jobs throughout my career – part-time desk assistant, secretary, researcher, associate producer, White House producer and up through the ranks have been so rich, with so many experiences. There has never been a single job that I have thought was waste. Every job – every boss – every colleague you work with will give you something important to take with you. Even when I got fired. Really, I was fired as the first woman senior broadcast producer on the Evening News by the executive producer – a guy who didn’t like me because I had never used cocaine and he couldn’t relate to me. Seriously! But I even learned a lot from that man.

Every experience touches you. I was the White House producer for about 12 years…Jimmy Carter, two terms of Ronald Reagan. On one Christmas trip to Plains, Georgia, home town of Jimmy Carter, I was driving my crew crazy about setting up, what stories we could do on a quiet holiday weekend -- how could we get on the air. We were traveling in the day before the president. Cell phones weren’t quite the thing yet, so had some walkie talkies. My cameraman said , “Wow you must have some pretty powerful friends here in Plains.” “What are you talking about,” I crackled back on my walkie. “The sign,” he said. “The sign.”

We pulled in at the Best Western outside of Plains, Georgia, and there on the largest highway marquee I had ever seen was, WELCOME, SUSAN ZIRINSKY, CBS NEWS WHITE HOUSE PRODUCER. I went in and asked the manager, “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 should welcome you properly.” Every experience leaves its mark.

I want to say something. If nothing else I say here today sticks with you, I hope this does: Embrace the feeling of fear. Feel it. Use it.

I have worked at CBS for more years than I will share with you, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel the edge of fear. Fear for me is my most powerful life. It is 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 a motivator--it’s like a 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 remember--the war in the Falklands between Argentina and Britain, the U.S. invasion of 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 a group of us in a Saudi military motorcade from Dahran into Kuwait city. Our plan was to anchor the evening news there that night. The Iraqis had blown up the oil pipelines – there were massive oil fires were burning out of control. At two in the afternoon it was pitch black from the smoke. I had begged a reporter from the BBC to drive my jeep (You see, women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia.) Rather and a few other people were in the jeeps in front of us. My jeep became separated from the military escort. I had lost Dan Rather – not a very good career move -- and he had the satellite phones. We could not see a foot in front of us. We took turns walking in front of our jeep with a flashlight to see the road, to make sure we were not going to hit 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. The group had set up all our equipment. New York was seeing all our signals and we indeed anchored the Evening News from a beachfront restaurant called Shrimpie’s in Kuwait City. 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? Luck will play into it, but there’s something else: who you are. Your personality matters. Never underestimate just how much that matters. I can interview three people from Harvard, AU and City College in New York. I don’t care where you went to school. 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 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 prime time 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 advisers staff rushed in to brief us about a breaking story. The White House was going to acknowledge for the first time that it had kept high-profile al Quada prisoners in secret CIA jails around the world, and they were moving those prisoners to Guantanamo. They had just begun briefing when an 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 have more information. They stopped the President, finished our briefing, and the interview we did made headlines that day. Know when to push back!

When someone says no to you about an idea, in my mind “no” is hello.

When Diane Sawyer was still at CBS 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 television interview. We were nowhere. I was in the Kremlin – a last ditch meeting – and his office was the size of two football fields. Almost two hours into this meeting I could see my career flashing before my eyes. And then I had a “no-is-hello” moment. I walked to the end of the room, opened my backpack and pulled out an 8x10 gorgeous shot of Diane Sawyer. I did know Yelsin always had a little lust in his heart and liked his vodka very very much. I walk over to his desk. I slam the picture down and I looked right at him and said “This is who will be doing the interview with you. He stopped. He picked up Diane Sawyer’s picture. His face flushed. And with his face flushed, his ears flaming red and in a loud booming voice he shouted, “Da!” We got the interview arranged and I wished I had done that two hours earlier.

Many of you sitting out there right now will have jobs in the digital world. Your most importation mission is to get it right.

There is no going back ! The digital age holds all the keys to the new kingdom. And you’re 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 eithics that have served us in the past.

If we can stay true to our standards and ethics, journalism—whatever form it takes—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 – it has to be your mantra 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 will always be too high.

I saw the devil recently – there was a new twist on a story we had done on a serial killer. I got hold of his lawyer who then turned me on to his agent. That’s right -- the serial killer had an agent. The question now from his agent was, how much would I be willing to pay the serial killer for his artwork. He had become an artist in prison. A competing network was offering upwards of $20,000 – surely, I would want his artwork in any new version of the broadcast. I walked away.

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

I had what I thought was a life and death decision when covering China’s student revolution. Tens of thousands of student protesters had taken over Tienanmen Square, in the center of the government’s main buildings. They wanted freedom to decide what they did for a living and where they would live, not an option then in China. It went on for weeks. The Chinese military attacked the kids in the square, hoping to end the takeover. So many kids died. It was chaos in the weeks that followed. A professor called asking if he could come see me with an intellectual dissident named Fang Li Xiu. Fang had been very helpful to CBS. The Chinese were convinced that Fang was behind the entire student revolution. He was running from the police. The professor wanted to know if I would hide him for a while. This was not something I discussed with my bosses in NY…I did what I thought was the right thing at the right 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 believe he was CIA, but I never knew for sure. I had a hot package. I wanted to know if the Americans would be interested in our package. He told me to stop talking in code. So I told him who I had and said he wanted asylum. He hung up on me. Within minutes my phone rang -- he was calling me from a secure line. I could take my package to the embassy, he said; they would accept it.

In the early morning hours we drove Fang to the U.S. embassy. Fang spent two years there…He now lives in the United States I never looked back. It was the right decision.

A footnote. After Tiananmen and what I had seen in China, my husband and I decided we would adopt a Chinese baby girl. Zoe is here with me today – as is my husband. She is an amazing child.

Look out for those events. They can change your life.

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

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

Martin Luther King Jr 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.

Thank you very much

A new SOC

The new SOC building, aerial view

The architect's rendering of SOC's new home--a renovated McKinley Building.

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