This week, the Columbia University School of Journalism asked Ira Glass to speak at their commencement and gave him an award for “singular journalistic performance.” Each year the faculty votes for a winner who’s made a mark on journalism in some way. Previous winners: Joan Didion, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Walter Cronkite, Seymour Hersh, Izzy Stone, Errol Morris, Katherine Boo.
Here’s the text of Ira’s speech. He starts around 17 minutes into the video.
Dean, faculty, parents and hello my new colleagues. Look at you.
Welcome to the next phase of your life. It’s gonna be amazing. There’s a war in this country over facts and truth – and it’s not clear how it’s gonna play out and congratulations – you’re heading to the front lines.
I know those are words every parent wants to hear.
Speaking for everyone else who’s been slogging away in the trenches: glad to have you! We need the reinforcements. Couldn’t be a better time to become a journalist.
I’m honored to be here. To be offered an award that’s also gone to so many journalists I’ve admired.
It’s funny to me that you had Maggie Haberman here yesterday as your other graduation speaker, since she and I represent such radically different approaches to this job. I like imagining a version of the world where this ceremony today were a little more like the Grammys and she and I would hate each other’s guts … snipe at each other on Twitter … snatch each others’ awards like dueling, nerdy Kanyes.
I am very aware that in my twenties I got interested in the idea of doing stories about regular people and their lives precisely because I had no idea how to do what she does and what normal reporters do. I didn’t know how to cultivate sources or cover the news or unearth important things the public needs to know.
I am very aware that Maggie Haberman shows us all, day after day, a rigorous demonstration of how you use the traditional tools of journalism to get inside information from suspicious sources and break news and answer the biggest questions in the most important ongoing story out there right now.
And as for me … there’s this thing the drummer for the Who once said that I relate to a lot. His name was Keith Moon. And when he tried to explain what he did for a living, he once said: “I … am the greatest … Keith-Moon-type drummer in the world.”
I am very aware that I make my living with a weird grab bag of skills that probably shouldn’t add up to anything. My primary skill is that I’m a good editor. That’s the main thing I do all week. From the start it was the one thing in journalism I had a natural talent for … an easy command of. I also have a bunch of showbizzy skills that go into packaging material into a program – pacing and flow and humor and emotional arcs. Stuff I learned basically in high school musicals and as a teenaged magician at children’s birthday parties.
In my 20s there was a feeling I got in a certain kind of recorded interview that I became transfixed with. And loved. And tried to make happen again and again. There’s a feeling I got when music hits underneath a radio story that just got to me. And still does. And I cultivated that.
I’m also good at running and promoting a business. I like spreadsheets and budgets and dealing with member stations and all the machinery of making a radio show. I enjoy selling, which is fortunate because a certain amount of my job is selling. On the pledge drive. In promos. During the radio show … when I’m saying things to try to bait people to “stay with us.”
I guess the lesson of this for you guys … is that there are lots of ways to be a journalist. Maggie’s way. My way. Which is good news for you as each of you discovers your way.
Before I go further, I want to acknowledge my co-workers. In particular Julie Snyder who ran This American Life with me as my partner in making the show for two decades. And who left that job to create the podcasts Serial and S-Town, which – I think I can be braggy on her behalf – made the world rethink what podcasting can be.
The kind of journalism we do at our shows is a team sport. To be totally honest, most weeks I spend most of my hours at work not working on my own stories but in a scrum of people who are puzzling out how to make somebody else’s work the very best it can be. We edit each story over and over and over, each time dragging in some new person who hasn’t heard the thing yet to bring fresh ears. Our show is made as a collaboration – to serve our pleasure and curiosity as a group. It’s best when one or more of us gets obsessed and excited about something and then pulls the rest along. To figure out something original to say about Afro-futurism or police violence or Iraq or post-Katrina New Orleans or whatever.
Together we all set the editorial agenda. Together we chew over which stories to pursue and what the angles should be. And in the interest of factual accuracy I will say that the majority of the stories on the program that’ve gotten the most attention – Harper High School, the Giant Pool of Money, convicted murderers putting up a production of Hamlet in prison, Nikole Hannah Jones stories on our show and Sarah Koenig’s and Chana Jaffe Walt’s – they were not my idea or my doing. In fact, there are not one but two stories that I was totally completely against us taking on … that went on to win Peabody Awards.
With all that in mind, I accept this fancy honor on behalf of everyone I work with in making the product you’re honoring.
A brief digression now about editing. Brief but urgent. Editing does not get the respect it should. There are so many awards for reporters. Where are the awards for editors? There are so many famous reporters. So few famous editors. I believe that gifted editors are rarer than talented reporters. If you have the knack for it, I just wanna say: go for it. I really want to give you a nudge of encouragement in that direction. It’s a wonderful job and journalism needs you.
Editing is crucial because in my experience anything you try to make - what YOU want is for the story to be AMAZING. But what the story wants to be is MEDIOCRE OR WORSE. And the entire process of making the story is convincing the story to not be what it wants to be, which is BAD.
And turning it from the bad thing it’s trying to be, where the sources are inarticulate, and you don’t know how to structure it, and the structure you make doesn’t work, into the shining gleaming jewel that you have in your heart … that is editing!
Everyone else … Love your editors. Choose them with the care you’d choose someone to have sex with.
Do not have sex with them!
Let me go back. Choose them with the care you’d choose a good friend.
Choose your jobs with a careful eye on who your editor will be. Good news is very few editors, in my experience, are awful. The overwhelming majority are solid, decent, helpful. And then if you’re lucky you get somebody like the people I work with, like Julie Snyder, people who make everything they touch, so much better.
I’m guessing some of you are focused and directed and you know exactly what you want to do. But I bet many of you are like I was all through my 20s, when I really struggled to figure out how to do work that was meaningful to me. The work I do now really came from that long experience of being lost and trying to invent something that made sense to me. And seemed special to me. Something I was actually good at.
So if in the coming months and years … you feel lost and you’re stuck in some job that isn’t what you want … I just wanna say to you and to your parents … that’s normal. You’re not crazy. Happens to lots of us. You just have to get in there and make stuff and try things and push yourself hard and that’s the only way to find your way.
For those of you who feel like your work still isn’t at the level of skill that you want it to be, I can offer this: I started at NPR when I was 19 … and was not a decent writer or reporter until a decade into it. Editing I could always do. But those other skills were hard fought and didn’t come easily. I was 36 when I started This American Life, 17 years into doing this.
I realized this thing recently …
We’ve always had a paid internship at This American Life. It’s so competitive that eventually we had to stop calling it an internship and we now call it a fellowship. Like one intern came to us from a reporting job at NBC News, another from the digital staff of the New York Times. We were like “we can’t call these grown-ass people ‘interns.’”
And at some point … I looked at the skills of the candidates applying and I realized, “oh … if at any point in my 20s I’d applied for the internship at This American Life … I wouldn’t have gotten it!” Like … I couldn’t have been an intern on my own show! I wouldn’t make the cut.
It can take a long time to be as good as you want to be.
And be kind to yourself, during that period. And work hard.
You all are entering journalism at a fascinating and intense time.
For starters, I don’t know if you’ve heard … everyone in the country hates everyone else all the time.
Doing fact-based stories in that environment has some challenges.
Two weeks ago we were lucky to work with a great reporter, Steve Kolowich of the Chronicle of Higher Education … about something that happened at the University of Nebraska between a sophomore who put out a table to try to start a chapter of Turning Point USA — a right-wing group — on campus … and a left-wing teacher-slash-grad student in her 40s who started yelling at this girl and calling her names till the sophomore was in tears. Video of this, of course, went online … and things sort of exploded … the legislature got involved. Everyone assumed the worst of everyone else at pretty much every single moment.
Steve and his producer Dana Chivvis did a careful and sympathetic and evenhanded job parsing out everyone’s motives and what we should make of all of it.
But the fact that we talked to the right wing student, to hear her side of it, as one part of that story … one listener wrote:
I don’t even want to listen to this bullshit. I’m so sick of TAL highlighting the right. You don’t have to give equal airtime to stupidity just because stupidity took the office.
Thanks for giving voice to a fascist organization. I’m out.
So many pieces about how we “elite” liberals just don’t understand conservatives.
That was not what the story was about in any way by the way. The fact that someone took it that way is so … dispiriting.
I understand them just fine. They’re usually racist, don’t “believe” in science or facts. I’ve had enough of these kinds of “but what about the poor conservatives?” pieces.
Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of This American Life’s fixation on conservatives. I really have no interest in them or their feelings.
This intolerance to even listen to someone else … that’s new among our audience. Three or four years ago, we never got this reaction.
Often, reading the comments, one of my co-workers says it freaks him out because he feels like people don’t understand what journalism is. Sending some of our stories into this environment is like throwing baby bunnies into a cage of hungry snakes.
Like, we really expect them not to lick their lips and eat the bunnies?
I will say … the good news … is that most listeners were not like the ones I’m quoting here. That was a tiny percentage of the comments we got. Lots of people seem to be okay with the way we’re doing this coverage.
I did a fundraiser for a public radio station last night in someone’s very nice home in the suburbs, and the woman who hosted it told me she heard the episode we did a couple months ago on Republican Senator Jeff Flake. Producer Zoe Chace followed him for four months as he tried to get DACA legislation passed.
This woman told me she had that this feeling listening, which was she described like; “No. Don’t make me LIKE him!” She was like, “I didn’t want it to happen but you humanized him.”
And I was like “we didn’t humanize him! He is a human!”
You know? We were simply documenting who he is like we document anyone else. Zoe presented his stubborn idealism and also his flaws – argued with his premises – challenged him point by point throughout the hour. The same way we do with anyone who comes on the show.
This listener seemed cautiously okay with the fact that she was seeing him as a human being. Seeing a Republican senator as a person. To be sure, a person she did not agree with. But a person with principles and decency … and not a monster.
The fact that journalism can do that ... I think that’s one of the things journalism can accomplish in this present moment. Like, I don’t think anyone is going to change their minds about DACA. Or about any other issue facing the country because of some story they hear on the radio. That’s just not how people work. Like you would never change your minds about abortion or guns or who to vote for based on a story you heard on the radio. Nobody would.
But I do think it’s possible – in this utterly divided moment in our country – to get listeners to understand the reality and complexity of people who are not in their particular group — whatever that group might be.
We do a lot of stories on refugees and immigrants. We’ve done stories on kids who live in neighorhoods where their friends have been shot, and they fear getting shot. We did an hour of women in an office talking about – among other things – how it messed them up – like messed with their minds and feelings – to have a sexually harassing boss.
And I don’t think we changed anyone’s mind on any of those issues.
But I do think those kinds of stories made clear the stakes of what those experiences are. In some crude dumb way, those stories do the most old-fashioned thing a story is supposed to do. Which is: they make it possible to imagine, if this happened to you, this is what it might feel like.
I want to be clear about what I’m saying. Empathy is not enough, in reporting. There are lots of people I do not empathize with. After Charlottesville there was real disagreement on our staff about putting certain white nationalists on the air. About whether it promoted their ideas, no matter how we framed it.
With respect to people who feel differently, I believe that you can put someone like that on the air and interrogate them the way we interrogate anyone and anything else. In that case, to talk to the organizer of that rally about what he was trying to do and how he felt about the results. Did the fact that someone died, was he glad about that? Sorry? Guilty? That seemed worth knowing. Some stories are not about empathy, but about investigating a phenonenon to try to understand what we’re really dealing with.
Another thing I think about all the time lately is that there are all sorts of stories that nobody wants to hear anything about any more ever … refugee coverage is a perfect example ... because it has the two key ingredients of any story you don’t want to hear anything else about: 1) it’s depressing and 2) ... YOU ALREADY KNOW THE STORY. Like, it’s not complicated! 60 million displaced people, the largest refugee crisis since World War II ... nice middle class people from Syria and elsewhere whose homes were bombed out of existence ... they have no place to go ... Europe and America don’t want them ... dying on boats ... living in camps.
People are like, “We’ve got it. What else would I ever need to know?”
There are so many other stories in this category: climate change … I’d argue almost anything about the environment for most people is like that … This is awful to say, but so many human rights stories - it’s so hard to get people interested no matter how important they are to document … so many social justice stories, so many criminal justice stories, so many of these issues that we cover and I think are so important to cover. It is very hard to get anybody to listen to. We still do those stories, and they require cunning. They require cunning. To get people to listen. And when you guys do them, that should be part of what you think about. I really believe that the more idealistic your mission, the more cunning you have to employ to get people to engage with what you have to say.
On our show, we did two hours from the refugee camps in Greece, and we were very aware that if we said at the top of the show “Okay, great! America! Two hours from refugee camps in Greece!” I think any reasonable person would turn off the radio. Like that’s just too sad.
But being cunning means, for starters, you have to get really hardcore about how you begin those stories. How you’re going to pull people in and get them listening.
And again, this is kind of terrible thing to say … but our goal is to get them pulled in and listening before they actually understand what the story’s about.
And before we went to Greece, a bunch of us sat around a table and brainstormed about what we could possibly do at the beginning of those shows.
And we thought, okay maybe a couple falling in love.
Maybe something with kids, and we brainstormed what that would be. Or basically any little narrative with someone fun to listen to. We could get the characters going ... let plot kick in ... so the audience is invested in these people and would want to see how the plot would play out.
I have to say, this is one of the great strengths of narrative for a journalist, is that you can get audiences to listen to material they might think they’re not interested in, simply by getting them caught up in the people and wondering what will happen next, like, what’s the next beat of the plot. That’s enormously powerful.
The thing we actually started those shows with ... I remember I was reporting in this camp called Ritsona and this thing happened and I was like, “Oh, this is the opening of the show!”
And what it was, they were showing me around the camp, and every now and then someone would mention, “Oh yeah, and then there’s the wild boars that come out at night.”
I was like, “The wild boars that come out at night?”
They were these giant wild pigs. The camp was in the forest. And at night, these wild boars would roam between the tents. So if you had a little kid who wanted to pee or whatever, it was actually pretty dangerous to leave your tent. You’d have to time it around the wild pigs.
And everybody had pictures of the pigs, and stories about the pigs. And one of the older guys had set up this trap in the woods that was not gonna work at all. Like, I made him take me out there and show me the trap.
And I was like, okay, this is so surprising. This can open the show.
You gotta be tricky.
Something came up in a story we did on our show that I’ve been thinking for months since we broadcast it. Our senior producer Brian Reed was the reporter. He’s also the host of the podcast S-Town.
The story started with this political fight in Homer, Alaska, about immigration. This was right after the presidential election. Liberals on the city council proposed a resolution that would welcome immigrants to Homer, including undocumented immigrants and Muslims.
Trump supporters on the city council rightly recognized it as a slap against their guy.
And as Brian reported, it became the most bitter political fight anyone in the town could remember. Truly turned people against each other in a very ugly way. Led to a recall election. They had their own email scandal.
Everyone in town seemed to take a side.
Except apparently, this one guy ... Ben Tyrer. 27 years old. Who is not into the news. Never followed immigration as an issue – it just never interested him – but now that everyone he knew was fighting over this resolution, he thought he should have an opinion.
And so he went on the internet and started doing something new for him. He started visiting news sites, to figure out for himself: Would it be okay to welcome immigrants into Homer?
Brian did a story about what happened.
As Ben told Brian, when it came to news he was basically a baby learning to walk. Brian said in the story: “His understanding was that publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post had a bad rap, so he didn't really spend too much time there. He would go to a site like the BBC, but worried maybe they were giving him a liberal bent. So then he'd go to a site like this conservative Canadian one he found, The Rebel. But he knew he couldn't fully trust that either.”
So … this is a really good test case for journalism today, right? Here’s this guy who doesn’t really follow the news. Going out among the work of people like us. Looking for an answer to a question he has.
And he discovers in today’s journalism environment, he really didn’t know who to turn to. The whole experience was kind of headspinning.
Ben read about Muslim extremists setting fire to Germany’s oldest church — there’s a video of them celebrating. He read about “no go” zones in France — neighborhoods where Muslims don’t allow non-Muslims.
He read about crime waves sweeping Germany and France thanks to Muslim refugees there. One Breitbart article quoted a German government report that said 402,000 crimes were committed by Muslim refugees in Germany in 2015.
And after a week of this … Ben came to his conclusion.
He was convinced that it would not be safe to welcome immigrants to Homer. Immigrants, especially Muslims, seemed dangerous.
In fact he was so alarmed at what he’d learned that he decided to testify at this big city council meeting they had, where anyone could speak. He brought his news clippings with him.
And then the story took a surprising turn. As Brian was leaving one of his interviews with Ben, Ben said to him, “I’d love for you to tell me that I'm wrong. If you can read this stuff and tell me that I'm wrong, I would love that. Because, I don't like thinking this way about people.”
So Brian found an expert to fact-check the stories that’d alarmed Ben so much ... a BBC correspondent in Berlin ... who’d been reporting on all this for years.
And yes, the BBC was a source Ben wasn't sure he could trust, but he was game to listen.
And the reporter ran down all the stories that Ben had found so convincing.
And Brian set up a time for the two of them to talk.
Turns out … perhaps you anticipated this plot turn ... a couple of the alarming stories were true … but MOST of the stories Ben had read were exaggerated or totally false.
No-go zones in France don’t exist. There was no increase in crime by immigrants in Germany in 2015, other than the crime of crossing the border or overstaying a visa.
The video Ben saw on Breitbart … of Muslim men supposedly celebrating after setting Germany’s oldest church on fire.
Turns out: The church was not Germany's oldest. And it had not been set on fire!
And the men celebrating in the video? They were Syrian refugees celebrating a ceasefire in the war back home.
Ben was flabbergasted. He felt deceived. He concluded that he’d be wrong. About the whole thing. Immigrants no longer seemed dangerous.
And I bring up all this up to say … one of the things that struck me as we were working on that story, is that NONE of the news stories Ben had found so convincing were things I’d heard of.
It had never hit me so starkly. I mean we all know there’s a massive machine churning out non-factual stories that the fact-based media where I work doesn’t even bother to counter. Because there are just so many of them.
And so they just stand. Uncorrected.
And even if they WERE corrected, the people who trust those right-wing media sources don’t trust the mainstream sources who’d correct them anyway.
I am alarmed at how much non-factual material is out there, how gleefully it’s generated, and how exciting it is to read and pass around. And I know everyone in this room is very familiar with all this but I just wanna say: I’m disturbed by how often when I’m out reporting, I find myself in conversations with people I like a lot. Lovely people, good people, who say things that are just not close to being true.
That’s what I find most alarming about this moment we’re living through.
President Trump, like President Obama, will be out of the White House someday. As a non-partisan journalist I have no position on that.
But this information ecosystem …. this will be around for the rest of our lives. That’s the most frightening thing to me right now.
Non-factual information is whipping up people’s feelings and pushing the policy debate … to very strange places like … Homer, Alaska. All of Homer, Alaska, is up in arms debating whether to welcome immigrants to their town.
But immigrants do not want to go to Homer, Alaska!
The police chief told us - quote - "Homer is not a destination for immigrants, illegal or legal, and it never has been.”
Okay imagine. You’re a person who wants to cross into the United States and be undocumented in the United States. Let’s say you’re coming from Central America. Okay. Pass through Mexico. Cross into California or Texas. Cross through the entire length of the United States. Go to the northern border of the United States. Cross into Canada. Cross through Canada. Cross BACK into the United States at Alaska. It’s like you have to cross over to the very tip, the end of the Peninsula. It is the furthest point in the road.
Or! You’re a member of ISIS. You’re fleeing Syria. Where you gonna go next? I know! The United States! Wreak some havoc there. New York City? Nah! Chicago? No! You know where I'm gonna go? Homer, Alaska! Fly to Homer, Alaska. You will not be conspicuous in any way! You will hate the food.
And … the people pushing untruths see this is a war. They talk about this as a war. They fund it like a war. On the theory that – as Andrew Breitbart famously declared – “Politics is downstream from culture.” To change our country’s politics you have to first change our culture.
And I think most of the fact-based news media – our people – we don’t see treat it like a war.
And I think we need to do that. To flood the zone with money and new ideas about how to reach people and what to reach them with.
I think this is a moment that requires a strategy that has yet to be invented by people who have yet to take up arms.
Because when you have one side fighting a war against an opponent who isn’t fighting a war, guess who loses a lot of territory?
And we have lost a lot of territory. We have lots of the country that does not trust us, and a President who calls what we do “fake news.”
We need your ideas and energy to fight this war.
And we need great reporting.
One hopeful thing about this moment is watching so many organizations rise to the occasion with inspiringly great reporting, excellent reporting.
But there’s plenty of room for more. All of us in this room are living through a moment of seismic, historic change in this country. You bring fresh eyes to this. And a perspective those of us who are older do not have.
It’s traditional in this sort of speech to give advice. I will not do that.
Except this: amuse yourself.
I don’t think enough gets said about that when we’re training journalists. Everything will be better if you’re out for your own pleasure. Noticing what you’re actually truly interested in ... and curious about ... and making your work about that.
Like I said earlier, our radio show is run on the principle that among other things, it’s there for our pleasure. For our fun and curiosity as a staff. And the show is at its very best when one of us gets obsessed.
But even when I was a baby freelancer and taking any story NPR threw my way, I had a rule. In every story there had to be something in there for me. Some little thing I observed that amused me, some funny line I could get in there, some interesting back-and-forth in a quote.
And by the way, any of you doing broadcast or podcast: be in the tape! Cajoling, hondling, joking with, arguing with, interacting with your interviewees. It’s the single easiest way to make your stories better. Be in the tape. An interview properly done is a drama with two characters and not being in there as one of the characters is giving up one of your greatest powers. Don’t leave that power unused. Be in the tape. Don’t settle for less. Don’t do less than you can. Be in the tape.
If you’re funny in real life … be funny in your stories. It makes them better. And it doesn’t mean you aren’t a serious person dealing with serious subjects in a serious way.
If you’re not funny in real life … for god’s sake don’t try to be funny. Be yourself!
Don’t wait. Make the stuff you want to make now. No excuses. Don’t wait for the perfect job or whatever. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. One of the advantages of being a journalist is you don’t need permission. You can go and run down the story now and then find a home for it. Pay someone you respect - pay a friend - a little money to be your editor and the person you talk to about your next steps. Don’t wait. You have everything you need. Don’t wait.
Commencement addresses are a ridiculous form. It’s a kind of speech that’s doomed to failure. Precisely because nothing can be said that’s up to the task at hand. You are being launched from the training phase of your life into the vast exciting unknown of everything that’s to come. What words could possibly make that better? Seriously. What poncy little speech makes the liftoff of a rocket any better? Your ambition and your hopes for your coming lives … those are enough to fill this day with feeling. The wishes of your parents and loved ones for you … that’s enough.
To those I add my wishes for you. Which are big. I want you to be bold. I want you to change things. Although I am what came before you, I want you to tear up what came before you.
I really truly, no kidding, envy you. Starting as journalists today. To be starting at this moment when journalism itself is changing so much. To be part of remaking it into something new. To be reporting on these difficult times.
To be battling untruth with truth.
Best to you all, my new colleagues.