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Cronkite Convocation Speech by Margaret Brennan

Congratulations to all of you!

Think of the all-nighters that you worked, pennies that you scraped together and moments of doubt that you had along the way. And I’m talking to the parents too not just the graduates. You set out a goal, realized there were no shortcuts and hunkered down. That’s the most important lesson that you learned here.

I have to tell you that it is enlivening to be out here in Arizona and to see your enthusiasm about entering journalism and the media industry. I fear sometimes that all of us have lost the ability to listen to each other, have civil conversations, and to really educate and inform. We try every Sunday to uphold those traditions on our program "Face the Nation." But in this hyper driven news cycle it is a constant challenge to separate the important from the interesting. The substance from the shiny object -- particularly in the world of politics these days it is often easier to focus on the person and personality than the policy and avoid examining the fundamental, structural issues that have brought our country to this historic level of division.

I don’t have to tell you that you’re graduating at an inflection point.

Last month 51 percent of Republicans polled by Quinnipiac described the news media as the enemy of the people and not an important part of democracy. Think about how dangerous that is for a moment. if the public feels it cannot trust us to provide accurate and impartial information, that means the state of journalism -- of basic fact gathering -- has become a national security issue.

Compare that to 1973 - 45 years ago - when an opinion poll described Walter Cronkite as the “most trusted” public figure in America.

I remind you of this not to discourage you but rather to inspire you. Let this awareness guide you. Vow today to defy the doubters to earn their trust and respect for the quality of the work you are about to undertake.

We need you. We need all of you to be the great journalists and communicators that you have been training to be. We need you all of you to be Cronkites.

As Thomas Jefferson -- our third president said, “The liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties.”

In full disclosure Jefferson founded my alma mater the University of Virginia and as a grad I was virtually required to quote him.

To be honest with you I don’t recall much of what my commencement speaker said when I graduated from UVA sixteen years ago. And chances are that you won’t remember me either. That’s because graduation is not about what anybody says. It is about what you have done. But I do want to share a bit about what’s next.

I spent my first post-college months sleeping on a UVA classmate’s pullout coach in her midtown Manhattan apartment and commuting to a freelance job in New Jersey. I had an entry-level position as freelance researcher at a financial cable network. She had a well-paying job at an investment bank.

My starting salary was only slightly more than the annual college tuition bills that my parents had paid. I had no health care. Both of those facts gave my parents pause as they wondered why I was taking such a gamble. Why not take a job at a Wall Street bank? Earn some money and establish yourself. Why not take a job working for the government? It sounded logical. After all this was just a year after the 9/11 attacks had rattled our country, my Arabic skills were strong, and I had a degree in Foreign Affairs and Middle East studies. But I knew in my gut that I had to give journalism a shot. The idealist in me argued then, much as I believe now , that journalism and keeping the electorate informed is an essential part of our democracy. Once i made up my mind, my parents cheered me on.

Lesson one: Cherish the people who support you and try to forget those who do not. Mom and Dad -- I assure you that as your kids experience “adult-ing” they will frequently call and ask for advice. I certainly did.

Unlike all of you I walked into that first job with virtually no experience or exposure to the craft of journalism. I did not have the technical skills that you all have honed here at the Cronkite School. But I was armed with a great education, a strong work ethic, and a curiosity about the forces of change reshaping society.

Lesson two: Say yes at work. Volunteer for assignments. Do not become the person who tells your boss how complicated the task will be. You have to earn the trust of your colleagues, readers, and viewers. You will do that through the consistency of your work. Since your integrity is your most valuable asset, do not sacrifice it.

That may sound trite - a bit like a motivational poster - but I promise you that if you disregard these basic things you will not sustain a successful career. You’ll just have a job.

Lesson three: relationships matter. In fact they’re the network and support system that will keep you sane, support you when you fall, and provide you with the brutally honest feedback that you may need when starting out. And keep in mind that many of the people you encounter in the next few years will resurface in your lives at a later date and they will remember how you treated them.

Lesson four: There are certain things you cannot afford to ignore. Here are two of them: the business section and the international section of the newspaper. We tend to keep those concepts separated into bite-sized, more easily digestible topics but really they all connect and intersect with the domestic politics. Kitchen table economics get to the very heart of what influences people’s behavior, voting patterns, and desire for change. Understanding that is part of figuring out domestic politics or covering virtually any revolution or uprising overseas.

If you think international and financial news doesn’t matter to the average American well then you should talk to the soybean farmers in Iowa right now who are already hurt by the threat of tariffs from China as the White House and Beijing spar over trade concerns.

And take a look at the protests that we recently saw at the beginning of the year in Iran—in cities long supportive of the theocratic regime. The frustrations were about economic policies and that the benefits of the nuclear deal with the West had been kept by the elite instead of trickling down to the average person.

And finally, lesson five: We the press are not the opposition party. That is not our role. We are not the resistance. We are most definitely not the enemies of the people. Our job is to call balls and strikes. And while doing so make sure that we ask the same tough questions of any subject regardless of party or affiliation. Be tough but be fair. And be mindful to avoid the type of institutional narcissism that allows us to forget that we’re not the story, we’re the storytellers.

Our president has changed the rules of politics and challenged the standards of journalism. It has made all of us question how we do our jobs, and frankly maybe that questioning and rethinking is long overdue.

The workload has increased dramatically for those covering the White House and politics, but that in turn that may mean more opportunity for anyone willing to put in the work. And burn the shoe leather, or at least the data plan while texting.

There is very little room for error but there is also a voracious appetite for the information that you gather.

People want news and analysis simultaneously these days, which puts more responsibility on your shoulders to keep perspective.

I believe that you are graduating into an environment where there is enormous opportunity. There have never been so many sources of information and at times it can seem overwhelming.

Today en route to Phoenix, I was following closely the details of the president’s announcement that he will exit the diplomatic deal with Iran. I want to make sure that I bring it to your attention.

I spent the better part of two years covering the diplomacy that lead to that historic agreement. I spent weeks on assignment in Europe right up until just a few days before my own wedding. In fact, I had to rebook that final wedding dress fitting multiple times and the shop girls were totally perplexed as to what Iran’s nuclear program had to do with my wedding gown.

It drove home for me how this all consuming issue, this deal that could avert another war with a hostile potentially nuclear power, was so off the radar for your average person. It felt wrong for me to let today’s events go by without remark.

The deal was not perfect. And if you look back my coverage you’ll see that I pressed US officials on what it did and did not cover at the time. It was at its core a limited deal meant only to freeze Iran’s nuclear development. It didn’t address terrorism or meddling in Syria or any other misbehavior. It was essentially a long term bet that Iran might look different in a decade after the deal expired. It was a diplomatic gamble.

And according to President Trump’s own national security advisers it was working. Iran has kept its nuclear program frozen since 2015 according to President Trump’s State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies.

Today the president dealt a potentially fatal blow that landmark arms control deal. He did that by announcing that he’ll sanction Iran which -- under the deal -- was only supposed to happen as punishment if that country cheated. Today the White House provided no new evidence to suggest Iran was cheating. UN weapons inspectors, US allies like the UK, France, and Germany, as well as U.S. adversaries like Russia all issued statements saying they were disappointed in the president’s decision and warned it may spike tensions in the Middle East.

But President Trump said today that he had made a campaign promise that he had to deliver on despite all of that; thus exiting the deal. We’ll have to wait and see what his new strategy is to tackle all of Iran’s bad behavior now and whether it requires more military force. The other wildcard is how Iran responds. Will it kick out weapons inspectors and restart its nuclear program? Or will it try to show that what America says does not matter, and that it can still do business with the rest of the world?

It is not yet clear what the immediate or long term consequences will be. Our allies along with China and Russia say they’ll stick to it without America. And it is not clear yet whether this will help or hurt the President’s chances at getting a similar agreement with North Korea. The Secretary of State -- along with just two print reporters -- landed in Pyongyang today to lay the groundwork for that diplomatic gamble.

It is possible for President Trump to get a deal. The question is will it be tougher than the one he just tore up. Can he get North Korea to ship out 97 percent of its weapons grade material Iike Iran did? Unlike Iran, North Korea has ballistic missiles that it says can hit U.S. territory. Brace yourselves for what’s ahead.

When I took this job at" Face the Nation" two months ago, I received messages from friends and colleagues that I had not heard from in years, and some prominent individuals whom I’d never met but reached out to offer their support.

It was overwhelming. And it underscored the sense of responsibility that I now feel at the helm of this 63-year-old institution. Facts still matter. Opinion is not journalism. Perspective and context are still a necessary service.

There was one note in particular that touched me.

It was from a nun who served as the head of my high school back in Connecticut. I graduated from a small, Catholic all-girls school there. I want to share it with you because I think it speaks to the sense of social responsibility we should be mindful of in our industry.

She wrote: “When you query for truth, speak for the speechless, confront sloppy think and turns of phrase that avoid the truth, God is there with you. The implication that there is fake news is how dictators come into power.” She emphasized that this was not a political statement and went on to say: “Silencing is found in families, churches, workplaces, classrooms, and marriages. Keep looking out for the quiet voice.”

All of us need to look out and listen in a bit more these days, and we need all of you to help tell our stories and write that first draft of history. Good luck.

Congratulations to the class of 2018.