Vivian Schiller, Doctor of Letters
Middlebury Language Schools Commencement
August 13, 2010
It's been exactly 25 years since I lived on this beautiful campus as a master's candidate in the Russian School. It's great to be back, but I have to admit I feel slightly sheepish . . . Why? Because I'm speaking English. That language pledge is hard to shake! I'm counting on you not to turn me in.
A BIG congrats to the degree recipients today -- your families, teachers and friends. I know how hard you worked for it. And I especially commiserate with having to spend summers here in Vermont. Really tough -- just awful.
I know it took remarkable effort for you to get to this moment. The breeze I'm feeling is probably your collective exhale. But even though you're graduating, I have just one more little assignment for you: starting today, I want all of you to work even harder.
You see, your newly minted degree carries with it a tremendous responsibility. A responsibility that I urge you to not just embrace, but embody . . . in the careers that you pursue and wherever life takes you. Whether you know it or not, your knowledge of language grants you all diplomatic status -- with a portfolio to educate yourselves and Americans about the world, and the world about America. That used to be the role of media, where I come from. But sadly things have changed a great deal. I'll get to that in a minute.
First, just a little bit of my back-story. I've been in journalism in one form or another for the last 25 years -- as head of documentaries at CNN, then running a cable channel at Discovery, then overseeing the New York Times Web site, and now as president and CEO of NPR. I'm having a really fun career. I've been lucky.
Over the years, students have often come to me to get advice about going into media. They think I know some kind of magic formula. They want to know whether I majored in journalism or media -- a double degree perhaps? Did I work on the school newspaper or radio station or both? I just love seeing their surprise when I tell them my degree was in Russian -- first an undergraduate degree at Cornell, then a masters from Middlebury where I studied both here in Vermont and in Moscow. I'm constantly asked -- Why Russian? And what does that have to do with journalism? The answer is (a) because I fell in love with the language and (b) everything.
I didn't know at the time what I was going to do with a Russian degree. I had NO career plan -- 5-year, 10-year or otherwise. (I still don't!) I was pursuing a passion. And I figured I'd find a way to channel the insights I gained from knowing another language and culture into some good -- somehow.
My first job was working as a tour guide. I took American doctors and lawyers to conferences in the Soviet Union, and interpreted for them. It was the world's greatest post college job. I learned the country, the people -- and I got to help thousands of professionals exchange experiences with their overseas colleagues.
Just when I had racked up one million frequent flyer points on Aeroflot, I spied another opportunity. Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta needed an interpreter to facilitate new ventures with the Soviets. Anyone remember the Goodwill Games? The actual job was less glamorous than it may sound. I was interpreter-cum-gofer (as in "go fer the coffee!"). But it was an opportunity to both use my language skills and observe high-powered deal making at the same time . . . all for low pay and delicious Russian cuisine.
I won't take you through every twist and turn of my career -- though I did stop using my Russian as I moved deeper into the news business. The main thing is I can trace a straight line from love of language to passion for journalism. Language was for me a window into a people and place I could not have otherwise understood. It ignited an insatiable curiosity -- the most important prerequisite in the news business. And while the basic skills of journalism must be learned -- whether through an academic program, or as I did at the feet of a series of mentors over the years- no journalism school can provide first hand experience of the world outside ourselves. Language reveals the mystery of other nations, of other peoples. The difference between being fully present in a place and having your nose pressed up against the glass. It's the antidote to ignorance. A foundation for humility. The key to understanding.
Sadly, we live in a country that does not always value its relationship to the rest of the world. Despite being a nation of immigrants, we do not embrace the study of language or other cultures. Only 4 percent of Americans have passports.
Not too long ago, we could get insights about the rest of the world from newspapers, broadcast news, cable news, magazines and the radio. Hundreds of American journalists reported from bureaus all over the world.
But the news business is going through a convulsion -- there is no other word for it -- unlike anything we've seen in five generations. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way people consume media and that upended the business model. As a result newspapers and broadcasters have lost a lot of revenue. To protect their balance sheets, they are shedding reporters and editors -- more than 1/3 in the last ten years. And they cut coverage deepest in the topic that costs the most: foreign coverage.
Beyond that there is also a fundamental TONAL shift in media. Extremism brings ratings and so cable news, talk radio, some broadcasts and many blogs have moved from reporting the news to talking (or yelling) about the news. It's often a cacophony of assertion, bias and misinformation with far far too little of what the news media is supposed to be about -- understanding. A recent poll said 70 percent think most news media is biased. 71 percent say they feel more overwhelmed than informed. This is a terrible state of play. Never before have the world economies been so interdependent, and yet only a handful of news organizations, NPR among them, remain committed to reporting on the world.
So this is the world into which you carry your newly minted diplomatic credentials. And it brings me back your last assignment. You have spent your time at Middlebury acquiring a special gift -- the gift of language. And with that gift comes great responsibility. I'm not suggesting you all should become journalists (though the evangelist in me would recommend it). I'm suggesting you have a duty to be both ambassadors to the world for other Americans, and interpreters for us folks back home. You must share what you know -- through your writing, your teaching, the stories you tell, the insights you share -- and in doing so inspire others to look outside of themselves, outside of their country.
I'm truly honored and humbled to come home to this magical place to receive this degree from an institution that means so much to me, and taught me skills that have served me so well.