117th Annual Commencement Address
Wolf Blitzer, CNN Anchor
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 13, 2005
Thank you so much Father O?Connell. It?s a thrill for me to be here today and to share this moment with all of you, my fellow graduates. Cardinal McCarrick, it?s an honor and always a pleasure to simply be in the presence of a leader of the Catholic Church and a leader in America that all of us have admired for so many years and God willing for many, many more years to come.
I want to congratulate all of you ? the faculty, the parents, the relatives, the friends who have gathered here ? but especially I want to congratulate the students who have worked so hard to get to this day and to earn this powerful degree. This is a moment that all of us can truly appreciate ? all of us who are here. I want to do a special shout-out, though, to one category of individuals who will be so honored tomorrow and without whom none of us would be here now: our mothers. Thank God for mothers and thank God for Mother?s Day.
You should be rightfully proud of this huge accomplishment of the students, the Class of 2006 ? one that no one will ever be able to take away from you. The long hours, the hard work clearly has paid off and I think I speak for all of us here when I say I wish you only the best. But don?t think that your education has come to a close. I can assure you, as someone who was in your shoes not all that long ago, that it is only just beginning. Whatever your career, whatever your next adventures, you will be engaged in lifelong learning using the wonderful skills you honed here during your years at The Catholic University of America. And yes, you will continue to be getting grades every day ? from your employers, from your colleagues and perhaps even from your students if teaching is in your cards.
I am so honored that I was invited to join you today and to receive this degree. It means a great deal for me as someone who grew up in the southern fun capital of the United States: Buffalo, New York, and managed to reach this beautiful sunny day in the nation?s capital. I know what you are feeling today in receiving this degree because it seems like only yesterday ? in fact, it was only 36 years ago, 1970, when I received my B.A. in history from the State University of New York at Buffalo and went on to receive a master?s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington, D.C. It was then that I was introduced to the nation?s capital, introduced to Washington and basically I have been here ever since. I fell in love with this area, as I am sure many of you have, and I really have never left. I know how hard you have worked to get these degrees and I remember again as if it were only yesterday how I proud I was when it was handed to me. This is one of those rare moments when you literally feel like jumping up in the air and celebrating. I know I did. I literally wanted to jump up and click my heels.
I didn?t do that. It could have been awkward.
Let me speak a little about my profession or the world of journalism, because it has had such a profound effect on me and it has always had such a profound effect on everyone.
We meet today at a strange time in journalism. In recent years, we have seen some of the best, some of the most courageous reporting in many years. I am referring to my colleagues who have gone to Iraq, whether on their own or embedded with U.S. or coalition forces. They have literally risked their lives to bring us some truly amazing stories of war. Some of them never returned home, including two personal friends: Michael Kelly and David Bloom. They were among the best in our business and they had worked so hard over the years both were enjoying the peak of their professional success. What a tragedy and a shock it was for all of us when we learned that they had been killed covering this war. I speak for many of my colleagues who knew them and knew so many of the other journalists who have died covering this war. We miss them terribly.
I spent nearly five weeks in the Persian Gulf anchoring CNN?s coverage of the start of the war three years ago, first from Kuwait where almost 200,000 U.S. and coalition forces had been asked to invade and remove Saddam Hussein regime from power, later from Qatar, the headquarters of the U.S. military central command, the headquarters of General Tommy Frank who was the commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I was privileged to see our journalistic colleagues do their jobs with devotion and skill. The physical conditions were awful. The dangers were very real. But by and large, I think they brought us the story in new and dramatic ways ? stories which we could never have reported, for example, during the first Gulf War, which we tried to do but couldn?t because we never had the access to the front-line troops. At that time we were stuck basically, and I speak from personal experience, listening to formal Pentagon briefings in Washington or CENTCOM briefings in Riyadh or Dhahran.
I had gone into this war skeptical that the Pentagon?s embedding program would work. I knew it had been worked on after many months of negotiations involving top Pentagon officials and Washington bureau chiefs of the major news organizations, both print and electronic. Despite the best of intentions on all sides I worried that the Pentagon would never deliver on its commitments to give reporters and photographers the kind of access that had been promised especially if there were serious setbacks on the battlefield. I worried that a new generation of many mini-cams, videophones, other technological gadgets wouldn?t work in a war environment. I worried that some reporters would violate the terms of the carefully worked-out embedding agreement, thereby endangering U.S. troops and themselves because of competitive pressures, and I worried that some reporters might get too cozy with the troops and avoid the kind critical reporting that the American public and the U.S. military itself deserves.
I?m happy to report that much of my skepticism, by and large, wasn?t justified. The arrangement worked out rather well for all concerned ? the news media, the troops, most important for the American public, which got to see a glimpse of this war up close. Can there be improvements down the road? Indeed there can be. There have already been some setbacks. But I don?t believe there?s basically any turning back of the clock. The American public got used to this new arrangement, and hopefully won?t stand for anything less.
Almost exactly a year ago, I went back to Iraq with a commanding general of the U.S. military central command, General John Abizaid. We flew from Qatar to Baghdad and then boarded U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters to fly to Fallujah in the Western part of the country. Later we boarded a giant C-5 military transfer plan to fly north to Mosel, which is an especially dangerous and troubled area. In between we visited the giant U.S. air base in Balad in central Iraq and I also made a separate visit from the Persian Gulf from a warship to the major Iraqi port southern port city of Umkasar, near Basra.
Let me share some impressions from those days, impressions that continue to this day. There?s no doubt in my mind that the 135,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq right now are committed, highly trained and doing an outstanding job. There?s also no doubt in my mind that every single one of them is in harm?s way and deserves our respect and deep appreciation for what they?re doing. I also want to include a special thanks to the approximately 10,000 or so U.S. troops who are not technically based in Iraq, but they?re based in Kuwait. Many of them spend an enormous amount of time in Iraq even though they?re formally listed as Kuwait-based. That?s because these are the men and women ? mostly young, many of them reservist/National Guard ? who drive the convoys, the trucks, the vehicles back and forth with supplies from Kuwait into Iraq. The route from Kuwait to Baghdad is about 400 miles. I learned because I went with them, that even some of the more mundane assignments ? like driving a truck for example ? are in fact extremely dangerous. As you know, there are the roadside bombs ? the so-called improvised explosive devices ? along these highways, the suicide car bombings, the rocket-propelled missiles, the random sniper fire. The good news is that we are hopefully on the verge of a democratically elected government, a national unity government, in Iraq that says it?s taking charge and is committed to a broad national unity coalition including the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurdish elements of the country. It?s by no means a done deal, I can assure you, because there are enormous problems right now. The sectarian violence on the heels of the insurgency remains problem number one. The militias that operate ?whether the Shii militia, modern militia, Machni militia, Kurdish militia, the Pashmurga ? all of these militias have to be weaved into a cohesive national military force. That is by no means a done deal. The challenges are enormous. And until the Iraqis themselves can get their act together, it?s going to be impossible for the U.S. to start withdrawing troops if it hopes to achieve what was the initial objective: a secure and stable Iraq, which is still a long ways down the road.
I hope this process works. This is a critical moment for Iraq right now but I can tell you right now that this is a done deal. Unfortunately, it is going to take an enormous, enormous amount of work and there are plenty of forces out there who don?t want this to work and they will do whatever they can to intensify not only the insurgency but the sectarian bitterness that clearly exists there. In other words, it means U.S. forces could be stuck in Iraq for longer than so many of their commanders, the troops and the rest of us would like to see happen. The U.S. intelligence community clearly does an excellent job in bring information to the leaders of our country.
Although I don?t think that we can hide the fact that there have been serious failures in recent years as well. Specifically, the failure to fully understand the weapons of mass destruction issue in Iraq ? the lack of weapons of mass destruction as it now turns out to be the case. One thing that I did discover in all the great things that I did with General Abizaid and in the time since, is that that we had the intelligence community learn a great deal about the insurgency, [about] Abu Masab Zarqawi and his henchmen ? we have learned a great deal about them but the more we learn it seems the more we realize there is still so much that we don?t know. Where these people are coming from, who they are, where they are getting their funding, where they are getting their ammunition, their weapons, their bombs. They are still an enormous challenge, an intelligence gap out there, so much more work that has to be done. This is a critical period in short in Iraq and the challenges for the U.S., for Iraq, for our coalition partners, for the entire region are enormous.
The journalistic community is going through a rough time right now as well. Let me refer to some recent statistics that came out in a poll conducted by the University of Connecticut?s Department of Public Policy. It compared the attitudes of the American public at large versus the attitudes of professional journalists like myself. And I must say in reading the specific numbers, the gap was shocking. Listen to this: Some 43 percent of the American public ? of Americans in general ? believe the press has too much freedom, while only three percent of journalists believe that. Twenty-two percent of Americans actually believe that the American government should be able to censor newspapers. Seventy-two percent of the journalists questioned say the media is doing at least a good job in reporting information accurately, while only 39 percent of the American public agrees with them. Finally, only about one-third of Americans agree that the news media tries to report the news without bias ? that would be 36 percent ? while 61 percent claim that there is a bias in news coverage. In other words, we journalists have our work cut out for us in trying to improve our reputation and our image among so much of the American public. We have to make sure we report our stories fairly and accurately. We have to realize that so many people are watching and learning and trying to appreciate what we?re saying.
A few years ago the singer Marilyn Manson actually said something very profound: ?Times have not become more violent, they have just become more televised.? And that is certainly true. As someone who works in television journalism, I?m acutely aware of that ? especially as someone who works for CNN whose programs are seen not only in the United States and North American, but in more than 240 countries and territories around the world. We see the shootings, we see the killings, we see the warfare, often on live television. But let?s not kid ourselves; people have been doing these things, these horrendous things, forever.
With the protection of the First Amendment, come responsibilities. Those of us blessed with an opportunity to work as journalists for major national news organizations must make sure we don?t step outside the bounds of responsible journalism. We must always give the aggrieved party in our reports a full opportunity to respond, to make sure the other side of the story is heard. The initial story is always the one that is heard the loudest. The retractions, the corrections, the clarifications rarely get that equal treatment. In short, we must not rush the press with half-baked stories ? stories that need time to be thoroughly checked out. And when we get ourselves into the position of finding that there is an outrageous news tip of a potentially huge story that seems so incredibly juicy for a reporter, my first rule of thumb is this: If it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is. The bottom line: Check, check and check. If we stick to the most fundamental and basic rules of responsible journalism, in short our image with the American public will improve. That?s ? I can assure you ? what we strive to do every single day at CNN.
Finally, a personal note. As I?ve often said I?ve been truly blessed. I get paid to have a front row seat to history. Three decades ago when I was in your shoes I would never have dreamed that would be the case. Right now you may be thinking about what direction you want your life to move in. But I can assure you the chances are good that the unplanned, and the unexpected, will often occur, moving you in a direction you would not necessarily have anticipated.
When I graduated from college I never would have anticipated that I would become a professional journalist. I almost fell into it by accident. But it happened and here I am all these years later. In short, be ready for the unexpected, and if those of you who are fortunate or lucky enough to go into a career in journalism, pursue it with gusto. Because if you succeed you will get paid to have a lifelong education and you will wind up loving every moment of it. I know I wake up every single morning looking forward to what I?m about to do, because I know that when I go to sleep, I will have learned something in the course of that day, and I?ll be a little bit smarter each every single day. I?m certain that there are other careers that will offer that same wonderful feeling that I have every single day, though I can?t think of any off the top of my head.
Seriously, whatever path you take enjoy it, take advantage of the wonderful education you?ve received here at Catholic university, the friends and the faculty you?ve met here. I?m sure many things are on your mind right now (like getting out of here pretty quickly). One final thought, a thought that my father always shared with me as a young kid growing up. It?s a thought that I?ve lived by all these many years. It?s not enough to be at the right place at the right time ? that?s important ? but you have to follow up and do the right thing at that moment. Because if you don?t you?re not going to have that lucky break. So on that note, let me thank Father O?Connell, Cardinal McCarrick and everyone here at Catholic University, for this truly, truly wonderful honor that I was blessed with today, I appreciate it so much and good luck to the class of 2006.
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Revised: March 29, 2006
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