It has been a honor to serve as international co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University for the past three years. Here is a transcript of my remarks at the 2016 commencement on June 30:
This is a very special day for all of us. To you, the graduating class of 2016, it is the culmination of a multicultural, global experience that is certain to benefit you personally and professionally. For me, this day is very special, too.
This is the first group of Chinese students I taught at Tsinghua, and you have made this veteran journalist into a better professor and a better person. Jiao Jie, Cynthia, Jarchine. I could go on and on. I have such respect and affection for you. I am so proud of all of you.
This is the first group of international students I interviewed, taught and mentored from beginning to end. Jade: you may not remember it, but I recall asking you in your interview: Who was your favorite character from En Attendant Godot? (I bet you didn’t prepare for that question.)
From the beginning, I can remember being supremely impressed by the qualifications and enthusiasm of Lauren and Gaelle, who have been leaders and high achievers since the day they arrived.
And I can remember recruiting Jordyn as if she were a star athlete in the United States and I were an eager coach. I knew she would be an invaluable addition to our program. Even while she’s still in school, she’s published superb articles in Forbes and Beijing Review, respected global news outlets.
I am honored, on behalf of the faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program and the International Center for Journalists, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of graduate studies at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication.
You are entering an uncertain world of journalism … of business and economics … of geopolitics and global conflict. I guess any commencement speaker could have said that at any time. But the pace of technological change, the immediacy brought by social media and 24/7 news, and the interconnectedness of the world, have made it easier for human beings to create positive things — or sow destruction anywhere, anytime.
The disruption created by the digital communications revolution has affected businesses from Dallas to Da Tong. In our world of journalism and communication, traditional forms of communication are collapsing – rapidly in America and Europe, more slowly in China. But make no mistake about it, the old world is gone and will never be revived, despite the antediluvian longings of ultranationalists and isolationists and technophobes.
The good news is that there are so many opportunities for people who embrace change and embrace the latest technologies. You are among the fortunate few. You have been trained in the latest technologies, but you also understand the enduring basics of journalism: accuracy, fairness, accountability, ethics and compelling storytelling. The Global Business Journalism program is a combination of a rigorous academic education taught by some of the finest professors in China, and a real-world journalism newsroom where students learn from distinguished journalists from around the world and create professional multimedia projects and data journalism reports.
With the skills you have learned, and the intelligence and drive you bring to your work, I have no doubt some of you are going to be journalism industry leaders and innovators, in China and around the world.
The Global Business Journalism Program is about to begin its tenth academic year this fall. In its first decade — with the support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Merrill Lynch/Bank of America — it has brought together students from about 60 countries to experience a diversity of cultures and ideas.
The GBJ program has been indispensable in creating a new generation of business journalists who are reshaping and improving journalism in China. Not only does Chinese journalism benefit from our superbly trained alumni, but international journalism benefits because the next generation of reporters from Cameroon to California have a more accurate and sophisticated view of the Chinese economy and its role in global growth – and an understanding of the highest standards in global reporting.
What’s more, GBJ has created de facto goodwill ambassadors for China in dozens of countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. It could not come at a more important time.
The journalism industry is facing an era of limits. In the United States and Europe, those limits are mostly economic: the profit imperative at a time of declining revenues, the mistaken choice of click bait journalism over quality. In China, those limits are mostly political.
But neither the journalism establishments of China nor the rest of the world can afford to be reactive. Traditional news outlets, whether in Beijing or Great Britain, are at risk of losing the next generation of information consumers to social media or alternative sources of information. We must – and we will –adapt, to create innovative new ways to share news.
I would like to close by quoting from my favorite philosopher, who happens to be my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. Seventy years ago, as the world emerged from the destruction wrought by fascists, he wrote in his book Man Against Myth that the peoples of our planet faced “ambiguous gloom, which may perhaps be twilight and may perhaps be dawn.”
Sounds like today. Looking at the pace of change, he wrote in 1947:
“In our day, indeed, events have attained so formidable a tempo that a single lifetime … will seem to contain more than there once appeared to be in history itself.”
Sounds like today.
Every generation sees an unprecedented pace of social change. That is the reality of human accomplishment, and human nature. There are always those who see the dawn and those who see the sunset. In the dawn of our new era, many in our chosen line of work will resist the changes that are needed.
This challenge reminds me of the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones – specifically, the reaction of the receptionist at the Citadel, who, in response to a message delivered by Samwell Tarly, told our hero: “This is highly irregular.”
“Well,” Samwell responded, “I suppose that life is irregular.”
Indeed, life is irregular. But we can’t respond to occasional irregularities by retreating or taking the safe path. We must pursue the ambitious vision we learned in GBJ.
As all of you know, I am an optimist. I choose to see the dawn. I don’t fear the future, and you should not, either. You are uniquely prepared to be the change – to lead the change – as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.
To quote Dr. Dunham one last time: “Even now, we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving what it can be.”
Congratulations to the GBJ graduating class. Good luck to all of you. Thank you.
Yang Rui: How do these midterm elections damage what President Obama wants to do in the remaining two years?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think right now we’re in for a period of tension, we’re in for a period of confrontation between Congress and the President. The Republicans in Congress think President Obama is weak and they’re going to push very hard for their agenda. They’re going to see how far they can push him. I think the White House will want to reach out a bit more, but I think it’s going to be much harder for the White House to reach out because Republicans think he is weak.
Yang Rui: I believe you must have followed the midterm elections very closely. Anything that surprised you despite the results themselves that are not so surprising?
Rick Dunham: No, I actually was not surprised at the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate. Historically, you look back at almost every big wave election year and you have one party winning almost all the close elections, and Republicans only lost one of them –in New Hampshire. What I was surprised at in this election was the incompetent campaign run by the Democratic National Committee and the White House. There were never on the offensive and they let the Republicans attack President Obama. They almost had no positive message during the campaign. That really surprised me. I haven’t seen a campaign this bad since 1980.
Yang Rui: Exactly 20 years ago, President Clinton was facing the majority that Republicans enjoyed in the two chambers of the Congress. What happened was the shutdown of the federal government and the standoff between Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and the president himself. Now, last year we saw the partial shut down of the federal government, do you think we are likely to see it another repeat of the shutdown?
Rick Dunham: I think it’s highly likely. We saw a short shutdown last year but I think the Republicans are going to push the president to the brink and see if he capitulates. I think it’s almost certain that we’re going to see a shutdown. President Obama is going to have to veto Republican legislation and then force a compromise.
Yang Rui: What are the major obstacles or issues that may be a test of the bipartisan wrangling?
Rick Dunham: I think that number one will be government spending. The Republicans will try to cut the amount of government spending and particularly programs the president likes. The second big one is health care — the president’s health reform law of 2010. House Republicans voted 40 times already to repeal it. I think that the Senate Republicans will try now to push the president and force him to veto.
Yang Rui: Well that’s very bad. Now I start thinking about what I read from Francis Fukuyama, the guy who is the author of The End of History. Now, ironically he wrote in another book, it’s about political decay in U.S. domestic politics, meaning the architect of American constitution was able to restrict powers but they have not been able to create powers, and that has delivered a lot of friction and frustrations between the two parties. And the efficiency of the government, all at different levels, has been seriously compromised.
Rick Dunham: Well, I agree with the conclusion, but not necessarily his reasoning to get to the conclusion. I think that we see this kind of gridlock in the United States and dysfunctional democracy largely for two reasons. One is the amount out of money in politics that is making it difficult to pass anything. And the second issue is that you have partisan media in the United States. You have a fracture of the traditional media and you have people who get information that’s based on their own preconceived notions. So the country is deeply divided now and it’s very hard to have commonality because you have people on one side going to Fox News and on the other side going to CNN or National Public Radio, and you don’t really have a common area where they can reach agreement.
Yang Rui: And there are very serious disagreements between couples under the same roof.
Rick Dunham: Huge gender gap. Men overwhelmingly voted for Republican this election, women voted just about evenly, Democrat and Republican.
Yang Rui: Then there is the situation with the low turnout.
Rick Dunham: There has been a problem with turnout in America starting in 1990s. There was a spike up when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Turnout was the highest in 20 years but it has gone back down to its pre-2008 levels, and the biggest drop of was minority voters, black Americans and Hispanic voters, both of them heavily Democratic.
Black voters voted nine to one for Democrats but the turnout was far down from where it was, which cost the Democrats the governorship of Florida, it cost them the Senate seat in North Carolina. Those very narrow losses in those states were result of very low minority turnout.
Yang Rui: What do you think of the impact of the midterm upheavals on the presidential election two years from now?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think it’s a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now there’s no guarantee that she will be the nominee but if she is, the good news for her is that now people are going to be looking at the Republicans, and probably if there’s a backlash in two years it could be against the Republican Congress as opposed to focusing all about President Obama.
The bad news for Democrats is that this election proves that the Democratic electoral majority that elected Barak Obama twice is not strong and is not permanent. The Democrats have to go back and convince minority voters to turn out and they have to go back and convince more women to vote Democratic.
Yang Rui: Thank you very much for joining us.
Here’s a link to the video of the full interview: http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/06/VIDE1415219400635230.shtml
Thanks to Jade Ladal for her work on the transcript.