Communications Day, St. Bonaventure University
17 October 2008
Patricia Kennealy Morrison, DTJ
Before I get started, I’d like to thank the usual suspects: Dean Lee Coppola and the faculty and staff of the Dr. Russell Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, for the tremendous honor of asking me to speak here today; President Sister Margaret Carney, for not minding too much that this crazy longhaired hippie chick keeps on coming back here; and Bonaventure itself, for BEING itself, for me back then, and for me now.
I’m a writer, not a public speaker or a teacher or lecturer. So please cut me some slack for having to mostly read this, just to make sure my train of thought ends up in the right station at the end, without going too much off the rails. It’s a lot easier when I’m writing … But it’s good to be pushed out of the comfort zone every now and then. I think.
The last time I was here for Press Day, as we called it —back when we rode dinosaurs to class, in the snow, uphill, both ways—it was May 1965, and it was blazing hot, and it took place in Hickey. This is much nicer.
Anyway. Communications Day. You guys are here because you’re interested in a journalism or mass communications career, which is an honorable estate, though not beloved of many. I’ll be using the words “journalism” or “journalist”, because that’s how I was trained, and because saying “journalism and/or mass communications” just takes too long. But consider it all-inclusive.
The deep inner purpose of being a journalism major is not necessarily to become a journalist. No, the deep inner purpose of being a journalism major is to get your eyes opened. Which can be the most painful surgery you will ever undergo. Because after that you have no excuses. That’s what a j-degree gives you: 20/20 vision. And the mission, if you choose to accept it, of 20/20 outrage.
And outrage is maybe the most useful professional tool you’ll ever have at your disposal. I’ll get back to that later.
First, I want to talk a little about what I learned as a journalism major here 45 years ago. I arrived at Bona’s in September 1963, 17 years old, my first time away from home. I’d written all my life, and I was looking for something very specific: a small college, a beautiful setting and a personal training.
I got all that here. It wasn’t even a proper j-school then, just a major, a department. We had a classroom, with a rickety wooden table like a newspaper copy desk. There was an office for the Bona Venture on the second floor of Butler Gym. A Quonset hut printshop out behind De La Roche. As for cool technology, we had a linotype machine and an AP ticker. That was it.
There were about 50 j-majors all told, a dozen per class. Mostly guys, because in
those days Bonaventure was mostly guys. In my freshman class of 400 there were 40 women, and of those about five or six were journalism majors.
So I got the personal attention I wanted. The professors—all two of them— knew my name. I wasn’t just a number in a seating chart. And I wasn’t just a “coed” to them, either, in the sexist way that girls were to some of the other profs. I was a journalism student, and therefore a potential future journalist. That’s how they saw me, and that’s how they taught me.
And the one who taught me what I needed to learn was of course Dr. Russell Jandoli, for whom this school is named. I knew him from practically my first day on campus, through the Bona Venture and the Press Club and from just being around him, learning not only from him but from the fellow students he was teaching just as he was teaching me.
Dr. Jandoli was an extraordinary man, but the most extraordinary thing about him was how ‘ordinary’, in the best sense, he was. He wasn’t a prima donna or a diva. He wasn’t full of himself. He wasn’t a posturing gasbag who thought he was the journalism god’s gift to students.
No, he was a professional, and a good one; he was a human being, and a fine one. The truth of that can be seen in the spirit of this school that he founded, and in the students he trained, and in what he gave to the ones who could learn from him most and best.
Because of what he taught me, I have been able to make a living by my writing skills my whole life. Except for a weekend gig as a go-go dancer my senior year of college, I’ve never had a job in my life that wasn’t somehow about writing. Talent, if I may say so, I brought to the table myself. But the skills to use that talent…that’s what I learned here.
What I was given here. For starters, I was given two years of Latin, the single best writing tool there is. If you know Latin, you know the bones of speech: you can make your own language, figure out the meaning of new words. Plus, once you’re familiar with the construction of the Latin paragraph, once you’re a friend of the ablative absolute, you will never go unarmed in the great battles of words and wits.
I was given reading here. For the first and only time in my life, all I had to do was sit around and read. I spent more time in the library stacks than I did in the Burton. And what I found in those stacks intoxicated me more than any beer social ever did.
I was given newswriting and feature-writing and proofreading and editing skills here. I learned not only how to construct a story but how to prune away what wasn’t necessary, so that the story could live. Those were the tools I came here to get, the tools I knew I’d need. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t used them.
Because it’s not just journalism. If you leave this place and never do anything more journalistic again than read a newspaper, you can still deploy that training in any field you choose. If you have your head in the right place, you’ll leave j-school equipped with, if you’ll forgive the inelegance, a built-in bullshit detector. And there’s no career on this earth, or any other, where THAT won’t be useful to you.
And those are the powerful gifts that the journalism fairy godparents will leave beside your professional cradle. It’s up to you to take them and do something with them.
As an author, I get a lot of mail from young people asking me how they can be a writer, what should they do, how can they get started. And my answer is always the same: if you have to ASK, then you’re NOT a writer and you never will be. A real writer doesn’t ask. A real writer writes. If you’re a real writer, you go to your typewriter, or these days your laptop, as a lover goes to the beloved, as a surfer goes to the big waves. You can’t stay away. You don’t need to be told. It’s not what you do. It’s who you are.
How it manifests itself is your choice. I never had any desire to be a newspaper reporter, for instance—it seemed too much like, you know, real work. But I loved feature writing, so I figured that was where I’d end up, at a magazine of some sort.
A magazine of a very specific sort, as it turned out. A rock and roll magazine called Jazz & Pop. I saw an issue on a newsstand, right after graduation, and I knew instantly that THIS was what I wanted to do: to write about the amazing music that
was both a cause and an effect of the times.
Communication. Music that had gone almost overnight from “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” to “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”, and from there to “Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away.” Music that could be listened to just as music, if all you wanted was a rockin’ good time; but music that was also art—a deliberate representation of the human condition. And my generation took it all in.
So I joined Jazz & Pop—a 64-page, 4-color slick monthly, published by 4 women for a readership some 90% male, so we must have been doing quite a lot right. I started as editorial assistant in early1968, and by the end of that year I had been promoted to editor in chief. The ONLY woman editor in chief of a national counterculture magazine, at age 22, and one of the first female rock critics ever, a Founding Mother of the genre.
Best. Job. In the world. I got to write about the music I loved, and about the musicians who created it. I got to meet everyone I ever wanted to meet, from the Beatles right on down. I got to write about the political climate of the day, and how rock affected that and reflected that. I even got to throw journalistic ethics to the wind and marry one of my sources, though back then we didn’t consider that sort of thing a problem.
It’s very different now, of course. These days you don’t let a source buy you a cup of coffee, much less take him home with you. But we had a kind of innocence. We were passionate and involved, and we really did believe that music and the new politics and the counterculture together could change the world. And they should have.
Before you start snickering, consider that to a very significant extent we did change the world. We messed up a lot, sure, but we also got a lot done: civil rights for minorities and women, an unjust war stopped, the beginnings of the Green movement. Small example: when I got out of college, it was legal for jobs to be advertised as M or F. Meaning male or female. And all the M jobs were cool and promotable, and all the F jobs involved typing.
We changed that. We changed music and art and literature and clothes and politics. And a lot more too. And then we sat back, because we thought we’d done what was needed and now other people could take over. But the wrong people took over, and by the time we realized what was happening, it was too late. You think you’re mad at the Sixties? Well, the Sixties are mad at you!
I am a boomer, a dowager boomer, among the vanguard of my kind; and as such I rule. We all rule. And we will continue to rule until the last one of us is dead. After that, it’ll be up to you guys. And If I could wish one thing for you, give you one gift like a hippie fairy godmother, I wouldn’t give you peace or love or any of that crap. I would give you something harder to come by, more valuable by far: the gift of outrage.
See? Told you we’d get back to that.
It’s outrage that gets things done, in the world and in people’s lives. It’s outrage that got Rosa Parks into that seat on the bus, that got Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy and Bob Dylan moving down their roads.
It’s outrage that changes everything, and it’s outrage that wannabe communicators have got to cultivate. It’s not anger, though it can be angry when it needs to be. No, genuine outrage is a positive force, powerful mojo, supremely good fu. It’s eternally creative and renewable, like the hot spot that makes the Hawaiian Islands. If you treat it right, it will serve you long and faithfully. And you’re the ones on whom, ultimately, it all depends.
Because you’re the watchdogs. You’re the whistleblowers. You’re the guardians to set the beacons of Gondor alight. So I want to see outrage in your generation the way I saw it in my own. I want to see righteous anger. I want to see subversive wrath, directed with purpose and with heart against the enemy. I want to see balanced judgment and rational opinions, people standing up for something they believe in, not just suckups agreeing with the prof in hopes of getting a good grade, or going along with the crowd because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.
And I really hope I live to see all that.
Because if you don’t have educated, reasoned opinions, and if you aren’t willing to put them out there and not give a flaming toss about what people might THINK, then you’re just a cipher. And your fate will be as the fate of ciphers, and you will get what ciphers get. Which is, basically, nothing.
Your generation is amazing. You have tremendous abilities; you have resources and technologies that nobody ever had before. You also have some not so groovy qualities: you’re too wrapped up in yourselves, a lot of the time, to see what’s going on outside; you can be far too enamored of gossipy celebrotrash; most of you don’t read anywhere NEAR enough, and when you write, it’s that stupid textspeak. And, frankly, your music sucks. That is all going to have to change. As it will…
But you’re certainly not the only ones at fault. As a journalist by training and by trade, I am furious with and ashamed of my profession for letting so much slip in the past two decades. For giving a free pass to the worst. For attacking the best for petty sins and offenses and for letting the true sinners and offenders get away with murder. (Often literally.)
With few exceptions, journalism has prostituted itself, has taken a long slow slide into lowest common denominator country. John Peter Zenger and H.L. Mencken are spinning in their graves, and if you don’t know who they were, then shame on you and go find out. And then regain that passion for truth and integrity. Modern journalism has been complicit in political crimes and in bed with political criminals, and must be held responsible equally with them. You go out there and change that.
The founders of this country knew the critical importance of a questioning, intelligent, free press, a press that holds feet to the fire and takes no prisoners. No fear, no favoritism. Most of today’s press seems to have forgotten how to do that. But don’t you forget it.
A century and a half ago and about five hundred miles from here, it was famously said that a newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell. Today, the blogosphere has taken over that role, because newspapers and other media have abdicated the responsibility. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reclaim it.
If you’re REAL communicators, then by the Lord Harry, COMMUNICATE! Don’t just preach to the choir, but to anyone who will listen—and, much more importantly, to those who won’t. You can’t let the bastards walk. It’s your sacred duty to nail them to the wall. To turn over the rocks the worms are hiding under and to say Look! There they are! Come on, let’s GET ’em!
And it’s great if you do this as a journalist or a TV reporter or any kind of communications professional. But it’s no less great if you do it privately, as a citizen, as a parent, as a person talking to friends. If you don’t have the power to change the minds and hearts of millions, then change the minds and hearts of dozens. Or even of just one or two. Because then those ones and twos and dozens will maybe find it in their power to go out and change a few minds and hearts themselves. That’s the way change and truth come among us. That’s the job. That’s YOUR job.
And if you get it out there, really get it out there, and do your job so that it does make a difference, then I’ve done my job, and the rest of my generation too: the artists and the writers, the singers and the musicians and the poets, the ones who spoke truth to power and the ones who refused to tell convenient fictions just because it was what people wanted to hear. Your duty, as a communicator, as a citizen, as a soul, is telling people what they DON’T want to hear, what they NEED to hear. And you’re the only ones who can tell them.
And that, my friends, is what it’s all about. Get outraged. Stay outraged. Use outrage. Because outrage—is life.
Thank you for listening, and God bless.
© 2008, Patricia Kennealy Morrison