Remarks by Lester Holt at UC Merced’s 2010 Commencement

May 15, 2010

LESTER HOLT: Chancellor Kang, distinguished members of the Board of Regents and faculty, family, friends, and of course the class of 2010, good evening.

It is a pleasure to be back on the UC Merced campus for the second time in a year. I was here last May to report on how the class of 2009 successfully landed First Lady Michelle Obama as its commencement speaker. The University of course graciously honored our request to visit the campus and interview student organizers, and we came away with a very nice story for the TODAY show and I came away with a warm feeling for this small gem of an institution.

As for this visit, the more I've thought over the events leading up to tonight, the more I have become convinced that I sort of invited myself. I was interviewing a student for my story and asked him, "Wow, the First Lady this year, how do you plan on topping that next year?" I now realize that that could have been construed as me dropping a hint. The young man quickly replied, "Are you available?" to which I of course said "sure." Four months later I got the letter from Chancellor Kang, and having said "sure" in front of 5 million TODAY show viewers, here I am no matter how I got the gig.

I must tell you I was a little daunted at the prospect of following in the footsteps of the First Lady. That is until I learned that my friend and colleague Brian Williams was to be this year's commencement speaker at Notre Dame, where President Obama spoke last year. If this trend continues you could see Brian and me delivering State of the Union speeches on alternate years.

On a personal note, as someone who spent the majority of his childhood in this region of California, I was thrilled the first lady chose to come to UC Merced and draw some positive attention to the Central Valley. As I remind my friends and colleagues back east, the diversity of California's culture runs far and wide, extending well beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco. When I look east and see the Sierra Nevada's in the distance I know I'm home.

California's dwindling resources and shrinking budgets have been well reported, however this young but rapidly maturing campus symbolizes a commitment to grow California's educational opportunities and possibilities. You are all a part of that, and I offer my congratulations.

Parents I sat in a similar place just a year ago watching my oldest child graduate college. I know that combination of pride, and anxiety over the future you're likely feeling now. Like the day you unloaded them and their belongings at their freshman dorm, you will remember this day as bitter sweet. Just keep in mind, you all earned this day.

I'm not ashamed to acknowledge I never made it this far in my own pursuit of higher education. I didn't finish my degree, and never made the walk to the stage that you are about make. It was a choice, and certainly not because I did not have the opportunity. Graduates I salute you for your dedication and thirst for knowledge which has carried you to this point.

I'm just thankful to have succeeded in a job that everyday opens my eyes to something new. For 30 years I've been schooled in everything from government, and economics, to medicine and international relations. But don't be impressed. Someone once said being a general assignment reporter simply means you are equally ignorant about most everything. In other words, I know a little about a lot.

If there is one lesson I have learned in my "living classroom" that I think is important to share with you tonight, it is the value of critical thinking. It is what we as journalists do every day, ask why? Who benefits from this information? Is it what it claims to be? What's behind it?

You are going to get a lot of advice as you transition pass this important milestone, and yet it seems the last thing you need right now is someone telling you what to do. Whether you think of it this way, every day you are exposed to voices, most of them strangers, telling you what to think, what political position to take, what's cool and what's not, all through social networking, blogs, music videos, and yes, a colorful spectrum of TV pundits.

Each day we are all swept under a tsunami of unsolicited advice, political opinions, and fashion musts. It is a cacophony of voices that describe the world in absolutes and certainties. A world neatly laid out in black and white, or often red and blue. The issues of the day have never seemed more complicated, and yet the conversations over how to solve them increasingly resemble cars passing down a divided highway. Whizzing by without a glance.

And yet who do you believe? How do you process and compartmentalize the voices? There's an old saying among journalists: if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. What I want for you as you move from here is to become free and critical thinkers. Maybe not by questioning mom's love, but by daring to challenge the accepted "truths" that come from our social echo chambers, to help restore the art of informed, intelligent and enlightened debate.

People of your age possess a wonderful combination of openness and understanding of the world around them. As a journalist, some of the most amazing opportunities I have had were those moments when I was able to sit informally with young people in various parts of the world, without the cameras rolling, and hear their takes on what is happening in their country. Whether it was a discussion over the limited rights of women in the Mideast, the sectarian struggles in Northern Ireland, or how China is perceived in the west, the young people offered a clarity and degree of honesty that their leaders often cannot achieve.

It is insight rooted of course in the flow and quality of information we are exposed to. When your mom and dad were growing up, they had a lot fewer places to get their news and information, but they recognized where it was coming from. It was one of the major TV networks, their local newspaper or TV station. Institutions they by and large trusted.

Today we all are enjoying the fruits of the digital era. Millions of sources of information coming at us at lightning fast speed. That technology has also democratized the gathering and dissemination of news, allowing for "citizen journalists" to make their mark, even usurping the role of mainstream news organizations at times.

With so much information flowing from so many directions, much of it not subjected to the journalistic filters of accuracy, attribution, or perspective, the pillars of healthy social debate can be at risk. Yet that same technology offers many opportunities to strengthen those pillars, if we are willing to question and apply the smell test to that which is not supported by fact or reasonableness. Not everything that looks like news, whether on TV, or on a web page, is in fact news. That doesn't necessarily mean it has no value. But know what it is you are consuming, and how to classify it as you form your own opinions and outlooks.

I have two boys around the same ages as most of you, and critical thinking was a nightly exercise we would perform around the dinner table. Whether it was economic, policies, immigration, social issues or whatever, the challenge was to approach it from all sides of the argument, with me playing the role of Devil's advocate. I did it primarily for them but found it to be a useful exercise for me too, because the outcome of the conversation was usually the same: an agreement that there are few simple answers and that public policy is fraught with trade-offs. Good people of different stripes, each wanting what is best for society, can disagree on how to get there.

A lot has been made of heels being dug in these days over this issue or that issue in Washington, and there are many openly decrying the loss of civility in our society. I would argue, however, that it's not a loss of civility, but rather a loss of the courage to question and seek the answers for ourselves. The courage to push back at those who claim to know all the right answers. The courage to confess "I don't know." In my opinion finding middle ground, or finding yourself inconclusive on a matter under debate, is not a weakness.

As Americans we rightfully place tremendous value on having a free and independent press. Our role as journalists is to give voice to the voiceless, and hold our leaders and institutions accountable. But the circle is only completed when that information is consumed by a free thinking and engaged audience.

The anonymity of the Internet has certainly given all of us cover to retreat to our respective corners, and snipe from the margins, but I will never accept that it has somehow rendered us incapable of finding common ground. I arrived in Haiti just days after January's massive earthquake, and for all the impact our pictures beamed around the world had in galvanizing relief efforts on behalf of the Haitian people, it was the work of bloggers, the tweets of relief workers, and the exchanges of vital information across social networks that truly made it a global effort.

With mainstream journalists muzzled by authorities, you will recall it was social networking that brought world attention to the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran last year, and got us all asking questions and seeking the truth.

We have the tools to be better communicators and to create a dialogue that can heal, unite, and give voice to the voiceless. And we can continue to raise the bar. Graduates, you are smart people. You leave here with open minds filled with fresh knowledge. My challenge to you is for you to challenge us and help raise the level of our public discourse. Make us smarter. Force us to open our minds and work through our issues. Teach us to be free thinkers. And even hold those of us in the news media accountable. I know you can make us better.

You won't hear this advice very often, but I say to you this evening start learning to listen to your own voice. For over 20 years you've listen to your parents, teachers, peers, and all those nameless voices across the digital landscape. But if you have learned to respect yourself, you should also respect that little voice inside that's spent the last four years or so growing up.

Good luck, congratulations, and thank you in advance for what you will do to make this a better a world.

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