Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer addressed graduates of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. on April 27, 2012.
Thanks for that introduction – and for the honor of participating in this important day in the lives of new graduates of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade.
When I finished college, about the age of some of you, I thought I wanted to be a journalist but had no idea how.
I applied to 19 newspapers, and was turned down at 17. But one of the two that said yes was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a piece of good luck that led to a 31-year career.
Those first years in St. Louis I did all sorts of things, from writing editorials to working on the business page to covering the local electric utility. Mostly it was about learning how to report and write: asking the right questions, getting the facts, finding out enough about the people I was covering to present their stories in a compelling way.
In the fall of 1983 I got an opportunity that changed the course my career. The Middle East was in turmoil, then as now. On Oct. 23 of that year the Lebanese Shiite faction Hezbollah had just blown up one of our barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. Two days later the U.S. invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada, where a bloody military coup had just overthrown a pro-Russia, pro-Cuba government.
My more senior colleagues at the newspaper were covering the events in the Middle East and the repercussions of both Lebanon and Grenada on U.S. relations with the then-Soviet Union, at a time when we were still deep in the Cold War. And so it was, on five hours’ notice, that I flew south to Barbados to cover my first war, in a country that until that week I had known nothing about. I spent the next two weeks in Grenada and then another three reporting throughout the Caribbean, getting a crash course on the region—and discovering that this was the kind of reporting I was born to do. It’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since—and totally unforeseen until that chance opportunity in the fall of 1983.
You may have heard the line of filmmaker Woody Allen, that 95 percent of success in life is showing up. In foreign reporting I discovered that 95 percent of success is logistics – obtaining the visas and permits, finding the right fixers and interpreters, getting to the story.
Many times, from the Afghanistan war to emergency relief operations in places like Haiti and Honduras, your colleagues in military public affairs have been essential to my work.
Be wary of people telling you that you can master every topic, especially in careers like yours—and mine—that are likely to involve frequent changes in place and subject. I can tell you about the times I was briefly expert in all kinds of things, from nuclear waste to Social Security to the particulars of apartheid racial separation in South Africa, and most of that factual detail—sad to say—has long since left my brain.
To me the important thing is learning how to learn, to get the knowledge you need to master the task at hand—and understanding that you'll be doing this all your life.
One last example of that, from my own career. Six years ago, when we started the Pulitzer Center, the first project I undertook was a reporting trip I did myself, traveling with African Union soldiers throughout Darfur at a time when few outside journalists were getting permission to visit that troubled part of Sudan.
I had friends at the time working for Foreign Exchange, the public television program then hosted by Fareed Zakaria. They said that since I had the opportunity to get to Darfur I would be crazy not making video part of the project, too. I was an old print guy who had never done any video, but at their insistence I hired an Egyptian cameraman based in Darfur. Together we shot some 10 hours of video and when I came home I spent several weeks working with editors to put together the finished report, a short piece for Foreign Exchange and then a 25-minute documentary.
We ended up showing the documentary at several dozen universities and public events, with immensely more impact than the print piece I did for the Post-Dispatch. The project helped establish the Pulitzer Center, and set us in the direction of the multimedia journalism organization we have become. If you look on our website or our YouTube channel, you’ll find 457 videos that we’ve produced, from all over the world—videos I had no idea we would be making, until that chance opportunity on the trip to Darfur.
I know from your instructors—and from the wonderful presentation of your work that we’ve just seen—that video and photography and audio recording and web design are as much a part of your journalism arsenal as paper and pen. You’re an extraordinarily fortunate group, embarking on your careers in communication with a degree of access to information and technology tools that would have seemed the stuff of wildest science fiction when I started my own career a short four decades ago.
Some of you will be headed out soon to remote, dangerous places; others will be stationed closer to home. All of you leave this place equipped with important skills. I share your pride, and that of your families and instructors, in all that you've accomplished here.
But my message to you, as you leave this place, is simple: Seize the opportunities that come your way. Make every day the occasion for learning something new. Be open to new experiences, new perspectives, and new points of view.
And always remember: Your education isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
Congratulations—and God speed.