Barabara Ehrenreich gave the old “It’s a calling” speech to graduating students at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism a couple of weeks ago. The speech was reproduced in the San Francisco Chronicle today. Despite instructions from the Dean to be upbeat, she starts off on a rather gloomy note, no doubt making all the parents at the ceremony weep into their programs. But she’s right that there does seem to be something so compelling about the art of journalism, or the act of it, that makes people do it for free.
Here’s a chunk from the beginning:
So let’s get the worst out of the way right up front: You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are furthermore going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry. You have abundant skills and talents – it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.
Well, you are not alone.
How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laidoff paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs.
So let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class.
You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery. You’ll be living some of the problems you report on – the struggle for health insurance, for child care, for affordable housing. You might never have a cleaning lady. In fact, you might be one. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have moonlighted as cleaning ladies or waitresses. And you know what? They were good writers. And good cleaning ladies too, which is no small thing.
Here’s where she turns it around towards the end:
Which brings me back to the subject of journalism as a profession. We are not part of an elite. We are part of the working class, which is exactly how journalists have seen themselves through most of American history – as working stiffs. We can be underpaid, we can be jerked around, we can be laid off arbitrarily – just like any autoworker or mechanic or hotel housekeeper or flight attendant.
But there is this difference: A laid-off autoworker doesn’t go into his or her garage and assemble cars by hand. But we – journalists – we can’t stop doing what we do.
As long as there is a story to be told, an injustice to be exposed, a mystery to be solved, we will find a way to do it. A recession won’t stop us. A dying industry won’t stop us. Even poverty won’t stop us because we are all on a mission here. That’s the meaning of your journalism degree. Do not consider it a certificate promising some sort of entitlement. Consider it a license to fight.
In the ’70s, it was gonzo journalism. For us right now, it’sguerrilla journalism, and we will not be stopped.
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