13 May 2000, Graduate School of Journalism
University of California
I said no when I was first invited here, because it wasn't clear to me what I could say to journalism students given the fact that I go for months at a time without looking at a newspaper and have not seen a full network newscast since the Carter administration. Then Orville told me on the phone that my mandate would be simple and brief: It's your graduation day, you're heading out into the world, and apparently several of you want to know how to get my job. It is my goal to be as helpful as possible.
I'm told that these are the qualities that seem to make the job desirable: First of all, I have complete editorial freedom, I and my staff; I get to do stories that interest me deeply; I get to try new things; I get to do things that I want. "This American Life" is conceived of as a kind of experiment to do kind of the most idealistic, wide-eyed things that journalism can do -- that is, to bring forward the voices of people who would never get on the radio elsewhere, to provide a perspective on this country that you couldn't get elsewhere -- all of these things that are very kind of Public Broadcasting. And, I have to say, almost inherently, often very dull. What we try to do is all of those things, and be conceived of as a kind of entertainment from the start -- create stories and moments that you listen to, not because you feel it is going to be good for you, but because it draws you in, you stay with it, it gives you pleasure, you want to find out what happens.
I feel like that this show we work on -- we're not unique in this. There are many journalists, there are featurey reporters like me, there are hard news people who do what they want from a very early period in their careers. So I have brief notes to nudge you down that path that apparently many of you are already on, of amusing yourself and doing what you want.
So the first thing I would say is set your own rules from the very start. For seven years before I started "This American Life" I was a general assignment reporter for NPR's news shows. I was based out of Chicago. I did all sorts of little stories about whatever, but I also did breaking news, longer-term features. Most of what I did was that -- lightning victims, airport construction, housing, race relations. I covered then-Governor Clinton during 1992 presidential election cycle. I spent years covering Chicago school reform, in so much depth that I could actually talk school reform -- I know more about Chicago schools than I know actually about radio.
Here are the personal rules that I set for myself on every story that I did. The first thing is that I would accept any assignment, no matter how dumb I thought it was. You know, some reporters don't, and for periods of time I was a freelancer. I felt like it was my job to be looking so aggressively for something interesting to say that I should be able to find something, some moment, something that would mean something to me, and something to every one in every assignment.
Which brings me to my second rule, which was there would be at least one moment in any story which was completely mine -- something no other reporter had, some small insight, some tiny vivid moment when we get a glimpse into some person's character. Some funny moment -- often it was just like a funny moment in the middle of an otherwise serious news story.
For example, on the day that floods, on the day that tunnels under the city of Chicago flooded and the city shut down in the middle of the workday, the story that I was putting together was going to be the lead story in the second half hour of "All Things Considered." Here is what I was able to find in addition to the news. The first thing was that I was wandering around the streets, talking to people, observing things, writing things down. I had a little tape recorder, and there was a family of tourists from a small town in Iowa who were driving across the country and they had pulled into Chicago. They were with their kids. They pulled into Chicago to have lunch, the kids will look at the tall buildings. They pulled into Chicago, and I was talking to these people; they were like just stunned at the traffic. It was just completely grid-locked, wall-to-wall traffic, and I had to explain to them this is not normal, the city is being evacuated. A million people are out here right now being evacuated, because there is a flood underground. Also in that story, I was also able to gently make fun of the fact that any time any official mentioned the leak in the tunnel he or she referred to it as "the size of a Buick," as if that were suddenly a standard American measure. Inch, foot, yard, Buick. Just standing on the street, watching cops, it became clear that to get enough police on to the streets to evacuate the city in about an hour and a half, the police force was throwing out trainees onto the streets, and I recorded all of these cops trainees misdirecting traffic and sending people in the wrong directions to things.
I am saying this example because I was able to get all of these things and get the mayor and the news, because I felt like it was important that there be something in the story that felt alive to me, that felt like I was documenting the world. You know, I feel like our job isn't to just to say what is new. Our job is also to say what is -- to be out there and look around and say here is what is happening, here is what it looks like.
My rule was strict that I would have to find something, even if I just had a few hours in between the time it was assigned and it went on the air. I would in every interview, in everything I was observing -- I was basically looking for some thing in every story to please me, in addition to all the things I was getting to please my editors.
I had other little rules that applied specifically to radio, which I mention here just to give you a sense of, I don't know what, just like to give you a sense of how you can set your own parameters. For me, for radio there had to be one tape-to-tape transition somewhere in the story, which is -- in a radio script often the script goes a little bit of script, tape, then some tape, a little bit of scrip, tape, tape into quotes. And in the stories that I did, at some point, the story had to go quote to quote, a quote to sound to quote. There had to be something that varied the rhythm and the pacing. Another thing is, you know how if you listen to Public Radio, it's common that at some point, you know, there will be quotes, there will be script, and, at some point, there will be this sort of murmury street noise that comes up and then the reporter will say, "Here at the corner of wherever." That was completely -- one of my rules was that that could never be. Never.
Broadcast reporters often have trouble figuring out how to end stories and they will create some sort of time-will-tell ending in the writing of their story. And I felt very strongly that stories had to end the way that they began, with an anecdote or an image that summarized some bigger something, some note of analysis -- that this was just one more beat in the story and you had to turn it so it meant something bigger. These rules were there simply as personal points of pride to fight mediocrity on a daily basis. They were there as my -- this is my story, you know. Editors are sheep, they will come and go. You have to manipulate them; they are your tool. Occasionally, they divide into different classes. There are the editors who occasionally give you a good idea and then otherwise they do no harm. Then there are the ones who are evil and you must avoid, you know. Basically, this is all part of it. You don't accept your editor's standards. You have your own standard. And you have ways you can apply it every single day.
This is a weird speech to give, I have to say, cause I'm usually not in the mode of exhorting anyone to do anything. The person I'm playing that character on the radio, that character is a little more observing and meek. I feel torn between a desire to tell you to do this, do that, do this, like all of your teachers have been doing faithfully I'm sure for the last two years. And, and, and I don't know. I don't know what. It's odd.
The other thing I would do during this period is create little projects for myself, little exercises. A typical one that I would do for years, on and off, was to find somebody who was a good talker, somebody who just talks well, an expressive talker. We happen to live in a country -- we are blessed, actually, as reporters for living in a gabby and generally funny country. People talk a lot and they talk well and they are amusing. So I would get somebody, and I would sit this person down and I would interview this person for an hour, hour and a half and get them to tell me story after story from their life. And then periodically I would ask them, "So what do you make of that? You know, what's the bigger lesson from that? What lesson can we all draw from that? What should we think of that?" I would try out different theories what their stories might mean on them and they would react and I would cut out my questions and I would chose one compelling story and I would edit it so it had kind of a irresistible motion forward to it and I would put music under it. And I did these for years. I did them for the local community station in Washington, D.C., when I was in my twenties. I did them again in my thirties when I lived in Chicago and put them onto local radio and put them onto "Morning Edition." They taught me story structure and how to use music in an interesting way and how to make something that is kind of half-working into something that is actually kind of compelling -- all the skills that I feel like I am called on to use all the time now. I feel like I needed a place to learn it.
At some point I got offered to do a live radio show, a live weekly show with some friends. I had never done live radio actually. I was very awkward on the radio, actually. As an NPR reporter I would read my scripts; I was kind of an ill-at-ease stiff. I did it for years for free, just to learn it, and to develop, I don't know, just to think my way through the problem of it. My recommendation to you would be to put yourself into a position where you can just try things. These things that I would do they weren't always in my real job. In fact, they often weren't part of my real job. They were often very low-stakes sort of scenarios, using equipment that I saved up for and bought my self. Parents, I'll just say some original early equipment was bought by my parents and I strongly urge you to do that. It's an investment. Thank me later. And usually I made nothing or next to nothing on these projects or I took a massive loss and just took a bath on them financially. But I was happy. Not many people get to say that about their jobs. My feeling is that if you are a journalist and you are not happy, you are not trying to be happy. There are few jobs that give people such enormous latitude to follow curiosity.
You guys know who David Sedaris is? OK. He's this writer, he's this very funny writer; he's now a best-selling writer. I put him on the radio. I saw him read 10 years ago in a tiny club in Chicago and he wasn't published and nobody had heard of him. And the very first time that I saw him I thought this guy would be perfect for the radio -- he has a completely original voice; he's really funny; he reads beautifully. And I didn't put him on the radio.
The only thing that made me put him on the radio was the fact that I got roped into one of these little projects where I had agreed to do a Christmas special for the local public radio station, for free, and I didn't have enough material to fill up 60 minutes. I was talking to friends and does anybody have anything, does anybody know anybody and somebody said, "Oh, you know David Sedaris, that guy who you heard read, who you think is so good. David, he's got this thing -- he's moved to New York now and he's been working at Macy's department store every year as an elf at Christmas time and he has these diaries."
We put this on the radio. I recorded it and put it on local radio, and then I put it on "Morning Edition," NPR's morning news all over the country. It generated more calls than anything they had ever put on their show. And within four or five times of being on the air he had a book contract. The New York Times has written an article about him. He got an offer to write on the TV show "Seinfeld."
The only reason any of it happened wasn't because I have to say I was so smart at spotting the talent. The only reason I ever put him on the radio was that I had put myself into a position where I needed material and I had to fill it up, and I would urge you to do the same.
Put yourself into a position where you have to invent and solve hard problems -- problems that you make up yourself, and it can become your real job, if you want. It can become the main thing that you do. The fact is you can cover any beat that you want to or do any journalism that you want to, but for a year or two, or maybe more, you might not make much money at it. You might just do it on your own until at some point somebody asks you to do it for money.
[Long pause] I'm just reading ahead because I feel like other people have said this and I should leave it out, but I will reiterate: None of us is ever going to make much money at this. We might as well amuse ourselves. That's your job. If you follow the path of that, you will do no wrong. You will be happy. Your loved ones will be near you because you will be a center of joy. The reporters who I know who did the most original, compelling work -- all they did was follow their own interests and it seems like, hearing like everything I have heard about all of you, it seems like that is the path you are on. I would just encourage you on that path. I would just encourage you on that path and feel free to do it on your own. Don't wait for somebody to give you a job to do it.
Here's a section of the speech I'm not sure about, but I'm going to launch ahead with it anyway. I've been told that some of you are very good and accomplished writers and write very comfortably, and some of you are still finding your voice. I want to take a minute and address the latter group of you. The main message I want to give you, if you are still trying to figure out how to write well, how to write quickly, how to have a thing that you can do and just call on it and it just happens -- the thing I want to tell you if you are still struggling with this: There is hope. It took me longer to learn how to write competently as a reporter than literally anyone who I have ever met. It took me a decade. I started as a tape cutter. One of the reasons why I did so many stories where you would never, where you would just hear the voices of ordinary people and never hear the reporter because I was such a terrible writer and such an ill-at-ease performer of my own scripts that literally I couldn't stand to be in my own stories. The way that you get better is put yourself in a situation where you're just forced to do story after story after story. I was a worst writer -- I was the worst kind that exists, the kind who cannot tell what is unimportant and what is important and then just throws it all in there and then sits there with the thing and then sort of reworks the same few sentences over and over obsessively, changing them and then changing them back. Are you with me on this, any of you? If you just force yourself through enough stories, the skill and ease that you want will absolutely come to you. It is not a gift given down from heaven. It can completely be learned.
My advice to you if you are struggling is find a good editor. Sometimes that means you literally just pay somebody who you know is good. You give him a little money. You take him out to dinner and you have him look through your stuff. I did this. I paid a friend to just sit with me. And the main thing they would do, they would say, "All right, just tell me what you saw, what the person said and what you conclude from it." Then I would say it and they would say, "What you just said, that was the story."
Also, imitating other people helps -- that is, imitating other reporters who you like. I went through a very early phase that lasted about half a year. Whenever I would get into any kind of trouble in writing about some moment, some scene, how do you get into the story, how do you end the story, there was this NPR reporter who I adored, who I thought was just the most amazing writer. He is a really wonderful writer, named Alex Chadwick. And I would simply decide I am going to write this story as Alex Chadwick. And I would sit there and try to completely write this thing in this guy's voice, totally do it as him, literally write this story as this man who was not myself. I have to say I created some very nice scripts like that.
You can will yourself to be a better writer, just as you can will yourself to have original ideas that nobody has thought of before. I want to take a moment to talk about this. I think people worry about how do you get an original idea, like how do you be original? Like where original ideas come from -- it's a really straight-forward process and if you've done enough stories you can already feel your way forward in this. If you completely immerse yourself in something, I mean, immerse yourself -- you're just thinking about it all the time; you know all the people; you're observing people carefully. You go out, you're immersing yourself in the facts and the characters and the scenes. You're trying to figure out why everyone is doing what they are doing. At some level of immersion, literally, ideas will come to you. We are hard-wired as a species for that. And the thing I think people don't remember to do is: If you're not having an idea, you just have to report more, you just have to spend more time in it, and then something will come as your own.
One rarely gets as captive an audience as the audience at a graduation. And with that in mind, I want to say a few words to you now about the difference between good and bad -- in my view. Each of you is going to come to your own judgment of what you like in stories and what you don't and I would ask you to keep this in mind as you do. From my point of view, good journalism includes surprises. And I have to say the rarest thing when you listen to the radio, or watch TV news, or read the paper, is to be surprised, to see some moment where you think to yourself, "I never saw it that way before. I never thought of it that way before."
A couple of years ago, NPR had me doing all these documentaries in the Chicago public schools. For one story I covered one of the rituals of American citizenship. I went with an eighth grade class on a trip to Washington, D.C. And as you all know, as any reporter knows, you cannot write any story without conflict. And the conflict in my mind of what this story would be -- it would be the conflict between what the teacher wants the kids to get out of the trip on the one hand and what the kids actually got out of the trip on the other. And, as an inner-city school, half African-American, half Mexican-American, the first surprise of the story is that the teacher is a pretty good teacher. And not good in that kind of corny Richard Dreyfuss "Mr. Holland's Opus" way. He wasn't a hero. He was just good. His kids connected with him, they liked him. He makes mistakes. We see him make mistakes. Basically he was like a good guy. He was a good teacher, not what people usually think of as the teachers in our city schools.
The deeper surprise, I feel like for a lot of the audience is the kids were just like any kids. I feel like any time you're talking about kids in the inner-city a lot of the audience, a lot of suburban audience, have all sorts of assumptions that they bring to that are completely crazy. Simply illustrating that these kids are exactly like your kids in every possible way, goofball, you know, sweetheart kids -- that's like a deeper, never-stated surprise.
Anyway, so we've got these kids -- and I have to say that the way that this scenario is usually done in the electronic media, especially on TV, is that everybody gets turned into a cartoon. The teacher has to be super-heroic. The kids have to be these tough, gritty inner-city kids who have never flown in airplanes before and have never left their block. Some of them hadn't really left the neighborhood, but some of them had. It was a mix. And it wasn't like this. It didn't have that kind of melodrama to it.
Anyway, we got this guy, Mr. Pearlstein, he's the teacher. And one of his most-ambitious ideas is he had the U.S. Park Police give him permission, through great effort, to go to the top of the stairs at the Lincoln Memorial. We brought this huge boom box with us, this huge thing -- you know, like 60 D cells, 20 D cells powering this thing. And he takes us up there, to the top of the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial. We're sitting there, it's Washington, D.C., it's incredibly beautiful. And in front of us is Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument It's a spring day, it's just beautiful. He's brought us there because he says, "OK, this is the spot where Dr. King gave the �I Have a Dream' speech." He says, "OK, Now, You see these trees over, these trees on either side of the mall? Remember in class how I showed you those pictures people of in the trees? These are the trees, these are the trees right here." And he sort of points out and he says there was a platform built for the speakers and he sort of chooses a spot and says right about there was where Dr. King was speaking when he gave the speech. And he pushes the button on the boom box and Dr. King's voice just booms out -- the "I Have a Dream" speech. And it's incredibly beautiful, you know, it's the "I Have a Dream" speech. The Lincoln Memorial, if you have been there, it's just a big marble box. You know any sound that goes in, just, swoosh, bounces around goes around this little box, so Dr. King's words are just echoing around the body of Abraham Lincoln and coming out the other side. Tourists are coming down to see what going on and we're sitting there, and I have to say it was incredibly moving.
So the speech ends, he clicks off the boom box. I turn to the kids to see what they think. And it turns out you can't get to the eighth grade in the inner city public schools in America without becoming rather familiar with the "I Have a Dream" speech. And all the kids are like, "That old speech? Again?" I said, "You've heard that before?" "Thousands of times. Thousands of times." And I didn't know that. And on the tape you can hear me surprised; you can hear the surprise in my voice. And, in fact, everything in scene is something I never would have imagined: every aspect of it, the fact that we were there, the fact that he had the boom box, just every aspect of this scene. It's a little fable of cultural misunderstanding, a gentle little fable of cultural misunderstanding between this white, well-meaning teacher and his lovely non-white students, who, by the way, just shrugged the whole thing off. Really, in the bigger scheme of things, they love this teacher. They didn't love him, but he did fine by them. They respect him, they liked him. For me that was like another pleasing thought about the state of everything in this country.
The thing I would say to you is that it is the surprising moments that often tell you more than everything else. And I am often surprised, myself, that the part of the media that is supposedly going out and documenting reality, us, the journalists that the newspapers and the TV programs and radio programs have so few surprises, and in fact, are almost built on an aesthetic that won't allow for surprise. When is the last time that you saw an ABC correspondent say, in the middle of an interview, "No, you're kidding! No, that is so interesting. I never thought of it that way. No." This will never happen because there is a kind of seen-it-all quality, you can't admit that you didn't know, that is taking up the brain space where normal curiosity should be. I believe that is a failure of craft, because, reading the stories that come out of this, or watching the stories that come out of this, what it does is it makes it seem we live in a world without surprises, without moments where we go, "Well, that is amazing. That is amazing and better than I ever imagined." These journalists, I believe, make the world seem smaller than it is. Theirs is a crabbed tiny vision of what the world is. And it's an inaccurate vision of the world. We live in a world that includes surprises. That is inaccurate. We are inaccurate. It is inaccurate reporting.
A friend of mine who produced investigative stories for CNN said that the story that I did with those kids, and, in fact she says almost everything that I have ever put on the radio, could never get onto any TV show she has ever worked on because the stories, she says, that are on TV all have to fit certain familiar scenarios. And many newspapers � I live in a city where the big paper is the Chicago Tribune -- and it is certainly true for this, many newspapers are not much better. The bad guys have to be bad guys. The heroes have to spell it with a capital H and the victims are these human sock puppets buffeted by tragedy and there's no three-dimensional quality. All the lovely character detail that the reporters are getting; they're going out, they're getting all this character detail, all these little nuggets, all it does is, it goes to create cartoon people. And unsurprising people. And because the people in the stories are not three-dimensional, the stories, most stories, most reporting, is weirdly depopulated. They are neutron bombs of stories, where only the facts are left standing, but no human life anywhere. And they portray a world often where there are not real people, only robots with opinions on issues of public policy. That, I believe, is beneath us, and it sounds like you're doing work which is different than that and I would encourage you to continue to do work that is different than that.
One of the rules that I set for myself when I was setting my own rules was that when I was a daily reporter, and I would do a lot of fast turnaround, go out and two hours later come back and write the story, one of my rules was that somebody in the story � every single story � had to be more than a talking head; they had to be more than somebody there representing some idea that I was trying to put in the story. Somebody had to be a three-dimensional person with feeling, and capable of error and humor, and surprise.
Which brings me to the subject of humor. One of the differences, I believe, between a good news story and a bad one is that a good one includes both serious and humorous moments. In a well-edited publication, like, for example, The Wall Street Journal, the serious features have light moments, the serious features have funny moments, the serious features have character moments. And the light stories have serious undertones. This is in contrast to almost all reporting, in which a serious news story is supposed to be all serious and no humor admitted and usually, actually, no three-dimensional people, either. In my mind, a mediocre newscast on radio or television is one in which you have a bunch of serious news stories made up of all serious moments told in a serious voice so we know it's serious because it's the news and it's serious. It's one of these after another, and then, at the bottom of the half hour you get some Andy Rooney guy or some wacky story, some wacky weatherman, and there's like the little funny thing and that's it. It's like humor and seriousness are being segregated into separate concentration camps and they are not allowed to talk to each other. But in real like it is not like that. Humor is head-butting serious all the time in the same space. And the best journalism doesn't segregate. Bill Bufford's account of soccer, Philip Gourevitch's account of the Rawandan genocide, Ryszard Kapuscinski's account of nearly anything he has ever written about � the two stand side by side. Obviously, there are stories where no humor is present to document, so you don't try to document it. But after that, there is a huge territory of stories where those moments exist.
What is amazing to me is that journalists, who for the most part are really, really funny, in real life they're really funny, they talk to each other and they're really funny. Then their stories are really dull and not funny. I always feel like, "Why are you saving all of the really funny and interesting things that you say for your friends in the newsroom, when you have an audience of hundreds of thousands of people who deserve that kind of courtesy?" Not expressing your full personality through your work is not doing your job, because you are not documenting the world in its complexity. And it's your job to document the world in its complexity.
I never talk to people in daylight. In fact, this is the longest I have been outside in about eight months. Usually when I talk I am on the radio and the microphone is about this far away, so as I speak, I keep wanting to go, "There's a microphone down here."
Here's a problem with the news that, as the next generation of my people, you're going to have to deal with � and that is the news is often really boring. Sometimes really well-meaning stories are really boring. You have to think about what is your strategy going to be to make your stuff really interesting. You know, it's like the more serious your mission, the more serious-minded your mission, the more aggressively, I believe, you have to make it so people want to hear you. Otherwise, it is settling for mediocrity. The whole thing is going to get way worse as the information environment gets like even more crowded. To do straight stuff, or do stuff that is anywhere near straight stuff, to do stuff that doesn't draw people in and delight them at the same time it informs them � you know, it's like you're not going to be reaching everyone that you should with all the important things that you want to say, and all the important things that you are going to be finding out. There are all sorts of ways to solve this and you will find your own, but I would counsel you, you know, surprises, three-dimensional people, light moments with the dark moments, and let the reporting reflect your curiosity and your compassion and your humor and your humanity and you stand a better chance to get through � which seems like kind of where you are heading anyway, most of you.
I'm going to tell you this story because I am sort of hoping it might be useful to somebody. For years and years, I was a tape cutter. I was a tape cutter for like 10 years. Then I was a reporter for seven years and then I started the show that I work on. In 1990, I made a big change. I went through a big change in the way I thought about reporting. I had this assignment where I was going to be documenting life in one high school and I was going to be sent there for six or eight weeks and I was going to do five stories for NPR's "Morning Edition." I was documenting race relations in one school.
I was already doing stories with scenes and characters and little funny moments and little emotional moments, but this was bigger, because I had never been sent out to spend that long gathering tape. I had never done reporting for six weeks, and I have never documented an entire population of like 1,300 people. As a reporter, there was nobody to turn to, to give me a perspective that was bigger, where they could stand in for me in a way. Nobody had a bead on what was happening, what race relations were, and I was not exactly sure how to do it.
I called these filmmakers who made this film which had the most amazing reporting on a high school that I had ever seen. It's called "Seventeen" and it was directed by a couple, a woman named Joel DeMott and a man named Jeff Kreines. It was made in 1983, filmed at Southside High School in Muncie, Indiana. It's just this incredible document. It's so real and just one amazing moment after another. A quick moment from this film: At one point a group of kids who they're following -- it's kind of this working-class school -- and at one point, this kid they're following, this group that they're following, a kid dies in a car wreck. The day of the funeral, the day after the funeral, all of this kid's friends gather in the rec room of somebody's house, and at some point, somebody calls into the radio station for this kid's favorite song. It's a really corny song. It's a really corny song. It's "Running against the Wind" by Bob Seeger. You guys know that song? It's a song that's like none of us would ever take seriously. You guys know that? "It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago." It's sort of like a rip-off Bruce Springstein. So the camera's rolling and at some point somebody goes, "Shhh! The song � it's on the radio." And then somebody turns up the radio and then the camera just does this slow pan, from face to face as these kids are listening to this song. It's completely heartbreaking and they're crying. The song, "Running against the Wind," has never seemed more meaningful. You never hear it the same way again. And this slow pan from face to face to face -- this just like one moment. The whole film is like this, one moment after another.
So Joel DeMott, the woman -- her advice is I could go out and get good tape the very first day. She said you will get good tape the very first day. She said here is what is going to happen. You are going to walk in, you're going to see all these kids, you're going to see all these teachers. You will find that you are attracted to some more than others, just for some reason. You won't have a reason to explain it to yourself. There will be some person who stands out that you will want to talk to. She said just follow that feeling, just let your unconscious push you forward into this. Hang out with that person for as long as they seem interesting and at some point they'll seem less interesting. Then just want and wait and the next person will present themselves. Just keep talking to people and talking to people and just follow what is the most interesting to you in this scene. It's interesting what happens when you do that.
Their film came to be about -- there's this one white girl who becomes the only white girl in the school to date a black guy. It's 1983, it's Muncie, Indiana, kind of a redneck place. It becomes a huge, huge incident, to the point where things grow and grow and grow and finally by the end of the film somebody burns a cross on their lawn -- at that horrifying level. So I am talking to the filmmaker on the phone and Joel tells me -- she says that when she was in high school, she was the one white girl in her high school who dated a black guy; but when she started filming this girl, this girl wasn't going out with a black guy; she wasn't just hanging around with the black guys. She was just like this girl who for some reason -- there was something about this girl that Joel just responded to, and she just started filming her and then this thing came out of it that ended up having so much deep meaning for her.
Going out and waiting for a lucky moment is part of any reporting. You guys know that. But after this, I organized all the work I do, all the producing, all the reporting around that idea -- that you go out and you just try one thing after another, just talk to one person after another -- and you wait for luck to strike. You try so many things that luck will always strike, and when you do that, it will lead to something. And luck striking, in this case, if you do that, means you'll be provided with something that will have deep meaning to you, and through you, to others.
The radio show that I do -- the production schedule is different than most radio shows. We conceive of it as summoning luck every week on a weekly schedule. What we want is stories that are completely surprising every week. Unlike most broadcasts, we tend to commission a lot of work to see if it will happen, and then kill a lot of the stuff.
OK, I'm coming to the end. What's journalism good for? I spent several years doing stories about the schools in Chicago. NPR sent me into a high school for a year that was undergoing this massive reform, and where they were having huge problems with reform. I did a story every week or two. In the time that I was doing these stories, six and seven years ago, sometimes people would come up to me and they would want to talk about these stories. Some stories would just be about some kid who I thought was interesting, or some teacher who was trying something and how did it work out. And over the course of the stories, we hit sort of every piece of school policy that was in play because they were trying all these things. When people would come up to me, they would never want to talk to me about any of the policy stuff. They would never want to talk to me about which was better -- outcomes-based education or portfolio assessment. Or did President Clinton's Goals 2000 plan really work. They didn't want to talk about that.
What people always said was that the thing that was interesting to them was that the teachers in the schools -- these were inner-city schools -- the teachers in the schools seemed utterly OK. They were the normal range of teachers we all remember from our public schools. There were some good ones. There were one or two inspired ones. There was a bunch of bad ones. It was kind of like the normal mix, in contrast to the way those teachers are always portrayed. The stories were told from the teachers' point of view, so you could see them try stuff and fail and try other stuff and succeed and you could assess them as human beings. And the same for the kids. The kids seemed just like any kids, and not like these troubled inner-city at-risk youth. I think if those stories make any contribution � it's that the little policy things come and go, but I feel like the deep meaning for them is that they give them a picture of the world that they didn't have before, that they're not even quite aware that they are getting. That is, the next time the idea of school policy comes up, and inner-city school policy, well, anyway, Chicago school policy, they think of those kids and they think of those teachers. I feel like there's some small value in that.
Everybody knows � it's like a cliché, but it's true: We are a profoundly segregated society � city and suburbs, racially and economically, and just in a million different ways. We're segregated by profession. There aren't many institutions that allow us into the daily lives of other people, other than the people in their own circle. Journalism is one of the few. One of the things that you're able to do is create empathy where it doesn't exist, of taking people into lives they don't have access to.
It's odd. We live in a very peculiar cultural moment, where it's hard to imagine that there ever could have been a time where people are as inundated with stories -- like really from the moment you get up, every little song on the radio, every ad on the radio -- you flip through a magazine, every ad is a different story. You watch a half-hour program on television, there were like three story lines going in the TV show, and then six minutes of it is make up of commercials � that's 12 more little stories. It's like this massive inundation of narrative coming at us all the time -- pictures of what the world is. As somebody who lives in this country, I have to say, the rarest thing is for me to see something on TV or read it in the paper or hear it on the radio and feel like that is exactly like my life. I know exactly what that is like -- that is exactly right, that is exactly the way it feels in this world, in this country right now. It's equally rare to feel -- if there's a story about somebody who is different than me, to feel like, yes, now I understand. If I were in their situation, that is exactly how I would feel. Now I understand how they feel. Now I am inside. I understand it. What other institution does that? The movies are terrible at it. TV sitcoms maybe a little. What is there? There is us. That's it. We're it. That's one of the things you can do -- it's important to do, in addition to getting the news, which is also important.
One of the reasons that the radio show I work for does an unusual number of stories about teenagers, people in the inner city, people in prisons and evangelical Christians is because in our culture, those groups are so grossly misrepresented. We just feel like somebody has to talk about people in a real way. Evangelical Christians -- it's like the worst. My Christian friends are nothing like Christians you see on the TV news or the movies, where they are invariably wackos. You know what I mean? My Christian friends are like, you know, they're the best people I know. We're the media, this is it, you know -- you guys, my colleagues, my new colleagues.
So, go into the world. Make something useful for other people. Set higher standards for yourself than anybody else is setting for you, your editors especially. Go the extra mile to be fair to people. Put in the extra work to understand them on their terms. And amuse yourself. Follow the thing that interests you and attracts you and amuse yourself. More than anything else that will lead to work that is valuable to other people. And understand every day how lucky you are to go this as a job. Best of luck to you. Try things until luck kicks in. Luck will always kick in.