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Brian Williams
NBC News
May 3, 2005


Thank you very much. Mr. President, as they say to the trustees and the administration, to the student government, to the students, all members of the K-State community, thank you for having me. I am so flattered and so humbled to be here. You look at the names of the lecturers that come before you, including all of my favorites as an American history buff, Beschloss, McCullough, Goodwin, five U.S. presidents, and it is very difficult to think of anything you could possibly add that hasn't been said and said 10 times better than you could have. So it's a bit limiting to any rookies who come to this podium.

Very quickly, a great story from American history has to do with a building in lower Manhattan, called Fronce's Tavern; it's still there to this day. Things weren't going well in the early American Revolution and an aging George Washington got up before a lot of the men who had served underneath him, as if to give them a little jab, as he removed his glasses from his pocket, he said, "You'll forgive my use of spectacles but years of service to my nation render them necessary," and they all looked at him and the point was made. So that is to say similarly you'll forgive my use of spectacles, but years of service to my network have rendered them necessary.

I must say about our dear president, that he can keep a secret, he can keep a confidence, and here's why I say that. The first very kind invitation that went out to me to stand behind this lectern was a few years back. I was an anchor man in cable, we had a prime time newscast and the economy of scale in cable versus broadcast television being what it is, we didn't get that broad an audience, not that many people ever knew we were on every night if a tree falls in the woods, if you get my drift. And I was so flattered at the invitation, but I said to him really what I couldn't say out loud or on the record. I said, "There's something I'm not quite allowed to share with you, but work with me here, I can strongly indicate to you today that if you're willing to wait awhile, I will have a job with a title that may bring a few more people to the arena, if you understand."

It was a Woodward and Bernstein moment. I was trying hard to lead him down this path and couldn't officially confirm or deny what I was trying to tell him. Had he ever slipped in the intervening years to the Mercury we would have had one great story in media row.

As many of you may know, it all started for me in Kansas. I had a classic thoroughly middle class upbringing out east. I grew up in a small town called Elmira, N.Y. I always have called it, since we started coloring everything in our lives, a red spot in a blue state. It was a town of about 14,000 and it was a great upbringing. I later kicked around, I had to start at my own local community college. I was a fireman for a few years in the state of New Jersey, once we had moved from upstate New York to the shore of New Jersey.

I got a case of Potomac fever and discovered Washington, D.C. I was lucky enough, as the president mentioned, to get an internship in the White House. My boss in the White House was Scott Burnett of Manhattan, Kan., so I knew then this state was going to play a role in my professional, at least, upbringing. But I always in the back of my mind had a goal. I had watched a lot of television news and I had engaged in the act of journalism in my high school paper and my community college paper. I had always had this goal to work in television, and I was introduced to a man named Bill Bengston. Bill ran a station, KOAM. I knew the call letters stood for Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. So it gave me a pretty good idea where that was in the United States.

One evening in Washington, D.C., I took Bill to dinner and I just decided to beg, just throw myself at his mercy and ask for a job. I beat him down, I cracked his will, I broke his spirit, and Bill Bengston, having never seen me in front of a television camera, hired me that night, and I couldn't wait to rush home and get out the Rand McNally and find out exactly where Pittsburg, Kan., was.

Well, I found it right down there in the southeast corner and never knowing that all those surrounding great towns like Chanute and Coffeyville - bought a Ford Escort at Coffeyville Motors eventually - Independence and Parsons, and of course over on the Missouri side it sure looked like Nevada on the map, I learned it was pronounced Nevada the minute I arrived. Down to the south it sure looked like Miami, Okla.; well, it's Miami when you get here.

I rented a truck and I threw my trusty cocker spaniel in the front seat and I pointed my truck west from Washington and I moved to Kansas to start a new life and a new career, having carefully followed the advice I now dispense to young people, and that is, if you're truly interested in a career in television you've got to start at a place where you can do every job. It's really a universal truth in so many occupations. It's the best way, I think, to go about it. And I learned a lot as well about myself and my country. I always, of course, define myself as an American through and through, but the truth is I hadn't really lived in America until I had come out and moved to Kansas. The transmitter had cows grazing at the base of the tower.

I found that your workweek runs seven days, and doesn't really stop, at least for rookies getting their start in television, and I found that the salary in Pittsburg, Kan., well, I started at $168 a week and by the time of my departure I was up to $174, I don't mind admitting. I have never worked harder in my life.

Fear is a great motivator. Half of my friends out east thought I had taken leave of my senses.

I threw myself at my job. There was very little spare time, and luckily there was very little money to go with it. What little money and spare time I did have I threw myself at a local research project, trying to decide whether Chicken Annie's or Chicken Mary's was the best chicken in southeast Kansas. Thank you. You meet some phonies in life by the way who pretend to be southeastern Kansans and just drop either Chicken Annie's or Chicken Mary's. There's no — you can't not have an opinion. You have to have a favorite. You know, in New York, you're Mets or Yankees and you have to have an opinion, Chicken Annie's or Chicken Mary's. I long ago took a vow of impartiality in journalism, so you're not going to get the truth out of me here today.

I had a secret the whole time I worked in Kansas, just as I had a secret when I was on the back step of a fire truck as a volunteer fire fighter in New Jersey, just as sitting in my first college courses in that community college I had a secret and I could share it with no one, maybe a family member, but I could really share it with no one on the outside.

From a young age I wanted one of three jobs in the world, and the problem was they were all occupied by men named Rather, Jennings and Brokaw. I just thought that if I worked hard enough — didn't tell anyone, but worked hard enough, maybe some day it could happen for me. It was outlandish, bordering on arrogant, but I figured that if it was possible anywhere, it was possible in the United States of America, and it was possible if you were willing to work hard for it.

To this day well-meaning people confuse where I'm from with where my career started. You'd be surprised at how many events like this one I'm introduced as being from Kansas. I hope it's okay with you that I've never corrected these people. It's a great place to be from.

In going back through so many of the past lectures it is an intimidating business. You've heard from some marvelous people, some of the great minds, politicians, thinkers, authors, the people I truly look up to, and a note for all of you who are reading this some day in pamphlet form, my aim here today is to have more of a conversation with the good folks who've joined us in the hall today and those watching by extension on video and those listening to a streaming audio on the internet, on the Web site, as I know is available. I'd like to have more of a conversation, having come all this way from New York and before I head back there. I will turn 46 years of age two days from now, and the following is for those of you my age or older. I want to talk about a phenomenon, which if I'm successful, will become a metaphor just moments from now.

In that small town where I grew up, Elmira, N.Y., the houses were close together. We could easily tell what Mrs. Jenkins or Mrs. Miller were preparing for dinner. And more than that there was this phenomenon, and I'm wondering for how many of you it's familiar. When the evening news was on or when an important show was on, Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights, or in later years it was Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In Monday nights at 8 o'clock where I grew up — a few people are nodding. You could tell because of the blue glow on the inside of the curtains or the shades that you were watching the same show, because during commercial breaks or station breaks or during a dip in the scene, the same light flicker in your house was happening in your neighbor's.

And in the early days there we only got the two networks on the rabbit ears on the top of the set. I love seeing how many heads are nodding. And so you had very limited choices then, you know, revolution, ABC came along, what are we going to do with these three networks and all this choice every night? Well, some of these shows Americans just watched them. They watched them in masses by the millions and there was agreement that during that time period on that night was what you watched. I mentioned shows like Ed Sullivan and Laugh-In. Many times, of course, we were all watching the same thing and it was no laughing matter. First the assassination of Martin Luther King, and then, of course, Robert F. Kennedy. We were in our homes but we were watching together and we had that collective experience. And it wasn't just happening in homes that neighbored each other. You could drive across one of the massive bridges in New York and look over at an equally massive apartment complex and see those shots changing and the flickering at exactly the same time in all those apartment windows.

And in a strange way, even though we're talking about television, it made us one. It gave us something we had in common with the stranger in Apartment 13C or Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Jenkins next door to our house.

You could go to work or school the next day and say simply, "Did you see that?" and people would know what you were talking about without further explanation. There was really nothing else on that night that you would be watching. My notion of boyhood has within it that notion of the blue glow, and these days it's more of a strobe light.

About a year ago I came home from work and I noticed that on our television sets there were these new set top boxes the size of a microwave oven. They're enormous things, and my wife said that since we have the premium movie package on cable, these nice men from the cable company came and at no extra charge put these boxes on tops of our televisions. In one case the box is larger than the television it rests on.

I learned since then that we have 600 digital channels in our house. I've only brought myself to go up into about the 400s. I believe one should pace yourself in life. I'm not quite sure what's up there. After 450 I can't vouch for it. Some of the channels have just music, there's no pictures being streamed over there at all, there's just music and there's any kind of music you can imagine. But I don't know if or when you'll find me up there between 5 and 600. I may do it on a lark someday if I'm home sick perhaps.

But I can't figure out if the arrival of all these channels coincided with someone asking for that amount of choice or if it just came, and I can't decide what it means about who we've become and where we're headed.

We sure have given viewers choice in this country. Again, to recall whether it was preceded by demand I don't quite remember. I think we were busy back then. We all operate on the assumption after all that more is better. So these days it's possible for 600 employees of a 600-employee firm to come to work and have no shared experience of the night before. We will often in our news room ask young people and old, "Did you see _?" and we'll fill in the name of the show the last evening and there won't be a glimmer of recognition. It turns out we were all watching something else.

It's really a remarkable development and it's happening really in all media, and it's a troubling development when you add in that nagging phrase, an informed electorate.

Back in 1986, which now seems so long ago when you read it, a great man giving this very lecture, said the following: "Television news in contemporary American life helps define common points of interest." That sounds almost quaint today. Imagine saying that today. In 1986, of course, there was no Internet, there was no e-mail, no two-way pagers, cell phones, blackberries still only grew naturally and you wouldn't think of putting one on your belt. The speaker was Tom Brokaw, and the world really was 19 years ago a different place.

To paraphrase another Alf Landon lecturer, "Are we better off?" The commercial during the Olympics, if you watched the Olympic Games, as I did, "This is a movie about my life made by me." Remember that woman's voice? The commercial must have aired 50 times. And in a way there are many things that could be anthems for our society and that was one of them. "This is a movie about my life made by me.

That may be where we are right now. Choice has meant customization. It's all about you in today's society. That's what the marketers tell us. How many commercials end with that tag line, "and I like that, because it's best for me."

The republic was founded on the notion that nagging phrase about the informed electorate, and in that republic these days here is the grave danger. It is possible in this country to wake up every day, head off and live your life and go to bed at night and see and hear only the media you already agree with. We're now able to avoid entirely any unpleasant thoughts or ideas, anything that will upset us. That's the whole basis of "my news" on so many different Web sites. If you find something repugnant, does it upset you? Do you find it the least bit challenging to just hear about it or have it linger in your mind during the day? Filter it out, it's okay, this is modern day America.

Over the past five days we had 140 people killed in Iraq. It's an unpleasant place, I've been there. It's unsettling. Why not avoid that and on your Web site; just make it so you'll get updates and alerts on the status of the potential criminal charges against the woman they call the Runaway Bride.

Do you want to be a journalist? Do you want to proclaim yourself a journalist? You conform your own Web site or blog now. All you need is a laptop and a modem and an opinion. It helps to have a strong one, because you'll get hurt. You can write pretty much what you please, and your writing will appear right up there next to the great names in the news business, like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and NBC News, and the Mercury online, and ABC and CBS.

Now, all of those organizations have spent millions to hire correspondents who know their beats, correspondents who've traveled the world, traveled to the nations they cover. They've probably been shot at in hostile fire. They've probably interviewed presidents and heads of state. They are trained to work by sets of ethical standards every day under the threat of libel, but all the words on their internet take the same weight.

There's a great New Yorker cartoon, two dogs are sitting around a computer and one says to the other, "That's the great thing about the Internet; no one knows you're a dog."

I will allow those currently plying their trade on the Internet to figure out who I'm referring to.

So who are our heroes? And, by the way, I am hoping for and expecting a robust question and answer period. Before you let me out of your clutches to go back to New York, I want you to let me have it.

Who are our heroes today? I'm raising two teenagers. I ask this question in our house all the time. Are they authors, any of them? Are they athletes? Are they politicians? Are they media figures? Have we lionized these media figures of our own creation? Think of the books that have made the best seller list over the past few years. The one title that stands out to me is Self Matters. It may perversely be an anthem for our times as well.

It's a real good thing self didn't matter as much back in 1941. We wouldn't have had people like Bob Dole and the other great men and women who marched out of Kansas and went off as far as they knew to save the world. And they were right. A great man called them the greatest generation, and he was right.

They came home from that war, and if you haven't read this new autobiography of Sen. Dole, I can't recommend it enough. In our culture of criticism the senator was very upset recently. The Washington Post book reviewer feeling he, I guess, had to criticize something about the book, accused Sen. Dole of trying to hop on the band wagon of the greatest generation and cash in on the trend. Bob Dole was the greatest generation.

This greatest generation made sure we were all comfortable. We took the society they handed us. We formed what we have today, this massive economic engine, but we are marked by self-obsession, and it is such a troubling characteristic. We are fragmented. We're split politically. Turn on any media and you will hear that. We are media and celebrity driven. Any time People outsells Time Magazine, any time the Super Bowl outranks the State of the Union address. How many Americans can name a single justice on the United States Supreme Court? And our age is marked by so much noise, so much chatter. So much of it is so coarse, and it's on all the time. And with so much of it no one person can be heard above the din. No one idea can be heard above it.

We go off in a corner and talk on our cell phones in a way we never would have before. Some, people just brazen about sharing their conversation with everyone around them. Communications have become paramount, no matter who's listening or not.

Lovers of history and those of a certain age will remember the name Joseph Nye Welch, and if you don't remember the name, you'll remember his quote, what he's famous for. He said to Joe McCarthy, as the witch hunt of the same name was starting to wane, at a Congressional hearing, "Have you no sense of decency?" At long last. Well, America listened. The nation stopped to consider the question this man had posed. It was a very dramatic moment, a key moment in American history.

My sad theory goes that that moment wouldn't be possible today. It's not possible in our society because we may not be able to name anyone with that kind of moral authority in a nation split fifty-fifty, with turnout running at about 50 percent, no idea stands out or gets heard or breaks free of the other noise. Not above this kind of noise; this is deafening.

And if it gets too much we're all invited to turn on our personal iPod and hear only the music we want to hear. Nothing that's going to upset us or challenge us, nothing foreign or strange or new to us, no risk of exposure to anything remotely unfamiliar, or again, God forbid, challenging.

And about future challenges, our society of self, of great wealth and of great comfort mostly, this emphasis on the individual over the collective. Here I see the news as mixed, good and bad. First of the part of it that I'm a party to.

Again, I have these two teenagers and they are members of what I have dubbed the trophy generation. Have you seen what has happened with trophies? The average child entering their teens now has more trophies than the high school trophy case that I attended as a young boy. And I figured this out. Here's why.

The young parents of my generation wanted the very best for them and we were going to distill all the mistakes we had made and make their way in the world better. So we wanted to spare them any disappointment at all in life as they came up. So field day, for example, a common day when the weather breaks at elementary schools across the country, where we used to get blue ribbons for first, and red and white and so on.

Field day now everyone gets a ribbon, and at some of the wealthier schools, there are trophies for field day, for coming out and competing, for bringing a pulse to school that day with you. Because we've decided this will be a disappointment free society when you're young and you're coming up. Because we've decided that finishing second or third can have absolutely devastating consequences for our young people. It can be stigmatizing and you can just fall off the rail and be forever lost to society if you place third in field day.

Well, so we have set up this culture to celebrate our children, and they are told just by Barney alone probably 50 times a day how much they are loved, now, in addition to how much they are hopefully told at home how much they are loved, and that was one job we took seriously. The ramification — what I'm seeing shake out is, young people are coming into the work force and they are finding that is not as quite set up as their middle school was to celebrate them. They are finding this society that however harshly, is set up to reward those who finish first and punish those who finish last, to their great surprise and chagrin. And I watch. this happen in our news room.

The good news is that the legacy of the great man from Russell, Bob Dole, is safe. I have been over with our young men and women, two trips now to Iraq and that theater, and I wish you could all see them. You would be so impressed by them. They are so well trained, they are so motivated, and they love their country, and they don't ask why and they don't hesitate, and they are working so hard in some of the worst conditions on the planet. It actually lifts me up to be around them when I come home, having been with them.

When I go to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, Ward 57 where the amputees are cared for, and when all I hear from them is, "Doc, when can I get back with my unit?" They are starting to send back to Iraq and first amputees who have been fitted with new limbs, because they will not take no for an answer. There's no other option to them. Of course, they're going to go back and fight with their units. You would feel so good about our future; you would feel so good about this country if you could see what I have seen of these fighting men and women, and I think they deserve our applause today.

There's more good news, and that is that while we have laid by the wayside, to my great chagrin, and in some cases neglected things that we led the world in, like trains, cars and space exploration. No one was better than the United States and now we see where our challenges are. Where that has happened we have also created great things, and think of my favorite phrase, "Oh, the places you'll go" that I feel explains what I do for a living. Think of where the Internet can now take you within two and four seconds? Think of our great laurel libraries that are standing there in silent frustration at people's ability to access legal cases, answer any research question however important or however trivial.

The other day in our news room we had a question, "What was the case before the Supreme Court that had as its central holding the presumption of confidentiality of trash left at the curb?" Justice William Brennan wrote the dissent in that case. What was it? That was the question. We had the answer in seven seconds. It truly is at the speed of light. That truly will be one of the great achievements of our times. We will be asked by our grandchildren what it was like before e-mail. Well, we're already being asked that. Before Google, all these great venerable names in our society. We have a new verb to Google. I have a new competitor of all things called Google News. Who knew?

I have to say that it all brings me back to Kansas and that secret dream that I would somehow occupy one out of three jobs on the planet. Again, all three jobs occupied by lions.

I was the fortunate recipient of a departure from one of those jobs that was marked by absolute class and dignity and grace. Tom Brokaw left NBC Nightly News with his imprint on society safe. He had introduced a new phrase to the American lexicon, the greatest generation. Can you imagine having left that kind of a mark.

And like the Olympic Games, on the next to last lap Tom reached back for that baton and there it was in front me. Having filled in for him for 10 years that was my moment, and there it was, and I grabbed it, and thanks to the hard work of the best team in television news, I didn't drop it. We didn't lose a stride. Had we, it would have been only my fault, but thanks to Tom Brokaw, this has worked out so well for NBC News.

But the lions are gone. Dan Rather is gone now. My friend Bob Schieffer is anchoring the CBS Evening News. I know our prayers today are with my friend, Peter Jennings, who is starting his second round of chemotherapy and is on my mind and in my prayers every day of my life.

So the lions are gone for now from my business and now the obituary writers are coming around and they're writing about what we do for a living, these so-called dinosaur newscasts that the Big 3 evening networks put on starting at 6:30 Eastern time.

My friend Sam Donaldson gave a speech recently at a convention in Las Vegas, during which he declared the evening newscast dead. Well, Sam, my friend, I'm here to tell you that every evening upwards of 30 million Americans engage in a very simple act that they've been doing at the same time for decades, and it's a very intimate choice, it's who are you going to have into your living room, in some cases for dinner, and in those cases I thank you very much, by the way.

They turn on one of three evening newscasts that have been around for decades, and if you add up all the cable news channels you can't come close to that number of viewers. You can't come close. If you add up the top 10 every day at large metropolitan newspapers, you can't come close to that number, it doesn't work that way. You throw in some Web sites and blogs, you can't reach that number. Nothing can reach that number.

After all these years isn't it interesting that during these Big 3 evening newscasts we have something of a collective viewing experience. It makes us the number one single source of news in the United States after all these years.

Now, I don't pretend that when I drive through Manhattan, either this one or that other one they talk about out east, that I see that same blue glow. It doesn't happen like that anymore. As I say, it's more like a strobe light of about 600 choices, depending on where you live. But I do see a nation that is growing a little weary of that noise that we spoke of. Less than seven hours from now I will sit in a chair and look into camera one in Studio 3-A in New York, and I'll be looking for anything familiar out there in the America where I grew up, because my memories are so vivid.

To complete the circle I'd like to think that there are viewers here in Kansas who perhaps miss that blue glow, who are looking back at me and looking to me to complete something familiar, a glimmer of perhaps what we once had and maybe a preview of what can be if we put our minds to it. For now I'll thank you for having me and I'll invite your questions.

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