5 May 2018, Loyola Marymount, LA, California, USA
Hello Class of 2018! Faculty, Administrators, Students… congratulations! Parents, you’re done! Tear down those childhood bedrooms and reclaim the extra closet space you’ve always yearned for.
Thank you President Snyder, Provost Poon and Chair Viviano, for that lavish introduction.
As you may have concluded from said introduction, a whole lot happened in my life this past year. And I am very, very… tired. I’ve been up so long President Trump called Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a bitch” and I just felt jealous.
I’ve been up so long I feel like a side effect in one of those uncomfortable medication ads with scenes of old people dancing.
It was an honor, this grueling past year, to crack into a series of stories that—thanks to the brave sources who risked so much to talk to me, and thanks to the brave activists who continue to turn those stories into social change—seem to be having an impact. Due not just to me but to a whole group of reporters banging their heads against the wall, cracking the tough stories… we are hearing the voices of sexual assault and harassment survivors who were for so long silent. We are grappling, as a culture, with our collective failure to create spaces that treat men and women equally and that treat everyone with respect and dignity. And we are learning a lot about how powerful men, who did despicable things, were protected for so long.
I know that hearing a generous introduction like the one I just got…Hearing about people the way they’re introduced as commencement speakers…The way the media talks about them, after the work is done… it’s easy for it to all seem kind of fancy. Like it was always so neat and packaged, tied up with a ribbon.
I’m still tackling tough stories, involving unsavory characters, and fielding a fair amount of threats and incoming fire in the process—so I’m grateful for any kind introduction, any award, any shred of support.
But I wanted to take a moment to talk about what it’s like trying to do work you believe in *before* the moment of impact.
I’ve talked a little about challenges I faced reporting my stories on sexual violence. How the systems commanded by those powerful men I mentioned earlier came crashing down on me too. And how people I trusted turned on me. And powerful forces in the media world became instruments of suppression.
I get asked about that story a lot. And fair enough—those vast systems that conspired to keep reporting on sexual assault quiet for so long are important to understand. But there’ll be time for that later. That’s not the story I want to tell you today.
I want to tell you about a simpler and more personal side of the story. One that, without a doubt, each and every one of you will experience your own version of in the coming years. A story that could have happened not just to a journalist but to an engineer or a foreman or a teacher or a doctor or a professor or a miner.
The reality is, I was not celebrated when I set about breaking the stories I broke this past year. I was a guy doing a job at a time when few people thought I was a success story. And I don’t say that for any sympathy. I’d had incredible career opportunities. I’d done work I was proud of, which I don’t take for granted.
But the reality is my career was on the rocks. And as a result of my tackling this story as doggedly as it did, it fell apart almost completely.
There was a moment about a year ago when I didn’t have the institutional support of my news organization. My contract was ending. And after I refused to stop work on the story, I did not have a new one. My book publisher dropped me, refusing to look at a single page of a manuscript I’d labored over for years. I found out another news outlet was racing to scoop me on the Weinstein story, and I knew I was falling behind. I did not know if I’d ever be able to report that story, or if a year of work would amount to anything. I did not know if I would let down woman after brave woman who had put their trust in me.
I had moved out of my home because I was being followed and threatened. I was facing personal legal threats from a powerful and wealthy man who said he would use the best lawyers in the country to wipe me out and destroy my future.
And, if against all odds I got through that and found a way to publish this story, I did not know whether anyone would care. Because I had spent a year in rooms with executives telling me it wasn’t a story. Because this was before the extraordinary months of conversation and analysis and acknowledgment that the suffering of these women mattered.
I’m not being falsely humble. I was sincerely at a moment when I did not know if I would have a job in journalism a month or two months after, or ever again.
And I wish I could tell you I was confident. That I was sure of myself. That I didn’t care, or I said “to hell with it.” And if there’s ever a movie I’m sure there’ll be a moment where some actor smirks and lowers his shades and says “over my dead body I’ll stop reporting” and swaggers out of the room.
But the real version of this was that I was heartbroken, and I was scared, and I had no idea if I was doing the right thing.
There were so many people in my ear at that time making such good arguments that what I was doing was a mistake. Not because they were evil, but because they looked at the world as it was a year ago and concluded, “This isn’t worth it. You’ll tell one story at the expense of so many others.” They were being rational about what our culture would accept and what it would care about, based on the existing evidence. And these were people I trusted. My bosses saying “you have got to stop, let it go.” My agent saying “it’s causing too many speed bumps for your career, you have got to let it go.” Even loved ones, saying “is this really worth it?” Pointing out that I would risk my whole career for a story that might not even make a dent.
And I seriously considered those perspectives because I felt, “Well, what do I know?” I remember a low point last fall where I hadn’t slept, and I had lost a lot of weight, and I was on the phone with my poor, long-suffering partner who dealt with a lot of really annoying calls from me during this period… and I was in a cab going from one meeting with a source to another and I had just learned I might get scooped entirely and I just fell apart. I was sobbing, and trying not to sob (which made it worse), and I’m pretty sure there was some snot happening and it was not pretty. And I remember saying “I swung too wide, I gambled too much, I lost everything and no one will even know.” And my partner said “okay, we are going to talk about all of this but also you are going to tip that cab driver really well.”
(The driver’s name was Omar and he was very supportive. Thanks, Omar.)
I didn’t stop. Because I knew I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t honor the risks those women had taken to expose this. But also, less nobly, because I really had gambled too much and there was no way out but through.
But I did start to think I might have made the wrong call.
In hindsight, it’s always clear whether or not your choices were the right ones. In hindsight, you know whether it was right to stick to your guns, or right to turn the other cheek. Whether it was right to not give up on a story, or right to give a little to get along, and move on—not because you’re cowardly, but because there are other stories and there’s only so much you can do.
But, in the moment, you don’t know how important a story is going to be. In the moment, you don’t know if you’re fighting because you’re right, or if you’re fighting because your ego, and your desire to win, and your notion of yourself as the hero in your own story are clouding your judgment.
You can have a feeling. You can have an instinct. You can have a gut reaction: a little inner voice that tells you what to do.
But you can’t be sure.
I am so grateful for every story of every person who stared down that uncertainty and listened to that voice telling them to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t clear it was the smart or strategic thing.
A group of juniors here, including Vandalena Mahoney, got behind the hashtag #BlackatLMU this past September, sharing the kind of stories of everyday prejudice that sometimes make us uncomfortable but are important to hear, and meeting with school administrators about race on campus.
In October, when the DACA legislation allowing people brought to this country illegally as kids to stay here longer was rescinded, Hayden Tanabe, class of 2018, organized around-the-clock lobbying and rallied the 28 Jesuit Student Body Presidents to sign a statement on the importance of supporting undocumented students.
Michael Peters, who would have graduated today, died last year awaiting an organ transplant. Friends said he was shy and quiet, but he found it in himself to write a searing op-ed in the Loyolan, highlighting the good we can all do if we become organ donors. He taught me something, even in death.
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” That’s 1 Timothy 4:16.
The lessons of those students who stood up, and let their own strong senses of principle guide them, and tackled tough topics are important. Because this isn’t going to get easier as you go through life.
Right now, we are surrounded by a culture that tells us to take the easy way out. That tries to tip the scales in favor of getting paid rather than protesting. That tells us to kill the story instead of poking the bear.
A culture that tells us not to trust that voice that says to fight.
And the reason the culture sends us that message is that we look around and we see people taking the easy way out—doing the immoral thing, or the selfish thing—and being rewarded. And it’s easy to conclude that’s just the way the world works.
So here’s what I would say to you. No matter what you choose to do; no matter what direction you go; whether you’re a doctor treating refugees or a financier making money off of foreclosures…
And I genuinely hope you don’t do that.
…You will face a moment in your career where you have *absolutely no idea* what to do. Where it will be totally unclear to you what the right thing is for you, for your family, for your community.
And I hope that in that moment you’ll be generous with yourself, but trust that inner voice. Because more than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win.
Because if enough of you listen to that voice—if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same mistakes as the one before—then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.
No pressure or anything.
Congratulations, class of 2018.