Oprah Winfrey took aim at fake news in her commencement speech today to the graduates of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and challenged them to push back on false narratives with real information.
Winfrey condemned the internet and social media for eroding trust in public institutions and interfering with elections — a reference to the Russian propaganda that spread on social media platforms like Facebook during the 2016 presidential election.
“It enables misinformation to run rampant, attention spans to run short, and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets,” Winfrey said.
Winfrey’s speech, which was by turns personal, inspiring, and humorous, was reminiscent of her rousing Golden Globes remarks that stirred speculation about possible White House ambitions. She said she hesitated to wade again into political waters, joking, “rumors from my last big speech have finally died down.”
But the talk show host dove in nonetheless, encouraging the graduates to rise above the culture of hysteria and overcome “the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean-spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices, the out-and-out hatred.”
Winfrey evoked former first lady Michelle Obama’s emotional speech from the 2016 Democratic national convention as she called on graduates to be politically informed and vote.
“If they go low — thank you, Michelle Obama — we go to the polls,” Winfrey said. “People died for that right. I think about it every time I cast a vote. So don’t let their sacrifice be in vain.”
Winfrey called on the graduates to push back on false narratives with real information and set the record straight, and to serve as the voice of people who desperately need their stories told.
“What I do know for sure, because I’ve been doing it a long time, is if you can capture the humanity of people, of the stories that you’re telling, you then get that much closer to your own humanity,” Winfrey said.
Winfrey called on the graduates to challenge the left, the right, and the center with facts and the reporting to back it up.
“Let me tell you something about the truth — the truth exonerates and it convicts, it disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair. The truth is our saving grace,” said Winfrey. “Not only are you here, USC Annenberg, to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth. BE THE TRUTH.”
Winfrey confessed that it’s hard to offer graduates inspiration or guidance they haven’t already heard from their parents or professors “or Siri,” so she chose to revisit what she called a few variations on grand themes.
The veteran talk show host and advocate enumerated a long list of problems: gun violence, climate change, systematic racism, economic inequality, media bias, homelessness. The addicted need treatment, the dreamers need protection, the prison system needs reforming, and the LGBT community needs acceptance.
No one person can fix everything or save every soul, Winfrey said.
“Here and now, I believe we have to declare war on one our most dangerous enemies, and that is cynicism,” Winfrey said. “Because when that little creature sinks its hooks into you, it will cloud your clarity, it will compromise your integrity, it will lower your standards, it will choke your empathy. Sooner or later, cynicism shatters your faith.”
Winfrey urged the graduates to resist becoming disillusioned or apathetic or to indulge in the anxiety that’s being broadcast “on 157 channels, 24 hours a day, all night long.”
She told a story about one exchange with the poet Maya Angelou in 2007, after the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. As the poet stood at the kitchen counter making biscuits, Winfrey said she felt the boarding school designed to serve unprivileged girls would be her greatest legacy.
“She turned, she put the dough down, she looked at me, and she said, ‘You have no idea what your legacy will be,'” recounted Winfrey. “I said, ‘Excuse me? I just opened this school, and these girls…’ She said, ‘You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch.'”
Winfrey said this exchange “changed me.” While an individual might not be able to stop someone from walking into a school with an assault rifle or single-handedly ensure that the rights our mothers and grandmothers fought hard to preserve will continue for the next generation of daughters, “who will you be if you don’t care enough to try?”
Winfrey ended with a bit of practical advice: eat a good breakfast, pay your bills on time, put your phone away at the dinner table, be kind to children, your elders, and animals, and buy a good mattress.
Don’t confuse what is legal with what is moral, Winfrey said. They’re not the same thing. Don’t equate money and fame with accomplishment and character. Your job won’t always fulfill you — there will be days, she warned, “that you might just be bored.”
“And finally this — this will save you. Stop comparing yourself to other people,” Winfrey said. “You’re only on this planet to be you, not someone else’s imitation.”
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