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Mary Louise Kelly Defends Journalism in Harvard Alumni Day Address

Mary Louise Kelly ’93, a journalist and co-host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, speaks at The Crimson's 150th anniversary gala.
Mary Louise Kelly ’93, a journalist and co-host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, speaks at The Crimson's 150th anniversary gala. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Mary Louise Kelly ’93, a journalist and co-host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, defended the value of journalism during her keynote speech at the Harvard Alumni Day on Friday.

Kelly’s remarks concluded the second annual Harvard Alumni Day, an event that replaced the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, which was traditionally held on the afternoon of Commencement. The ceremony also included speeches from outgoing University President Lawrence S. Bacow and HAA President Allyson C. Mendenhall ’90.

Kelly opened her keynote speech by describing her own graduation with the Class of 1993 in detail and discussing the protests that surrounded that year’s Commencement speaker, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell.

Kelly, however, then admitted she could not “recall a single word” from Powell’s speech and that the details she described about the Commencement ceremony were her own firsthand memories.

“I was focused on packing up and moving out of Eliot House, and also on this cute boy who I had kissed the night before,” she said.

“I can relate details of Colin Powell’s speech to you today because The Crimson and other news organizations were there to document it,” she added.

Kelly then described her career as an international correspondent and the importance of bearing witness.

Kelly recounted that during a recent reporting trip to Iran, she was working in a hotel room as a firework display commemorated the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, typically a pro-regime celebration. But, as the fireworks were going off, Kelly said she and her colleagues opened their hotel window to loud anti-government chants from civilians outside.

“That moment revealed a narrative very different from what the government wanted us to see and hear, and we would have missed it had we not gotten on a plane and witnessed it firsthand,” she said.”

“My takeaway is there remains a role — indeed a requirement — in my profession to show up and bear witness,” Kelly added.

She also called for more journalism that simply seeks to report the facts.

“Dean Baquet, the former executive editor of the New York Times has called for reporting — not pontificating, not grandstanding, not analyzing — reporting to be restored to the center of journalism,” she said. “I agree.”

Kelly, however, acknowledged that journalism is “imperfect.”

“You strive for plumb, level, square — you’re never gonna get there,” she said. “You’ll always be off by a sliver of a fraction of an inch, but there is value in the effort.”

“The striving is the point — to bear witness, to record what we see and hear accurately, honestly, to try to capture the world not as we wish it were but as it is,” she added.

Kelly concluded the address by paying tribute to her late father — a graduate of the Class of 1968 — and calling on her fellow alumni to “recall the sense of possibility” offered by the Harvard campus.

“What would our lives look like if we lived them as if there were nothing left to lose?” Kelly asked her fellow alumni. “What would we still want to do with our time on this earth?”

“Friends, whether we are back today for our fifth reunion, our 30th, our 55th, our 75th, and beyond — who says we’re done?” she said. “Who says we’re done?”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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