Jerry Seinfeld’s Speech Was the Real News

On Sunday at Duke University, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld delivered a commencement address that was, bizarrely, overshadowed in the media by a tiny, nondisruptive protest.

Seinfeld gave a compliment and a warning to his Gen Z audience.

First came the compliment. “I totally admire the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society,” he said. “I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that.”

Then came the warning. “What I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humor. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humor.”

Seinfeld went on to defend “the slightly uncomfortable feeling of awkward humor,” arguing that it is “not something you need to fix,” because even as Gen Z improves the world, it will remain “a pretty insane mess.” Humor, he said, is “the most survival-essential quality you will ever have or need to navigate through the human experience.”

All of that is newsworthy. Seinfeld is a perceptive observer of life and an undeniable expert on comedy. Plus, as he told the graduates, “I am 70. I am done. You are just starting. I only want to help you.” If he is convinced that humor is a crucial salve—“the most important thing I am confident that I know about life”—those of us who’ll never enjoy his success or wealth had really better keep laughing.

Yet coverage of the commencement treated something just before his speech as more newsworthy: As the Associated Press reported, roughly 30 student protesters walked out of the graduation ceremony as Seinfeld was introduced. They represented a tiny fraction of the 7,000 students present.

Media outlets covered the Duke graduation with headlines like these: “As Seinfeld Receives Honorary Degree at Duke, Students Walk Out in Protest” (The New York Times); “Duke Students Walk Out to Protest Jerry Seinfeld’s Commencement Speech in Latest Grad Disruption” (USA Today); “Duke Students Walk Out of Jerry Seinfeld’s Commencement Speech Amid Wave of Graduation Antiwar Protests” (NBC News); “Jerry Seinfeld’s Speech at Duke Commencement Prompts Walkout Protesting His Support for Israel” (Reuters); “Duke University Students Walk Out on Jerry Seinfeld’s Commencement Speech, Chant ‘Free Palestine’” (Fox News); “Watch: Anti-Israel Students Walk Out of Duke University Commencement to Protest Jerry Seinfeld” (Breitbart News).

Why was that the focus? The war in Gaza is, of course, more newsworthy than any commencement and has been covered extensively. Many protests about the war are newsworthy, too.

But the airing of grievances at Duke was not notable for the number of people who participated, or for any insight offered on Gaza, or for even a remote prospect of affecting the conflict. To the credit of the students who walked out, it didn’t even disrupt the speech. So it was suspect, I think, to treat the protest as more important than the event that the activists sought to leverage for attention. A protest in and of itself does not confer importance.

Journalists often fail to distinguish between substantively newsworthy protests and mere deployment of the protest mode—a bias that activists have learned to exploit. Social media is optimized to signal-boost conflict more than attempts at distilling wisdom. And too many Americans revel in rather than resist conflicts.

The result at Duke: Coverage of a newsworthy speech was informed, more than any other factor, by the subset of the audience that did not hear it. At least, in the midst of a tragic war abroad and a vexing culture war at home, we can shake our heads and laugh about that absurdity.

The Atlantic