On Monday, November 9, the English department continued its series, “Conversations with Distinguished Alumni,” in a discussion with alumnus David Corvo ’72, who is currently the Executive Producer of the prime time news magazine Dateline NBC. He was joined by Department Chair Sam Otter and Professor Namwali Serpell, who spoke with him about the the relationship between his study of English at Berkeley and his success as a broadcast journalist.
Professor Otter opened the event with a broad question about the general trajectory of Corvo’s career. Corvo responded with charm and humility to say that he has only ever held two jobs: a bus boy and a news guy. He related that his father was in the TV business in the 1950s, so he grew up in the prop rooms and news offices of TV stations. Because he was attracted by the level of camaraderie in the newsroom and especially the speed of new reporting, he began his own career in the news business by joining his school paper. When his family moved to California from the east coast to take advantage of the excellent and affordable system of higher education, he set his sights on Berkeley because of its top-ranked English Department..
Once at Berkeley, Corvo split his time between the study of literature in the English department and his work as a writer and editor for The Daily Californian. Al though he originally planned to go to graduate school and become an English professor, he said that working on the newspaper dovetailed with the era’s emphasis on social engagement. He saw the potential social benefits of his journalistm and ultimately decided to pursue that track. Professor Otter asked Corvo specifically how his training as an English major played into his journalism. Corvo responded that the challenges of literary study helped him to develop the ability to think and write critically, skills which he considers to be the bedrock of his profession. For him, “writing is breathing,” and he noted that his study of poetry was particularly valuable in his development as both a journalist and an engaged citizen. The concise nature and precision of poetry – particularly in the work of Berkeley poet Gary Snyder, whose line “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks” Corvo quoted to underscore his point – showed him the often overlooked importance of flow, musicality and rhythm for effective writing.
The discussion moved from here to a consideration of the way in which Corvo’s education as an English major at Berkeley has been particularly relevant to his most recent job running Dateline NBC. Since Dateline produces longer news stories that often last for the show’s whole hour, Corvo described the way in which his knowledge of the structural conventions of narrative fiction have helped him construct effective news presentation. Corvo’s intimate knowledge of the way a conventional plot uses conflict, build up, climax and resolution have allowed him to create compelling news stories that keep his viewers engaged over a longer period of time. Furthermore, the kind of investigative reporting that go into Dateline stories found its seeds in the emphasis on research and argument that Corvo developed as a student at Berkeley.
More than this, however, Corvo emphasized the way in which Berkeley’s egalitarianism has helped him to connect with sectors of his audience whose views and experiences are considerably different from his own. The fact that Berkeley can provide an elite education to as great a number of students as it does is, in Corvo’s opinion, its greatest strength. He called the current budget fiasco in California an unequivocal “catastrophe” for its deleterious effect on the system of higher education, which drew him and his family to the west coast in the first place. To him, it seems that “we’re in this on our own,” and he ended with a call to alums to remember what it is that makes Berkeley such a unique and special place. It rests, he suggested, on the shoulders of people like him to give back to the university in a way that will sustain the wide-access to excellence that is the hallmark of the University.
A full video of the event can be found here.