Volume 1, Number 10
Chronicling Crisis: Journalism and the Liberal Arts
by Tim Padgett
Miami & Caribbean Bureau Chief
The night of September 11, media correspondents in Florida and other states started retracing the cockroach footprints the hijackers had left behind. Unfortunately, those paths often crossed with decent Arab-Americans who may have unwittingly aided the terrorists with tasks like wiring money to and from the Bin Laden network. Their businesses and reputations could be ruined by reports of the association; but in a tragedy so massive, the public deserves to know how the terrorists operated, chillingly, among us. I am dealing with this dilemma in my reporting--and my search for answers has taken me not to my journalism studies, but to my liberal arts education.
And so it's precisely in moments like this that I'm all the more puzzled as to why the liberal arts establishment keeps its distance from journalism.
In his excellent October 1 essay for this forum, Joseph Knippenberg of Oglethorpe University reminded us how relevant a voice like Thucydides can be in times of modern crisis. A journalist might add that Thucydides is instructional in another key way -- namely, how best to chronicle civilization in crisis. Journalism is, or should be, a consummate liberal arts pursuit, requiring a mastery of prose and communication skills (remember Edward R. Murrow during the bombing of London), an appetite for broad learning (look at how many reporters are now struggling to become experts on Islamic fundamentalism) and an ethical passion for getting at the truth. Oglethorpe complains, rightly, that in our hunt for soundbites, the modern media too often ignore liberal arts educators in favor of specialists. But my response is that the liberal arts too often ignore journalism.
In an age when the media are as ubiquitous as computers, and require as much vigilance, my impression is that liberal arts schools don't do enough themselves to foster a media culture that feels more of an affinity with the liberal arts. They still hesitate to make journalism a more urgent topic of campus discussion, to encourage students to consider it as a livelihood--or to offer courses that help students practice and judge the quality of the literature and broadcasts they'll see and be influenced by every day as adults. What's more, liberal arts colleges tend to treat their small student newspapers with a sort of benign (if not derisive) neglect, and that's a shame: if anything should be a source of pride on a campus that cherishes writing skills, general inquiry and the marketplace of ideas, it's the undergraduate gazette.
I resolved to become a journalist in college when I read a Washington Post story about two young U.S. Marines killed by snipers in Lebanon as they sunned and munched popcorn on their barracks roof. The correspondent had poignantly captured the tragic detail of rifle shells and popcorn kennels strewn together at the scene. It seemed altogether possible then that journalism, despite the unseemly way it's often practiced, could acquire a dignity that approached what I was studying as an English major--just as the practice of law, for all its own ugly realities, has always been revered by liberal arts mentors. Tim O'Brien--Vietnam War novelist, former Washington Post reporter and liberal arts graduate--put it best when he remarked that "newspaper stories are called stories for a reason."
In the New York Review of Books this month, higher education researcher Louis Menand suggests it's time to acknowledge that the "liberal arts and non-liberal fields have something to contribute to one another." (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14628) Fortunately, I had professors who did encourage me to see how logically my classical liberal arts training lent itself to a career in journalism. Journalism certainly should not be a liberal arts major. But, especially during crisis, it certainly should be recognized for what it is: the liberal arts in practice.
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