Friday, February 8, 2008

Jon Meacham at Columbia J-School

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek (2.5 million hard copy circulation, 50 to 60 million www page views per month), gave the first of the Delacorte Lectures at Columbia University's Journalism School yesterday evening. When it came to question time the event turned into a very polite lynching, for which Meacham brought the rope and the audience provided an incurious ignorance.

The rope was a presentation decidedly narrow and a tad too smug. Meacham said little that illuminated the substantive travails of a weekly news magazine in the age of the internet. He did not say how -- or if -- Newsweek dealt with the themes explored in his excellent books (Franklin and Winston: An intimate portrait of an epic friendship. Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the civil rights movement. American Gospel: God, the founding fathers and the making of a nation.) He said little about the personal and professional difficulties of vaulting to the top at Newsweek after a very short career that began at the Chatanooga Times (the first newspaper that Adolph Ochs acquired on his march to The New York Times). And his response was almost comically inadequate to the second questioner, a blonde with an Australian accent who wanted to know how he had "paid his dues" (as journalism students are constantly told they must, before hoping for advancement). For three years, said Meacham, he had a "stress vomit" at the end of every week. After asking if anyone in the audience read Newsweek, Meacham greeted the "nice lady" who was the solitary respondent, only to be told "I work in the library. I'll read anything." Meacham danced on the rope a few more times by quizzing a young man who said he read The Economist but not Newsweek.

As for the audience, it seemed to be unaware that Meacham is a gifted and insightful writer who has explored in his books issues that should be of consuming interest to every young journalist.
  • The Roosevelt-Churchill "friendship" was hardly that, and encapsulating as it did the changing equation between two super-Powers, it is the essential backdrop to a time of renewed tectonic shifts in international affairs.
  • The American civil rights movement changed race relations globally, and its legacy, mixed as it is with that of Gandhian nonviolence, is critically important at a time when enormous adjustments are necessary in the structures of economic and political governance to avoid cataclysmic disasters.
  • The deistic beliefs of America's founding fathers might seem irrelevant to our Godless age, but precisely for that reason they are important. There is a quantum difference between secular humanism and belief in a universal creative intelligence; one is rooted in a mechanistic, and the other in an organic conception of universal reality. How journalists report on world affairs will certainly be affected by how they view themselves, as cogs in a lifeless universe or as sparks of a greater fire.

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