Western Illinois University: Macomb Campus
Web Tools and Search Bar
"I Read the News Today – Oh, Boy: Journalism, Empathy and the Liberal Arts."
(The eighth annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 7, 2010)
Good evening – and thanks, Dr. Hallwas, an area author, like my brother Tracy, who I really consider writers, often making me feel more like a typist. Also, thank you President Goldfarb, Provost Thomas and past lecturers for being here, Dean Martinelli-Fernandez, the Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture Committee and Sharon Knight, for inviting me and promoting this – and artist Bob Johnson for the poster. Thanks, too, to my son, Russell Baker, for driving up from law school in St. Louis, and for being the inspiration for columns that get the most compliments: no coincidence.
Tonight’s title is a line from "A Day in the Life," the last track on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and John Lennon said he’d been inspired in part by London newspaper articles (his partial lyrics for the song just sold for more than $1 million, incidentally.) Using another, less known ’60s rock reference, I also thank my wife, journalist Terry Bibo; in the words of Van Morrison (who did “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” etc. – she’s an “angel in the first degree, sweeter than Tupelo honey.”
Not long ago I went to confession at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, where I told the priest, “Father, I’m troubled; I just don’t seem to give a hoot anymore. (OK; I didn’t say “hoot”). Anyway – “I just don’t seem to give a hoot,” I said, “I don’t feel like I care. Is this a crisis of confidence?”
The priest at first asked whether I felt disengaged from the world, or accepting of it.
I said, “Accepting, I guess.”
He comforted me, saying I was just very tolerant. Then he scolded me, noting that sometimes people can be so open-minded they can hear the wind whistling through their heads. He added, “You’re a journalist, right? ‘Journalism’ comes from the French word ‘jour,’ meaning ‘day,’ like ‘soup du jour’. So, day to day, what gets you going, as a journalist?”
I said, “Something new, unusual – something not working the way it should. People getting overlooked or screwed or –”
“See,” he interrupted. “You do care. You have a calling. Listen to it. Do it – ‘Feed my sheep,’ as the Gospel says. But first, say three ‘Hail Mary’s’ and three ‘Our Father’s’ and calm the heck down.” (Only he didn’t say “heck.”)
That real episode has elements of the liberal arts, and empathy, but it hinges on journalism, about which I feel strongly – not the detached, impartial stance journalists usually take -- which I confess to you, now. Journalists are society’s eyes, ideally. Like people’s senses, brains and bodies, journalism and society – at least journalism’s audience – are partners. One without the other? That’s reminiscent of the Buddhist riddle, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
But in recent decades, in incremental ways, society has been fragmented by an onslaught of attacks on journalism, emotional appeals to folks’ lesser sides, and misinformation posing as journalism or justified as just entertainment by forces with things to hide. Those often smooth-talking forces are like the man in the old joke by the late, great comic Richard Pryor. His wife catches him betraying her and he coos, “Who you gonna believe: me or your lyin’ eyes?”
Journalism’s been marginalized by a “kill the messenger” mind-set, the liberal arts devalued by commerce, and compassion dismissed as obsolete by those whose interests are served by dividing society. While some of you have sacrificed another night of beer pong – and some students have come out, too – don’t expect an exercise in persuasion. Passion aside, I’m not on a soapbox; I hope this will be more of a re-set to help the appreciation of journalism and the liberal arts. As Founder James Madison said, “Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power and to withhold from them information … A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
There are those who want to stop journalism -- or to change it so much as to make what passes for journalism worthless. “So?” you may think. “What good is it beyond making money for a few media moguls?” Again, journalism makes up the eyes of the nation; without it, we’re in the dark.
I’m no great thinker; I’m a working guy who does journalism – we’re often ignorant of news or insights and find them from others: reporting. So I’ll present facts, assertions and quote others. For one, Time magazine co-founder, conservative Henry Luce, said, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” That heart is brought in to focus through a lens created by journalism emerging from and sent through the liberal arts.
Journalism might be a calling, although I like what journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen said: “Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description.” My condition as a journalist began in my hometown of Carthage, Ill., where I was a paperboy for the Des Moines Sunday Register and after breaking my leg in football helping the basketball coach by phoning in stats to newsrooms. By the time I was 17 I covered high school football for Carthage’s weekly, the Hancock County Journal.
Tracy and my upbringing was typical and special; our family encouraged seeking. From Dad’s side I learned about homemade ice cream, jazz, throwing a knuckleball and the value of understanding and hard work. (Dad was a power-company lineman, and I tell students who claim to have “writer’s block” that Dad never drank his morning coffee and said, “Y’know, I have ‘lineman’s block’ today.”) Mom’s side showed persistence and leisure – in jobs like a heavy equipment operator, factory worker, carpet installer and homemaker, of course. (Thanks, Mom!) Their gift of a small telescope got me interested in astronomy (and I eventually wrote a newspaper series on space exploration). Tracy made movies and practiced being a physician, if not quite the psychologist he became. Ten years of piano lessons and a garage band set a foundation as a music critic. Playing baseball was special and an entree into not just sports but the liberal arts, as I’ll explain in a bit.
I came to WIU as an undergrad and returned to journalism by writing for student papers. After the Courier was kicked off campus for a few years, I was the staffer who got served papers when we were sued for libel (the suit was dismissed), but a more interesting incident was when a visiting author at Western, Nobel Prize nominee James Drought, stormed in in a rage, screaming about a story the paper did on him. He punched the editor and stood there staring at us, panting. So, impulsively, I flipped over a desk. Drought looked confused and left: my creative defense of journalism or instinctive empathy. (Incidentally, Courier folks I worked with include Dave Huey, now an assistant attorney general in Washington, and Dennis Hetzel, a publisher now with the Enquirer in greater Cincinnati.)
Doing journalism is about such relationships and experiences, exploration and discovery – like the liberal arts – and it can be fun. As a journalist I’ve interviewed Ray Bradbury, Aerosmith, George Carlin and Congressmen, covered Farm Aid and Haiti, and partied with the Allman Brothers and science-fiction legend Philip Jose Farmer. It’s less fun when journalism is categorized as “communications” or “information.” It’s neither. Information is data: what’s in libraries, bookstores, flash drives and so on. Communications is a conveyance, like cell-phone systems – or worse: Press critic A.J. Liebling decades ago said, “Communications? What do you communicate? Scarlet fever? Apprehension?” No, since cave drawings and clay tablets, journalism has been leaving records and facts.
Some blast the press for inaccurate or irrelevant stories, as too close to corporate America or government, and there’s some validity to that. Others criticize journalism for a lack of “objectivity,” which is difficult without becoming passive stenographers to the powerful. Sometimes, too-cautious reporters create a “false equilibrium,” trying so hard to be objective that they “balance” some respected scientist with a fringe type who might believe the Earth is hollow.
Instead of false objectivity, journalism must be fair and offer aggressive, accurate presentation of how the world’s working. In fact, Mark Twain, who grew up not far from here, of course, started as a reporter. Early in his career an editor warned him not to state as fact anything he couldn’t personally verify. So, covering a social event, Twain wrote, "A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones, who is reported to be one of the society leaders of the city, is said to have given what purported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney."
Besides wrestling with the idea of objectivity, journalism also is fleeting. Magazine journalist Alexander Woollcott said, “I count it a high honor to belong to a profession in which the good men write every paragraph, every sentence, every line, as lovingly as any Addison or Steele, and do so in full regard that by tomorrow it will have been burned, or used, if at all, to line a shelf.”
Journalists keep going. We don’t change social policies, but our stories can make a difference.
Americans’ most fundamental rights are spelled out in 45 words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But most of us may not appreciate that First Amendment.
Ken Paulson, the ex-USA Today editor with the First Amendment Center – we brought him and their road show “Freedom Sings!” to Western a few years ago – said, “Only one American in 25 can name the freedoms of the First Amendment. Its freedoms are … the cornerstone of democracy. It’s not a coincidence that the strongest, most creative and most ambitious nation in the history of the planet is also the most free.”
“So?” Well, protections are necessary, according to Founder John Adams, who said, “The jaws of power are always open to … destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing.” In that context of attempts to stop journalism – what’s journalism’s mission?
Chicago newsman Finley Peter Dunne in 1902 wrote that the press "comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable." Twain said, “We are … told that our newspapers are irreverent, coarse, vulgar and ribald. I hope that this irreverence will last forever; that we shall always show irreverence for royalties and titled creatures born into privilege.”
The First Amendment doesn’t mandate responsibility – for the press, religions or speakers. So journalism tries to codify its mission. For years, ethicists at the Poynter Institute have discussed journalists’ duty to "give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable." That isn’t limited to advocating for the silent or being adversaries to Washington or Wall Street, of course; giving voice to the voiceless also means asking questions the public would ask and sharing the answers; it means showing why those in power do something – something good as well as not.
The Society of Professional Journalists is just one group with a Code of Ethics, going beyond being neutral, distilling journalism thusly: "Seek the truth and report it fully; act independently; be accountable; and minimize harm." Why “minimize”? Why not eliminate harm – like “First, do no harm,” the medical ethic? Well, because sometimes the truth hurts. An accurate news story about corruption can result in a damaged career or prison. A solid news feature about a tragedy can help people understand or avoid such situations but can upset the grief-stricken.
Journalists aspire to such missions while trying to balance stories that run the spectrum from exciting trivia to the dull important, serving the public with a record – “hatch, match and dispatch” (births, marriages and deaths) – while doing assignments under pressure from deadlines and competition, and despite those who’d stop journalism.
Centuries ago, Founder Patrick Henry said, “The press must prevent officials from covering with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, for the liberties of the people never were, or never will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Journalism is imperfect; it can lose its way. For example, one part of journalism, the newspaper business, sometimes seems that its owners have the generosity and judgment of Somali pirates, but that’s not the journalists. Also, its condemnation as “liberal” should be taken with a grain of salt; conservative editor William Kristol conceded, “The whole thing was often used as an excuse for conservative failures." But there are legitimate criticisms. A lot of radio, cable and websites lure audiences with sloppy-but-entertaining mixes of news/opinion/self-promotion; much journalism is “too pale, too male and too stale.”
Journalism can fall short. Journalists are human and make mistakes. Unlike failed laboratory experiments, terminal patients or jailed clients, however, journalists’ flaws are in print, online or on the air – but real journalists ’fess up and make corrections. The press was too compliant in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; reporters missed the Wall Street meltdown until it was too late. TV interviewers this summer initially didn’t question Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer blaming undocumented immigrants for beheadings there; and a blogger posted a video misrepresenting an African-American bureaucrat’s treatment of a white farmer, which led to around-the-clock baloney posing as journalism. The blogger apologized, blaming “the imperfect nature of journalism.” The Baltimore Sun’s Dan Rodricks said, “Twisting the truth, editing video to make … up look like down – that's the stuff of hocus-pocus; it's not the work of the journalist.”
Technology empowers almost anyone to blog, to try journalism, which is good, and no license is required to practice journalism. But having a stove doesn’t make you a cook.
Journalism is somewhere between the scourge of the Earth and the savior of democracy – an occasional whipping boy or embarrassment that’s also often productive and useful. The public responds to good journalism. The Arizona Guardian newspaper and KPNX-TV in Phoenix showed that no coroner in Arizona had found any decapitated bodies; McClatchy Newspapers debunked claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; Bloomberg Markets uncovered Wachovia bank’s laundering of billions of dollars for drug cartels; papers exposed wrongdoing by mayors in Michigan and California and by athletes using steroids; and the tiny Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier won a Pulitzer for showing how thousands of property owners were cheated out of millions of dollars by big corporations.
Journalist and teacher Eric Newton said, “Free societies need people who can tell us when prisons are at double capacity, when schools are dropout factories, when too many teens get pregnant, when immigration laws aren't working and when people are being poisoned by lead in the water. If journalists don't tell you about this stuff, who will? No system will easily admit its wrongs.”
Again, some – especially students – think, “So?” Well, when you end up living where toxins have been dumped, when you have kids riding on unsafe buses, when your boss pays women less than men, when an undeclared war touches your home, it’ll matter that journalists go where you can’t, or won’t, and ask questions and find answers.
What’s NOT journalism? “Media,” for one thing; for another, demagoguery – trying to gain power by appealing to people’s emotions or prejudices, sometimes exaggerating or lying. The term "media" is not interchangeable with journalism. As ’50s comedian Ernie Kovacs joked about TV, "They call it a medium because it is neither rare nor well-done." Mike Huckabee and Bill Maher, Rush and Imus all are no more journalists than LeBron James and Lady Gaga – but they’re all on media, which are increasingly filled with off-key vocalists, arrogant chefs, and housewives or housemates from New Jersey. Much media content is more like photo illustrations than photojournalism: manipulated imagery to convey a mood or message or sell something, not the presentation of facts or reasoned opinion. Some talk radio, cable blowhards and print producers are arguably entertainers (as some admit). But many pretend to be journalists to tell stories that are demagoguery. In the 21st century, according to James Hamilton’s book All The News That’s Fit to Sell, cable’s 24-hour demand for something, its cost-cutting and knack of arousing emotions to keep audiences results in hot air as well as cool profits. So, hyperbole dominates this pretend journalism; insults on radio or cable pass for discourse, noise for news. Former CBS News political editor Dotty Lynch said it’s “domination of conflict and trivia over consensus and substance.” I say: if we rely on demagoguery and not facts – flash, not substance – we’re trapped, like birds inside malls: We live on crumbs.
Demagogues aren’t new. Radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin worked in the 1930s, reactionary writer Westbrook Pegler in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and TV loudmouth Joe Pyne in the ’60s. A difference is that today’s demagoguery is more pervasive and persuasive, effectively blending fear tactics, the veneer of respectability, and the tact of schoolyard bullies to create divisiveness, diversions and suspicion, eroding confidence in our own votes, representatives, and democracy.
Now, the press has horoscopes; magazines have puzzles; radio has music; TV has reality shows. None is journalism. Journalism can be compelling but it’s not escapist entertainment. So, again, what IS journalism, and what’s news? Factors include whether something is local, timely, consequential, involving a prominent person, or of general “human interest,” whether about school bands or restaurant inspections, sports or ag. Opinion has always been part of the mix, too; area newspaper names reflect their partisan pasts: The Bureau County Republican, the Mason County Democrat, the Quincy Herald Whig. In the words of conservative columnist William Safire – good opinion writing combines reporting and analysis.
But entertainers and hucksters aren’t journalists. Michael Moore is no Studs Terkel; Karl Rove is no William F. Buckley. Journalism is neither demagoguery nor milquetoast nor middle-of-the-road; it’s about accuracy and advocacy. Conservative and progressive ideas enrich the mix. Journalism exists in niche media, too, such as The American Conservative or The Progressive magazines. They serve target audiences. I’ve written for the Catholic Post and The Labor Paper for years, and though I’ve covered union corruption and asked why the death penalty isn’t criticized during “Respect Life” month, such outlets avoid alienating audiences. That’d be like Men’s Health publishing the Couch Potato beer-and-nap exercise plan.
Helping people care is key, too. Twain, again, said, “A newspaper is not just for reporting the news; it's to get people mad enough to do something about it.”
But what news consumers sometimes receive is mere impressions, and it’s destructive. Maybe it’s the times; maybe it’s human nature (at the risk of offending psychologists in the room), but the world can seem out of control, with time moving too fast and problems too immense to confront, from climate to arms buildups, while technology distracts and separates us as well as connects and accelerates us.
Constant, instant information overload or nonstop misdirection results in people being less informed. We multitask or turn to virtual worlds. Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted, says typical workers spend 11 minutes on a task before switching to something else. “Quick” beats “contemplative.” Personalized, privatized and pulverized by what we’re sent, we can feel overwhelmed, and the impact of a cacophony of claptrap grows, so we get more heat than light. That threatens to stop real journalism.
University of California/San Diego researchers say Americans consume 34 gigabytes of information a day – about 100,000 words – from all sources. It’s no wonder we gulp and run, seek shortcuts or just give up. Are distractions doing what dictators try elsewhere: curtailing civic engagement? Stopping journalism?
Jackson reports that almost 60 percent of American 15 year olds score below the most basic level of problem solving. Too many lack the critical thinking that’s needed to govern ourselves. Perhaps more troubling, Americans seem reluctant to leave our “comfort zones” of ideas. Perhaps this helps explain how Americans keep getting bamboozled, or amused, by Wall Street and Washington on the one hand, and by falsehoods or snarky zingers by the likes of conservative Glenn Beck or liberal Jon Stewart on the other.
A study from Ohio State University showed that Americans prefer to read political articles that agree with opinions they already have. According to Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study – one of the first to link what people read to their views, "We found that people generally chose media messages that reinforced their own pre-existing views. They don't want their views to be challenged by … other viewpoints.”
And, again, journalism is not entertainment, which people seek or avoid according to tastes, like music (people listen to rap, country or polka and not other styles) or movies (filmgoers watch romances, Judd Apatow comedies or westerns and not others). Better parallels are food and medicine. People may prefer pasta, fruit or bratwursts but still need protein, carbohydrates and potassium. People may consider optional flu shots, giving blood or taking aspirin but still need infections treated, broken bones set and inflamed appendixes removed. Human beings can be vegans or hate pharmaceuticals, but we need nutrients and medicine. Doing without is unhealthy and unwise.
Unfortunately, as broadcast journalist Ted Koppel said, people “now feel entitled not to have the news that we need but the news that we want. We want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view.”
I’ve worked for newspaper unions, and in bargaining, subjects are legally considered permissible or mandatory. Sit-coms, metalcore and Saw 10 are permissible; journalism should be mandatory.
Ohio’s Knobloch-Westerwick added, "Citizens really should be weighing and monitoring diverse arguments in order to make informed decisions. That's not happening. If you only pay attention to messages you agree with, that can make you more extreme in your viewpoints, because you never consider the other side. That may be one reason for the increasing polarization of American voters.”
Again, maybe it’s “human nature” to avoid things that challenge us. If you crave chocolate, bleu cheese won’t do. But if you avoid others’ opinions or even bad news, it’s still out there. Plus, the bunk just reinforces people who already don’t like Obama or Sarah Palin for whatever reasons and they become more dug in.
Retired Boston Globe editor Tom Winship said, “The free press is to American democracy what yeast is to bread. Without it, this system of government we prize falls flat.”
Is it falling flat? If so, it could be all the distractions, or demagoguery, or phony or lousy journalism – which divide us, discouraging empathy, which is declining.
Why is that important? First, what is empathy? Empathy is openness to the Other and more. It’s generally understood that empathy is when people identify with, understand and share others’ situations and feelings, to “sense the hurt or the pleasure of another,” as psychologist Carl Rogers said, “as if [you] are hurt or pleased.” In the 17th century, philosopher Thomas Hobbes – a one-person survey of the liberal arts, also contributing to political science, history, geometry and physics – warned of a society “of every man, against every man” and suggested that a state may be the best control on self-centered human beings. But a century later, pioneer economist Adam Smith was more optimistic, saying that civilization benefits from self-control if people empathize with each other.
More recently, social psychologist William McDougall said humans’ capacity to empathize was not learned but hard-wired into us. Primatologist Frans de Waal writes that our distress at the sight of another’s pain is “an impulse over which we exert no control: It grabs us instantaneously, like a reflex.” Indeed, various disciplines have found support for empathy being widespread and part of our essence. And the Golden Rule – treat others as you would be treated – is a profound invitation to empathize that exists across faiths. Indeed, identifying with “the least of these” is central to many Scriptures.
Further, biologists using MRIs have located parts of the nervous system involved in empathizing and some theorize that empathy helps our species’ development even at the genetic level – where genes identical to our own exist in others in different proportions. For example, social psychologist Mark Davis explains that a bird sensing danger to its nest and leading a predator away from three offspring is empathetic – and practical. Each baby bird shares about 50 percent of its genes with the parent, so although the parent risks 100 percent of its own genes, it saves 50 percent three times, or 150 percent, within the three offspring. The parent is at risk, therefore, but the survival of its genes is enhanced.
Empathy helps individuals, families, communities and societies hold together, and it helps victims get by and species survive. Empathy could mean disagreements shared in civil ways, outright teamwork, or discoveries about Others no longer held apart. But some see a decline of empathy.
A University of Michigan study shows that students today are not as empathetic as students years ago. Sara Konrath, a researcher at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, said, "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found that students today are less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”
The study says the reasons could be the sheer amount and new type of data bathing us. Konrath said, "The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor. Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much non-work-related information.” Add a hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success – aided by celebrity reality shows – and the social environment works against slowing down and empathizing with Others.
Other causes for a decline in empathy could include an unquestioning acceptance of “social Darwinism,” a rather cutthroat economic version of naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, holding that “only the strongest survive,” so … anything goes in the competitive marketplace. Summarized by physician Wes Ulm in Democracy magazine, social Darwinism can reward unscrupulous behavior, equate profits to created wealth, stifle constructive criticism and creativity, treat people as commodities, and promote the short-term over the long-term.
Epitomized in the “Greed is good” slogan from the 1987 movie Wall Street (revived this month with the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), social Darwinism understandably lacks in empathy. It undercuts feelings of solidarity with Others while pushing the notion of few restrictions on individual behavior. So, aid to the poor, jobless, sick or old can be condemned as adding to the deficit while tax cuts for the wealthiest, financial support for big banks, and various subsidies and other handouts to corporations are considered smart investments. That sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge.
However, Ulm echoes McDougall: “In recent years, work in both the biological and social sciences has indicated that traits like compassion and empathy are elemental to the wiring of animal nervous systems. Our [Social Darwinism] system’s zero-sum adversarialism has reached a disastrous endpoint, suffocated by ideological polarization, fruitless partisan bickering … , and the iron grip of moneyed interests. The result, whichever party grasps the reins, is a fractious, dysfunctional U.S. institutional paralysis, incapable of tackling the fine-grained nuances of 21st-century public policy.”
Some would still like to stop journalism and let markets determine destiny without citizen action except consumption. However, as media writer Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus , some kinds of values aren’t created by markets, but from “shared and mutually coordinating assumptions.”
Writing about the selfless parent bird, Davis notes, “Some mechanism is necessary to prompt the organism to take the altruistic action.”
In society, that prompting mechanism is journalism.
Journalism prompts us to openness, to Others. Essayist and author Joseph Conrad said, “There is not a place of splendor or a dark corner of the Earth that does not deserve … wonder or pity,” adding, “My task, … by the power of the written word, is to make you hear, to make you feel, … before all, to make you see.”
But it’s not easy; it’s difficult to know how people feel or think; real journalists try.
Personally, I recall an almost spontaneous expression of community empathy following a story I did. There was a big snowstorm and a photographer returned to the newsroom with a “weather photo” showing a man trying to jump-start his car, and the photographer said he was a bit desperate because his daughter had a doctor’s appointment.
I checked it out. His car wouldn’t start. His daughter was in remission from leukemia but had a checkup scheduled. He was out of work. His family was burned out of their previous house a week earlier and their household furnishings consisted of a kitchen table and an empty frig. The couple and their three kids and dog all survived, but Christmas was a week or so away. The story was buried inside the local news section, but readers responded – with no real organization or network. People brought food, holiday gifts for the kids, money, furniture, appliances. Almost anything families or businesses had to give, they did – even a used car. People read the journalism, empathized and took action.
People can care. We can recognize and resist misinformation and exaggeration, avoid mistaken conclusions, widen minds to different ideas, and even challenge some long-held beliefs. Where do the liberal arts fit? First, the liberal arts are neither. They’re not “liberal,” in the sense of that proud word, which means working for human rights, liberty and a social contract rather than rule by some elite, but a word that was seized as a term of scorn, of … permissiveness. And they’re not “arts,” in the sense of expressions such as music, dance or painting. Instead, “liberal arts” means a curriculum teaching general knowledge to develop rational thought – unlike vocational or even professional specializations. They’re literature and languages, philosophy and history, mathematics and sciences and more.
The pursuit of enlightenment via the liberal arts helps people maintain that culture of questioning and striving, what I referred to as “critical thinking,” which is reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and solving problems. That’s priceless, whether in geology or law enforcement. Too often, those who think the exclusive reason to get a degree is to land a job dismiss the liberal arts. Defending the liberal arts should be unnecessary, but we must. The subject of a recent magazine story I wrote, the Western alum Frank Rodeffer, recalled an incident when he worked at the U.S. Space Command. There, an Air Force officer at a meeting deep into a detailed discussion of nuclear survivability requirements interrupted a confusing presentation, saying, “Slow down, folks, we here at Space Command may be liberal-arts majors but we are smart people!"
The liberal arts help create smart people: intelligent, able and flexible citizens. After all, most people have multiple jobs and even careers in their lives. I’ve worked on farms and as a carpenter, in sandwich shops and producing records, in newsrooms and classrooms, in business and in labor. And can’t history, religious studies and political science be as flexible in their interpretations as physics, psychology, cinema and foreign languages? The liberal arts encourage openness, exploration of Others, and appreciating differences – and possibilities. People not exposed to or understanding of Others may be tempted to reject the unknown as something alien or threatening – something to be feared. Fear in turn can create an atmosphere conducive to manipulation, by those demagogues who distort, lie or more subtly control discourse. Such manipulation and demagoguery devalue civil society – and education’s culture of inquiry.
Education should not be confused with job training. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist James Truslow Adams said in 1929, “There are obviously two educations: how to make a living and … how to live.” Education shouldn’t be reduced to learning how to take tests or how to graduate, or exclusively to acquiring a vocational skill. Learning how to do one thing – extract a molar, install ductwork, measure the mass of a distant star – is most valuable if in the process, students also pick up “metaskills”: critical thinking, organizing data, how to build on existing knowledge to … solve problems.
Education also must resist commercial pressures also threatening to stop journalism and ruin business, that cute, brutal suggestion to “do more with less” – probably drafted by a social Darwinist. Whether teachers or Teamsters, people with less – less time, fewer colleagues, less pay, fewer resources – cannot for long do the same work, much less do more. “Do more with less”? When is enough enough? (Oops; stepped on a soapbox.)
The liberal arts help forge good citizens, not just productive employees. Journalism is needed for citizens to involve themselves and influence the future. Empathy is necessary so our decisions are based on facts and analysis and more than what we might prefer at the moment – for the good of families, communities, societies, the planet and the time ahead.
Without the liberal arts, journalism is more superficial or a tool for the powerful, and people are isolated from Others. Without journalism, even empowered people are less informed, and the liberal arts are less relevant.. Without empathy, even the well-informed and well-educated are cut off from each other, reduced too closely to Hobbes’ dark vision: “where every man is enemy to every man, … In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture …; … no knowledge …; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Democracy must have public involvement drawing on journalism grounded in its basics: solid reporting, fair and informed analysis, and respect for the public interest. A liberal-arts background helps us cope with the world’s pace and use reasoning. The liberal arts helps the creation and reception of journalism and the openness to empathize with subjects of stories, be they victims or villains, participants or witnesses, taxpayers or immigrants, “us” or “them” – Others.
The liberal arts bridge journalism and action – with empathy the drive to move. The liberal arts can reach from what’s going on (which we learn through journalism) to our future – our survival (through actions we take as citizens, neighbors, etc.).
Specifically, as I alluded to in a mention of baseball, I’ll have a new course “The National Pastime & the Liberal Arts,” which will touch on baseball’s countless numbers (math), the effects of grass vs. artificial turf, wood vs. aluminum, steroids vs. conditioning (biology and chemistry), how curve balls work (physics), the game’s anti-trust exemption, movement of franchises and play during World War II (sociology, geography and political science), how athletes can collapse emotionally, from Rick Ankiel to Jimmy Piersall (psychology), its history, journalism, literature and angles from African-American and women’s studies, even philosophy, where parallels exist between baseball and the Bible.
Generally, journalism and the liberal arts have a symbiotic relationship. At Western, the College of Arts and Sciences supports journalism’s content-focused program, providing an undergraduate experience in focused writing and in the disciplined management of facts for students going into any field, and for developing journalists stressing fact-finding, decision-making, and writing from a diverse background. That “partnership” was shown by poet, historian and newspaperman Carl Sandburg, who in a 1918 series of essays showed the value of the liberal arts. Sandburg, a Galesburg native, of course, wrote "Books the newspaperman ought to read," which ran in a monthly magazine for the national news chain run by E.W. Scripps (from Rushville, incidentally).
Sandburg – a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner – had 10 suggested readings he saw as preparing journalists for the work. They included a novel by French leftist Henri Barbusse; the Letters and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln; a book by French sculptor Auguste Rodin; poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; The Bible; a pro-war book by Prussian general Friedrich von Bernhardi; Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; Henry David Thoreau; The  Industrial Relations report; and Greek philosopher Epictetus (who expressed an ancient take on empathy, noted Sandburg, who wrote, “In the midst of the contending currents of democracy we must be wise to the other fellow”).
In his summary, Sandburg wrote, “I have been guided by the thought that the essential qualification of the newspaperman is an understanding of the people, a sensing of the … feeling of humanity.”
Sandburg in his 1959 book Carl Sandburg on Abraham Lincoln, quoted the Great Emancipator as saying, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts ... and beer."
Journalists are life-long learners and liberal arts students in order to comfortably interact with the many communities we cover – knowing a little about a lot to learn even more.
Consumers can mimic this search, too. Rather than rejecting Rachel Maddow or Michael Savage, Fox TV or the Daily Kos, sample more, using critical thinking as a personal filter in an expanded menu. Journalism is vital, as is a liberal arts preparation to experience other disciplines and ideas; our species’ useful empathy also is critical, feeling others’ needs, pains and joys and maybe sometimes feeling rewarded for the connection.
Poynter journalist Roy Peter Clark urges news organizations to "build our common public life" by never forgetting the business we’re in "to preserve and enhance democratic society" by encouraging courageous and compassionate voices that challenge the community, move for reform and urge action. His recommendations end with simple advice: "Deserve the First Amendment."
I started mentioning a confession, and I’ll close with another, about the only time I almost came close to dishonesty as a journalist. I was a cocky reporter who’d worked in Washington, D.C., and returned to Illinois to cover pop culture at Peoria’s daily newspaper in the 1980s when Richard Pryor, the native Peorian, came there to shoot his movie Jo Jo Dancer. He refused to talk to the paper, against which he held a grudge. For weeks I went to his locations and hotel, talking to his publicist, management, old friends he’d grown up with and co-stars. Nothing. My editor became angry that I wasn’t getting an interview. Frustrated, I tried to think what Pryor would like.
Then, covering Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks – in town for a charity – it came to me. I blurted out to Banks that Richard Pryor was nearby and would like to see him. Pulled that out of my ear. Banks perked up and said, "Great; I'll follow you over." I drove to the location and got the attention of Pryor's publicity flack -- who'd been totally uncooperative – and said Ernie Banks was coming over and would like to see Richard. Again, had no basis for that. They stopped filming, Banks came in and we got a photo of them shaking hands and a short feature for the next day. However, Pryor phoned me that morning, thanked me and asked me to come by to talk for a story. I realized that I got that story because I put myself in the other fellow’s shoes. That’s empathy, too.
Finally, two quotes. Journalist and gadfly I.F. Stone said journalism is “the place to be, … where the odds are against you. Power breeds injustice, and to defend the underdog against the triumphant is more exhilarating than to curry favor with those on top.”
Lastly, returning to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” another lyric there is reminiscent of good journalists and our partners, the engaged news consumers: “You can`t stop us … on the road to freedom; you can`t stop us `cause our eyes can see.”