Sunday, February 22, 2009

On journalism, learning and heritage

From David Halberstam:
(who had a 20+ year FBI file)
I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: never, never, never, let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don’t let them do it. ...
At its best, [journalism] is about being paid to learn. For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. ...

Back when I applied to grad school, for "career plans" I put "teaching and research", but not from any real desire for either. In truth, what I really wanted to be when I grew up was a student.

And in doing journalism - though hasn't paid as well* as grad school - that's what I get to be.

(Though I have to say, the teacher-student interaction is rather different in journalism - imagine your "teachers" saying right & left, "nothing to learn here, you've completely misunderstood the material, you're wasting your time and mine" ...which is why the reading tends to be more fun than the lectures.)

My father was a banker in his working life, a loan officer, back when humans were the deciders on loaning money for a project. And he told me once, that what he loved about the job was the learning - every new proposal that came across his desk was an opportunity to plunge into a new field of study.

And it was all "applied" learning, which does give it a special zing - it's not an abstract "you must learn this because you must learn this", it's "whatever you find out here could be the key".

And tracking down a story is like a series of such opportunites; it's taking a canoe trip, different sites of interest and loci for learning pop up along the way. For someone who's led a politically-ignorant life, there's a lot of remedial study, which can yield some rather cool discoveries. See the Council on Foreign Relations coming up over there on the right? Turns out its founding president was John W. Davis, my great great uncle; I'm named after his mother.

His daughter Julia, my great aunt, was one of the first women reporters to work at the Associated Press. (which it appears Halberstam never worked for, so we can't quite come full circle)

And - if you want to know what else has turned up -