Anthony Lewis and the need for journalism that inspires
At 10:00am on Monday morning, I read on Twitter that Anthony Lewis, the revered New York Times legal writer and columnist, had died at age 85. A few minutes later, I sent out a Tweet calling him “a giant of journalism who saved Gideon & Bosnia.”
The Bosnia reference was personal. Along with writing searing columns that pressured the Clinton administration to intervene in the conflict, Lewis put my family in touch with senior White House officials when I was arrested by Serb forces for ten days while covering the war.
My uncle, Sig Roos, a Boston-based lawyer and one of legions of Lewis admirers, emailed me to mourn his passing and again praise his help. After I was released, I returned to the United States and thanked Lewis in person. He was an extraordinarily kind, gracious and unassuming man, who mentored countless young journalist as tribute after tribute has described this week.
To be honest, as soon as I sent my Tweet about Lewis I regretted it. A man whose work had inspired a generation of reporters, lawyers and judges – and helped save my life ‑ was reduced to 48 characters.
Tweeting about Lewis seemed somehow an indictment of contemporary journalism. Shouldn’t I have taken a few minutes to reflect on Lewis and the extraordinary life he had lived? Why, in the greater scheme of things, did my opinion of him even matter? Worst of all, it was slapdash. In a rushed effort to pay respect to one of the most precise writers of our time, I used the wrong word. Lewis “championed” Gideon and Bosnia. He did not “save” them.
In a moving piece in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen explained how Lewis’ Supreme Court coverage and seminal book, Gideon’s Trumpet, transformed legal journalism. Lewis’ simple sentences and lucid prose, Cohen wrote, turned arcane legal jargon and court procedures into concepts readers could easily understand. As shown in the passage below, Lewis made justice simple.
The case of Gideon v. Wainwright is in part a testament to a single human being. Against all the odds of inertia and ignorance and fear of state power, Clarence Earl Gideon insisted that he had a right to a lawyer and kept on insisting all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
His triumph there shows that the poorest and least powerful of men ‑ a convict with not even a friend to visit him in prison ‑ can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.
But of course Gideon was not really alone; there were working for him forces in law and society larger than he could understand. His case was part of a current of history, and it will be read in that light by thousands of persons who will know no more about Clarence Earl Gideon than that he stood up in a Florida court and said: “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.”
In short, Lewis’ journalism inspired people. (Gideon’s Trumpet is the reason my step-father, George Ruffo, is a lawyer today. ) His columns distilled the welter of half-truths that has always been political debate into clearer choices. His legal coverage told readers why one court decision – as compared to others – mattered to society. His journalism clarified.
Today, inspiring journalism exists, but it is increasingly threatened by the high speed and volume that the economics of online journalism demand. A recently released Pew Charitable Trust report on the state of the news media in 2013 contained an alarming finding. The long-awaited surge in digital revenues for news organizations appears unlikely to materialize, particularly for newspapers. Since 2003, total newspaper print ad revenues have fallen from $45 billion to $19 billion. At the same time, online ads grew from $1.2 to $3.3 billion.
“Stop and think about that,” Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. “The total ten-year increase in digital advertising isn’t even enough to overcome the average single-year decline in print ads since 2003. Ugh.”
Given the comparatively small amount of revenue being produced by news websites, there is a danger of them becoming digital sweatshops. Young journalists will be expected to simultaneously write their own pieces, edit others’ work, make complex news judgments and update web pages. A handful of slots will exist for well-paid older journalists, but media executives struggling to make ends meet will cherish youth for a simple reason: low cost per post.
Andrew Beaujon, a media reporter for Poynter, wrote last week about a Washington Post job posting for a Style section blogger who would be required to post at least twelve times a day. Last year, Patrick Pexton, then the paper’s ombudsman, warned against “high volume, low oversight” blogging after Elizabeth Flock resigned from her blogging position after failing to credit another news source in an aggregated piece. When Pexton interviewed the paper’s young bloggers, he found deep discontent.
“They said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing,” Pexton wrote. “Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said. And they believe that, even if they do a good job, there is no path forward. Will they one day graduate to a beat, covering a crime scene, a city council or a school board? They didn’t know. So some left; others are thinking of quitting.”
Twelve posts a day is unfair to young journalists and a business model that is unlikely to produce the next Lewis. Even a young Lewis, I suspect, would have struggled to produce a dozen meaningful posts a day.
Many disagree with me. In a column last week, Matthew Yglesias of Slate questioned the sky is falling tone of the Pew report and declared that the “American news media has never been in better shape.”
“Pew’s overview makes no mention of the Web’s speed, range and depth,” he wrote, “or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism.”
In some ways, Yglesias is right. More information than ever is at the fingertips of news consumers. But the problem is that many Americans simply don’t have the time to search the Web for story after story, as Yglesias did, about the banking crisis in Cyprus. They have time for one clear piece that quickly and accurately tells them why Cyprus matters.
The digital age has enormous advantages, as Yglesias argues. Journalism is more democratic than ever. Anyone anywhere can report anytime. Twitter can be a fantastic news source ‑ a running wire of stories and tips from people who share interests. Skilled bloggers possess an extraordinary ability to review vast amounts of news coverage, instantly discern its importance and immediately offer an original take.
But the tyranny of speed and volume can limit a journalist’s ability to do such basic tasks as conducting phone interviews with those they are writing about, or traveling to the community affected by an event, or slowly gaining the trust of a source or whistleblower in face-to-face meetings. Those steps are not always necessary for quality journalism, but they certainly help. Maybe editors should formally declare blogging and traditional reporting equally valuable but different jobs. Or news organizations should become non-profits.
Lewis’ masterful legal writing was the product of time. Over many years, he developed a sophisticated understanding of the law, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Supreme Court and close personal relationships with justices. Felix Frankfurter famously said that Lewis knew the cases before the Supreme Court better than most of its judges.
In the end, I’ll take Lewis-like context and depth over high volume and speed. I thank Lewis for championing journalism.
PHOTO: An illustration picture shows the log-on icon for the Website Twitter on an Ipad in Bordeaux, Southwestern France, January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau