1995 Fellow Murray Kempton

Columnist, <i>New York Newsday </i>
 
Convocation Address
I have reflected long upon what I might add to the dosages of enlightenment you've ingested in the years since the first Lovejoy lecture. And I have, I'm afraid, come up rather short in these rummagings, because I cannot think of much to say beyond what most of you already know and that those who don't may have to put up with several surprises in the way of disappointment before they find it out for themselves.

I can't even pretend to the wisdom of the years, since I don't seem capable of growing up sufficiently to acquire enough of it; and, even in my wither, I'm embarrassed to have to confess that, if I scoured my head for evidence of better seasoning by age, I would find it instead still poorly stocked with the sober reason of the grizzled and bulging with the romantic illusions of the beardless. I remain one of those who have learned that windmills are not giants and monsters and who, all the same, cannot see Rosinante saddled up without itching for another ride.

It has been said somewhere that the one essential sentence in Holy Scripture is "Thy Will Be Done" and that all else is commentary. Our trade remains for me the story you cover, the bumps you take, the people you meet and the struggle to make sense of it all in the only way we can ever hope to make sense, which is by seeing, touching and smelling. All else is commentary.

"Our trade remains for me the story you cover, the bumps you take, the people you meet and the struggle to make sense of it all in the only way we can ever hope to make sense, which is by seeing, touching and smelling. All else is commentary."

I have lately noticed not in myself but in my bosses a tendency to think me too old to go around as I used to, and I find myself sliding further and further away from being a reporter and toward becoming a commentator and commencing to rely upon what's in my head, an under-populated premise not enough different from Rush Limbaugh's as a resource for public enlightenment and for the stimulations of the self. All my life, when called upon to identify myself to the Internal Revenue Service, the last judgement, I have preferred to enter not journalist, not columnist, not commentator, certainly not author, but simple as "newspaper reporter." And even now, when my entitlement to make that quiet affirmation seems to diminish year by year, a newspaper reporter is as fervently all I want to be as it ever was.

And so I am worse equipped than many of my predecessors in your Pantheon to talk to much purpose about the responsibility of the media for earning the trust of the public. Some of my predecessors were publishers, who are particularly addicted to waxing on the subject of journalism's duty to truth and beauty, although I have lately had reason to wish that my own publisher had extended its admirable alertness to its responsibilities to the future welfare of its own reporters, who are, when all is said and done, the most precious substance in a publisher's care.

It may or may not be parochial of me to say that I am by no means certain that we reporters ought to worry all that much about the dangers of lying to the public. The public is, after all, an abstraction. We would far more serviceably take care not to lie to or about the people we are covering. For after all, if they can trust us, if not to be fair by their lights at least not to lie to them, we may not be correct about them -- who can be assured of being correct about anyone else? -- but we will not be false to them. When we go among humans, we are unable to deal with them as abstract presences; their very faces command us to be honorable, and once you learn not to lie to a face, you're pretty secure from the peril of lying to the generality of the faceless.

"The public is, after all, an abstraction."

I have lately been commissioned to review the two huge volumes of the Library of America's Reporting World War II, a compilation of the journalism from those days that seemed to its editors fittest to endure, although it would have lain forgotten still without their curiosity and their initiative.

What struck me most in these men and women was not just how magnificently they rose to the occasion but how much more they were able to learn than their editors at the home desk or their audience at far civilian remove.

These reporters had done what Stein told Marlowe in Lord Jim that we all must do, which is to "in the destructive element immerse." The destructive element is where the shock of recognition happens to be far more accessible to those who are buffeted than to those who buffet. As the back knows more than the lash, the target knows more than the gun.

Because these reporters were stipulated non-combatants, they were certifiably only targeted. And so they quickly learned that war's supremely challenging moments arrive not when the soldier is ordered to kill but when he is called upon to rescue.

The victim, here as everywhere, is a more compelling figure than the victimizer, and that fact of life becomes patent as these chronicles proceed into the summer of 1945, when the Strategic Air Command rode triumphantly above cities rendered helpless to defend themselves, and the balance of heroic opportunity shifted all the way from the bombers to the bombed.

And, in that key, when we reach John Hersey's Hiroshima, the terminal entry in these volumes, we are confounded to find that it is not just the story of suffering we had originally taken it to be as much as it is a story of coping. In the end Hiroshima's victims uniting and striving to heal themselves own the last word that speaks in these pages from the Second World War.

These reporters came upon that lesson in the only place they could meet it, as men and women not of the rear echelon but of the line. Of all this noble company, Ernie Pyle, whom I never had much chance to read at the time, stands above the rest because he most fully incarnated what a reporter ought to be.

Pyle went again and again wherever the worst extremes waited, the unconscripted man bound by conscience to the comradeship of the conscripted, and enduring by free will what they were compelled to endure by necessity. By instinct, in the destructive element he immersed, and I have no evidence that he had ever read Lord Jim and needed Stein's instructions to do it. But I did.

I do not mean to suggest that our standards have declined from these days. Any of these reporters would have drawn pride and profit from going about with Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam in Vietnam and with Roy Gutman and John Burns in Bosnia and with Peter Arnett just about anywhere.

"No reporter, however good, can avoid realizing that the novelist is his better; but both know that the victim is in the end most of the story.

Then too, almost nothing in our coverage of the Soviet Union provided noticeable illumination before the late eighties and it didn't cast its highest light until David Remnick came to Moscow carrying the treasure of the literary sensibility that forbade him to stop with one or two of the great novels of Dostoievsky but pushed him on to Poor Folk, which, however lesser a work, manages to tell you most of all you need know about what life was like on the collective farms.

For Remnick knew a secret, which took me so long to learn that I was well down the road before I went to Mississippi and found out that Faulkner wasn't weaving fantasy at all but was instead soberly working off the files of country weeklies. Ever since, I have shunned the researches of social science and depended upon the novelists and have since come across no Sovietologist as useful as Chekhov and no guide to the incorrigibilities of rulers and ruled in Central America as Conrad's Nostromo.

No reporter, however good, can avoid realizing that the novelist is his better; but both know that the victim is in the end most of the story. Since the victim is and probably will ever be less and less able to come to us, the reporter who is worth his salt recognizes that his one commanding duty is to go out himself and look for the victim.

And that is why I so much fear that the futurists may be right and that in time to come the accountants will have had their way and the reporter will slip into the category of surplus labor and affliction to the profit margin.

That would be sad. I won't say that it would be tragic, because I have been taught not to indulge in hyperbole, even when it is as true to the facts of the case as I feel it to be in this one.