Some business of journalism took me last week to the University of Missouri at Columbia and Stanford University, here in Palo Alto. One of the fringe benefits of having been in this work for a long time is that now and then someone solicits your thinking on some matter in the profession and then the opportunity arises to shed a little light on our enterprise or further it.
Although I did not study journalism, I always enjoy visiting journalism schools or departments. The greatest attractions are the students, most of whom seem palpably to believe in the ideals of the profession. It is reassuring to be among them. This idealism may only be a characteristic of the young, but I suspect you see more of it among students who want to be reporters or editors than you do among those who are approaching careers in, say, accounting or engineering.This time I was in Columbia on behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to look into the matter of whether journalists should - by legal requirement or through voluntary action - report their earned outside income, such as the fees they receive for speeches. Some celebrity journalists actually make up to $50,000 a crack for giving talks before trade groups or other associations, and there are members of Congress who say that if the press wants politicians to reveal or forgo large speaking fees, then journalists, who are always going on and on about their integrity, ought to be compelled to disclose who beside their own companies pays them.
Their idea is that if you cover the widget business and the American Widgeters Association gives you $25,000 and first-class expenses to Honolulu for a 20-minute speech, the transaction falls into the realm of what the public has a right to know - another subject about which we go on and on. Most journalists, myself included, believe that the First Amendment means what it says when it states that Congress shall make no law abridging a free press. Even so, the issue of speaking fees is a troubling one.
Going to the J School at Missouri is an affecting experience for me. So many things bring back my family. From the 1920s and 1930s onward, the school has had a strong connection with Asia, and you see it even as you approach the arch that leads to the quadrangle and the journalism buildings and that bear the words "Wise Shall Be the Bearers of Light."
Here on your left is the old stone lantern from Sempukuji, the site of the first American legation to Japan. As you go through the arch you come upon the two Ming Dynasty stone lions from the birthplace of Confucius.
Both the lanterns and the lions were there when my parents - my mother, a young Lindenwood graduate from Kansas City, my father, a young Chinese eager to learn the journalism of America - had gone to the school.
The old red brick Neff Hall still stands, and in it still hangs the bronze plaque stating The Journalist's Creed, which was set down by Walter Williams, who in 1908 founded at Missouri the world's first school of journalism. The creed begins: "I believe the public journal is a public trust" and goes on to state that the best journalism is "stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power . . . ."
Its message as well as its time in history are close to those of the Platform that the first Joseph Pulitzer wrote in 1907 and that appears every day on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page and is set in marble in our lobby. "Never lack sympathy with the poor," the Platform says, "always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent."
Walter Williams and Joseph Pulitzer shared a grand, optimistic vision that was unusual in their time, some 90 years ago. They believed that journalism had nobility to it and that through commitment, courage and discipline this nobility could find an expression to change things for the better. Williams believed that journalism could be taught and Pulitzer believed it could be practiced. They were not embarrassed to assert that journalism has a social purpose, a public purpose.
For those of us, throughout all America, who attempt to carry on in their tradition, the principles of Walter Williams' creed and Joseph Pulitzer's Platform pose a difficult challenge: how to bring those brave, lofty words down from metal and stone and put them into the daily service of the men and women who gather and write and edit the news; how to successfully work through the matters of our day that are pressing but in fact peripheral and concentrate, with clarity and determination, on the great public purpose that endures.