A lifetime or so ago (1964-65, actually) I was a Nieman Fellow in journalism at Harvard. It was a rewarding experience for me, although not necessarily for Harvard, and as I look back now, I don’t think I ever had it so good. I had carte blanche to attend any classes I wanted to; at the same time the Nieman Foundation paid me a stipend that matched what I had been making at the New York Times. Fortunately I did not know, when I applied for the Nieman, that it was Times policy then to prohibit any of its newsroom people from accepting fellowships. But when I got the Nieman, the Times relented, and as I said, I don’t think I ever had it so good.
The only requirement the Nieman Foundation imposed on the fellows was that they take one course of their own choosing, and then be graded on their work. I chose an American history course taught by Oscar Handlin, and was outraged when the graduate student who graded the final exam gave me a B plus and not an A. When I told emeritus professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. of my distress, he invited me home with him to watch “McHale’s Navy,” his favorite TV show. Mrs. Schlesinger served tea.
Meanwhile I sampled the Harvard smorgasbord: Chinese history, Russian history, art history, the American transcendentalists, constitutional law, and so on. I dropped out of an economics class taught by John Kenneth Galbraith because he merely read aloud from the draft for his next book. I dropped out of a foreign policy seminar taught by Henry Kissinger because I just didn’t like him. He ridiculed another student, a young Army captain, who, audaciously but politely, had questioned something he said. Nuts to this, I thought, and never went back to the seminar again.
But that was a small matter. Harvard had endless delights. Some days I skipped classes entirely, and roamed the stacks at Widener Library. The principal delight, though, was the company of the other Nieman Fellows. There were twelve of us — seven Americans, and five from abroad — and all of us male. None of us gave that a second thought, of course. Remember this was a lifetime ago.
We fellows were a convivial bunch. We had parties in one another’s rented apartments, picnics and softball games with wives and kids, and endless discussions about life, politics and journalism. A subset of us also drank great quantities of beer, often at a neighborhood Irish bar — Tigue’s, or McTigue’s, I think — while we continued our discussions. I remember, in particular, an argument about Vietnam. I insisted the U.S. would never be involved in a protracted ground war, but that if it did nothing the dominos would fall. Perhaps I should have stayed in Dr. Kissinger’s seminar, after all.
In the years to come, however, not all of us remained in journalism. One of us would join the Carter White House, while another would become an ambassador in the Reagan Administration, and another a Senate staffer. Nat Nkasa, a black South African journalist, committed suicide. This is not the place to talk about that, except to say that Nat was part of my education, and that he died because of apartheid.
Anyway I want you to know that Nieman life way back then was unstructured, free and not at all ideological. The commitment was to journalism and not liberal causes, and the assumption was you could always could tell the one from the other. The assumption most likely was faulty, but it seems to me it was made in good faith. Actually it was quite simple. A journalist was supposed to be the soul of neutrality while he uncovered the facts, and then made up his mind accordingly. In other words, in that far-off time, he prized independence and objectivity.
But the Nieman Foundation has just announced the new crop of fellows for the next academic year, and while I have no doubt they are all bright and able, their selection shows that the old assumption no longer applies. In fact, it’s dead and buried. Consider the areas of interest that the new Nieman Fellows will devote themselves to at Harvard.
These include, according to the announcement, “the legal and moral history of capital punishment,” “roots of international justice,” “the status of women,” “U.S. energy policy and environmental consequences,” “growth of the Hispanic population,” “gentrification in American cities,” and “the nature of change in a community.”
But one way or another, these are all causes, and they all come with approved ways of thinking. Capital punishment, for example, is an abomination, while we need an international court of justice, and women, of course, are oppressed. Little dissent is tolerated on issues like this in liberal circles, and at Harvard, I am sure, very little is found. Journalism, however, is not supposed to be captive to minds like that, and indeed a long time ago at Harvard it wasn’t. I know because I was there, and I had a very good year.
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