Drawing on the Skills of a Superb Liberal Education
Recently, I had the opportunity to see Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward appear together and talk about their Watergate investigation and current journalism. What was most striking was their discussion of investigative journalism and the strong support they had enjoyed from Katharine Graham, then the Washington Post publisher, and their editor, Benjamin Bradlee.
As Woodward and Bernstein explained, the paper’s leaders showed great courage in backing the young reporters’ dangerous pursuit of what turned out to be one of the most important political stories of the 20th century. Looking at the current state of American journalism, the two expressed concern that the decline of newspapers might be eroding the willingness of editors and publishers to pursue such stories and would also decrease the level of scrutiny applied to our major institutions.
As some of you will recall, just a few years ago the Oberlin Review sponsored a terrific symposium on the future of journalism. The speakers were all Oberlin alumni, and many of them expressed similar concerns. But the panelists and speakers also said that this is an exciting time for journalism. Thanks to telecommunications, computers, the Internet and the rise of social media, news, images, and information can move at light speed around the world. Innovative new journalism initiatives, some hyper-local, some focusing on specific topics, are proliferating.
One such endeavor is the brainchild of our alum and board member Neil Barsky. Neil spoke this past Friday at the City Club of Cleveland, on his exciting new venture, The Marshall Project. In his talk, Neil spoke powerfully about his work to shine the spotlight on the criminal justice system to bring about reform.
Neil epitomizes the value of a liberal education, Oberlin style: he’s worked as a leading journalist, a hedge fund manager, a documentary filmmaker (he directed the documentary Koch) and has now founded a nonprofit designed to bring high quality investigative reporting to criminal justice in this country.
Throughout the decades, Oberlin alums have gravitated to journalism. Journalism, perhaps more than any other profession, draws on the skills of a superb liberal education: devotion to truth, facts and verification, clear writing, strong researching, critical thinking, analytical ability, quantitative reasoning, and the ability to contextualize multiple perspectives. Throw into the mix the kind of risk-taking that characterized Bernstein and Woodward and Barsky and you have robust journalism practiced by people seeking truth about important questions.
So it is not surprising that Neil, and many other Oberlin alums, including recent Convocation speakers Jad Abumrad ’95 and Robert Krulwich ’69, are tackling the challenge of the changing journalistic landscape.
The list of outstanding journalists who have studied at Oberlin is too long for this column. It includes pioneers from the past such as Carl Rowan ’47, Max Robinson ’61, Bruce Catton ’20 and Harry Haskell (1896). Journalists working today include Adam Moss ’79, Felice Belman ’88, Peter Baker ’88, Beth Fouhy ’83, Emily Nussbaum ’88, Michael Duffy ’80, Jennifer Siebens ’72, Melanie Eversley ’83, Bob Drogin ’73, Joe Richman ’87, Steve Suo ’90, Linda Holmes ’93, Chris Broussard ’90, Lucia Graves ’07, a host of NPR reporters and producers, and so many others providing informed, multi-faceted coverage of our country, our culture and our world.
Sophia Yan ’09, for example, has been reporting tirelessly for CNN from Hong Kong on the massive pro-democracy demonstrations taking place there. At Oberlin, Sophia earned degrees in piano performance and English, and served in almost every position at the Review including editor-in-chief.
While we can’t say for certain what media or form cutting-edge journalism will take in the next century, I believe the demand for and need for quality journalism is as strong or stronger than ever. And I am sure that wherever journalism goes Oberlin alums will be right there, continuing to lead the way.