CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 1996 | Contents

Publisher's Note The Struggle Against Forgetting

by Joan Konner

Opening day is as important as graduation in terms of setting out first principles at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Professor James Carey, former dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois and a member of the faculty since 1992, spoke to the class of '96. His remarks are a welcome reminder of What It's All For.

In 1940, the Trustees of Columbia University, upon the recommendation of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Literature to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that has deservedly acquired, in the half century since, an enormous international audience. But the novel did not begin as a novel; it began as journalism. Steinbeck undertook, first of all, a text and photo book recording the lives of California's migrant farm workers for Time Inc. Later he transformed the material into an epic and odyssey: the trek of the Joad family west from the drought of the dust bowl of the Great Plains to the rising waters of California's agricultural valleys. Steinbeck was but one among many who have transformed the fundamental elements of journalism -- close, careful detailed description and reportage -- into fiction and myth. Reflecting on journalism years later, in the 1950s, Steinbeck had this to say of our common craft:

What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing a dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men [and women], it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping into it even when it was not intended.

Steinbeck's reflection implicitly claims that journalism is a collective arrest of experience. Like the novel to which it is at every historical point connected, journalism converts valued experience into memory and record so it will not perish. When the workers at the shipyard at Gdansk erected a monument to their fallen comrades in Solidarity, they engraved on it the line of Milosz, "the poet remembers," where the poet includes all of us who arrest experience through word and image, who make the world by making our common memory of it. Similarly, Milan Kundera opens The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by claiming that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, thereby paying tribute to those democratic arts like journalism and the novel which are the commonplace means to socially significant ends.

Journalism takes its name from the French word for day. It is our day book, our collective diary, which records our common life. That which goes unrecorded goes unpreserved except in the vanishing moment of our individual lives. The creation and preservation of collective memory, whether practiced heroically and clandestinely in Kundera's Czechoslovakia or openly and freely in New York, is the final object and ultimate significance of your education here.

For here you will study the practice of journalism. Not the media. Not the news business. Not the newspaper or the magazine or the television station but the practice of journalism. There are media everywhere. Every despot creates his own system of media. There is a news business everywhere; there just isn't all that much journalism, for there can be no journalism without the aspiration for or institutions of democratic life. In despotic countries news stories are written, editorials are crafted and delivered, demonstrations are organized purporting to represent the will of the people. But all this is empty and hollow, for it expresses no shared and common mind and no collective meaning. The fact that the shadow of journalism is cast over the substance of despotism is backhanded testimony to the power and purpose of the craft.

Journalism arose as a protest against illegitimate authority in the name of a wider social contract, in the name of the formation of a genuine public life and a genuine public opinion. Journalism can be practiced virtually anywhere and under almost any circumstances. Just as medicine, for example, can be practiced in enormous clinics organized like corporations or in one-person offices, journalism can be practiced in multinational conglomerates or by isolated free-lancers. Just as medicine can be practiced with technologies as advanced as magnetic image resonating machines or as primitive as an ear that hears complaints and an eye that observes symptoms, so journalism can be practiced with satellites or script. The practice does not depend on the technology or bureaucracy. It depends on the practitioner mastering a body of skill and exercising it to some worthwhile purpose.

For journalism and for us that purpose is the development and enhancement of public life, a common life which we can all share as citizens. The role journalism has played in constituting such a life is one of the noblest chapters in our history and one of the our most fervent hopes for our future.

The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. To make experience memorable so it won't be lost and forgotten is the task of journalism. To be able to do this and to do it well is all that one can ask for in a career.