Long ago and not so far away I started working as a journalist on a daily Ohio newspaper. I had just graduated with a master’s degree in philosophy. What does a graduate degree in philosophy get you other than walking around asking lots of questions but not really having a job, like Socrates of old?
I remember the publisher saying to me when he offered the job: “We’ll put you on the city desk to start. That should clear out all the verbiage your professors stuffed in your brain for two years.” I thought that was a strange comment to make, but after a month at the newspaper I knew he was right. I soon learned to say in a few words what took me many pages and footnotes to write in graduate school. My real education was learning how to say simply and clearly what I wanted to say.
In those days, editors sat around a large table placed in the middle of the press room. They barked orders to reporters and often yelled at each other. Smoke from cigarettes and cigars rose above the desk. I am sure now it was the unhealthiest place to work, but it was a place where a small group of people learned to work together. Decades later I can still hear their voices and see their faces, these soldiers on the editorial battlefield.
Because it was a daily newspaper in a small city, we had to accomplish many tasks. The newspaper couldn’t afford specialists. It could barely afford to pay us. I edited copy, wrote editorials and columns, covered stories about robberies and trials, and occasionally wrote series of stories about harder topics, such as racial divisions in the city and why so many factories were closing. On Saturdays, I filled in as the sports editor and international news editor.
I wouldn’t have known it then, but I do now that this was a great experience. It taught me about how people could work together toward a common goal. I wrote about people surviving and even thriving from tragedies. I mingled with people I might never have done so in my academic life — factory workers and store clerks, hairdressers and others living day to day on the mean city streets.
After I left working on the newspaper I went off to a graduate program in international journalism, intending to do a second year internship in Spain. But the then dictator of that country denied me coming because he held control over the news media and did not wish to have a student connected to an American university. That experience illustrates the difference between a country which encourages a free press and one which restricts it or doesn’t want the facts out.
So I am thankful for those days, and I am upset today when I hear people talk about “fake news” and disparage journalists. Have they ever read the first amendment to our constitution which guarantees free speech?
I believe the first amendment in our constitution is the heart and soul of our country, what makes and keeps us a democratic republic. In case you have never read it, here it is:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
John C. Morgan teaches philosophy and ethics at Albright College in Reading. He is at work on a book about the first American jailed under a 1798 act restricting free speech. You can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org