When the Nieman class arrived in the fall of 1964, the Louis M. Lyons Award was just a plaque that was hung in the Nieman office, unassuming in appearance. Soon the idea of the Lyons award became close to our hearts. We were the last class chosen under Lyons’ curatorship, and we came to respect him and his wife, Totty, during visits we had with them during our Nieman year. A few months earlier the class that preceded ours had awarded it for the first time in honor of their retiring curator. The journalists they’d selected to receive the award, which had been created to recognize conscience and integrity in journalism, were American correspondents in Vietnam cited for reporting "the truth as they saw it … without yielding to unrelenting pressures … from numerous sources including the United States government."
As a Boston Globe reporter, I already knew Lyons because I’d reported on some of his speeches, lectures and appearances at forums on public affairs. In the Globe’s city room I’d heard the stories of his scoops, the most famous being his interview with Joseph P. Kennedy, then U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (Great Britain), in which his defeatist views toward the coming war were exposed.
The story led the Sunday paper on November 10, 1940, at a time when Nazi troops occupied Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France, and German bombs were falling on London and other British cities. The headline read: "Kennedy Says Democracy All Done," and the story began with these words: "Joseph P. Kennedy was sitting in his shirtsleeves eating apple pie and American cheese in his room at the Ritz-Carlton. His suspenders hung around his hips."
In the interview, Kennedy was reactionary toward Europe and isolationist and defeatist about the war with Germany. One explosive quote in a long and garrulous performance ended Kennedy’s hope for a political career: "Democracy is finished in England. It may be here."
After the story was published, Kennedy tried to deny the quote, but Lyons had a witness, Ralph Coglan, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Kennedy claimed the interview was off-the-record, but Lyons covered that in his original story as well:
"Coglan and I rushed for a cab to get to an office where we could compare notes and save every crumb we could of Kennedy’s talk. Coglan, an editorial writer, wanted it only for background. He didn’t have a story to write.
"’I wouldn’t be in your shoes,’ said Coglan. ‘How do you know what you can write? He just puts it up to you to follow your own conscience and judgment and protect him in his diplomatic capacity.’
"’Well, last time I interviewed him in 1936 he poured himself out just like this, without laying any restriction on me, and I wrote every bit of it, and it went all over the country — the interview in which he said why he was for Roosevelt. And he said it was the best interview he’d ever had. But he wasn’t an ambassador then.’"
It was a great story, accurately reflecting Kennedy’s negative views toward the allied powers and a certain inevitability for Adolf Hitler in an interview that had rambled on for 90 minutes. The impact was immediate. Kennedy was finished not only as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, but also as a power in the Roosevelt administration. The interview created a less welcome legacy for The Boston Globe, earning that paper the undying enmity of one of Boston’s most powerful families. Kennedy controlled much of the liquor commerce along the East Coast, and for 20 years or more he saw to it that few if any brands were advertised in the Globe.
In those days, there were eight daily newspapers in Boston; the Globe was often the most timid as well as the least partisan. Lyons’ story, and the owner’s support when the heat rose in its aftermath, was an example of conscience and integrity.
My 1965 Nieman classmates and I were pleased that those honored by the Lyons award were reporters in Vietnam who had displayed physical courage under fire in the field and moral courage facing critics back home. Three individual journalists were singled out for praise — Cornelius (Neil) Sheehan of United Press International, Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press, and David Halberstam of The New York Times — though in a special citation their colleagues also were honored for their "courage, determination and skill [that] helped to let the people know."
Soon it became our turn to select a Lyons award recipient. Given that four decades of time have passed since we made that decision, I’ve asked some of my classmates about how we approached doing it. Nobody remembers much discussion until quite late in our Nieman year; I don’t recall Dwight Sargent, our curator, mentioning it as a somber duty awaiting us as our year commenced, nor do I believe the preceding class left us a road map about how they’d made their selection.
Then on April 27th, just about the time we were getting ready to return to our papers, Edward R. Murrow died. Lionized in the obituaries, Murrow’s life and death was in the news for many days. Obviously qualified, we chose him to win the award posthumously. Two classmates recall a third member of our class frowning on the choice as a cop-out, contending that Murrow was late in taking on Senator Joe McCarthy and powerful enough to survive even though he did. But we had no other nominations. If any official voting was done, my guess is that it occurred after dark in a nearby pub.
Ray Jenkins wrote to Ed Murrow’s widow, Janet, and received a heartfelt letter of thanks. In subsequent years, the name of Edward R. Murrow has been cited as personifying the Lyons award as much or more than any other recipient. It was a good choice, though our process for making it was not so good.
By the next year, the class solicited nominations for the award from former Niemans and honored Wilson F. Minor of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune for "sharply perceptive investigative reporting of political and racial affairs [that] has consistently blown open the doors of a closed society. His subjects have ranged from Ku Klux Klan’s infiltration of the State Highway Patrol to the inequities of educational funding in Mississippi."
After three years, the Louis M. Lyons Award seemed off to a strong beginning, even though there were still no guidelines and no assistance to help Nieman Fellows choose a winner. Then, for 13 years, from 1967 until 1980, the award disappeared. Louis died in 1982, having watched this small tribute to his life wither away.
Selecting the best person to honor in a given year is hard work. Jim Thomson helped restore the award, and Bill Kovach made it a high priority for the fellows by beginning work on the award selection early in their Nieman year. They, along with Howard Simons and Bob Giles, deserve credit for keeping the spirit of the Lyons award alive. More than ever, rewarding conscience and integrity in the practice of our craft seems warranted.
Jim Doyle, a 1965 Nieman Fellow, was a reporter at The Boston Globe, the Washington Evening Star, and Newsweek. He served as a special assistant to Watergate Prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski in 1973 and 1974.