This piece was originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of Nieman Reports
Louis Lyons, star reporter, pioneer newscaster, member of the first class of Nieman Fellows, and Curator of the Nieman Foundation from 1939 to 1964, wrote his memoirs in the middle 1960’s. The draft he produced was sparkling, informative, wise, and rambling. For one reason or another it has never been published. He died in 1982 in his 85th year. Only a few passages of the manuscript have found their way into print. They pertained to The Boston Globe, and he adapted them for "Newspaper Story," his history of that paper, published in 1971. Now, with the permission of his widow, Catherine (Totty) Lyons, we give you that part of the memoirs that tells of his experiences at Harvard—his own Nieman Fellowship and his management of the Nieman program.
When one of Harvard’s fund drives in the 1920’s had raised the handsome Graduate School of Business Administration on the Boston side of the Charles, I did a special story on the institution for The Boston Globe. This involved an interview with one of the deans and the natural question of what they were going to teach. Teaching business to graduate students was still new, though Harvard had started its school in 1908, in more modest quarters, and had borrowed the idea of case studies from the Law School. The commencement degree awards still cited business as "the oldest of the arts, the youngest of the professions," to set off a rippling chuckle every June at the exercises in HarvardYard.
But Boston University had an undergraduate business school, and this included a department of journalism. I asked the dean if Harvard’s business school would include journalism.
"Good God, no," he exploded. "Journalism is nothing but the gift of gab." That, so far as I knew, was Harvard’s attitude toward journalism education, until in 1937 out of the blue came an announcement that Harvard had received a bequest "to promote and elevate standards of journalism in the United States and educate people deemed especially qualified for journalism."
The bequest was from Agnes Wahl Nieman, in memory of her late husband, Lucius W. Nieman, founder of The Milwaukee Journal. The amount turned out to be about $1,350,000. This raised directly for Harvard the question what it was going to do about journalism.
Of course the great state universities of the West and Midwest had long-established schools of journalism, just as they had schools of agriculture, of pharmacy, of home economics and other practical programs which the older eastern Ivy League colleges had never embraced. In journalism the one Ivy League exception was Columbia, which had a one-year graduate school endowed by the first Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer had first made his offer to Harvard; but the plan that President Charles W. Eliot proposed did not satisfy him. It was evidently more academic, less practical than what Pulitzer had in mind.
Harvard was not without a strong representation in the field of journalism. Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, the Cowles brothers, the Alsops, Edward A. Weeks, Frederic Lewis Allen, Barry Bingham, Brooks Atkinson, William L. Laurence, and many more were ornaments of that calling. As in the other old eastern colleges, a liberal arts education had proved as acceptable a foundation for journalism as any, and undergraduate work on the Harvard Crimson had long proved an open sesame to a newspaper job. Harvard’s reluctance to move into formal programs for the lively arts had quite recently been demonstrated in the companion field of the theatre. It had shied away from Professor George Baker’s drama workshop, once its practical outlines had become a prominent feature of the Cambridge landscape, and had let Baker take his dramatics down to Yale.
President James B. Conant was not about to start another journalism school either. He had another model in mind. Another bequest, just ahead of Mrs. Nieman’s, had seemed to call for some original patterning. With the great Harvard Tercentenary of 1936 behind him, Conant had taken a breather to think about the bequest of Lucius Littauer, the New York glove manufacturer and protectionist congressman who had provided an endowment for education in public administration. Conant had shaped a plan for that and before it was launched the Nieman bequest suggested a parallel groove.
Conant’s plan for the Littauer program was to set up a graduate center in public administration and to bring into it a selected group from government for studies in public policy. They would come on leave from their jobs for a year or two of study in economics and government. While the Littauer Center building was going up, Harvard assembled a group of scholars and specialists who spent a year as consultants, designing the program for the Littauer Fellows in Public Administration. It was during this year of Littauer preparation that the Nieman bequest came.
It was a total surprise to Harvard, a windfall, and without specific prescription except the very general responsibility to strengthen journalism.
Conant adapted the Littauer plan. There were some changes. The Littauer Fellows would be taking graduate studies in a combination government-economics program and would qualify for graduate degrees. This, under the Harvard system, had been deemed necessary. But Conant shared with his predecessor, A. Lawrence Lowell, a lack of reverence for degrees and a strong interest in developing interdisciplinary programs. The Nieman bequest offered a chance to go a step beyond the Littauer pattern. Newpapermen didn’t need degrees as teachers and government workers did. Moreover, the field of journalism was potentially as broad and various as the curriculum of a university. But the plan to bring in persons already established in their chosen work, to strengthen their background with university studies, could be applied.
The notion of having them come on leave of absence from their jobs must have had a special appeal. For two reasons. This was a very special bequest and it was desirable to put it to work with a quick application. After one year the newspapermen would be back at work. Also, this was in the deep trough of depression. A college president had scant desire to be turning out an additional crop of graduate students to knock at closed doors.
So the Nieman Fellowship program was announced to start in the fall of 1938. A selected group of newspapermen would be admitted to Harvard for one year of studies of their own choice. They would come on leave of absence. The Nieman funds would be used primarily to pay them stipends in lieu of the newspaper salaries they would relinquish for the academic year at Harvard.
Conant had a number of newspapermen among the 30 Harvard graduates elected by the alumni to the Board of Overseers. Among them was Walter Lippmann. The president discussed his plan with his board and then, at their suggestion, with a number of newspaper editors and publishers. He was disappointed in the response. Most newspaper managers were dubious about it. Probably most felt that newspaper work provided its own education for its own purposes. There was a question whether newspapermen would step out of their fast-paced occupation to take a year off for further study.
But Conant was not to be put off. Long after, he described it as "a very dubious experiment." But by hindsight it can also be seen that it had in it all the elements of the success it rapidly achieved. Harvard’s own prestige must have been an essential element in this. The flexibility of the program was another. A man could actually study just what he wanted—just what he’d always wanted, just what he’d come to feel the lack of. And the stipends made it possible. At that time, before the great educational foundations had begun pumping big money into educational grants, the Nieman stipends, to pay full salary, were unique. Of course, the salaries were fairly small.
Harvard had 309 applications for the nine fellowships offered that first year and never a dearth of applications after that. Conant appointed an impressive selecting committee, Walter Lippmann, Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and John Stewart Bryan, publisher of the Richmond papers and president of the College of William and Mary. The Harvard Corporation laid down just one requirement, at least three years’ experience in journalism.
As it turned out, the informal, less organized Nieman program worked as Conant had planned. The more elaborate and fixed Littauer program did not, for a generation. For one thing the degree provision brought it under control of a very conservative chairman of the economics department who was inhospitable to a flexible program. For another, the war manpower problem soon made it especially difficult for government men to get leave and brought a substitution of graduate students to fill out the quota of Littauer Fellowships. Then political considerations brought a less hospitable attitude in government bureaus. Gradually the Littauer Center became a graduate school of public administration, and a mighty good one.
But it brought one boon for the Nieman Fellows. The very practical seminars set up for the Littauer Fellows, in labor relations, government planning, budgets, fiscal policy,
international trade, the business cycle, foreign aid, science and public policy, and other subjects proved very useful to the Nieman Fellows. And our Littauer colleagues were ever hospitable, even sending us notices of special programs that brought in senators, labor leaders, cabinet members, and military chiefs, to discuss their fields.
After the war the Littauer seminars were companioned by others—in a Russian center, a Far East program, and a Middle East center—and Henry Kissinger developed defense seminars and Robert Bowie seminars on foreign policy. All this would expand the practical side of the menu Harvard offered in the background of public affairs, all of it available, with everything else in the university, to Nieman Fellows.
My acquaintance with the Nieman program began with my explorations to do a special story on this interesting announcement, and I expected it to end there. I did not think of it at all as affecting me. I was 40 years old, had been 20 years out of college. But once my story was printed, with all the details spelled out, it started conversation, both in the office and at home. And this kept up. "Why don’t you apply for one of those fellowships?" "Oh, they’ll be looking for people younger than I am." "How do you know? There’s no age limit. Why don’t you find out?"
So one day in 1938 I went over to Harvard to inquire about applying. I found that the next day was the deadline for applications and the application was quite an elaborate process. I needed clippings of my work, supporting letters from editor and publisher, three other letters, a statement of what I proposed to do on a fellowship, and a biographical statement. But, scouring around, I got it in next day. I told everyone concerned not to expect anything to come of it, and I didn’t. In ensuing weeks, we had almost forgotten about it at home, when one day a letter came informing me that I had been selected for a Nieman Fellowship. The stipend would be at my salary to cover 40 weeks, which was a very generous definition of the college year.
So that was set. I tried to get my mind around the idea of spending a year in a university. The children thought it was funny. Dad was going to college. My oldest son, Richard, in his last year of high school, had already taken some college board exams.
The Globe office took a lively interest in considering how I would get the most out of a year at Harvard. It was James Morgan who suggested I ought to talk to Felix Frankfurter of the Harvard Law School about it, to find out who were the great minds one should not miss at Harvard.
Frankfurter hospitably suggested lunch at the Faculty Club. When I told him my quest for great minds he laughed. "There aren’t any," he said. "You go for the things that interest you most." Then he reconsidered. Well, there were two minds I should not miss. One was Gaetano Salvemini, the distinguished historian, exiled from Fascist Italy. The other was Harry Murray in clinical psychology. I mentally added a third, Frankfurter.
I told him that clinical psychology was way outside my orbit and that I had looked up Salvemini’s offering and found it was limited to mediaeval history.
"Never mind what it says," Frankfurter said. ”Anything Salvemini teaches is current."
And so it proved. Salvemini’s lectures on the Italian city state were relevant to city machines anytime anywhere and he was frequently flashing a point of current application. That exposure to Salvemini also developed a most rewarding acquaintance with one of the great people and brought him into many a session with the Nieman Fellows in subsequent years.
That was the only definite suggestion that came out of the talk with Frankfurter. But I got his assurance that I could sit in on his law school course in administrative law.
I had already pretty well made up my mind, and though things never work out as planned, my plan probably did as well for me as any other. What I had in mind was to explore back of the beginnings of the United States, to fill the gap between the mediaeval period and our independence, and get at the roots of our constitutional system.
Some of this quite naturally fell into place; some didn’t quite fit; but the experience of organizing my own year of work was to stand me in good stead in later years of helping other Nieman Fellows find their way in a big complex university that is not organized for visiting firemen on a one-year hitch.
But Samuel Eliot Morison’s course in American colonial history was a natural. Morison, great historical essayist, had the same distinction of style in his lectures. They were a delight. I made up my mind to enjoy them and not to dilute the experience by scribbling down notes as Harvard students on both sides of me were feverishly doing. So I sat back to drink in Morison’s stimulating lectures. This had an unexpected reaction. When Morison was invited to a Nieman dinner, someone told him how much I enjoyed his lectures. "Why Louis just sits there and looks bored," said Morison.
He had paid me off for my unorthodox behavior. One day a student next to me looked up from his notebook long enough to ask me, "What did he say?" I started to tell him when Morison pounced on the deliquent student to demand what he had said. "I just asked him a question." "Well, he probably knows more about it than I do," snapped Morison. When he became an admiral as naval historian of the Second World War some of his colleagues observed that his temperament was well adapted to the quarterdeck.
One day after class I walked over to the library with Morison to ask him a question about something I had read in Charles Beard’s history. "Oh, Beard doesn’t know anything about the 17th century," Morison said. "His period is the 19th century." This was a striking appraisal of the author of "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution." I had stumbled upon one of the more contentious of academic feuds. When Beard undertook to interpret the 20th century from his intensely isolationist point of view, Morison wrote a scathing review of "America in Mid-Century" under the title "History Through a Beard."
At the end of our short chat, Morison said, "You’re the only one in the class who asked me anything. I keep my study open all the time for students. But they don’t take advantage of it." I couldn’t tell him the obvious answer, that they were scared to death of him.
In contrast, old Charles McIlwain always had a group of students six deep around his lectern at the close of his lecture on political theory. This proved a very scholastic course, most of it much more theoretical and too minutely detailed for my purposes. The members of the class were graduate students or candidates for honors. McIlwain assigned readings in mediaeval Latin and French and dwelt for many successive hours on dim periods which, so far as I could find, had never seemed to anyone else to produce any theories of government. Mcilwain was one of the most conservative of men. He had had to convince himself of the "legitimacy” of American independence and had done so through a tortured process that remained all Greek to me, and, I was later comforted to discover, to most other people. He was author of a classic in his field entitled "The Growth of Political Thought in the West," of which Harold Laski observed that there was no growth in political thought as expounded by McIlwain.
But he was a great teacher and a great human being. He had the classic head of a Roman senator, but his strong face was constantly crinkled in humorous expression and his eyes twinkled in conversation. He ran his course as a continuing conversation. The class was too big for discussion, about 125. But Mcilwain managed an illusion of discussion as he shuffled a half dozen books on his desk, describing them, reading passages from them, talking about them, illuminating their obscurities. These were the books he had assigned to us and he must have known perfectly well that most of us had not read any that were not in English, or had got very little from them if we had.
In between Mcilwain’s political theory and Salvemini’s mediaeval history, I chose a course in Intellectual History of the Middle Ages with Charles H. Taylor, who was to become one of my closest Harvard friends. But all that I can remember of that course was endless description, charting, and discussion of Thomas Aquinas on the "City of God."
Along with Salvemini, Harvard in that winter of 1938-1939 and for some years after had another distinguished exile, Heinrich Bruening one of the last chancellors of Germany before Hitler came to power. I thought I should avail myself of the opportunity to hear the man who had headed Germany in the early 1930’s. Bruening was teamed up with William Yandell Elliott in a course on government regulation. Elliott took the British government and Bruening his own, and they ran each session together, in comparative discussion. This was an evening course, featured by coffee, which made it easier to take.
Bruening was a disappointment, a very dry, meticulous speaker who struck me as more a technician of government than an executive. He was full of alibis. If the Allies had allowed him more troops, if the Belgians had not balked Germany’s economic recovery with their tariffs, if the Communists had not ganged up with the Nazis against the Center Party. One of the Nieman Fellows suggested that Bruening was the Herbert Hoover of Germany. In private even more than public talk, the Catholic ex-chancellor sounded as though he blamed the Communists about as much as the Hitlerites for the destruction of the Weimar Republic. You could understand how this sensitive, precise, academic man would hesitate to take rigorous action sufficient to meet the developing crisis.
Elliott had enough authoritarianism and egotism in him so that you could imagine, had the temperaments of the two been reversed, that Bruening might have had what it took to cope with the role for which he was so miscast. The Harvard Crimson’s confidential guide to freshman one year described an Elliott course as "Elliott on England, Elliott on Russia, and Elliott on Elliott." Elliott was an able and effective lecturer, but the class would go out tittering after he had searched his briefcase for a memo to announce, "Oh, I must have left that on Ed Stettinius’s desk." (The Secretary of State.)
Elliott had as much right as anybody to name-dropping. Through the war and for a decade or more after it, he commuted to Washington where he served in a succession of important administrative and staff director roles. He managed to arrange his Harvard schedule for Mondays and Fridays and spend the rest of the week in Washington. Other key people on the Harvard faculty carried on equally rigorous wartime schedules, and President Conant himself was soon spending most of his time in Washington.
Felix Frankfurter’s law course met once a week for a two-hour session. The law students crowded around a long seminar table, which hadn’t room for half of them. The rest sat in chairs around the wall of the narrow room. Frankfurter himself sat in the middle of one side of the table. I became embarrassingly conspicuous at the first session by taking the chair which, on his arrival, he announced was his. About half the Nieman Fellows that first year sat in on this course which, as things turned out, was Frankfurter’s last at Harvard. His intellectual vitality matched his immense knowledge, not only of law but of government and of political history, and these all blended together that semester in a course that could as well have been named Public Administration. Every session was a treat. Frankfurter’s talk was always exciting, whatever the subject.
The subject was often Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, his guiding light. He was passionately devoted to Holmes’s mind and ideas and his concepts of law and of life. Frankfurter had two assistants who attended the course and were obviously on easy intimate terms with him. One day a student developed a critique of a Holmes opinion. Frankfurter interrupted to correct him. One of the assistants said, sotto voce, to the student: "You’re stepping on a tender corn there." "The corn is accuracy," flashed Frankfurter. "Well, it’s real tender," retorted the assistant with a lugubrious sigh.
Frankfurter talked so much about so many things, and assigned us so many issues to explore and report in class, that when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court and Thomas Reed Powell took over for the second half, Powell’s opening statement was to the effect that we had to get on with the business of administrative law because we had a lot of catching up to do. "The show is over." But it wasn’t. Thomas Reed Powell was one of the natural showmen, a remarkable raconteur with a gift for humorous and ribald verse, which he perpetrated on the slightest excuse. The course continued to be a rich experience.
A great bonus of the Harvard year was time to read, and Harvard enhanced this with its "reading period" between terms. The Christmas recess ran into the reading period, which reached to midyear examinations, making altogether five or six weeks from about December 20 to early February. Students had to spend part of this open stretch reviewing for examinations.
Nieman Fellows were not held to examinations. But I wanted to take some exams just as an exercise, and in a number of courses books were listed that would be covered in the exam; so one could have both his reading and the exams. I enjoyed the experience and always afterwards recommended to Nieman Fellows that they take the examination in at least the course most central to their interest. Most did and naturally, as mature and experienced students, most got high marks, which, in any case, never went beyond the Nieman office files. Ten years later we made it the one requirement that each Fellow should take at least one examination in a subject of his own choice. It has certainly been no hardship, but a useful experience, and it must have helped in our faculty relationships, for the professor sending over the examination grade almost always added a note appreciating the quality of work. When I met Sam Morison on the subway after that first midyears, he said, "You newspapermen certainly know how to take examinations." Writing facility undoubtedly helps, and perhaps it covers up some shortages on facts.
But I knew I hadn’t made much on Mcilwain’s exam. I took it out of curiosity. But the upshot was revealing of the old man’s kindly and diffident quality. I could not find mine among the blue books returned. When I asked him about it he said he must still have some at home, and he’d look. Several inquiries brought only apologies for his forgetfulness, and I finally realized that he didn’t want to embarrass me by scoring my lame production. But of course the best result of examinations is the chance to check up on what you didn’t know and fill the gaps of your deficiencies.
In the second term I was led by other Fellows to wander into two other courses that proved part of the frosting on the cake.
One was George Sarton’s history of science. Sarton’s enthusiastic devotion to science made his lectures exciting. A typical lecture would take one subject, say "light," and describe the whole development of science in that field. He liked to show how one generation of research succeeded by understanding the failures of the one before. He would bring out the human equation, the chances, sometimes the accidents, that brought a breakthrough to a whole new area of knowledge, or the scientist looking for one thing discovering something else much more important. His lectures often included profiles of the scientific discoverers. I found that one could be quite ignorant of science and still appreciate what Conant called the tactics and strategy of science.
The other course was a weekly informal seminar with Granville Hicks, who was one of a group of "counsellors in American history" whom President Conant had appointed for that year as an experiment. Each counsellor was attached to one of the Harvard Houses. For the undergraduates, work with them was voluntary and without credit. It didn’t work. Harvard students were kept too busy for extra-curricular courses. Conant with typical realism dropped it after that one year. But meantime Hicks and his colleagues were a resource for whoever was interested. One of the members of that first class of Nieman Fellows, Edwin A. Lahey, discovered that Hicks had a kind of tutorial session in American history once a week for such students at Adams House as cared to join. There were only a few. Lahey’s enthusiasm brought several of us into it for a most rewarding experience. We would read one book a week and have a discussion on it with Hicks. I think we started with Turner’s "The Frontier in American History," and we ended with Karl Marx.
Marx was our own choice in order to exploit the exceptional opportunity of a communist’s interpretation. For Granville Hicks was to us a rara avis, a communist. That is, he said he was a communist. He was to unsay it after the Soviet invasion of Finland before the end of that year, 1939. He was actually an idealist with a deep religious commitment to social justice who had become convinced by the depression that capitalism had failed, and he saw in Marxism a new hope for a more just and workable socio-economic order. A good many intellectuals and others shared his discouragement over the chance of capitalism to overcome the vast unemployment and stagnation of the 1930’s, and watched closely to see whether Moscow’s new answer held a new hope. Stalinism was to destroy such illusion. It swiftly destroyed it with Hicks, whose total career in communism lasted four years.
But it was the insistent honesty of Hicks’s nature that made him declare himself a communist, to wear the label. This marked him as a very naive person. I found him so—refreshingly naive and totally impractical. Having a real affection for his transparently sincere and compassionate nature, I was impatient with his insistence of wearing a badge that made him a martyr. He had come to communism after divinity-school studies. He was the first communist I can recall having known, and the only one I ever knew well, and it seemed to me that calling himself a communist was a self-imposed hair shirt. It pilloried him in public denunciation, made him an object of attack, directed equally at Harvard for tolerating him. The existence of Granville Hicks at Harvard was a cause celebre in Boston in 1938. Public meetings passed resolutions about him. Legislators orated about the "Kremlin on the Charles!’
For my money, Hick’s contribution to Harvard was as an historian of literature and a social critic. His ideology I discounted. His outlook, so far as I could see, was no different from that of many of use who all our lives had been reformers and rebels against social injustice but who anticipated no utopia from embracing an alien ideology. We didn’t necessarily consider Norman Thomas’s mild socialism a practical ideology though it might offer a convenient alternative to such a tweedledum and tweedledee political choice as, say, between John W. Davis and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. After Granville Hicks had visited at my house my four-year-old son, Tom, changed the name of his wooden duck from Donald Duck to Granville Hicks. This was a small boy’s tribute to a kindly, imaginative little man whose deep genuine human nature was so readily revealed to a child. I thought this naming of the duck appropriately symbolic of the public image of Granville Hicks, which was so utterly at variance with the questing mind and social conscience of this earnest academic. It was wholly in character for Hicks to be so outraged at the invasion of little Finland by the Russian colossus that he publicly renounced communism.
Hicks was, I think, the only avowed communist then at Harvard. We were later to hear of secret communists among the younger members of this and other universities in that decade of disillusion and ferment. Perhaps, had I been more ideologically inclined myself, I would have been aware of them, but I don’t recall that any of my Nieman colleagues was either.
I was much more interested in Conant’s development of "The American Radical" in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1935, when he had been president two years. Conant espoused what to me seemed native American radicalism. He expressed it in terms of fluidity and mobility, which he thought were essential to sustain an open society with opportunity reaching to the top of native ability. He went so far in the Atlantic article as to advocate a tax program that would liquidate inherited wealth in each generation. He accompanied this concern for a classless society with a concept of the public school as the cement of democracy.
Conant later deepened this latter part of his philosophy, first by fighting against federal aid to any but public schools, and then by exploring and diagnosing the weakness of our public schools to the end that they should become the strength he had idealized in them. Conant’s conversion to champion of the public school from a personal life peculiarly insulated by private school associations is one of the hopeful paradoxes of American life and leadership. For 20 years my own work was to be within the perimeter of Conant’s activity. My conclusion about Conant is that his education in the largest sense began after he left the presidency of Harvard and the ambassadorship to Germany to immerse himself in the problems of the public school, and in that lay his greatest contribution to American life.
But as to his espousal of the American radical and his emphasis on fluidity and mobility, this I am sure was a result of his own early, and only, experience with American industry. As a young chemist he went to work for the Duponts and in this feudally closed family industrial empire, he found fluidity and mobility blocked. It deeply offended his own very practical sense of the need to let talent and leadership find their way to the control that was essential if their values were to be realized.
His American Radical article was of course utterly out of character for the president of an institution run by a self-perpetuating corporation composed entirely of Harvard graduates, all solid men of substance, mostly of State Street and Wall Street. This article must have shocked or frightened them as they thought of its effect on all the corporate executives and rich stockholders who had not yet made out their wills to Harvard. Conant never repeated this espousal of native American radicalism in the specific terms of that article.
Years later I wrote those things in a long appreciation of Conant under the guise of a review of one of his books. He was by that time in Germany. He wrote me a long appreciative letter about my article and our long association, but said that I was wrong in suggesting that he had dropped his promotion of radicalism because of any pressure from the corporation or elsewhere. He said the answer was simple—he got no response to his prescription for the American radical and was too practical to wish to pursue a mirage.
One may have his own judgment about the forces and influences that shape or modify a man’s views. But Conant was certainly right in assessing practicality as a decisive factor in his own career. It shows clearly in his books on education. He eschewed the controversies and cliches that divided the educationists, in order to emphasize the subjects and programs he felt essential and to urge such forms of operation and control as held the best promise to keep schools free of political intervention or domination by an "educational establishment."
One of the very practical arrangements at Harvard that made reading seductive was the library system of placing on the shelves under each course not only the books required for the course but whole banks of others for "suggested reading."
One of my Nieman colleagues that first year, John McL. Clark, listed more than 300 books he had read on Latin America, which was his field of study. Harvard had little organized curriculum then on Latin America, which was the case with American universities generally then and for years after. But John said he was happy just to have a stall in the library and a chance to get at the books.
Journalism wasn’t doing much with Latin America either. Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, had planned to open a Latin American bureau and talked about it to John Clark. But it didn’t come off. Clark, however, immediately found an outlet for his special interest. He helped John Winant, then head of the International Labor Organization, set up the first ILO conference for Latin America in Havana. When the Office of Inter-American Affairs was created in Washington during the war, Clark was one of the first people Nelson Rockefeller recruited to develop that program. Clark came to Harvard from the editorial page of the Washington Post but after his Nieman year was unable to conform to the then isolationist policy of its editor. But his diversion from journalism was temporary. A few years later he became publisher of his own paper, the Claremont (N.H.) Eagle, and made it an informed and progressive voice until his untimely death at 40 in a New Hampshire flood.
Clark was one of the youngest of our 1938-39 group of nine and one of the best minds in it.
Another vital young member was Edwin Paxton, then city editor of his family paper in Paducah, Kentucky. He later became its president and developed a television station as companion to the newspaper. A rugged Kentuckian, Paxton quickly adapted to Harvard. He mastered sculling to take his exercise in a wherry on the Charles, and for intellectual relaxation immersed himself in the novels of Henry James.
From farther south we had two Fellows from Alabama, Osborn Zuber of the Birmingham News and Herbert Lyons of the Mobile Register, both editorial writers. One of their primary interests was the history of the South. When I asked innocently why come all the way from Alabama to Cambridge to study the South, they asked me where else they could do it. Paul Buck, professor of history, was a Pulitzer Prize winner for his history of the South, "The Road to Reunion." He welcomed our Southern pair and a long string of their Nieman successors, and involved them productively in his course. From then on we regularly had a small squad of lively questing minds from the South and each year they made a nucleus of informed participants in Buck’s course, whatever their other interests.
Another of the younger men was Frank Hopkins of the Baltimore Sun, a scholarly journalist interested in international affairs, always one of the knowledgeable participants in our discussions that year. The war drew Hopkins into a war production job, and after it he followed his international bent into the foreign service.
We had one science student in the group, Wesley Fuller, a young reporter on the Boston Herald. We saw less of him, for his studies took him afield, into Boston to the Medical School and the School of Public Health. The medical scientists hospitably included him in staff sessions, colloquia, clinics, opening up chances to explore the workings of science and medicine beyond the course program. This was to continue, whenever a Nieman group included a science writer. Two of the first three immediately won the Westinghouse award for science writing, a distinction certainly due in no small part to the hospitable interest of Harvard scientists in the Nieman Fellows.
But most newspapers were not yet ready to deal seriously with science. For some years, until the atom bomb, our science writers were more apt than not to find their papers inhospitable to a science specialty. They found more satisfying work on magazines or in research laboratories to edit and interpret the work of scientists.
Irving Dilliard, from the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, was perhaps our member best prepared for his studies at Harvard. Few newspapermen had followed so closely the constitutional issues resolved in the Supreme Court. This had led Dilliard into correspondence with Felix Frankfurter, who so appreciated Dilliard’s commentaries on the law and the court that when he left Cambridge for Washington he turned his Brattle Street house over to the Dilliards. Irving was to become editor of the vigorous Post-Dispatch editorial page and to continue his studies of the courts and produce books on the work of Learned Hand and Hugo Black.
The Bill of Rights was to Dilliard the bulwark of American liberties and he never ceased reminding people of it while he presided over the most vigorous editorial page in America. Under Dilliard this page was a strong point of sanity during the McCarthy era and it was a powerful factor in uprooting the corrupt Green machine in Illinois and a constant menace to corruptionists nearer home.
The Nieman Fellow who made the largest impact on Harvard that first year was Edwin A. Lahey, then a labor reporter on the Chicago Daily News, later to become Washington bureau chief of all the Knight papers. It was Lahey’s first experience with college but he had larger experience of life than any of us, and his gift for pungent expression had Harvard students and faculty collecting "Laheyisms." Lahey took to Harvard with the same enthusiasm he had brought to reporting. When he discovered a book or a lecture course that excited him, nothing would do but the rest of us must share it. We all had a bonus from Lahey’s excitements, the most notable one the reading course with Granville Hicks.
As a writer, Lahey had the most individual style of the group, perhaps of any Nieman group over the years. He had color, verve, incisiveness, an earthy touch with reality, an ear for the right word and a sure sense for the heart of the matter. I once asked him to account for this, for he had left school after the eighth grade. He told me that working in a railroad freight house, he had long spells of waiting for something to do and used to read Dickens. Then he amused himself, he said, by trying to write sentences "as long as Dickens’s." He must have learned more than length of sentences from Dickens, and from much else, but chiefly from life.
Lahey had an extraordinarily sensitive quality that combined practicality with reflection in a warm human nature, and this made him attractive to the most sensitive intellects at Harvard. They had never known anyone like Lahey. He retained the racy argot of the streets but he spoke it in gentle tone and with a winning smile and evidenced a thoroughly sophisticated interest in everything. Frankfurter became at once his admiring friend. It was great good luck for the Nieman Program that its first group brought to Harvard a newspaperman of such pronounced characteristics as to make an indelible impression. Lahey to the Harvard mind was the prototype of Nieman Fellows.
His range of interests was surprising. He shared with me the course in the intellectual history of the Middle Ages. Then he went to a course in accounting. I remonstrated against letting any of his Nieman Year be preempted by accounting. "I’m going to know how to squeeze the water out of a municipal budget," he said. And he did. When the Daily News was investigating the delinquencies of a state auditor in a notorious case, they brought Ed Lahey up from Washington to contribute his expertise in exploring the elaborate diversion of public funds.
I once remarked to Ed on a charming article in the Chicago Daily News by Donald Culross Peattie on the trees of Illinois. "I suggested it to them," Lahey said, and sensing my surprise that this man of the sidewalks should have an interest in trees, he explained:
"When Washington gets to be just more than I can take, I’ve had a habit of packing a knapsack and taking a hike. One day I lay down to rest under a tree and looking up wondered what kind of tree it was. It made me disgusted with myself that I didn’t know the names of the common trees. So the first thing on getting back I looked up a book on trees and it was by Donald Culross Peattie, who writes about trees as though they were human beings."
Such insistent curiosity is of course one of the most valuable qualities for journalism. It equipped Ed Lahey to make the most of his year at Harvard, for a Nieman Fellowship is just what you make of it.
For me it was a year of relaxed reading, reflection, much discussion, and for the first time in my life exposure to truly scholarly dissertation on history and government. The quality of Harvard lecturing was to me extraordinary, and this has been the testimony of Nieman Fellows persistently down the years.
President Conant had no reverence for lectures. He was a scientist. At our first meeting with him he suggested we might be looking for short cuts. We could get reading lists from the professors and go at our own pace. But our experience was that the lectures were too good to miss. Often I have suggested to a Fellow that he was carrying so full a schedule I didn’t see where he was going to get time for the reading in so many courses. Frequently he would say he thought he got more by ear per hour from such well-organized lectures than he could in the same time reading. The educationists’ trend was to deplore lecturing and urge instead the dialogue of seminars. We always had plenty of seminars, but our Fellows tended always to deprecate the time the professor allotted to any talk but his own. Harvard professors were extremely conscientious about their lectures. Over and over I have had one respond to an invitation to a Nieman dinner, "I’d love to come. But I have to prepare a lecture for a 9 o’clock class. Please give me a rain check."
Many lectures I attended covered ground with which I had some familiarity. But the lecturer brought a different point of view, or emphasized an aspect I had not considered, or introduced some fresh element. It gave new dimensions to the subject and required some rethinking.
President Conant had persuaded Archibald MacLeish, lawyer, poet, and journalist, to leave Fortune Magazine and come to Harvard on a half-time basis to guide the new Fellowship Program. This was great good luck for all of us. MacLeish was guide and counsellor and helped us explore the resources of Harvard where he had himself been a law student and briefly an instructor. McLeish and Conant between them had thought up one group activity in addition to our individual studies. This was to be a thread of journalistic discussion through the year. MacLeish organized and presided over a weekly dinner. A leading journalist was asked to come and lead the talk at each. Four or five faculty members were also invited to join each discussion. These immediately became lively, informing, and often provocative. We came to call them the Nieman dinners.
That first season they were held Thursday nights at a restaurant called Joseph’s, on the second floor of the Boston Art Club just of Copley Square. Joseph, a gaunt sensitive Alsatian who claimed to have invented his own special version of vichyssoise, had a large square room back of the public restaurant which he reserved on Thursdays for "the professors," as he called us. The room had a fireplace but no firewood. As fall turned to winter, we persuaded the waiters to bring in packing cases, which we jumped on to convert them rapidly to the makings of a blazing fire. We had cocktails before dinner, then ordered from a menu. But almost immediately we discovered Joseph’s double lamb chops, soundly filling, which thereafter became a standard fare.
The dinner guests MacLeish coaxed to Cambridge that year were distinguished and the talk was grand. Walter Lippmann came up. So did Heywood Broun. And so did Paul Y. Anderson, the great investigational reporter of the Post-Dispatch, John Gunther, Alexander Woollcott, William Alleri White, Henry Luce, Harold Laski, and Raymond Gram Swing. Besides, Ralph Ingersoll came with a blueprint for a new kind of newspaper to be called PM, and James Morgan of The Boston Globe came to describe to us the convention that nominated William Jennings Bryan. These and others made the dinners memorable. MacLeish’s own conversation was sparkling. He knew most of the guests. He was deft in directing the discussion and bringing everyone into it. There was just one ground rule. Everything was off the record. So the talk was full, free, candid.
The next year we moved the dinners to Cambridge where the Signet Society was available, and their steward, Archie Gibbons, became the permanent successor to Joseph.
When Conant in the spring had us all around to his house to hear the returns of our year, he asked about the Nieman dinners. Oh, great. But one Fellow remarked that the faculty guests didn’t talk much. Another commented that they didn’t get much chance. Conant then suggested a second series, to hear from faculty members. So the next season we started a Tuesday afternoon session over beer and cheese at the Faculty Club and called it a seminar. Each week we would ask one of the faculty to come from 4 to 6 o’clock to talk about some topic in his field.
These two series, the dinners and the seminars, continued as strong thread of the Nieman program. The dinners, thereafter on alternate weeks, always averaged out at a high level but uneven. The faculty seminars on the other hand proved uniformly well organized and incisive, usually searching and in depth. The time of day had something to do with the seminars being more business-like, and the academic disciplines are themselves more organized. The newspaper talk was apt to be more discursive, more rambling, often irrelevant, but always interesting, usually revealing, often exciting. Both in their different ways developed the kind of talk that shouldn’t be missed.
After the first year, President Roosevelt took MacLeish away from us and made him Librarian of Congress, and it fell to me to preside over these dinners and seminars for the next 25 years, a rich experience.
In 1939 at the end of that first Fellowship Year we were asked to turn in a report, to be an appraisal, critique, suggestions or whatever. It was a useful exercise to try to add up the experience. I found that any expectation of finding the answers to large issues had been an illusion, but, as a useful corollary to that, I came to realize that there were no final answers to be found to the largest questions. Therefore one had a right to his own informed judgment or to follow his instinct for what was sound. Right or wrong, I proceeded on this premise. It unquestionably gave me more confidence, which I suspect I might have acquired earlier had I earlier had an equal contact with the disciplines of scholarship. I have ever since felt that the largest handicap of the man who has missed a college education is simply his feeling that he has missed something which has left him incomplete. Yet among Nieman Fellows over the years, a few who have seemed to me the best read and to have achieved the greatest utility from it have been the self-educated who found their own way outside formal educational grooves. Of course they were exceptional people to have the intellectual energy and capacity to do this. They have escaped the danger of intellectual stereotype.
This brings to mind Vernon Farrington’s great work, "Main Currents in American Thought." I read it just before going to Harvard for my Nieman year and nothing I had read till then impressed me so much. His main currents are the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian, the conservative and radical, the status quo and reform, reaction and rebellion. He traces these main currents in parallel conflict through our history as expressed in the literature and philosophy as well as in the political ideas that formed men’s minds on the issues of their times.
Farrington, a lifelong teacher of what at Harvard they were beginning to call intellectual history, was not a Ph.D. Had he been more of a specialist than he was, one may doubt whether he would ever have tackled so large, so general, so universal a theme.
It first shocked and then irked me to discover that the historians of literature at Harvard tended to disparage Farrington. They found errors and misinterpretations. Just as Sam Morison had said of Charles Beard that his field was the 19th century and he didn’t know anything about the 17th, so Harvard specialists in one period or one author would pick at pages or Farrington to insist that his research had not gone far enough. Undoubtedly they were right in their details, but would all their details together have produced Farrington’s great synthesis? Would they essentially change the pattern he had woven through our history? I heard a great deal of criticism of Farrington that year, but it never convinced me that it added up to a valid critique of his work as a whole.
Later Arnold Toynbee’s classic attempt to interpret all world history brought similar criticism, indeed much more, and doubtless more valid in view of the vaster dimensions he sought to encompass. Yet it seemed to me then and does still that the effort of a Farrington or a Toynbee to illuminate and interpret the main currents of history is an admirable application of scholarship to try to find meanings and relationships. My associations with Harvard scholars developed great admiration for their thoroughness and conscientiousness and their brilliance. But just as the journalist is by the nature of his work too much a generalist, so, I concluded, the scholar’s specialization is apt to make him too little a generalist, too finicky in his criticism.
For myself, however, the Nieman year brought sharpened regret that I had never specialized at all. For even a brief period of slightly more systematic reading proved a revelation. To dig a little deeper into a subject had its chief effect not in more specialized knowledge but in discovering something that related to something else and exposed another angle of it, that gave it more meaning.
I became convinced that the deeper one goes into any subject the more he finds relations to other things. This sounds like a contradiction to my comment on the finickiness of the specialist. But I don’t think it is a contradiction. It depends on whether the specialist excludes other things, and perhaps it means that a late discovery of a specialty is more illuminating to the generalist than to one who has only specialized. I have always felt that an understanding of relationships—of one event to another, of one subject to another—is perhaps the most important lesson for the journalist. Some of this comes from his experience of life, which academic work is less apt to provide. But it means more if he has a chance, or makes a chance, to explore the background of his experience. That of course is what a Nieman Fellowship is all about. The combination of experience and study in the right mixture yields effective educational results. Just what the right mixture is, after how much experience, and with what relevant study is a problem for which no one is wise enough to prescribe. Conant was wise enough not to try, but simply to open doors to all that a university offered to men with experience enough to know they needed to enter. To let them take a university on their own terms was a stroke of genius. It worked. It has worked in varying degrees with different kinds of men at different ages.
I once tried to find some key to it. I added up the experience of the first ten years of the Nieman program and found what seemed to me persuasive evidence that such an experience could most clearly be seen to have been productive with the younger men. That is, men who had been at work five to eight years, at ages 26 to 30. Actually the average age of Nieman groups during the first few decades ran around 31 or 32.
But there were always exceptions, which in so small a sample made one draw back from applying such conclusions to policy. An A. B. Guthrie at 45 found in a Nieman Year an open sesame to a new career in literature through his novels "The Big Sky" and "The Way West." To Edwin Lahey at 36 it opened a larger world. Arthur Eggleston, who was 42 when a Fellowship gave him a year away from his work as labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in the second year of the Nieman Program, told me that he would not have been ready for such a fallow year at any earlier age. I knew it was a ripening experience for him.
As the years passed, Harvard was to launch a number of adult programs modeled on the Nieman Fellowships—for trade union officials, for agricultural specialists, educational administrators and others. David W. Bailey, secretary to the Harvard governing boards, told me I should write an article about this. We could contribute the title: Life as a Preparation for Education. It reminded me of Arthur Eggleston’s feeling about it.
The Second World War broke out as the second group of Nieman Fellows started for Cambridge in September 1939. It was to have little impact on us or most Americans through that college year, for it remained in what came to be called "the phony war” stage until the following spring. But it deeply preoccupied James B. Conant, who was vice president of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Headed by William Allen White, this was the spearhead of American interventionism.
Conant had me to lunch to discuss the Nieman program that he had asked me to take over for that year, after Macleish had gone to Washington as Librarian of Congress. I think Conant spent about three minutes on the Nieman program and the rest of the luncheon on the implications to America of the war in Europe. He told me he had thought of the fellowship plan as an experiment. After five years he would reappraise it. Meantime, he said, "in an experiment you don’t want to have any variables." In short he wanted me to carry on without change. It was quite clear that the only role he had in mind for me was to preside over the Nieman dinners and seminars. With that in mind he had offered what he had the grace to call "an honorarium” of $1,000. I was back full time at the Globe.
Of course no program continues without change. But all I hoped to do was to organize extracurricular programs as lively and rewarding as MacLeish had done and to be of some use to the new Fellows in exploring the resources of Harvard. I had in mind the conclusion that my group had come to in our final session together. When someone suggested that we might do something for our successors by preparing memoranda and suggestions, the consensus was that we ought not to deprive them of the excitement of our experience in making discoveries of our own and shaping the individual patterns of our own programs. But I had Saturdays free for conferences and a part-time secretary and part-time use of an office and telephone, which were facilities that we lacked the first year.
But Conant wanted to talk about the war. We were the appropriate heirs of the British Empire and he didn’t want to see the Germans take it away from us. Henry Luce was later to articulate "The American Century."’ But Conant was not thinking of empire. What he meant was cultural supremacy. Deprecating the still strong isolationist influence in America, Conant said, "I’m a cultural isolationist." I took it from his conversation that he wanted a strongly independent American culture, developing its own characteristics out of the American soil. To call this cultural isolationism reflected a state of mind that needed to justify his interventionist position on wholly American grounds. As I grew to know him better over the following decades I would not have labeled him an isolationist of any sort. But he was always convinced of the superiority of American education, and felt we had little to learn from the older British and European systems. He had studied in a German university and preferred his own. He was later to study the British and Australian education systems, and this would deepen his feeling that America must shape its own patterns out of its different experience and conditions.
Later that year, 1939, I was an intermediary in an interesting interview with him. A Globe editor had suggested that the Globe offer some scholarships for study in Latin America, this as a contribution to Good Neighbor relations which the New Deal was emphasizing. W. O. Taylor, president of the Globe, said he’d like to have Conant’s view of it before going ahead. I was asked to arrange it. Well, Conant told the Globe, there probably wouldn’t be any harm in the proposal. Perhaps some one would want to study art in Mexico. But for education there wasn’t any sense in going outside the United States. We now had the strongest universities, the most advanced science, the greatest vitality in our scholarships, and the largest resources. From all over the world scholars and students were coming to the American universities.
If Conant was aware of the neglect of Latin American studies at Harvard it certainly didn’t bother him. Harvard had one course in Latin American history. Even that was more than was offered on Canada. The rest of the Americas continued to be neglected most of the next 25 years. After a time one course was offered on Canada, and about 1960 Harvard began to shape up a Latin American studies program, but up to 1965 it hadn’t amounted to much.
This was equally true of nearly all other American universities in 1939, but several got an earlier start in studies on our hemisphere neighbors than Harvard did.
We were at the time just as scant on India and never did offer anything on Africa until well after the postwar political explosion had brought 20 to 30 African ambassadors to the United Nations. Meantime Boston University developed an African studies program. In its first year Stanley Karnow, who had been a correspondent in Paris and Algeria, was one of the Nieman Fellows. One day he asked me if it was all right if he went over to Boston University for an African course three times a week. I asked if I could help arrange it. "Oh, it’s all right," he said. "They’ve got a good faculty and almost no good students. They’re glad to have me."
Harvard had a reciprocal arrangement with M.I.T. so that the occasional Fellow who wanted city planning could go down there for it. New "area” studies were to come into American universities after the war; indeed they grew out of the universities’ efforts to provide background and language studies, especially on Japan and Germany, for those specialists selected for administration of occupied territories. But Conant during the early years of the Nieman program saw no reason why Harvard should duplicate area studies. Columbia had, I think, the first developed center for Russian studies. That was all right—let graduate students on the Soviets go to Columbia. The same with Middle East studies. When the University of Pennsylvania developed this area program one of Harvard’s distinguished scholars was invited there. He would rather have stayed in Cambridge if Harvard would let him develop such a program. But they let him go. Similarly with geography. Even with all the talk about geopolitics that grew out of the war, Harvard could not see enough in geography to justify more than the one traditional course, and lost its geography professor.
This attitude toward proliferation of programs was doubtless in part a mood of depression, but I think also Conant’s own notion of selective excellence. Harvard didn’t have to do everything. But both Harvard and her president were to change that view. Harvard was the one place that did have to do everything in the position it had come to occupy in the world of education. It was soon to have a renowned center of Russian studies and later a Middle East center to parallel its Far Each studies, which were built around the matchless resources of John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer.
The extraordinary autonomy of the departments at Harvard accounted for some unevenness. A department reached for the ablest scholar to be had; then what he chose to offer was largely up to him. So Harvard’s great history department had three American historians, all reaching retirement at the same time—Sam Morison, Frederick Merk, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—and then, with no professor of Latin American history, appointed two biographers of Franklin Roosevelt. Nobody would have wanted to miss the brilliance of either Frank Freidel or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but this selective process suggests the strong emphasis on individual distinction and less regard for covering the waterfront.
The department of government, through nearly all my 26 years at Harvard, was deficient in state government. The course usually offered was of a textbook sort, perhaps adequate for the general interest of undergraduates, but quite useless for the reporter who had put in some years in the press gallery. It was an excellent course one year when Tom Eliot took it over. He had been a congressman and had headed a commission to reorganize Massachusetts state government. Another good year brought Earl Latham in from Amherst. But most of the time it was a disappointment and a gap for the Nieman Fellows in that area.
As we always had some Fellows who wanted to study state government and frequently someone who wanted to prepare for work in Latin America, I used to nudge my faculty friends about these deficiencies. I got approximately the same answer on both state government and Latin America, that it was hard to find a first-rate scholar in either field.
My own strong feeling was that the most important study for a journalist was history, especially American history because the journalist would in most cases be reporting on the American scene. This conviction must have been a factor in making American history the primary interest of the largest number, since I was counseling the Fellows through 25 years. But I think it was also a natural interest of most. Happily the history department throughout this period was one of the very strongest at Harvard, and by many appraisals, the strongest anywhere.
Economics was very strong at Harvard too throughout the whole period. Alvin Hansen, Sumner Schlicter, John Williams, and Joseph Schumpeter come to mind for the early period, then J. K. Galbraith, Edward Mason, David Bell, Gottfried Haberler, Wassily Leontief, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Seymor Harris.
The trend to economics among the Nieman Fellows increased after the war as journalists came to realize that most political issues had economic
roots. At the state house or city hall they had to deal with budgets, taxes, labor contracts, and in Washington with the added complexities of balance payments, foreign aid, and programs for defense, space, and science.
For most journalists the subjects of history, government, and economics provided the background of public affairs. The editorial writer or political reporter was most apt to pursue his studies in these fields. The specialist had very little problem filling his needs at Harvard, whether in science or the Soviet Union, law or labor relations. It always interested me that in setting up the Nieman Program, Conant had made no attempt to channel it to specialization, which might well have seemed a natural development. Most newspapers then had few specialists beyond the standbys of politics and finance, and, in the metropolitan papers, books, theatre, and music.
Labor relations was beginning to be a specialty, and science was about to explode into the newspaper’s consciousness with the atom bomb. Education as a special field was to come more gradually, and finally, after 1960, race relations claimed a field of its own. The Atlanta Constitution was to make the first full-time assignment to a reporter to cover race relations. Bruce Galphin, who became a Nieman Fellow, had this pioneer assignment. With urban renewal, a new reporting "beat" was shaping up with variations to bring urban problems into more definite focus, parallel to the establishment of a federal cabinet post for urban affairs.
But even had newspaper specialization been more developed than it was in 1938, I would still think Conant sound and wise in avoiding any more definite patterning of the program. The flexibility and freedom of the program were its great features. What the journalist needs is study in depth and breadth more than in specifics. Actually the newspapers have done about as well in developing their own specialists to meet their particular needs as they have done in anything.
They let the specialty develop out of aptitudes and circumstances. Everybody starts in the common pool of the city room staff. The newcomers do general reporting, small things, then bigger ones, and in the course of their early assignments have to learn the structure of their city or area, learn how to get information, appraise its worth and importance, organize and present it in the available space. In the course of this activity the reporter develops special interests, proves more adept at some things and is given more of those to do. So, gradually, without much conscious direction or election, a staff member comes to be recognized as the one who will get this or that kind of assignment and, depending on the size and resources of the paper, finally becomes the labor reporter, science writer, or financial editor, or goes on the editorial page, to the state house or to Washington.
But the exigencies of news, which is in large part unpredictable, requires a mobile staff. Not everyone can be a specialist and not everyone would want to. Most remain generalists. Even the person assigned a specialty must deal with a great diversity of subject matter—all of science, for example, or the whole range of political departments and projects in an administration. Or the reporter covering the Supreme Court is drawn into the great issues of segregation, of reapportionment, of taxation, and of law enforcement.
The editorial writer, even more than most reporters, must cover a great range of subjects. Only the greatest papers can have more than three or four editorial writers. These may split up the work and each take over a certain area. But much of what commands their attention each day lies outside any special area. This demands exploration of its details, but the judgment brought to bear on it depends on an understanding of what lies behind it and its relation to the broad pattern of events and the whole stream of development, whether political, social, economic, or historical. Nobody, of course, is ever wise enough to sit in judgment on daily events. But the broader the base of knowledge on which a judgment can be buttressed, the better the chance of at least an informed commentary.
Running the Nieman program from the Globe office that year of 1939-40 had its handicaps. I controlled my own time a good deal because at that time most of my work was for the Sunday paper. But there were series and special assignments. Once I had to fly from Ottawa to Cambridge for a Nieman dinner and back next morning, and a couple of times I had to fly back from Washington just for an evening. But I got through with surprisingly few conflicts. I could get in a good many Nieman conferences on a Saturday morning. Also, as Harvard was within ten minutes by subway I could get out to luncheon with Fellows who had problems to discuss. I found I could handle a good deal of correspondence by telephone. But one such effort brought embarrassment. We wanted to get Arthur Krock, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, up for a dinner. I dictated a letter to him by phone. The answer came addressed to Louise Lyons, regretting inability to come, and closed with a postscript: By the way, my name is spelled with a K. (Krock, forgiving, came to dinner later in the season.)
Frankfurter came back up from the Supreme Court in that second year and MacLeish came back for a dinner. Ralph Ingersoll came, his PM launched in its first euphoric flights. Lippmann came again, and Mark Ethridge from Louisville. Frederick Allen of Harper’s, Edward Weeks of the Atlantic, Roy Larsen of Time, and Freda Kirchwey, then in charge of The Nation, made a battery of magazine editors. Other dinner guests included Herbert Agar, Vincent Sheean, Lewis Mumford, Branislaw Malinowski, the Yale anthropologist; William L. Laurence and Waldemar Kaempffert, both of the New York Times science department; and Lucien Price of the Boston Globe.
And finally Henry L. Mencken. One of the Fellows was from the Baltimore Sun and he helped persuade their pyrotechnical editor to come. Having brought it off, Steve Fitzgerald was nervous as a witch, and kept warning me of Mencken’s prejudices till the night came. It came in a blinding blizzard that had me worrying all day whether our guest could get through. I barely made it, late, from my home in Reading, north of Boston. But Mencken was there. Steve was fretting more than ever, for he had discovered that ice cream was for dessert and he had expressly told me Mencken detested ice cream. But I noticed Mencken ate it with apparent relish and no comment.
But this great occasion was the letdown of the year. Several of our liberal and literary faculty friends had begged to attend out of admiration for Mencken’s trenchant prose and his merciless mayhem against pomposity and banality. But they were disappointed. They knew Mencken as the champion of the rational against the shams and hypocrisy and cant of the 1920’s. But now it was the New Deal and Mencken was using the same vocabulary. He was saying the same old things about new targets. He was as cynical about the new order as about the old. They kept at him from one tangent and then another, but finally gave up and sank in dejection over their drinks. I thought it an entertaining show, but only a show, with a veteran showman now pretty well worn down to his basic cliches. The only remark of Mencken’s I recall from that evening was his recipe for dealing with defeated candidates for the presidency: Shoot ’em.
I had enjoyed him more in his work clothes, that is with collar and tie peeled off, on the terrifically hot August day in 1936 when Alf Landon made his acceptance speech before a crowd estimated at 250,000 on a dusty Indiana prairie. As we stalked across the fields to the edge of the vast coatless throng, Mencken sniffed, then said, "They don’t smell bad. Anywhere South of the Mason-Dixon Line you could smell this crowd half a mile away."
Shortly before his Cambridge appearance Mencken had attracted national attention by bringing out his editorial page completely covered with dots. A single line of type explained that each dot represented $1,000 of taxes paid by Americans.
When June 1940 came and the Fellows went back to their papers Conant sent for me. My year was up. It was a stopgap. I assumed he wanted to discuss the future of the Nieman program. So before we met I sent him a memo of suggestions. One was a description of the kind of person I thought he should appoint to run the program. Another recommended that he appoint one or two newspapermen to join in the selection of Fellows each year.
Conant had my memo in his hand when I turned up. He thanked me for it. "But," he said, "I don’t think we’ll do any of these things." And he tore it up and dropped it in his wastebasket. This with a smile, as he said, "No, I just want to ask you to keep on with us for a while. But we don’t want this kind of selection committee. We’ll keep it right in our own hands," and he doubled up his fist.
He asked if I knew who the people were who were candidates for the job. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there were any. Nothing had been said about it, so far as I knew. He ticked them off and shook his head. Several were well-known editors.
One, a correspondent of note, had just produced a play which had run two weeks in Boston before folding. I mentioned the play.
"Well, he may be a playboy too," Conant offered. "I can’t quite imagine moving an active newspaperman up here. It’s wonderful to have you with one foot in the door. But I’d like you to keep on with it for another three years. Then we’ll have had five years and will make an evaluation. I suppose eventually we’ll put it under some wise old professor."
I assured him I had no thought of leaving newspaper work and would be glad to knock off whenever he found a suitable replacement. But he wanted to make an arrangement for a third of my time with salary in proportion. MacLeish had been on half time and used to complain that he couldn’t get his own half of the time for lectures and poetry. I had been giving the job just the margin of my time.
But Laurence Winship, Globe managing editor, said, "Go ahead. It’s easier than getting you a raise."
So my pro tem position at Harvard continued. In 1943 at the end of the three years I resigned, only to have Conant come on the phone from Washington where he must have been close to the last lap in pursuit of the atom bomb, to ask that I stay on till the end of the war.
After that I resigned with a definite plan to go to England for a two-year hitch to serve under Ambassador John Winant as U.S. information officer. Herbert Agar had held the post during the war and wanted to come home. Winant asked him to get me to take over. I had said I couldn’t leave Harvard till the end of the academic year. It was all right with Winship for me to take a leave of absence. "You’ll be worth more when you come back."
Conant said, "What am I going to do now?"
I suggested John Clark, a Fellow of the first year, who had served as assistant to President John Dickey of Dartmouth in setting up their unique Great Issues program. That program included lectures and seminars that John had adapted from the Nieman seminars, and also a course in what amounted to "How to read a newspaper." Conant asked me to feel out Clark. I thought I had persuaded him when Conant had another idea:
"Suppose I dream up a full-time job over here. You could run the news office too." I didn’t think I ought to be handing out news releases on Harvard with one hand and Nieman Fellowships with the other. "Well, get somebody else for the news office. You can help me in my public relations."
For the news office I suggested William M. Pinkerton, old AP man, then with U.S. News & World Report in Washington, who had been a Nieman Fellow a few years before. That was one definite contribution I made to Harvard. Pinkerton was soon recognized as about the most effective person in this very special kind of public relations.
I went back to Winship with the new proposal. He urged it on me. So did my wife. After more than seven years of dividing myself between Harvard and the Globe, the prospect of an undivided course had its appeal. And I knew now some things I wanted to do in the Nieman program.
But it was Conant who suggested we have a reunion of former Fellows now the war was over, with a program of meetings that would be worth coming back for. Out of that came the Society of Nieman Fellows and the launching of Nieman Reports, a quarterly in journalism that I was to edit for the next 17 years.
Pinkerton and I did a good deal of teamwork on publicizing Harvard programs for a couple of years. After that my visits to the news office were only for social purposes and on Nieman affairs.
My first contact with President Conant’s notions of publicity had come when he handed me a speech he was going to give, to ask me to go over it and make suggestions. "The thing is," he said, "to make sure there are no headlines in it." This of course was a chemist’s view of the press. "Headlines” meant distortion, pulling something up out of context. In this negative view of the press, the best one could hope was not to be misrepresented.
This had been the traditional attitude of Harvard to the press. Conant had himself moved a long way from President Lowell’s absolute isolation from press contacts. Lowell’s rule that persisted through about 25 years as president was that the president of Harvard never gave interviews. Press photographers were not allowed in Harvard Yard for Commencement. The presence of Nieman Fellows at Harvard was soon to thaw Conant and the Harvard community, as they came to a better understanding of the press and to have confidence in those reporters they knew. Only near the end of his presidency had Lowell accepted a specialist on press relations. The first was Frederick Allen, who had been an instructor in the English department and could be counted on to accept the genteel Harvard tradition. He was given very limited scope, which Lowell tolerated on insistence of his governing boards only after Harvard had earned a very bad press over Lowell’s insensitive pronouncements about a "quota" system on Jewish students in the university.
Allen soon moved out of Harvard into a freer atmosphere. Conant was unhappy at the publicity arrangement he found on becoming president and brought in an able Chicago newsman, Arthur Wild, but still on a quite limited assignment. When Wild left during the war, things in the news office drifted. One of the early Nieman Fellows, amazed at the casual news operation at the leading American university, drew up a chart of a suggested public relations system and offered it to Conant. But Conant brushed it off. He didn’t want a vice president in charge of public relations. Good public relations, he said, grow out of sound policy, and if the policy isn’t sound, all the public relations in the world won’t be a substitute for it.
This always seemed to me good sense, as far as it went. But the president of Harvard is a public figure, and policies and programs at Harvard are of public interest. Conant gradually came to accept this, and to appreciate efficient and intelligent direction of his news office. He wrote his own speeches. There was no ghost writing around his office. Having written a speech, he had a conservator’s interest in preserving it, to get all the mileage possible in it. One can sympathize. He made 300 speeches to alumni clubs in his 20 years as president. He kept count of them.
Once, starting out on a trip that involved several speeches, he had Pinkerton and me in for a strategy conference. He had the texts of two speeches that he had already made. There were four major occasions to anticipate. The thing was to make those two speeches do for all the occasions. He said he thought he could finesse the first one. It was a Harvard Club. He could keep that off the record. "How many in that audience?" Pinkerton asked. "About 700, they expect." "But Mr. Conant, you can’t make an off-the-record speech to 700 people." Both of us insisted that he couldn’t get away with it. Finally he yielded. "All right," he said, "if you fellows are going to make me give away one of these two speeches, you take them and concoct a third one out of them." So we fabricated a third synthetic speech that didn’t look quite like either of the others. That was as near as I ever saw him come to accepting any outside writing on a speech. He’d write them out in longhand at home before coming to the office at 10:30. This early morning period in his study he kept clear for working on his own ideas. His "secret weapon” he called this guarded period from breakfast to 10:30. After the speech was typed, he’d rework it for a revision before he let it go.
He scored one triumph over us on a speech he very much wanted to protect for double exposure. He was going to speak at the University of Virginia, then later in Boston. We tried to tell him that the news from the first speech would take the edge off it the second time. But he came up with the answer. They are the hosts, he said. So you don’t have to put it out here. They’ve asked for an advance copy of the speech. I’ll take it down with me.
Well, it worked. We watched the papers anxiously the next two days. Not a line on the Virginia speech. Conant came back and made it in Boston and the roof blew off. It was a strong speech on the danger to democracy of diminishing the vital role of the public school. Both private and parochial schools took it as an attack and their reaction was sharp and vocal. Conant was gleeful when he saw us again. He’d made the speech work twice without lessening its impact. We told him he was lucky in the lethargy of Virginia journalism.
When my full-time appointment at Harvard began in 1946, David Bailey, secretary to the governing boards, with characteristic consideration insisted on yielding the chairmanship of the Nieman Committee to me. From the beginning, the chairmanship had always been held by the secretary to the governing boards, Bailey being the third in succession. He stayed for some years on our committee, a very helpful and strategically located member to have.
The Nieman Committee’s only real role had been to select the Fellows. At the start Conant had also set up an advisory committee, representing each of the major divisions of the university. They were very helpful for liaison. But the war broke this up, and after that we didn’t need it.
The first chairman of the Nieman Committee was Jerome Greene, who had been secretary to President Eliot and then had returned to serve President Conant after an absence of nearly 25 years. Conant turned innumerable administrative and protocol chores over to Mr. Greene, who had extraordinary talent for administration and large experience. After Greene left Harvard a second time, Conant appointed Calvert Smith to the governing-boards position. Smith, too, brought large administrative talent to the office and was so close to Conant that you could settle any matter with finality with Smith. He shared administrative responsibility with Provost Paul Buck during Conant’s practically total absence the final years of the war. Smith’s untimely death after a couple of years at Harvard was a real blow to Conant.
But nobody knew the ropes at Harvard better than David Bailey, who had become publication agent of the university many years earlier after a few years on the old Transcript. The change in a couple of years from Greene to Bailey jumped a long generation, and the two men had totally different personalities and backgrounds. Bailey was a couple of years younger than I, and had been a newspaperman long enough so that I could look upon him as a full colleague in Nieman enterprises.
And we soon had a chance to make a third newspaperman, Bill Pinkerton, a member of the little "executive committee” as Conant called it. This little group had begun with no faculty membership, just Greene, Arthur Wild, and me. When Wild left in the war I got Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., appointed, as the faculty member who had taken the closest interest in the Nieman Fellows. Schlesinger was away a year as visiting professor at the University of Leyden, and we got Pinkerton in his place. But when Schlesinger returned we managed to keep both of them.
To have been associated with Jerome Greene was one of the real experiences of Harvard . He was perhaps the most impressive-looking man in the university, a tall commanding figure, erect, handsome, with great natural dignity and a most formidable presence, terse, precise, and authoritative in speech, unbending in his sense of what was appropriate for an officer of Harvard. Protocol was a specialty of his and he had had large experience of it. He had taken a major role in the Rockefeller Foundation and many other organizations and had represented America at many international conferences. He had been a member of the distinguished Boston banking house of Lee, Higginson. Conant turned all sorts of things over to Mr. Greene, one of them management of the great Tercentenary of 1936, which he handled magnificently. It gave him occasion to devise a coat of arms for each of the Harvard Houses. This kind of thing was a hobby with him. He designed a bookplate for the Nieman library collection.
Though he was the most formal of men in outward aspect, this exterior melted to the most genial and considerate relationship with his friends and associates. He had his old-fashioned standards but a tolerance of others. When we had interviewed one able newspaperman who had draped his lanky frame all over a sofa, Greene remarked that the man seemed first-rate and had won his vote, but, he added, President Eliot would never have accepted a fellow who slouched down on the small of his back that way. The second Nieman year brought the first application of a Harvard graduate, Victor O. Jones, then sports editor, later executive editor of the Boston Globe.
Mr. Greene peered over his glasses to observe: "Well, Mr. Jones, the Nieman Committee has a natural reluctance to educate a Harvard man twice."
Jones said he could appreciate that but that Harvard hadn’t had a really good chance at him the first time because he was manager of baseball and an editor of the Crimson. This seemed to satisfy Mr. Greene. As it turned out, Harvard didn’t have a full chance at Jones in the second round, for when the war broke out at midterm, the Globe couldn’t wait to get him back in an executive post.
Mr. Greene’s consideration and sense of the fitness of things went far. In order to invite the first group of Nieman Fellows to dinner with him in the spring, he drove to each house, and mine was 13 miles from Cambridge, to deliver his invitation in person. He had returned to Harvard in 1934 after the collapse of the Lee, Higginson firm, caught in the great swindle of Kruger & Toll. They carried down with them most of the doctors of Marlborough Street and the fortunes of many a Back Bay widow. Mr. Greene told me that it fell to him to meet these ruined clients and tell them the stark facts. The worst hours he ever spent in his life, he said, and "the only thing that made it possible for me was that I had lost every cent of my own."
A widower, with a grown family, he married again in 1942 a little before his final retirement from Harvard. When the first child of his later marriage was born, it amused Mr. Greene that this son was uncle to one of his grandsons, then about ready for college. Next time I saw him he had bought a farm and installed a water system. I assumed he has going to live there in his retirement. "Oh no, not now," he said, "I’ll save it for my old age." He lived to 84 and left a manuscript of his memoirs. But it was never published.
The process of selecting our annual group of Nieman Fellows was necessarily elaborate, with an immense amount of paper work—writing to references, acknowledging them, corresponding with the applicants, arranging schedules for interview trips, finally writing why we had to disappoint most of them. When, after the first ten years, we added two or three newspapermen to the selection committee, we had to ship two suitcases of applications around to them.
It was a great comfort to have Bill Pinkerton in on this. Between us we did an initial screening of applications. He would take home a box full as soon as I had got through one, and take a day or two off from the office to expedite the process. Then for a period of two or three weeks while we waited for returns from the other judges, we were almost constantly engaged in comparing our notes on candidates, discussing their strengths and weaknesses, and thinking of people to write to who could tell us more about some of them.
When all the scores of the judges were in, these would be consolidated to determine the top 20 or 25 and then we arranged an interview trip to meet these finalists before making the choice of the dozen or so we could budget. This on the whole worked about as well as any selecting system. Later with different forms of committee we kept up the same method, even the same application form through 26 years. Often, I am sure, a different committee might have picked a different dozen and done just as well. There was always an abundant list of applicants. After the first year’s 309, many of them just applying for something free, it fell to 250, then 150, then stabilized at about 100 a year. We did nothing after the first three years to promote it and nothing to publicize it beyond an annual announcement chiefly to let people know the deadline for applications. It would have been easy to promote more applications. But it would only have swamped us with paper work, which was heavy enough as it was, and would have increased the number of disappointments, not only to the applicants but to their papers. Under the conditions of the first couple of years, the selections could hardly have been more than a representative sampling of the many applications, and perhaps that is all that we ever managed. Our problem was always too many well-qualified applicants.
The tendency was to push off the younger men on the ground that they could apply again. It is hard to avoid this and we never succeeded. But I was never reconciled to this tendency and I count it one of our mistakes, although often when a Fellow was appointed on a second application after a gap of several years he would testify that it meant more to him then than it would have earlier. But this would not always be so. In the later years of the program I was constantly meeting newspapermen of distinction who would say, "I applied for one of your fellowships once." When Pierre Salinger became presidential press secretary, he said, "If I’d got that fellowship I’d be on the Supreme Court by now."
But it was surprising how generally we got a consensus of the selecting committee without much difference. We could all readily agree on the top half of the list, then on the next three or four. When it got down to the last couple of places, the eliminations grew more painful. Everyone would have his one or two favorites and hate to give up on them. Usually we would ballot on the last two places and spend more time on those than all the others. We would each have some personal disappointment but agreed that except for that it was a good list, at least the best we could manage.
This proved equally true when, after the first ten years, newspapermen were added to our selection committee. Generally there was no significant difference between the choices of the pract1crng newspapermen and the university members. They readily reached a consensus on the most promising candidates.
The only exception to this was the very first time we had newspapermen joining in the selection. They were Erwin Canham of the Christian Science Monitor and James B. Reston of the Washington bureau of the New York Times. Both had served on a Review Committee that President Conant had asked to appraise the Nieman Program after ten years. A principal recommendation of the committee was to include newspapermen in the selection process. I welcomed it and for the following 16 years found a weekend interview trip with our newspaper colleagues one of the pleasantest and most instructive episodes of the year. The year Canham and Reston served, we had a number of first-rate foreign correspondents among our applicants. I felt that the two experienced editors would be particularly valuable in this area. To my surprise both men urged that we concentrate on the domestic applicants. The foreign correspondents already had the frosting on the cake in their assignments, they said.
I am sure that they were thinking in terms of policy, that is, thinking of our relations with the newspapers, whose continued cooperation in granting leaves of absence was important. They were probably right. But it is the only time that anything I could identify as a policy issue affected our selections. We usually had among the Fellows one or two foreign correspondents who added to the dimensions of our discussions, and in their careers have added luster to the Nieman Program.
Two great advantages stemmed from the annual appointment of two or three newspapermen to serve on our selection committee. They invariably gained respect for the Nieman Program from their involvement in it, and many came back to lead our dinner discussions. More important, they were always impressed with the quality of the applicants interviewed. Very many times they exclaimed over the excitement and encouragement of realizing the quality of the best of our young newspapermen. They testified, over and over, that it was a stimulating experience to encounter these applicants who represented the future of American journalism. It was heartening to me to find that the editors and publishers shared the elation I found in discovering the intelligence and commitment, the idealism and the competence of so many fine newspapermen. It was always distressing that our small operation could in elude only a few of them. Every committee that I can remember urged me to encourage several we had to omit to apply again. Nearly every Nieman group after the first has included several Fellows chosen on a second or later application. But of course the changed circumstances of their work kept many from reapplying, and others continued to find the competition too strong.
A difficulty of selection, never wholly resolved, was the size of the country. One would like to interview all candidates. But travel expense would have reduced the program. The committee would meet in two cities, sometimes Washington and Chicago, or New York and Louisville, and pay the travel expenses of the 20 or 25 finalists we invited for interviews. But it was costly to interview applicants from the West Coast, and to bring marginal cases half across the continent meant increasing the final disappointment that was inevitable for most of them in so small a program. The Rhodes Scholarship selection is regionalized, with a local selection committee in each state or region. Our program was too small for that.
As Nieman Fellows became distributed throughout the country and our acquaintance with leading newspapermen also grew, we would set up ad hoc committees sometimes in California or Oregon. This was helpful, but limited. They saw only the applicants in their area. They could tell us which were the best of those, but they could not place them in relation to all the others our committee was considering. On a few occasions I made an extensive trip to see candidates in their home offices. Once Professor Schlesinger joined me in a trip all across the country. But this was generally not possible and it too was expensive, and it still left the rest of the committee to depend on our recommendations.
I was never wholly satisfied with our selection process for Nieman Fellows. But the others who had a part in it seemed to think it as satisfactory as any. It made me acutely conscious of the chance element in any system of awards. I have served on awards committees for newspapers, magazines, and books, and never felt that our awards represented anything more conclusive than representation of some of the best work considered. Having more recently, as a trustee of my state university, had to participate in awarding a site for a new medical school, I realize that this applies equally in other areas of committee decision. The medical school site for the University of Massachusetts divided the board right down the middle for two years and was finally made on a 12 to 10 vote. I can’t think of any awards committee in my experience that was as divided as that.
Incidentally a board of that size is unwieldly for any decision. A. Lawrence Lowell once determined to his own satisfaction that seven is the optimum number for a committee. That, perhaps coincidentally, was and is the size of the Harvard Corporation. I thought five was a practical number for a committee. I had served on town boards of five and seven and for a time presided over one.
Our Nieman Committee in the early years was three, then four, and after we added newspapermen, five or six. The difference between five and six was considerable, not only in the time to circulate applications and the number who had to agree on dates for interviews, but just to keep a discussion in focus and make sure that every point of view was included and fully comprehended. And with six there seemed to be much more than a onefifth greater chance of losing one from illness or a conflict of time. There was never any division that made an even number a problem, as there might have been in other circumstances. But we could always come to decisions sooner and more satisfactorily with five than six. But on my limited experience I would hesitate to assert this as the universal that Mr. Lowell laid down for his committee of seven.
On another matter of numbers I came to have a good deal of experience. That was the size of the Nieman group. The first year the number was nine because not all the Nieman funds had been cleared through the court. It soon stabilized at 12, again keyed to the available funds. But not quite all the funds were applied to Fellowships in the first few years when President Conant still counted it an experiment. For the third group we very much wanted to include 14 and persuaded the President to let us budget that many. Newspaper salaries in 1940 were still low. We went on to 15 the next year and then 16. But in groups of this size differences in intellectual capacity and aptitude for study showed up conspicuously. In a year of close association with the Fellows I became more sharply aware than anyone else of any mistakes in selection. It appeared that in lengthening our list we were following the course of least resistance. More rigorous selection would have raised the average .
I recalled a discussion with William Allen White when he came to a Nieman dinner in our first year. Somehow the question came up, what would you do with a doubled endowment for a Nieman Program? White said he would set up a separate unit somewhere else. He estimated there were four or five American universities whose faculty, resources, and prestige could provide a satisfactory base for such a program. Twelve, White said, was enough for discussions. Beyond that number, you didn’t get everybody involved, discussion couldn’t be as free and informal.
This in my experience proved sound. A dozen was a very satisfactory size of group for lively discussion and full participation. And we settled down to a dozen.
To add four or five faculty guests for a dinner discussion didn’t overload it. But when on occasion we included as many guests as Fellows, I had to devote a disproportionate attention to procedure, to recognize hands and stack up those who wanted to speak. This blocked a free give-and-take, called for special patience and left the less aggressive members silent.
Later our Fellows were increased. Starting in 1952 the Carnegie Corporation proposed sending us three British Commonwealth journalists each year, on their budget. A couple of years later the Asia Foundation made the same proposal. At times the Commonwealth Fund had a journalist from Britain or western Europe among its grantees who wanted to join the Nieman Fellows, and we would include him. After the Carnegie period of grants lapsed, a Canadian and then a South African Fellowship were set up. Each time we raised the question of adding these "associate Fellows," the issue of size of the group came up. Conant’s view was that up to a total of 20 the Fellowships would not be a burden on instruction. Within that limit it was a question of the most manageable or satisfactory size of group. It always seemed to me that, much as we valued these group discussions at dinners and seminars, the opportunity of a year of study at Harvard should not be dependent on convenience of discussion. We managed, whatever the size. Usually the foreign members were less active discussants, content to absorb new experience and information most of the time, so that their additional members didn’t weigh heavily on us.
The one season we really felt a negative effect of foreign members was the one year that the Committee on Inter-American Affairs persuaded us to take on three South American journalists. The selection was made by the State Department and was a very poor job. They had wanted us to take five. We felt we’d more readily absorb three and felt lucky we had held out for that. Only one of them ever gained any facility in English. Two of them were only by a generous interpretation journalists. One was a lawyer, brother of a publisher. They were constantly asking to have the talk slowed down so that they could follow it. We determined to insist on a say in selection the following year, but, the war ending, the government dropped that project.
Serving as moderator of Nieman discussions became a key role in my life from 1939 on. It was a new experience and I had to find my way in it. It was to lead on to much more moderating of many kinds of groups and panels, and finally into news broadcasting that included interviews with background guests. I had been a town meeting member and served on some committees, and for a brief period was a Newspaper Guild officer. Guild board meetings could be about as wild as any one was apt to encounter.
The first season of running Nieman sessions, 1939-40, is the only one that I recall as seeming difficult. It was a new form of activity and I had less close association with that group than any later ones. They had been selected before my appointment. It happened that two or three members were more obstreperous than any I later had to deal with. At times the discussion seemed to me to get quite out of control as the more aggressive channeled it into debate over irrelevant issues. But even that year these occasions were rare, and by hindsight I can see that they occurred on those occasions when the program or the speaker lacked the interest to hold attention. For the most part our guests were so interesting, the discussion they precipitated so absorbing, that it held attention throughout.
After that first season, I can recall only two occasions when things got out of hand to a point that led me to a sharp admonishment. On both occasions I later wished I hadn’t. For the Fellows reprimanded took it so hard, were so abashed and insisted on such elaborate apologies to the guest that I realized I had taken their distractions, horseplay, or inattention too seriously. Each time I am sure a factor in it was that I was tired.
It was always an inescapable handicap that I had to come to these discussions at the end of a full day’s work, in the early years my newspaper work, and in the final 15 years in a rush from a news broadcast that held me till 7 o’clock. This isn’t the best preparation for conducting a lively session of vital young people that might last three or four hours. But of course I was lucky in the group. They all shared in some degree the interest and experience of our newspaper guests and they had had experience in interviews. They knew what they wanted to get at and how to ask questions, and most were considerate or soon learned the necessity to consider the time and sensitivities of others. My own view was that one could ask almost any question if asked in the right tone, that one could dissent or debate without being offensive.
There is apt to be someone in a group who tends to monopolize the discussion and must be bypassed or diverted or reminded that others must have a chance at a first question before his third or fourth. But often he asks provocative and imaginative questions and you don’t want to squelch him if you don’t have to. Usually you don’t; with a little finesse you can see somebody else trying to get in, or suggest ”Hold it a bit. Tom has been very patient." If a lively discussion is in full tilt, you don’t want it suddenly diverted to something else. You can always say, "OK if it’s right on this point, else hold it a minute."
Your worst break is when the very first question takes off on a tangent that develops an interest of its own and keeps up long enough to threaten to sidetrack the main topic. A moderator has a responsibility to get it back on the track. But with a little patience and tact he can give the irrelevancy a short run and avoid an arbitrary cutoff. Most people appreciate a reasonable procedure that is in the interest of the whole group, to keep on the track and give everyone a chance. I found the Fellows almost invariably responsive and cooperative, even to a point of self denial when they sensed that the discussion was getting pretty crowded.
Much depends on the moderator, to establish the tone and spirit of the session, to ease it into a relaxed mood but alert. I think the moderator needn’t be a professional at moderating or an expert on the subject, though the more informed he is the more effective he can be. His first duty is to make the guest speaker feel at home, comfortable, easy, and sensing a keen interest in what he had to offer. The tone of the introduction can do all this if it is informal, appreciative, and suggestive of the expected discourse. A bit of humor, if it comes naturally, can help. It is deadly to recite the whole biography of the guest, and usually superfluous. But it is desirable to point up his relation to the topic, and to recognize a salient aspect of his work or career. If you’ve taken the trouble to look him up or read his book, you can usually establish a relation with your institution or group or some member of it or someone all know, that will give him a sense of sharing something with us. I have had enough experience of being "introduced" to audiences to know the difference it makes whether one is presented with a gracious, informed, easy, brief statement, or by a ponderous recital of one’s whole career and a dissertation on the subject one has come to discuss for himself.
The physical conditions of a meeting room are important. It’s a dismal prelude to a talk to be taken into a bleak bare room with which the chairman seems as unfamiliar as you are and sit down to wait for an audience to gather. We were fortunate in the library of the Signet Society, or the Faculty Club, or on occasion the Harvard Club of Boston, places where all hands could be comfortably seated. At the Signet Society we started with cocktails for half an hour before dinner, which gave a chance to meet the guest and get some lively conversation started. Then we went upstairs to dinner, surrounded our chief guest and our other guests with our own members, and after dinner went back down to the library to sit around the room, more or less in a circle, with enough end tables for ashtrays and glasses. This created a mildly convivial atmosphere, and by the time our guest started his talk he would have become enough acquainted with at least some of the group to gauge his performance. He often picked up a cue at dinner that gave him a thread for his talk or a lead into it.
In their annual reports our Fellows continually testified to the value of these informal academic associations. Along with formal courses and Nieman dinners and seminars, informal associations were there for the taking.
As Ed Lahey demonstrated in the opening year of the program, a Nieman Year is just what you can make of it.
Two friends of Louis M. Lyons read this excerpt and offered invaluable suggestions. Both were Nieman Fellows under the curatorship of Mr. Lyons. They are Max Hall, NF ’50 and WM. Pinkerton, NF ’41.
Mr. Hall was the Social Science Editor of Harvard University Press from 1960-1973. He is the author of several books, his latest details the history of Harvard University. He is an expert on the life of Benjamin Franklin. His book on the American statesman, titled "Benjamin Franklin and Polly Baker; The History of a Literary Deception," was published in 1960.
Mr. Pinkerton began his journalism career on the Omaha World-Herald where he both wrote and edited stories. For 27 years, he headed the Harvard University News Office. And for the last two years of his Harvard tenure he was assistant to the Vice President for Government and Community Affairs. He has also served on the committee for the selection of Nieman Fellows.