March 31, 2013

David Rohde: Anthony Lewis and the need for journalism that inspires

His work clarified complex issues in a way online journalists today are rarely given the time to do.

At 10 a.m. on Monday morning, I read on Twitter that Anthony Lewis, the revered New York Times legal writer and columnist, had died at age 85. A few minutes later, I sent out a Tweet calling him "a giant of journalism who saved Gideon & Bosnia." 

The Bosnia reference was personal. Along with writing searing columns that pressured the Clinton administration to intervene in the conflict, Lewis put my family in touch with senior White House officials when I was arrested by Serb forces for 10 days while covering the war.

My uncle, Sig Roos, a Boston-based lawyer and one of legions of Lewis admirers, emailed me to mourn his passing and again praise his help. After I was released, I returned to the United States and thanked Lewis in person. He was an extraordinarily kind, gracious and unassuming man, who mentored countless young journalists, as tribute after tribute have described this week.

To be honest, as soon as I sent my Tweet about Lewis, I regretted it. A man whose work had inspired a generation of reporters, lawyers and judges -- and helped save my life -- was reduced to 48 characters.

Tweeting about Lewis seemed somehow an indictment of contemporary journalism. Shouldn't I have taken a few minutes to reflect on Lewis and the extraordinary life he lived? Why, in the greater scheme of things, did my opinion of him even matter? Worst of all, it was slapdash. In a rushed effort to pay respect to one of the most precise writers of our time, I used the wrong word. Lewis "championed" Gideon and Bosnia. He did not "save" them.

In a moving piece in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen explained how Lewis' Supreme Court coverage and seminal book, "Gideon's Trumpet," transformed legal journalism.

Lewis' simple sentences and lucid prose, Cohen wrote, turned arcane legal jargon and court procedures into concepts readers could easily understand. As shown in the passage below, Lewis made justice simple.

The case of Gideon v. Wainwright is in part a testament to a single human being. Against all the odds of inertia and ignorance and fear of state power, Clarence Earl Gideon insisted that he had a right to a lawyer and kept on insisting all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

His triumph there shows that the poorest and least powerful of men -- a convict with not even a friend to visit him in prison -- can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.

But of course Gideon was not really alone; there were working for him forces in law and society larger than he could understand. His case was part of a current of history, and it will be read in that light by thousands of persons who will know no more about Clarence Earl Gideon than that he stood up in a Florida court and said: "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."

In short, Lewis' journalism inspired people. His 32 years of twice-weekly columns gently distilled the welter of half-truths that has always been political debate into clear choices.

His legal coverage told readers why one court decision -- as compared to others -- mattered to society. His journalism clarified.

"To my taste, Tony Lewis leaves the high-water mark in consequential newspaper work in our time," Boston journalist and radio host Chris Lydon wrote this week. "Before snark and life-style and propaganda and the I-I-I voice in political columns came to seem standard."

Today, inspiring journalism clearly exists, but it is increasingly threatened by the high speed and volume that the economics of online journalism demand.

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