For Anthony Lewis, Saving Lives Was Part of Getting the Story

Inspirational Journalism Rare in Age of the Tweet and Blog

Anthony Lewis was an icon of journalism who still believed in the value of a complete story. He knew the power of the written word to save lives, from the Balkans to the Middle East to right here at home.
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Anthony Lewis was an icon of journalism who still believed in the value of a complete story. He knew the power of the written word to save lives, from the Balkans to the Middle East to right here at home.

By David Rohde

Published March 29, 2013.
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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 thirty-two 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. A recently released Pew Charitable Trust report on the state of the news media in 2013 contained an alarming finding. The long-awaited surge in digital revenues for news organizations appears unlikely to materialize, particularly for newspapers. Since 2003, total newspaper print ad revenues have fallen from $45 billion to $19 billion. At the same time, online ads grew from $1.2 to $3.3 billion.

“Stop and think about that,” Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. “The total ten-year increase in digital advertising isn’t even enough to overcome the average single-year decline in print ads since 2003. Ugh.”

Given the comparatively small amount of revenue being produced by news websites, there is a danger of them becoming digital sweatshops. Young journalists will be expected to simultaneously write their own pieces, edit others’ work, make complex news judgments and update web pages. A handful of slots will exist for well-paid older journalists, but media executives struggling to make ends meet will cherish youth for a simple reason: low cost per post.


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