Column: ‘Obnoxious bluntness’

Published on October 8, 2013.

The other week, I had the privilege of attending three events in Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, the venerable commonwealth that is almost but not quite as old (here’s a fun fact) as the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas. Allow me to record some of my main impressions.

First on the list was a forum I helped organize and which featured Nieman fellows from Asia. “Old Traumas, New Dilemmas: Four Asian Media Perspectives,” hosted by the Harvard University Asia Center and the Nieman Foundation, ranged over a great diversity of topics. Sayuri Daimon, the new managing editor of the Japan Times, remembered lessons learned from coverage of the Fukushima disaster; Chong-ae Lee of the Seoul Broadcasting System made an appeal, based on personal experience, to revisit the historical record; I spoke on the politics of the pork barrel.

But it was Yang Xiao of China’s Southern People Weekly who made the strongest impression; his description of the challenges facing China’s liberal media in the post-Olympic era began with a scrupulous sketch of the specific Chinese context of “liberal” but ended with a simple declaration of journalism’s true purpose: To speak truth to power.

* * *

At Boston College, the School of Theology and Ministry organized a daylong conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 150th anniversary of Boston’s landmark Jesuit university. The school convened three excellent panels of distinguished experts; a quip from Dean Mark Massa, SJ, can serve as one gauge of the scholarly firepower concentrated in the hall. At one point he surveyed the audience and noted the presence of many of his school’s graduate students, and recalled the instruction to invite them: “They should be here today because all the assigned texts will be here in person.”

Some of those assigned texts in attendance were John O’Malley, SJ, author of “What Happened at Vatican II?”; Richard Gaillardetz, coauthor of “Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II”; and the very young Massimo Faggioli, who wrote “Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning.”

Many of the presentations were rich in both detail and insight; I was perhaps most struck by O’Malley’s idea that the bishops’ choice of rhetorical language in Vatican II helped determine the council’s pastoral, non-condemnatory character. (This is old news for those who’ve followed O’Malley closely, but new to me.) Inspired by Pope John XXIII’s inclusive idiom, the council fathers ended up using the epideictic form, which O’Malley defined as an “enhancing rhetoric” designed “to win internal assent.” Noting that “language games are serious games,” O’Malley described how “the choice of epideictic inclined the council to be more incarnational,” how it helped make the “concept of human dignity [become] part of the language of Vatican II,” and so on.

Why is this important? O’Malley makes the case in his now-standard book on Vatican II. “The fathers of the council did not set out to ‘talk epideictic,’ but they wanted to adopt a style different from that of theological textbooks and most ecclesiastical pronouncements, a style more consonant with the style of the Fathers of the Church, as they often insisted during the council. However we might explain it, the documents of the council fit the epideictic pattern and therefore need to be interpreted accordingly. They must be analyzed according to their genre, their literary form.”

* * *

The Nieman Foundation designed the 75th anniversary rites of the world’s first journalism fellowship program to mirror the fellowship experience and at the same time to hold the mirror up to the nature of the fellowship itself. So there was, for instance, an extraordinary session featuring seven eminent thinkers from Harvard and MIT, each given 10 minutes to set pulses racing and imaginations on fire; but there was also a freewheeling discussion on the future of storytelling.

One of the highlights was the Washington Post’s Anne Hull in conversation with a true master of the craft, Robert Caro. His deeply detailed studies of Robert Moses (“The Power Broker”) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (four volumes, and still going) are towering examples of political biography, but: “I was never interested in writing a biography about a great man,” he said. “I wanted to write about political power.”

Almost everything in the carefully considered anniversary program affirmed the most basic values about journalism that I have learned from peers and mentors and from experience itself—except the last comment in the last session of the conference.

Asked whether the panelists believed in the “nut graf” of “The Elements of Journalism”—its classic formulation of the central purpose of journalism as providing citizens with the information they need “to function in a free society”—Joe Sexton, formerly of the New York Times and now with ProPublica (and editor of the Times’ Snowfall story) responded in surprising fashion: He said that while he thought nuance mitigated the “obnoxious bluntness” of the passage, he didn’t buy any of it.
“I don’t believe in that nut graf .… People have talked and preached that gospel … with real sentiment and passion, and they have walked themselves off a cliff with that gospel.… But for me … what always I took to be the role of newspapers was to be a brawling, competitive, spectacularly flawed, wildly ambitious, comic free for all that serves all sorts of purposes.”

Later at dinner, a group of Asian colleagues exchanged notes of disbelief over Sexton’s free-for-all version of journalism. We were all aware that the democratic projects in our respective countries could not so blithely be taken for granted.

Postscript. An editor’s note on Inquirer.net carried the following correction:
In an earlier version, Mr. Nery mistakenly identified the author of “What Happened at Vatican II?” as James O’Malley, instead of John. He regrets the error.

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