When I graduated in May 2001 with a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, the commencement speaker singled me out at the time as the oldest person, at 68, to have earned a law degree from the school.
Today, at 77, it appears I’m the oldest reporter at The Washington Post writing daily news stories.
Perhaps it is age alone that qualifies me to participate in this anniversary issue, since I’m just a bit younger than THE HOYA itself. And, like your university’s newspaper, I’ve been through the ups and downs of the past decades, trying to record what was going on as best I could.
Looking back, the economy and war have been dominant in my lifetime. I was born during the Depression. My teenage years were colored by World War II, college years by the Korean War and subsequent military service, and early adult years by Vietnam. Middle age saw family-raising amid inflation, then boom and bust of the dot-com era. Today it’s terrorism, war and recession.
ost of my adult life, beginning in1966, has been spent at The Washington Post, although in truth the first bylined article I had featured in the Post was in 1959. I freelanced a piece in the Outlook section based on the plans I had obtained from open government sources that detailed specifications for armored limousines being purchased for then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. I still depend on public records as the foundation for much of my reporting.
Over the years I took what were, in effect, three sabbaticals from journalism. The first two, in the 1960s, were to run separate 18-month investigations for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, initiated by its then-chairman, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark). The last was a half sabbatical, time off during the six years from 1995 to 2001 when I went to Georgetown Law.
The 36 months in the Senate taught me more about the realities of government than any reporter could learn in 36 years covering government. Those six years at Georgetown during the Clinton presidency reminded me how important the law is to our society. But more importantly, that time allowed me to be a student with other, younger students. A sidelight was the chance to write long – not 600- or 1,000-word newspaper stories, but 20- to 30-page detailed, footnoted – term papers for great seminar courses.
I’ve laid out this record not only because it’s an ego trip, but to say that being old and old-fashioned has its advantages, even if the modern media world seems to have sped up.
Seeking out public records, like those plans for FBI Director Hoover’s limousines 50 years ago, should still be a foundation for journalism today. It’s even more important at a time when news organizations are bombarded with press conferences, 24-hour commentators and canned statements by both public officials and those who just want to see themselves on TV or in the press.
I have covered U.S. activities in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years in part by reading the list of public solicitations for government contract services published each day on the fbodaily.com web-site. Often, I know more about the facts on the ground from the contract offerings than colleagues who cover the daily Pentagon, Kabul or Baghdad press conferences.
The challenge to journalism is that today we are living in what I call a PR, or public relations, society; where people regularly do or say what they want, whether it is true or not, in order to push their own programs or policies.
Eighty years ago, Walter Lippmann, in his extraordinary book “Public Opinion,” witnessed the rise of PR – although in his day it was the press agent or publicity man who was involved. “The picture which the publicity man makes for the reporter is the one he wishes the public to see,” Lippmann wrote. Substitute any press secretary or party spokesman today for this description: “He is censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interests.”
It is the job of journalists to sort out the facts and present them as best they can in whatever media they use. Lippmann put it this way, “At its best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worst it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends.”
Good luck to THE HOYA in its next 90 years.
Walter Pincus (LAW ’01) is a national security writer for The Washington Post.”