Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist, Doyle McManus, was named the director of Georgetown College’s undergraduate journalism program this week. As a foreign policy correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the LA Times, he covered demonstrations in Iran’s capital city, Tehran, and the Iran hostage crisis in which 54 American diplomats were held for 44 days. He had a ringside seat at the negotiations between Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Secretary of State James Baker in the late 1980s and early 1990s and he has covered every presidential campaign since 1984. After getting his start in journalism as an undergraduate at the Stanford Daily, he reported for United Press International from Los Angeles, Beirut and Tehran. He continues to write as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
The Hoya sat down with McManus to discuss his journalism experiences and his vision for the journalism program more broadly. He said the curiosity that a career like journalism requires has driven him to seek out unforgettable experiences reporting abroad and in the United States.
“The great thing about a long career in journalism is that most journalists get into journalism because they’re driven by curiosity, they want to learn things, they want to figure out how the world works,” McManus said.
What are some of the ideas you have for transforming the program?
There are lots of students, not just in the College, but in the School of Foreign Service in particular, who want more media education of one kind or another, and in effect, we have a responsibility to meet that demand and to meet it well — at a level of quality and intellectual sophistication that matches the abilities and capabilities of the students we are teaching. So that’s a starting point. It’s a program that is small, but strong, and we want to make it a little bigger and a little stronger.
How do you plan to expand the program’s engagement with the DC world?
We’re in one of the great journalism cities of the world. If you choose two cities where you find the best journalists in America, they’re Washington and New York, and I think we can attract more of those journalists to come teach as adjuncts. The program has already been, without any help from me, notably successful in doing that, and look at the list, from Athelia Knight of the Washington Post, who’s been teaching [Introduction to Journalism] for years, to a new recruit who hasn’t taught yet but is going to be fabulous: Liz Bruenig, also from the Washington Post, who is just a terrific mind, a fascinating person and just a really good journalist. She is a great model of how you can be a first rate intellectual and a shoe leather journalist at the same time.
How else do you expect the program to evolve?
Dean [Christopher] Celenza wants us to begin looking at whether Georgetown needs to do more in the area in what we’re calling information literacy. Sometimes it’s called news literacy, sometimes it’s called media literacy. This is really the question: What do undergraduates need, what do all citizens need, in terms of critical thinking skills and background to navigate the firehose of information that comes at us 24 hours a day through our phones? It actually doesn’t matter whether you’re 20-years-old or 70-years-old, none of us have been terribly well prepared to deal with this new environment. And I figure it’s probably too late to educate the 70-year-olds, but we do have a responsibility to the 20-year-olds.
Going back to Georgetown students interested in journalism, what can they do to get involved in the media world?
Like any other career, especially one in a field that is as chaotic and unsettled as this, this isn’t a situation where there are 10 or 20 old line institutions that you can just get online and fill out a job application for. If you want to be a journalist, the way to start is to figure out a way to do journalism. And in fact, Barbara Feinman Todd, who effectively founded this journalism program and left me a terrific foundation to work on, had a wonderful phrase that she used in her classes. The question isn’t “Do you want to be a writer?” the question is “Do you want to write?” It’s a verb, not a noun. Do you want to go do journalism? Do you want to go do reporting? Do you want to do commentary? Do you want to produce video or podcasts? Well, then the answer is [to] find a way to go do it now, because someone out there will go ahead and be glad to have your services at rock bottom prices, all the way down to zero. But there are places you can write for free, there are places you can produce video and audio content for free and you know what, once you’ve produced that, that’s your product and your credential.
As journalism is changing, how do you hope that the program can keep up?
Change or die. If we don’t evolve to keep up with the changes in the environment, evolutionary biology tells us what will happen to us. So that’s absolutely a requirement. So we already of course have the 200-course, Digital News, so we need to make [sure] that’s keeping up, but we have to do more.
Is there anything else happening in the program that you think we should know about?
I really do think that this is both a scary time and an exciting time to think about, to do journalism and to consider doing journalism as your life’s pursuit. No question that good journalism has never been more important to the health of American democracy, and we get plenty of reminders of that every day. But we also get plenty of reminders that doing journalism well is difficult. It’s demanding and there are lots of commercial pressures in the business of journalism that sometimes reward journalism that isn’t really good. It’s no great accomplishment to make a good living producing bad journalism. Our aim, connecting us to the larger aims of the university, is to help students do good journalism and learn skills that will also help them if, God forbid, they should go into another profession; also that will help them be good citizens, good lawyers, good business executives, good media professionals of any kind.