My Three Lives in Journalism: America, Commonweal and NCR

Two days last month I flew to Kansas City and next took the F train and walked to Pier 60 on the Hudson River to help celebrate the anniversaries of the National Catholic Reporter (50th) and Commonweal (90th). One in the “heartland” of America, the other in the center of the world.

The long hours in the air and walking 12 New York blocks at night got me thinking back on the roles these three Catholic publications — America, Commonweal and NCR — played in my life and in the lives of millions of Catholics over the years who kept the faith because one or all of these magazines spoke for them. NCR Vietnam reporter, editor and publisher Tom Fox told those at the NCR supper that, “good journalism gives a voice to the voiceless.” Meanwhile all three publications have made it possible for me to both teach journalism at Fordham, Loyola New Orleans and St. Peter’s College and at least try to make my voice heard.

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America

My first “big” breakthrough was an 1957 article written for America at the age of 23, from my U.S. Army base in Germany, arguing that one can be both a good Catholic and good soldier at the same time. America’s editor, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., had been my dean at Fordham college and eventually brought me to America as a summer editor and gave me a column on society and literature for several years. I covered the race riots in Newark, Detroit and Rochester and got tear-gassed with the protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I lived with the America community during their last year at 108 St. and early years here on 56th.

Memories of my fellow Jesuits are vivid: Thurston with his deep resonant voice, high Harvard intelligence, and graceful-clever prose, which was occasionally picked by the secular press and celebrated, like his in-depth analysis of which dead people make it to the New York Times obituary pages. And the brilliant musician, artist and mentor of the young, C.J. McNaspy, who secretly snuck his piano up the elevator and into his room, fearing that Thurston might disapprove.

In my last assignment America sent me to a meeting of Jesuit educators in California which was set to receive the results of a sociological study of all the Jesuit high schools by Joseph Fichter, S.J. I was to write the first analysis of the report so America could set the tone for its reception. Unfortunately the Fichter Report concluded that Jesuit high school students were weaker in their moral behavior (cheating, etc) upon graduation than when they began as freshmen. America didn’t think it should report this. I submitted my article to a prudent Jesuit scholar at Georgetown and he said, “Don’t change a word.”

Commonweal

Commonweal grabbed it and a later article I did on Norman Mailer. By now I was ordained, had passed my PhD courses at George Washington U. and had moved to Fordham to finish my thesis on the Brooklyn Eagle and teach communications. The editor of Commonweal, Jim O’Gara, invited me to lunch. He had one question: Was I a “just war” advocate or a pacifist? Son of a World War I hero and myself an antiaircraft artillery platoon leader, I answered easily. Then he hired me as book editor, the magazine’s first priest editor, to replace Peter Steinfels who was leaving to join a think tank on the Hudson.

At America the editorial decisions were made in civil discussion by a dozen men in black encircling a long table (now in the America editor’s office) on Monday morning after all had read the Sunday New York Times. At Commonweal in our little office on Madison Ave., there were only three of us: Jim O’Gara, editor; Jack Deedy, managing editor, and myself. We picked the Monday editorial topic by rotation. Every three weeks I delivered my work to the other two men. My father had written about 40,000 editorials for the Trenton Times and other papers; here I was struggling, with mixed results, for a topic every three weeks. The day Israel invaded Lebanon, I wrote “Israel is wrong.” My colleagues replaced it with a general essay on disarmament, but gave me a full page, signed, to make my point. When Pope Paul VI began to fail in health, I suggested that he should resign. At this, the American church’s leading historian, Msgr, John Tracy Ellis, cancelled his subscription. Later he came back. For the first time, Commonweal endorsed a presidential candidate: George McGovern.

We were three editors, but the soul of the magazine was embodied in two other beautiful persons. Edward S. Skillin, who had joined the staff in 1933 and was publisher till 1998, was the living history of the magazine. Senator Gene McCarthy would stop by to visit him and Edward invited us all to his home for an evening confab with Gene. He died in 2000 at 96. Anne Robertson, the editorial assistant, was literally saintly in her do-everything-but-write position, including the correspondence required for my book job. Years later I visited her when she was dying of melanoma. She did not fight it, she was just ready to go. Jim and Jack became among my dearest friends. I remember Jack and I leaving the office and heading down Madison Ave. to Grand Central Station, to take him home and me to Fordham, the day Nixon resigned. I felt like dancing in the street. I visited Jack during the summer at his Gloucester home; and when Jim died in a rest home in Baltimore I was honored to do the funeral. When I left Commonweal my Jesuit friend Dave Toolan, an exciting thinker and brilliant writer, took my place, and later moved to America where he traveled widely to write, fighting the cancer which finally took him away.

The NCR

When I left Fordham in 1979 to become dean of Rockhurst College in Kansas City, the editors of the Kansas City Star, who had invited me for a get-to-know-you meeting, asked me to interview the new editor coming in to take over the NCR, Tom Fox. A few years later when I moved the Loyola New Orleans to teach journalism, I wrote long research articles evaluating the diocesan press and Mother Angelica’s EWTN Network, and I covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans. A series I did on how the press, especially TV, covered the first Gulf War, led to a regular TV criticism column.

Because I was teaching travel writing and political journalism I felt I had to take a few risks and travel to troubled countries to bring back stories — to prove that I could do it. So there, and during a few years at Fordham later, I set off alone for two-week plunges into South Africa, Cuba, Peru, Indonesia, Vietnam, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and finally Iraq right after the Persian Gulf War.

In my columns I had criticized the 1991 America bombing of an air raid shelter in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Baghdad killing 408 civilians. Somehow American intelligence had listed the shelter as a military command post. On my visit to the site, now a memorial with pictures of the victims on the walls, I climbed up on the roof to examine the hole where the two 2,000 lb. lazer-guided bombs had smashed in. I picked up two pebbles from the roof, have one now and gave the other to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, whose conscience I admired and who had accepted my several invitations to talk at colleges where I taught. I will always remember the sight of neighborhood boys enjoying the swimming pool below my Baghdad hotel window. In ten years, I said to myself, these boys may all be dead, killed in a follow-up war.

The New 'America'

After four years as dean of Holy Cross, 10 in New Orleans and 4 at Fordham as an assistant dean, I moved to Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City for a year to finish writing two books, one on the history of Fordham, the other on 50 Christian classics; and then, for 10 years, to teach journalism, English and theology and advise the Pauw Wow, the student paper. Finally, after a year at Boston College writing a biography of Jesuit Congressman Robert Drinan, I came home to America on the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, July 31, 2010. I was back where I had started in 1964, but now for the first time in my life doing journalism full time, not just trying to teach it.

No 12 men in black sitting around a conference table. Rather 4 SJs, 3 women and 3 laymen, supported by 9 columnists and 8 correspondents around the world, and a team of secretaries, designers and business staff. This rich group, plus the two anniversaries, made me ask what the three publications have in common.

First, I have been surrounded by bright and competent young (all many years younger than I) professionals, often better informed and more skilled than I. Merely by being good, they challenge me to do better. Second, they love the church and sometimes must show that love by constructive criticism. Third, while an earlier generation battled McCarthyism, Father Coughlin and isolationism and fought for the rights of labor unions, free speech, civil rights and withdrawal for Vietnam, today’s issues are: the rights of women and racial and sexual minorities, the environment, inequality and the Middle East.

What knits them all together is the threatened dignity of the individual and his or her right to live and grow. Finally, all these journalists, nurtured by faith, look to the welfare of future generations. Every word they write and print, in the magazine or on the web, or utter on the radio or TV, is a stone in the building of a better church and a better world.

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