McNamara speaks about over 25 years at University
The Justice interviewed Prof. Eileen McNamara on Dec. 1 to learn more about her experiences and insights.
Prof. Eileen McNamara first joined Brandeis in 1995 as an adjunct faculty member while maintaining a full-time career as a columnist at The Boston Globe, where she worked for nearly 30 years covering a vast array of topics from the nightly police beat to Congress. An award winning reporter and columnist, McNamara won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for her many-sided columns on Massachusetts people and issues” in 1997. She began teaching full-time at Brandeis in 2007, and eventually became the Director of the Journalism Program, a position that she held until last year.
She is known for her role in exposing “the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston.” Her columns about various cases of repeated abuse by clergy members, as well as her recommendation to Globe editor Marty Baron that the newspaper investigate these cases, led to the famed investigation by the paper’s Spotlight Team, which brought international attention to the issue and won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. “Spotlight” (2015), the movie based on the team and their coverage, won two Academy awards in 2016, including Best Picture.
McNamara’s authorship includes: “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World” (2018), “The Parting Glass: A Toast To The Traditional Pubs of Ireland” (2006) and “Breakdown: Sex, Suicide and the Harvard Psychiatrist” (1994).
Q: How did you come to pursue a career in journalism? What did you study in college, and is there a professor who inspired you?
A: I wanted to be a reporter since discovering in high school that journalism was a license to ask impertinent questions of powerful people, especially Sister Ann Dominic, the principal.
I was an American Studies major at Barnard College where my advisor was Professor Annette Kar Baxter, an inspirational scholar of women’s history. She also paid me what I thought was the ultimate compliment, although I am pretty sure she did not mean it to be: “You write like a journalist,” she said.
Q: Did you work for a newspaper during college — what was that like for you?
A: I wrote for a couple of years for The Columbia Spectator, but writing for a daily campus newspaper at a big university was a commitment that meant skipping too many classes for a scholarship student. I got a job, instead, with The Daily News as their Columbia University campus correspondent and had the thrill of my first professional byline in what was then New York City’s largest newspaper.
Q: Why Brandeis? What made you choose to work at Brandeis instead of other colleges?
A: I began teaching at Brandeis in the mid-90s while writing full-time for The Boston Globe. I joined the faculty in 2007. The appeal and the strength of the Journalism Program here has always been that it is grounded in the liberal arts. No valuable news reporting is possible without the context and background provided by a serious education in the humanities and the social sciences.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the variety of classes you have taught at Brandeis. What is a journalism class that you have particularly enjoyed teaching at Brandeis and why?
A: I have taught courses on Media and Public Policy, Political Packaging in America, Opinion Writing, Reporting, Journalism in the 20th Century and Ethics in Journalism. I‘ve also taught a course in American Biography for the American Studies Program.
The Ethics course has been my favorite because we wrestle with the concrete dilemmas journalists actually face in the field. We use real case studies so students put themselves in the shoes of reporters, editors and photographers. Our discussions are always spirited and thoughtful about balancing the rights and responsibilities of journalism. The conversation differs from year to year as the particular challenges confronting reporters change, but the energy level is consistently high.
Q: Tell me about a book and/or article that you have assigned to students that particularly enhanced the coursework.
A: I assign Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and The Murderer” every year. It begins with one of the most cynical assessments of journalism ever written: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people‘s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” It is my personal mission to demonstrate to my students why Malcolm’s sweeping generalization could not be more wrong. The journalists I have worked with all my professional life view their work as a public trust. Far from “the enemies of the people,” reporters I admire have devoted their careers to giving voice to those without one in the public square.
Q: How have your experiences and skills as a journalist informed/applied to your experiences as a professor?
A: The experience of having had editors kick my copy back for revision for decades inspires my belief that there is no good writing, only good rewriting. My students get that message early and often. Journalism is less an academic discipline than it is a craft learned by practice, even when that means trial and error. I‘ve had plenty of both, whether it was covering the Boston police, the U.S. Congress, a school shooting in Littleton, Colorado or a famine in Africa. Only a few weeks ago, when I wrote a column for The New York Times about the Boston mayoral election, I was able to show students in my Opinion Writing class how the changes an editor asked me to make in that piece made the column stronger.
Q: What has been the most impactful interaction you have had with students?
A: Finding legal representation for campus reporters and editors who faced disciplinary charges for quoting students who spoke at a public rally which the entire community, including the press, had been invited by email to attend. The student journalists stood accused of violating the privacy of their classmates. They had done no such thing. They had done their jobs.
Q: Describe what the experience of teaching online during a pandemic was like for you.
A: I was ambivalent about Zoom. I was grateful that the technology allowed us to continue classes without interruption, but I missed the informal interaction with students that you can only have in person. l live on six wooded acres in New Hampshire so I slipped photographs of visiting wildlife into random classes. The owls and deer and black bears distracted us a little from the limitations of a flat screen classroom.
Q: How have you amended coursework during your time at Brandeis to coincide with the constant changes that the journalism industry is undergoing?
A: We talk a lot about the collapse of the business model in legacy journalism and the innovations that will be needed to replace advertising as a main source of funding. But the tenets of responsible journalism do not change just because the delivery platforms do. Whether we get our news from podcasts or Substack or multimedia presentations on The New York Times website, the standard of responsible journalism will always be the same: verification, verification, verification.
Q: What do you envision/hope for the future of the Brandeis journalism program?
A: Under the direction of Professor Neil Swidey, the program will be forward-looking, innovative and committed to attracting students from across the academic disciplines. A stellar journalist, Professor Swidey is bringing his ongoing professional experience into the classroom. He has already bolstered our internship advising and outreach efforts and expanded our course offerings, including a science reporting course focused on the pandemic. Talk about being on the news! Only exciting developments are ahead.
Q: What will you miss most about teaching at Brandeis?
A: My students. My students. My students.
Q: What are your plans post-retirement?
A: I have some book ideas that need much more thought than I have given them.
Q: Did you ever become disillusioned with the journalism industry? Why, and what drew you back into it?
A: Every day. There is a reason reporters call their newspapers “the daily miracle.” Under tight deadlines, journalists produce a snapshot of the world. These days, on internet time, that mission is more like “the hourly miracle.” It is not possible for that snapshot to be comprehensive, but it should not be — as it often is — distorted by the narrowness of our lens. Our newsrooms do not look like America. They are whiter, straighter, wealthier and more male than the population at large. That’s a big problem. Speed is sometimes the enemy of accuracy. The desire to give readers what they want sometimes conflicts with the responsibility to give them what they need. Trying to be fair sometimes devolves into false balance, giving equal weight to both sides of an issue when the facts rest squarely on one side. None of this is new, but in a time of such political division, it is crucial for reporters to be as thorough and truthful as they can be in order to counter the flood of misinformation being peddled by partisan players. Why do it? Because an independent and fearless press keeps the public informed and only informed people can act in their own interest. It is the best defense against political corruption and the insidious slide into authoritarianism that can happen when those with power feel confident that their power will go unchecked.
Q: What advice do you have for students who want to pursue jobs in the media/journalism industry?
A: Be curious. Study broadly and deeply, in an interdisciplinary way, during your time at Brandeis. Learn that history is not unrelated to economics, that literature has as much to teach us as the law about society, that psychology, anthropology and neuroscience all have insights to share about human behavior.
Be humble, too. The world is a big, messy, complicated place and a reporter, on any given day, is one individual trying to make sense of a small slice of it. I kept this quotation by Walter Lippmann above my desk when I was a columnist at The Globe to remind myself that whatever I wrote should always be the beginning of a conversation with readers, never the end of the discussion: “What kills political writing is this absurd pretense that you are delivering a great utterance. You never do. You are just a puzzled man making notes about what you think. You are not building the Pantheon, then why act like a graven image? You are drawing sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away.”