A QUESTION sometimes asked by earnest young journalism students these days is whether the profession holds any future for them.
Can fledgling journalists with a sense of principle still make it in a profession that seems increasingly competitive and obsessed with conflict, one that has been caught in some flagrant ethical corner-cutting (such as NBC's recent use of incendiary rockets to simulate the explosion of a GM truck)?
Well, of course they can. There are charlatans in journalism as in any profession, but that only underlines the need for new arrivals of integrity. There is no contradiction between a strongly held sense of morality, and such qualities highly prized in journalism as perception, resourcefulness, tenacity.
I wish that troubled would-be reporters could have spent an hour or two with David Willis, who passed on last week after a career of passionate absorption with journalism.
Few could rival his verve, his energy, in pursuit of the story. He had a directness that characterizes his fellow Australians; their impatience with bureaucracy and protocol that seems charmingly saucy to some, but borders on irreverence to others. But the whimsical way with which he regarded the frailties of the world around him could not disguise a deep and serious commitment to the quest for truth in both his professional and personal life.
Much of David's career was spent on The Christian Science Monitor, to which newspaper he added lustre. He covered the State Department in Washington and became a regular panelist on the PBS show "Washington Week in Review."
After Washington came Tokyo, and when I became the Monitor's editor, I brought him home as editor in charge of domestic coverage. In the transition from correspondent to editor he lost none of his competitiveness. He plunged into the assignment with zeal - goading, cajoling, and encouraging his correspondents around the country.
One target of his competitiveness was Geoffrey Godsell, his opposite number in charge of overseas news coverage, a man of awesome knowledge. Each day, competing for space on Page 1 and throughout the paper, they made an engaging pair of good-humored rivals; Geoffrey the quintessential Englishman, a proudly plump gourmet, ex-Cambridge, ex-Royal Navy, ex-BBC, and David, ex-Sydney street reporter and New York night school, lean despite a diet of noontime hamburgers between phone calls to his bureaus, always
pushing to the edge. It's no wonder that when some wag produced a gag photo of all the editors assembled around my desk for a Page-1 conference, transposing dogs' heads for the editors' heads, they made Geoffrey an English bull mastiff and David a feisty terrier. Whatever the differing characteristics, they had a common passion for good reporting and their newspaper.
When David prepared to move on to a new assignment in Moscow, we borrowed a gleaming Rolls-Royce for a farewell lunch. When the carload of us returned to the office, I summoned a photographer to take a souvenir picture. A week later, I discovered an astonishing rumor circulating throughout the newsroom: "Hughes thinks so much of Willis, he gave him a Rolls-Royce." We only borrowed the Rolls, but David would have deserved it anyway. He was a great American News Editor.
In Moscow, David lived in a combined apartment and office with his English wife, Margaret, his three children, and a large white rabbit. The only phone was in the hall. One day as he was broadcasting live over the phone for the BBC on some complex aspect of Soviet politics, the rabbit bounded down the hall and inexplicably sank its teeth into David's ankle, holding on tenaciously. For a second, David was in danger of informing millions listening to the very proper BBC that he'd just been bitten by a larg e white rabbit. But, ever the professional, he regained his composure and continued broadcasting until Margaret wrestled the errant beast away.
After Moscow came London, then a roving assignment covering the third world. Though he moved from print to the Monitor's venture into television, and finally to the BBC in London, he never lost his reverence for language. A man of charm and personal legend, he wrote a chapter of professional distinction in the Monitor's history.