An ink-stained reunion

The Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas, is 100 years old this year, so the former staffers had a party in Austin in October. More than 450 came for three days of reminiscing and serious talk about the state of journalism.

Attendees included 10 - out of a total of 17 - Pulitzer Prize-winners from papers as diverse as the Pecos (Texas) Independent and The Wall Street Journal. There were network TV anchors (Walter Cronkite), a former White House press secretary (Bill Moyers), a nationally syndicated gossip columnist (Liz Smith), and a host of editors, managing editors, TV news producers, bureau chiefs, and plain reporters. The oldest present was David Hall, editor of the Texan in 1931 and later of the Fort Worth Press and Pittsburgh Press. Two Texan editors not present became long-time members of Congress: Fritz Lanham from Fort Worth (1919-1947), and Jack Brooks from Beaumont (1953-1989).

A whole day was devoted to a series of symposiums on the state of the profession. By and large, this group of more than ordinarily successful practitioners of journalism was not a happy band.

They disliked the trend of mega-mergers, and particularly scalded Sumner Redstone, the Viacom chairman who is about to become the boss of CBS, for his statement in Shanghai that journalists "should not unnecessarily offend the countries" where they work. Reference was made to the old adage that the mission of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Mr. Cronkite deplored declining political participation and lack of debate on foreign policy, both of which he attributed to inadequate information. (Engraved across the Main Building of the university is the biblical quotation, "Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free." That inspired me when I first saw it in 1936; it still inspires me in 1999. It's really why we are in this business.)

Mary Walsh, an Emmy Award-winning CBS news producer, criticized what she called "the race to be wrong," and said, "Getting it right matters less and less." (There were two signs in the Daily Texan newsroom in the 1930s. One said, "Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy." The other said, "Get it first, but first get it right." Those who worked there then took this seriously. Most still do.)

Mark McKinnon, editor of the Texan in 1980, went to jail briefly for refusing to comply with a court order to hand over the negatives of photographs of Iranian students accused of disrupting a speech by a former Iranian ambassador. Now the media adviser to Gov. George W. Bush, Mr. McKinnon complained that the press criticizes candidates for lacking substance but does not cover substantive statements, concentrating instead on personal weaknesses. This drew a sharp question from Karen Elliott House, The Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer winner, about when Mr. Bush would be willing to sit down for a serious interview. She did not get an answer.

The Texan's special centennial edition consisted largely of stories and editorials reprinted from the 100 years. Cronkite's byline is on an interview with Gertrude Stein, who visited the campus in March 1935. In April 1935, Claudia Taylor, who later became known as Lady Bird Johnson, reported the library's acquisition of an original edition of John Keats's poems.

There were notable fights with governors, legislatures, regents, and university presidents. In 1925, Gov. Miriam (Ma) Ferguson sought to abolish the department of journalism by vetoing its appropriation. In the 1930s and '40s, there were red-baiting investigations by both Congress and the legislature. In the 1940s, the Board of Regents fired a popular president and the university was censured by the American Association of University Professors. Repeated attempts were made to censor the Texan from the 1920s to the 1970s. None endured and they were finally abandoned. In some cases, the Texan ran blank spaces where offending editorials or news stories would have been printed.

The university is only 16 years older than its student newspaper. They have grown together (the university too much, some think) and are now among the largest in the country. The Texan regularly wins most awards for college newspapers. It has an annual revenue of $2.5 million, almost all of which comes from advertising. That's a long way from when this writer was one of six night editors, each responsible for the paper one night a week and each paid $2.50 per night. That amounted to $10 a month - enough to pay the rent in 1939. Even better, it was on the Texan staff that I met the girl - she was the associate editor - to whom I have been married for 58 years. The editor was best man at the wedding.

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. Since his days at the University of Texas, he has reported for the Melbourne Herald, in Australia, and Congressional Quarterly, in Washington. He spent 27 years as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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