My path led me on to graduate school, to government service for seven years and then back to journalism, which became a continuing course in adult education — my own. Journalism has enabled me to cover the summits of world leaders, the lives of families in the inner city and the struggle of workers trapped in the pincer of globalization. I was paid handsomely as a CBS news analyst to put in my 2 cents’ worth on just about anything that happened on a given day. I’ve produced documentaries on politics, poetry, race, religion, art, education, poverty, death and dying, the environment, medicine and even one on my hometown.
Most important, journalism provided me a passport into the world of ideas, which became my favorite beat.
I’ve enjoyed the occasionally intimidating privilege of talking to some of the wisest and sanest people around: philosophers, physicists, novelists, activists, historians, poets, neuroscientists, biologists, teachers, scholars of every stripe. And I’ve had the chance to ask some of them the most important questions in the world: Why is there something instead of nothing? What do we mean by a moral life? What’s the source of hate? Can we learn to be creative?
It is impossible to listen to such people without realizing in one’s own consciousness a stirring of fresh life. Every one of them taught me something.
Shortly before his death, I heard this story from John Henry Faulk, a courageous radio personality who was driven from the air by unscrupulous ideologues and successfully fought back to expose their malfeasance. He and his boyhood friend Boots were playing in the chicken house when they were about l2 years old. They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests — so close it looked like a boa constrictor.
“All of our frontier courage drained out our heels — actually, it trickled down our legs,” John Henry said, “and Boots and I made a new door through that henhouse wall.” When they explained the commotion to his mother, she said, “Don’t you boys know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.” Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, replied, “Yes, Mrs. Faulk. But they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.” That taught him a lesson he never forgot, he said: Journalists who are afraid of their critics soon hurt themselves by pulling their punches and censoring themselves. It’s a lesson I hope I never forget, either.