Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Anthony Lewis: What He Learned at Harvard Law School

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Anthony Lewis: What He Learned at Harvard Law School

Article excerpt

Anthony Lewis was a columnist for The New York Times for the unusually long tenure of thirty-two years. (1) When he retired in 2001 at the age of seventy-four, Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal for setting "the highest standard of journalistic ethics and excellence" and for being "a clear and courageous voice for democracy and justice." (2) Lewis ended his last column by paraphrasing one of his heroes: "The most important office in a democracy, Justice Louis Brandeis said, is the office of citizen." (3) Lewis' point was that the American commitment to the rule of law and the belief in reason on which it rests both depend on citizens standing up to rulers who abuse power by exercising it unreasonably--arbitrarily and unjustly. (4)

Lewis sounded like a classic outsider, who believed that his most important job as a journalist was to be a stand-in for citizens as an adversary of the government. In America today, that is the idealized stance for a journalist. Glenn Greenwald, the former columnist for The Guardian who co-founded the website called The Intercept, is a prominent example. (5) He was responsible for The Guardian US sharing the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with The Washington Post. (6) The Guardian's award based on Greenwald's work, the Pulitzer Prize Board said, was for the paper's "revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy." (7)

In interviews about this work based on massive leaks from the former N.S.A. contractor Edward Snowden, Greenwald has avowed that in the age of the surveillance state, with the United States government eliminating much of what privacy once entailed, the role of the press is to be confrontational. (8) The press's duty, he said, is to call-out government lies, expose unwarranted secrecy, and avoid the deplorable habit of "the establishment media" (9) bowing in "glaring subservience to political power." (10) It is the press's role, in other words, to be combative. When it is, the press provides the check and balance against the executive branch that neither Congress nor the judiciary have done anywhere near adequately. It helps reverse the anxiety-fueled swing of the pendulum toward police-state-like overprotection of national security, pushing the pendulum back toward the constitutionally guaranteed protection of individual rights.

Lewis often fit this model: he was a formidable critic of the government, in particular of its penchant for secrecy. (11) He was an insistent defender of citizens against government encroachments, especially of their right to privacy. (12) He was indignant about brutality that government sometimes inflicted, as when southern states used police to beat up people protesting against segregation, and about fear that government sometimes instilled in citizens to manipulate them, as in the period after the attacks against the United States on 9/11, (13) Lewis condemned those wrongs and sought to right them through his journalism. He was a liberal who pushed for liberal causes: liberty, equality, and the rule of law; fair and open elections; human rights; and freedom of expression and religion. (14)

Yet Lewis' journalism was fundamentally not adversarial: it was defined by what he was for, much more than by what he was against. As a member of the press, in a remarkable contrast to today's idealized stance, he felt a duty to explain and stand up for the constitutional system and the government's central part in it, as well as to challenge when the government violated American laws and values. (15) That's why it was apt that the presidential medal was given to him for being "a clear and courageous voice for democracy and justice." (16)

The story of how he developed that voice begins as an ever-receding footnote to history, but it is much more than that. …

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