By Marissa Newhall
During the early years of Samuel Freedman’s career as reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s Suburban Trib, his starting salary was so modest that he offered to shovel snow for his landlord in exchange for a $25 break on his monthly rent.
From the humble beginnings of bartering for rent discounts, Freedman moved up in the world. He’s an award-winning author, New York Times columnist and tenured professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
During an interview before his speech, Freedman told a reporter that journalism was in his blood at an early age. His first hands-on experience was when he served as editor in chief of his junior high school newspaper, but even before that his interest in current events was sparked by political discussions at the dinner table.
“In our house, The New York Times was read like the Bible,” Freedman said.
After his stint at the Suburban Trib, Freedman went on to become a staff writer for the The New York Times from 1981 to 1987. Since then, he has written six books and contributed to numerous Web sites, magazines and national newspapers, including the Jerusalem Post, Rolling Stone and USA Today.
Freedman’s New York Times column, “On Education,” draws poignant pictures of education in America, such as a recent piece about a 20-year-old Navy hospitalman from South Gate, Calif., who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The story emphasized the overcrowding at the seaman’s high school, which had a student body of 5,000, and how his tragic death was the first time many in the school took notice of his name.
“It is a terrible and obvious truth of war that the young fight and die — the average age of the American fatalities in Iraq is 26 1/2 — and so these losses echo in a particular way through the high schools the victims so recently left,” Freedman wrote in the column, which was published May 10. “In grief and commemoration, their survivors often reach for a certain vocabulary, phrases like ‘honor roll,’ ‘dean’s list’ and ‘role model,’ as if the demise of a B-minus student should somehow harrow everyone less.”
Freedman has made an impact as an educator. At Columbia University, he teaches a popular non-fiction book-writing seminar that’s turned out over 35 authors, editors and agents since its creation in 1991. He said the transition from reporter to teacher was a natural one.
“Journalism teaches you to prepare and to do research, and is all about expressing information clearly,” Freedman said. “Not dumbing it down, but making it accessible to people who have never encountered it before. Teaching is about the same things; researching your material, knowing it and then being able to clearly express it.”
A theater enthusiast, Freedman also served briefly in 1984 as an adjunct professor of theater at Columbia’s School of the Arts. He was named by SPJ in 1997 as the nation’s outstanding journalism educator.
“There’s a real kind of public service to both (journalism and teaching), Freedman said. “In journalism it’s less direct. In teaching it’s very direct, but they’re both ways that you can feel you’re doing something really positive for the world around you.”
Freedman spoke at the MOE Awards luncheon of the shift in the public perception of journalists. In the era of Woodward and Bernstein, Freedman said, “journalism was a job with a lot of cache to it,” whereas now journalists are regarded as unfavorably as lawyers, or politicians.
Because of animosity toward journalists today, Freedman said now is as important a time as ever to enter the field. He singled out the critiques of journalists by amateur bloggers wielding uninformed opinions and camera phones, who consider themselves qualified to cover news.
“People have given their lives to do this work,” Freedman said. “We must preserve the sacred covenant of that.”
After his speech, Freedman signed copies of his latest book, “Letters to a Young Journalist.”