by Charlie Guese | Editor-in-Chief
Journalism has turned into a changing field at a dramatic pace in the last few decades, and news has continually shifted through different media in that time frame. With declining viewership, today’s college generation is not trained to watch mass media broadcast television news anchors for news coverage in the way of those in the Walter Cronkite era. Last week, Jeffrey Brown, a senior anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” who is of a similar temperament, joined his wife, artist Paula Crawford, in a week of lecturing and conversation at Saint Mary’s as part of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program.
Brown and Crawford were both active in discussing their respective fields of expertise with Saint Mary’s students throughout the week, though Crawford let her husband take the center stage on Tuesday night’s question and answer forum moderated by Dean of School of Liberal Arts Steve Woolpert in the Soda Center.
Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture, and society for the “PBS NewsHour,” and frequently co-anchors the program with Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. Brown has spent decades interviewing newscasters and persons of interest, though he did not originally plan on becoming a journalist. Brown met Crawford while studying classics at University of California, Berkeley and was planning on becoming a college professor until one day before class when he realized that he did not want to spend the rest of his life in the fifth century B.C. Rather, he wanted to express his curiosity for the present.
“Whatever line you think you’re following, maybe you’ll follow it, but most everybody I know, especially people who are doing interesting things, have gone on all kinds of paths, and that’s what happened for me,” said Brown.
Brown discussed how he shifted to journalism and began working at the “NewsHour” before becoming a producer and editor before transitioning to an on-air position — something that he admits he never would have imagined happening. Brown then proceeded to tell the audience about editorial practices and how they have changed in light of the expected immediacy from online readers. However, he also expressed excitement at still being able to present a program for what he called not necessarily an intelligent or elite audience, but an “interested audience.” While the “PBS NewsHour” may present ongoing unrest in Syria, for example, Brown is most passionate when he is able to approach stories through a cultural perspective, such as the loss of ancient artifacts in Syria. “Another way to understand the human element is looking at the cultural issues. That’s something that I always try to bring coverage,” Brown said. Brown also recounted his recent journey to Myanmar, the former Burma, where he also reported on the changes in culture following the softening of the country’s military junta.
At this point, the conversation with the audience transitioned to the inherent financial challenges in supporting a 60-minute, publicly-funded, objective and all-encompassing news program. In light of financial pressures and the fracturing of media into a diversity of perspectives and outlets, Brown expressed concern at the continual funding of PBS, citing non-profit foundations as now some of the largest sources of funding for PBS and “PBS NewsHour.” Brown showed skepticism at whether or not a program like “PBS NewsHour” would exist if it were not for public media.
“In the name ‘PBS,’ the letter that’s most important to me is P, for the public,” Brown said. “I’ve spent my life going to public schools; I went to one of the greatest public universities in the world, and I’m very proud of that; and I’ve spent my professional life in public broadcasting. Then, I say, look at those three institutions. They are all under threat because they’re non-valued in many ways.”
Through the 90 minutes of informal conversation, the discussion touched on a plethora of topics in contemporary media. Despite many of the struggles in producing a 60-minute public news program every night, as Brown proved, journalism continues to exist in some form, and more optimistic viewpoints may indicate that the hard-hitting, informative journalism that is often found in public media will hopefully still exist into the future, even if its medium no longer will.