Reading Critically, Not an Attack on Journalists

To the editors:

Re: “Journalists Lose at Harvard,” Op-ed, Sept. 19.

I do not understand how Mr. David A. Andelman ‘66 could have read my essay, “The Research Library in the Digital Age,” as an attack on the press and on my own brother, John. John and I were raised to value a free press as the strongest buttress of democracy; and that principle touched us personally, because our father was killed as a correspondent for The New York Times in World War II. In my essay, I argued that reporters write stories about what happened, that news stories have a narrative element, and that they should not be read naively as if they were transparent windows through which readers can enjoy a perfect view of what actually occurred. To illustrate my point, I described the coverage of the Battle of Brandywine, in which an American defeat was construed as a victory, although according to some it had cost Washington his life. I was not trying to disparage journalists, my brother least of all, by arguing that they make mistakes. Nor was I asserting the superior accuracy of historians.

I was arguing for the importance of reading all texts critically, a point worth stressing in this new information age, when readers tend to think that they have access to unmediated factual knowledge by consulting their computers.


Cambridge, Mass.

September 19, 2008

The writer is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library.