James Carey:A Model for Journalists and Scholars Alike
James Carey died early Tuesday morning from complications related to emphysema. He was 71. Jim was a personal friend, an advisor to the Poynter Institute, and a scholar who understood news as a cultural expression at the center of democratic life. “News is culture,” I heard him say more than once in that pungent Rhode Island accent, softened by Irish charm.
My relationship with Jim corresponds, almost precisely, to my life in journalism, and to the formative history of the Poynter Institute. Thirty years ago, Poynter was called the Modern Media Institute, sheltered in a rickety storefront next door to the Emerald Bar, which opened about nine in the morning.
It was 1977, and I remember Jim speaking to a group of educators there to learn more about the scholarly potential of studying the news media. It was the first of many such encounters with Jim, intellectual and personal. He was simply an amazing presence, deeply learned, charismatic as a lecturer, and witty and engaging in conversation.
When you asked him a question, you could never predict which reservoir of knowledge he would draw from. I can see him now in thought, squinting his eyes, scratching his head -- or a stubble of beard -- dipping into a deep well of learning. One day he might quote a passage from Yeats or James Joyce. Or he’d dazzle you with a quick but detailed history of the beginnings of modern journalism in 18th century France. Even more ingratiating, he could spin an anecdote -- always on point -- from the down-and-dirty history of the Chicago newspaper wars, or a moment in the ancient history of the Boston Red Sox that cast a distant light upon contemporary American politics.
I have never written down these next quotes or anecdotes. They are stored in my head and heart, the wisdom of Jim Carey, still alive in the form of remembered fables, parables, maxims, and aphorisms -- collectively the most formative experience of my life as a journalism educator:
* Jim preached that scholars should resist narrow paths to learning and attach themselves to big ideas: population growth or totalitarianism or the history of the Catholic Church. When I examine my own intellectual interests: literacy and language, journalism and democracy, religion and tolerance, I can track his influence on me.
* Jim seemed impatient with university types who sat in their offices, reluctant to wander outside the strict boundaries of their disciplines. At a place like the University of Illinois, where he served as journalism dean for many years, or Columbia, where he taught doctoral students, his mind and body would roam the hallways, from lecture hall to cafeteria, following his curiosity wherever it led, bonding with scholars in all the arts and sciences.
* "The First Amendment is easy to understand,” Jim explained. “It says that the government can’t tell you how to worship. It says that if you have something to say you can say it. If you want to, you can write it down and publish it. If you want to talk about it with others, you can assemble. And if you have a grievance, you can let your government know about it, and nobody can stop you.”
* "The way that journalists tell stories is always changing,” Jim said during the contentious debates of the public journalism movement. “Some of those old story forms came into being to solve old problems. In our time, they may be exhausted. We may need some new forms of journalism to solve new problems.”
* Jim, on the absolute human need for community: “Man is a diurnal creature. He’s up during the day. He sleeps at night. And he has to sleep somewhere. And because he’s vulnerable, he sleeps in a shelter. And then other people come and sleep in their shelters nearby. And before you know it, they realize they will be safer if they join together. Next thing you know, they have a police force, and someone picks up the garbage.”
* "Listen: You don’t feel well, so you go to see the psychiatrist. And the doctor listens to your story. And, if he’s a good doctor, he’s listening for the parts of the story that are making you feel sick. His job is then to help you tell a new story about yourself, especially one that will make you well. Newspapers are the same way. Journalists are telling each other stories about themselves that are making them sick. So the remedy is to tell a new story about journalism that will help make journalism healthy again.”
That last monologue by Jim has special significance because it comes from a man who turned serious childhood illnesses into a life of the mind. Born in Providence, Rhode Island with a congenital heart defect, Jim could not attend school until his high school years. While other boys were out running and hitting baseballs, Jim was reading. And reading. And writing. And thinking. And reading. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jim would compensate for the unfulfilled aspirations of his body, by cultivating his curiosity, an intellectual life so rich and energetic that ideas and stories would one day explode from him like rockets.
Jim Carey also became one of the most powerful influences in the young history of the Poynter Institute. In the early days, I asked him to help me teach a seminar for sports journalists, and it was a wonder to watch the scholar swap stories with the sports scribes. He then joined an elite group of scholars and journalists who helped us develop our first programs in journalism ethics, a group that evolved into Poynter’s first National Advisory Board. I can think of no significant development here that Jim and his colleagues did not help to midwife: from our moves into broadcast and new media, to years of work on how to better cover elections and campaigns, to countless internal reforms of an organization growing from adolescence into adulthood.
Poynter’s debt to Jim is profound. The only way to repay it is to follow in his footsteps: to study the deep significance of journalism as a practice, to honor its best practitioners and examples, and to remember that journalism means little for its own sake, but means everything in the struggle for freedom, justice, and self-government.
On a personal note, I’ll miss Jim as someone who shares a deep connection with the state of Rhode Island. He graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in Providence, which is also my wife Karen’s alma mater. (At a party for Jim, Karen once dressed up wearing the tartan plaid of a Mount Pleasant cheerleader!) His funeral will take place this Saturday at St. Francis Catholic Church in Wakefield, R.I., a place near and dear to my heart.
On a recent trip there to visit my in-laws, I managed to get him on the telephone. His voice seemed weak and out-of-breath, but his spirit was there in full force. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know I carried the conversation, and his response was about ten minutes of full-throated laughter. When I heard it, I imagined that mischievous grin and the twinkle in his eye. That’s the Jim Carey I’ll remember.
No Final Thoughts
I just listened, again, to the interview that my colleague, David Shedden, conducted with Jim back in 1991 (see the Poynter Podcast link above right). I was so struck by the last minute and a half that I decided to do some transcribing:
David Shedden: We're coming to the end of the interview, and I wonder if you have a final thought on the life that you've led and the things that you've written?
Jim Carey: There are no final thoughts. I quote all the time these wonderful words of Kenneth Burke: "Life is a conversation. When we enter it's already going on. We try to catch the drift of it. We exit before it's over."
The first lesson any pragmatist learns is that at the hour of our death we're rewriting our biography for the last time. And then the first hour into our death, someone else rewrites the biography for us: our children, our spouses, our friends. "Do you remember what he was like? What he said? What he did?"
So in that sense life is a conversation that continuously goes on. It continuously renews itself, and therefore renews you. Our work is a matter of self-renewal, which is a renewal of the other. No one has the last word. There are no final thoughts. There is no end to the conversation.