The drive for credibility has pushed journalists toward greater caution. When USA Today correspondent Jack Kelley was found to have fabricated news, the home-office solution was to double-check quotes in reporters’ stories and comb expense accounts to see whether they had been where they said they were. Such scrutiny may avoid more Kelleys (or it may not). But it does not encourage correspondents to interpret the world for an audience that often doesn’t have the background to weigh a leader’s quote or judge the relevance of a distant fact.

For all its emotion, Sheean’s approach was more objective than the pseudo-scientific artifices of attributing all insights and opinions to others and of balancing unequal points of view to avoid seeming “biased.” Like a proper scientist, Sheean brought expert observational skills to his reporting…he told the reader what he saw, the conditions under which he saw it, and what it meant.

That was strikingly apparent in 1938, when Sheean covered Germany’s annexation of Austria for the Herald Tribune. He rejected the widespread argument that the Nazis succeeded by terror alone. The party’s message, argued Sheean in the paper’s banner story of July 5, had mass appeal:

I am unable to name any sources or any authority for what I say, since nobody in Vienna is willing to be quoted, but investigations in the last ten days have given me one firm belief…that nothing will shake the power of national socialism here until it has completed its historic functions and has reached its natural and inevitable conclusion in general war.

This was not the antiestablishment free-for-all of the New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s. Nor was it the self-centered blogging of today. It was informed reporting of the highest order.

Journalists of a certain age remember Sheean. As I was working on this article, long-retired cbs correspondent Marvin Kalb mentioned that he read Personal History when it came out and said to himself, “I’ve got to be a journalist.” May it inspire a new generation of correspondents as well. 

 

John Maxwell Hamilton is the dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and the author of the forthcoming Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.