Leader who dared journalists to dream steps down

Philip Dattilo

Charles Eisendrath, longtime director of the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Knight-Wallace Fellows at the University of Michigan, will retire this summer. “This came at my volition and on the best possible terms,” he wrote in an e-mail to current fellows on Monday.

Eisendrath, who turned 75 last week, has been a singular force in shaping the awards and the fellowship program, which brings a dozen mid-career American journalists and a handful of international reporters to Ann Arbor each year for an eight-month paid sabbatical. Fellows audit classes at the university, travel abroad to places like Brazil, Turkey and Russia, and attend seminars in a house donated by former 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace.

Alumni of the fellowship and the awards make up a who’s-who of American journalism. Among the more than 500 former fellows are Charlie Gibson, John Broder, Molly Ball, and John U. Bacon. Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour, Evan Osnos, David Remnick, Michele Norris, and Ira Glass are but a few Livingston recipients. (Disclosure: I was a 2012 Knight-Wallace Fellow who fell in love with Ann Arbor and decided to settle down here, as many other fellows have.)

Eisendrath himself was a fellow in 1974-75, after years as a correspondent in South America and elsewhere for Time. He remained in Ann Arbor to teach and direct the university’s master’s program in journalism. He took over the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, then known as Journalists In Residence, in 1986. It was renamed the Knight-Wallace program in 1995, after Wallace donated the house and $1 million for the endowment, and the Knight Foundation pledged $5 million for a successful challenge grant.

Eisendrath took over a bankrupt program and transformed it into one of journalism’s best-known and most prestigious fellowships, with a $60 million endowment and yearly operating costs of about $2.3 million. A search committee co-chaired by Ken Auletta of The New Yorker and Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan School of Engineering will seek his replacement when he steps down on July 1, 2016.

Eisendrath spoke to CJR by phone as he drove to rural Michigan for a hunting expedition.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

CJR: After all these years, what led you to leave now?

CE: Until I was confident that the Livingston Awards were in a good place to be formally adopted by the University of Michigan, I couldn’t really think clearly about leaving.  Last year, Michigan got a new president, Mark Schlissel, and he instantly got everything I was trying to do. He came over to the Wallace House right away to talk to the fellows, and he welcomed everyone as host of the Livingston Awards luncheon in New York this spring. He promised to come back often to salute the best among young journalists, and he was thrilled to do so. At that same lunch, a woman named Patti Kenner walked in the door to announce that her father, Bertram Askwith, had three days previously signed off on a $1 million gift for the endowment for the Livingston Award.  With that clear, I began to think about me.

CJR: You felt it was all on more solid footing.

CE: That’s right. Then my 75th birthday was coming up. I am immensely proud of trying to steer a lot of journalists into better, satisfying lives, but what difference would two or three more years make for them with me? It seems modest. On the other hand, I’ve always had to have a job. The only time I’d have to see what life is like doing exactly what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it was right, smack, now.

CJR: Why was the fellowship program in such dire straits when you took it over?

CE: We were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. When the feds decided under Reagan that the highest and best use of US tax dollars was probably not giving a bunch of journalists a free year off at taxpayer expense, there was nothing in the bank, zero. I had been running the master’s degree program and realized that program was going to be discontinued and probably the fellowships, too. I tried at first to save them both and failed. But I volunteered in fall of 1984 to join the fellowship program to find money. I’d never done that in my life, but [former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor] Gene Roberts and [former Miami Herald publisher] David Lawrence thought I could save the program and helped me.  Much to everybody’s amazement, it worked.

CJR: Have such prominent figures always been involved?

CE: Yes. Kay Graham was one of the early and major donors. In those days, we didn’t have money to fly in applicants, so I would use Kay’s office at the Post to do interviews of the regional candidates around Washington. I was in New York in the early 1990s having a drink with Mike Wallace in his apartment and he called his wife, Mary, and said, “Hey Mar, Charlie wants to have a clubhouse for a bunch of journalists at Michigan. I think we ought to do it.” She said, “What do you mean we? It’s your money. You want to do it?” He said, “Yeah, I do.”

CJR: What qualities does your successor need?

CE: The director needs to have some charisma. They have to know how to navigate in a large organization. They have to be really interested in life-long learning of one sort of another for themselves and for their fellows. It helps to have a Rolodex of some note. I think some kind of international experience and outlook are really important. And you have to have some experience in what’s happening in journalism, because there’s a revolution going on that goes way beyond the delivery systems.

CJR: Similar programs have turned to rock-star editors, like Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, whereas you weren’t a national name when you took it on. How important is it to have a someone with a national profile take your place?

CE: I do not think a rock-star journalism profile is at all necessary. It’s much more important to the program that he or she have broad-based interests.

CJR: When you were inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame last year, you spoke defiantly about how your success proved the naysayers wrong.

CE: Michigan’s history in journalism is a little bit checkered. It was one of the first schools to have a department of journalism. It had a small but very good one. Then they got rid of academic journalism at Michigan. I gave myself the goal of giving the university two first-rate programs in a field it didn’t want. There were a lot of people who thought it was doomed. But it turned out that what I thought would be terrible for preserving these programs–all other journalism goes away–was great. Suddenly this was the only game in town. Suddenly, the faculty couldn’t decree that journalism wasn’t important. They could only decree that they weren’t interested in journalism.

CJR: The first question you ask each KWF applicant is, “What is your dream?” Why?

CE: Oh my gosh, it is tremendously useful. The point of the program in my view is take people who are already very good and help them get better faster than they would otherwise. If they don’t have a dream, I see that as a negative.

CJR: You last were a working journalist 40 years ago. Given all the changes in the industry, how have you changed the way you evaluate journalists when selecting fellows?

CE: For many years, we had one or no freelancers for a couple of reasons. One, they weren’t of as high quality. Second, we wanted to service the industry that was providing the money for our program. Then came the revolution and the corporate structure fell apart. News organizations with the exception of the Knight Foundation really stopped supporting journalism programs. And the very newspapers that fired a portion of their staff were now supporting them as freelancers. Instead of getting somebody who worked at The Washington Post, we were getting somebody who worked at Le Monde and the Times, and who knows where else.

CJR: One of this year’s fellows is supposed to be the Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was convicted of various charges in Egypt and recently pardoned by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Is he still coming?

CE: As far as we know, he’s coming. I’ve e-mailed him a couple of times, but he’s a pretty busy guy right now. Another person in the fellowship this year, Edward Perrin, is under a criminal indictment in Luxembourg for publishing leaked material.

CJR: Are you nervous about handing off the program?

CE: I see nothing yet to make me nervous. They’ll find a terrific new director who will put his or her stamp on it as I have. What distinguishes my approach is that I firmly believe journalists don’t spend enough time working on their lives. The better life you have, the better journalist you’ll be. That determines the whole idea behind our program and its travel and seminars and letting fellows do what they do.

CJR: What influence has the Knight-Wallace Fellowship had on journalism?

CE: I’m told by lots and lots and lots of people that without the program, they would not have stayed in journalism. I love that because these are really wonderful people. They change around what field of journalism they’re in — they write books, they do films, they do all kinds of things. But they stay around the field. That’s what I’ve tried to do, keep the fire burning in the cave. When people need to sit around the fire and tell each other war stories to get pumped up, I’m happy to provide the cave and I’ll throw in the firewood, too.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.