Visiting Professor at Davidson Will Speak About Press and Society
April 27, 2001
Steven L. Isenberg, a media executive who has suffered first-hand the pressure for newspapers to be financially successful, will speak at Davidson College on Thursday, May 3, about the dangers of that trend.
Isenberg's resume includes an impressive list of assignments in journalism, government, and academia, mostly in the New York City region. He will bring much of that to bear in his talk entitled. "Newspapers: Obligations and Expectations," which begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Morrison Room of the College Union. Admission is free.
Isenberg, who has been teaching at Davidson this semester as the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy, said his talk will examine what's at stake when financial imperatives control journalistic aspirations. "How do we preserve, protect, and defend the high goals of journalism and public service, and still satisfy ownership?" he asked.
He said he will speak from the personal experience of "having the horse shot out from under me."
Isenberg was 41 before he did anything with newspapers beside deliver them and read them. But he had built up an impressive resume as chief of staff and assistant to Mayor John Lindsay in New York City, and had strengthened his hand with a stint as a corporate attorney.
At that point in 1982 the publisher of New York Newsday invited him to learn the newspaper business as his personal assistant. Isenberg proved a quick study, and eighteen months later was appointed boss of 400 employees as chairman, publisher, and CEO of two of the company's newspapers in Greenwich, Conn. He did well there, and was reassigned as associate publisher of a new paper, New York Newsday, in 1986 when the company launched it in direct competition against the New York Times, and The Daily News.
He was eventually promoted to publisher, a position he dearly loved. "That was prime time for me," he said. "A publishers' job is a great job, and was a real fit for me in all ways. I love the business responsibilities, the public responsibilities, the leadership responsibilities, the oversight of the editorial pages, and the intense involvement. Everything about it was a perfect job."
But ownership decided in 1995 to abandon New York Newsday because it was not yet financially stable. Isenberg assured them that it was on schedule to become profitable, but was unable to affect the decision. "It was a bitter experience, and a deeply sad one for me," He conceded.
Since that time, Isenberg has returned to the world of education, a road he didn't take early in life after falling in love with literature as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley and a student at Oxford University in England.
He served as a visiting scholar at three institutions, teaching primarily courses in war and literature. Then in an unexpected career twist in 1996 the New York State Board of Regents asked him to take on the highly political job of chair of a reconstituted Board of Trustees at Adelphi University on Long Island, helping replace a board that was being fired for mismanagement. "The new trustees assumed a very sacred trust for a university that was in very precarious circumstances," Isenberg said.
The work consumed him for up to 70 hours per week, but the university was reestablished on sound footing. Then in 1999 the new Adelphi president that had been hired by Isenberg's board just a year before quit. The board then called on Isenberg himself to sit as president ad interim until a replacement could be found. "I've always had an old itch to be a college president, but of course I never really knew what they did," he confessed. "It's typical of me. I want to be a something, and don't know much about it! But at Adelphi I literally became a college president overnight, and had this extraordinary and really valuable experience."
The board hired a permanent president in July 2000, freeing Isenberg to resume his chairmanship of the board, and to accept Davidson's offer to become Batten Professor this semester.
Isenberg said he has thoroughly enjoyed his classroom experience. His insights, aggressive New York sense of humor, and irreverent demeanor have made him a classroom favorite. "My students told me, 'You have the worst fake Southern accent we've ever heard!'"
His warm smile and quick wit put students at ease, and they regularly drop by his office to talk. "I feel so comfortable in class that I throw stuff at him sometimes!" said one student. Another observed, "I've never met a more chatty professor."
They have enjoyed introducing him to Waffle House, Bubba's Barbecue, and NASCAR, and he in turn has provided them with a first-hand look inside the world of New York and Washington politics, and national corporate journalism. "In class they let me act up, and they throw some of it back at me. That's my style," Isenberg said.
He holds a master's degree in English language and literature from Oxford University in England, and has taught a Davidson class on "Journalism as Literature." Another student pointed to the added value that Isenberg brings to the course. "We were reading Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night about a march on the Pentagon, and he was there when it happened!"
Students in that class read many other great examples of how some journalists are able to use their reportorial skills as the foundation for creation of great literature. Isenberg chose for their reading list George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia about the Spanish Civil War, John Hersey's Hiroshima about the aftermath of the A-bomb, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood about a murder case in Kansas, Rebecca West's Opera In Greenville about a 1947 lynching trial in Greenville, S.C.., and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff about the first astronauts.
Isenberg has also taught a class on "Journalism and Politics," where he has tried to instill in students his passionate conviction about the importance of newspapers to our free society. "Papers are the central nervous system and spinal column of our whole information system," he insists. "The first thing people in other media do in the morning is to read the paper. TV has high emotional value, but are we counting on TV to reform the tax system? The only suitable means for achieving high public purpose is newspapers, which have the space to give it depth and thought."
Isenberg thoroughly understands the power of the press to have a significant impact on the affairs of government at all levels of society, and hopes he has helped his students become more critical and sophisticated in understanding the ways that news and politics intersect. To expose students to a broader view of the issues than he alone can provide, he has brought several high profile guests to class. Those who have visited with students include U.S. Congressman Mel Watt, New York Times senior editorial writer Steve Weisman, Newsday editorial page editor Jim Klurfeld, and Charlotte Observer editor Jenny Buckner.
Every day he reads The New York Times, Charlotte Observer, Wall Street Journal and scans the on-line versions of The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, as well as the on-line journal, Media Notes. He compiles from those sources a daily packet of news clippings for students to stimulate discussion on how news coverage and the opinions of political columnists cause public officials to adjust their positions on important issues. He displays an unvarnished enthusiasm for outstanding journalistic work, exclaiming often, "You should read this! This is good stuff!"
He has led the class in discussion of coverage of President Bush's tax policy and environmental decisions. "Issues such as campaign reform and faith-based charity have deep implications for many aspects of our society," he said. "Newspapers can be very helpful in explaining them to people."
He also emphasized the fact that stories about things like former President Clinton's last-minute pardons can create everlasting legacies for better or worse. "The press can lift you and love you, and put a warm glow on you. But believe me, it can also do the opposite," he said.
His service to Davidson concludes in early May, and he will continue his service as chair of the Adelphi University Board of Trustees through June. Following that, Isenberg confessed that he has not yet developed a plan.
He says he's open to any possibility, because that sort of confident attitude has thus far led him down paths he could never envision. For instance, when he graduated from Berkeley he got on a plane for New York with just $70 in his pocket because he figured New York would be a great place to be. He soon got his first real job, working as an editorial assistant reading unsolicited manuscripts for a publishing house.
"So I don't know what's next," he said. But he's definitely too energetic to exit the public arena. "You know those slogans people make up?" he asked. "I think mine would be, 'Death before retirement!'"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.