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Former Newsweek editor delivers Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture

Jon Meacham, one of America's most esteemed journalists and a bestselling author, visited Elon University this week for the annual Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture, and the former editor of Newsweek used his time on stage to share with his audience lessons gleaned from the life of the nation's seventh president.

“Properly done, history is a complicated tale, a complicated tapestry, where good and evil are tangled up together,” said former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

The talk, "Andrew Jackson and the Art of Leadership: ‘Old Hickory’ in a New Century," took place in a crowded McCrary Theatre. It was based on Meacham’s book "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Drawing on previously unavailable letters in possession of the president’s descendants, the immediate bestseller is described by Meacham as a “portrait of Jackson and of many of the people who lived and worked with him in his tumultuous years in power.”

Meacham’s Sept. 27 lecture explored themes that he described as important for presidential leadership, including the need to form emotional connections with the public and to create a common narrative.

Nor are historical figures always noble, Meacham said. They have their own failings as spouses, parents, friends and leaders. Those who are remembered for their actions often rose above their own weaknesses for a brief moment to address the crises and problems confronting the nation.

“History is not ‘a fable agreed upon,’” Meacham said, referencing the quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. “Properly done, history is a complicated tale, a complicated tapestry, where good and evil are tangled up together.”

The evening lecture was preceded by a more intimate event with reporters and editors for The Pendulum student newspaper. Just weeks removed from his former position as editor of Newsweek magazine, Meacham offered advice to Pendulum staff on the future of journalism, his writing philosophy, and how to be good reporters.

The biggest issue facing journalism is that of economics. Meacham and several other well-known editors and columnists for the 77-year-old magazine stepped down earlier this summer as the Washington Post Co. moved to unload the publication, which has been losing money for some time.

“I think magazines will remain on paper for people willing to spend a whole lot more money for them than they do now,” he said. “People who create content and original content and put a stamp on it will always have a role. Whether people are willing to spend money to have that sent to their phones is a whole other thing.”

Meacham pointed to the weakness of journalistic business models that rely on advertising to pay for news gathering operations. Companies are moving their advertising elsewhere, Meacham said, and subscriptions don’t begin to cover the costs of paying for reporters, editors and photographers.

“The most important question we have to answer is, are we willing to get what we pay for?” he said. “If you’re going to pay $20 for a subscription, you’re only going to get $20 of analysis and news.

Meacham, who served as editor for Newsweek for four years, has written two other New York Times bestsellers — "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers," and "The Making of a Nation and Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship," which explores the wartime relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill.

Meacham also edited the nonfiction collection "Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement" and has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World. Earlier this year, he began co-anchoring PBS’s “Need To Know,” a weekly prime-time news and public affairs series.

A 1991 graduate of The University of the South, Meacham currently serves on the Council on Foreign Relations, the Harvard Divinity School Leadership Council, and the Board of Trustees of The Churchill Centre. He and his family live in New York City.

Meacham was the 9th guest in a series made possible in 2001 with an endowed gift from James H. and Jane M. Baird of Burlington, N.C., who were the first presidents of the Elon Parents Council. Their son, Macon, is a 1987 Elon graduate and their son-in-law, Michael Hill, earned his Elon degree in 1989.

Pulitzer Prize speakers in past years have included two-time guest David McCullough, George Will, Anna Quindlen, Thomas Friedman and David Halberstam. The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded each year since 1917, are the nation’s most prestigious awards in journalism and the liberal arts.

Eric Townsend,
10/1/2010 9:13 AM