Large photo above, Tom Bowman in foreground, student-veteran Chris Boutin in the center, student-veteran Drake Rivas at left; photo directly above, Bowman makes a point during the evening panel in McCarthy; photos below show Bowman at an afternoon class, and the panel and audience for the evening presenation.
Watch recording of full panel presentation with Bowman and veterans>>
“We need more people with liberal arts education, especially these days,” said Tom Bowman, National Public Radio’s longtime war correspondent and a 1977 Saint Michael’s College history graduate, who made a daylong campus visit Thursday.
“I use my history degree every single day,” Bowman told students in David Mindich’s afternoon Media and American Politics class -- one of two classes he joined before an evening public gathering in McCarthy Arts Center. A strong sense of history, he explained, helps him understand and communicate essential context and nuance when filing his reports for NPR from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Washington, D.C., where he regularly roves the Pentagon and drops in on generals.
But good reporting involves a lot more than just hearing the Pentagon’s or White House’s official spin on stories, Bowman stressed at all his appearances. “I walk around and talk to people, find out what’s going on. You can’t just sit at the Pentagon or the White House – they’re always trying to sell you something. Get out and talk to real people,” he advised students or anybody aspiring to effective journalism.
For Bowman, a good example of such “real people” worth hearing were two Saint Michael’s military-veteran students who joined him on the McCarthy stage (at his prior request) for the evening’s question and answer session: Chris Boutin, a Marine veteran majoring in psychology with the hope of helping counsel fellow vets struggling post-service, and Drake Rivas, an Army veteran studying to be a history educator. Both men served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Their stories and opinions alongside Bowman’s about U.S. presence and policies in Afghanistan and Iraq reminded listeners of the vivid and important human and policy stories that still should command more attention around the world, even though cable news and much other media seem now to be all-Trump, all the time.
Bowman, however, is more measured than many in sounding an alarm over a recent perceived “war” on media and other unprecedented initiatives from the new administration that many see as imminently threatening our democracy. “Just do your job and focus on questions and not yourself in press briefings or interviews,” he said would be his advice to journalists in these times. Bowman called coverage of the recent presidential election “awful … disgraceful,” because so few reporters seemed willing to get out talking to real people to “get the pulse.”
Reporters, especially TV personalities, he said, need to realize “they are the least interesting person in the room” at press conferences and news interviews, and so should make stories and coverage less about themselves. In Bowman’s view, the media will survive and be fine, so long as reporters and editors answer the recent wake-up call. “It’s shaken us out of our stupor – we haven’t been good enough in reporting. If we go out and do the work … the standards of journalism will remain where people are still holding the torch.”
Bowman told Mindich’s class that an old-school shoe-leather and have-a-beer reporting style is something he learned to love in his many years as a print reporter right out of Saint Michael’s – first at a smaller paper outside of Boston in his home region and later at the Baltimore Sun, where one of his admired mentors was the respected veteran Jack Germond. “He loved getting out with people, and that’s lost a lot in today’s journalism,” Bowman said.
A few times during his visit, Bowman mentioned Saint Michael’s faculty inspirations and mentors for him, such as Norb Kuntz of history and Bill Wilson of political science, who was a Vietnam veteran.
After a student in Mindich’s class shared that for a project this week she had spoken by Skype with alumni Jonah Kessel and Tim Arango of the New York Times and now was hearing Bowman, Mindich acknowledged how generous Saint Michael’s alumni often seem to be with their time and experience in giving back to students and the College, which is important to the culture. Among topics covered in a free-wheeling class discussion were:
Bowman said he remembered hearing critics of liberal arts education 20 years ago when he would tell folks back home he was studying history at Saint Michael’s -- but he’s still convinced from his life experience that “it teaches people to think and write well – skills everyone needs -- so to me, it’s mind-boggling that people still argue against it.”