By: MARK FITZGERALD
REFLECTIVE WILLIAM Woo, speaking to other Asian- American journalists about the end of his nearly decade-long editorship of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, urged them to think of themselves as human beings first, and then journalists.
In a sort of valedictory after 34 years at the Post-Dispatch, Woo’s remarks to the Asian American Journalists Association seemed structured like a Chinese character incorporating the symbols of two or more words to represent a new concept.
Over the course of remarks that barely take up eight double-spaced pages, Woo touched on his long career, his resignation from Post-Dispatch, his assessment of the paper’s journalistic future, the question of whether as a Shanghai-born man he might have kept his editorship if he had been “a little less Asian” ? and finally what it means to be human.
Long regarded as one of newspapering’s leading skeptics about public journalism, Woo spoke just days before the Post-Dispatch announced it had hired his successor: the public journalism advocate Cole Campbell, who was editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.
Woo said he had left the Post-Dispatch “of my own
free will when otherwise I might have stayed in a company that itself was undergoing a fundamental change, from the values and philosophy that drove the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., who was my chairman, to something quite different.”
“Whether I stayed or not,” Woo added, “they were looking for something they called the leadership for the twenty-first century, which suggests that the qualities that make up leadership change with the years, like fashions. I happen to believe they do not . . . . I think the owners, with their eyes on the leadership of another century, were not sorry to see me go.”
Woo also addressed something that has been a constant topic of discussion at AAJA over the years: whether the careers of Asian-American journalists sufferbecause they are seen as “too Asian,” that is, quiet and deferential.
“Members of this organization have hinted to me that if only I had been a little less Asian, had only been a bit more assertive, all of this might not have come to pass . . . . In asking they are not suggesting anything so crude as racial discrimination.
“No,” Woo continued, “they were referring, indirectly, to that haunting question of whether Asians can ascend to and survive at the summit of a business that has few Asians above the timberline.”
It is a question Woo said he has asked himself, concluding only “of course, there is no answer to that question.”
Woo made no frontal attack on the concept of public journalism, but directed his audience instead to consider the ends of journalism itself.
“We need to look at and be utterly clear about the purpose of our work, about the end to which all our labors are directed,” he said. “We are journalists, but is that our supreme purpose, to be journalists? If it is . . . then it necessarily must follow that the ultimate purpose of journalism not only is an end unto itself but that it is also the end unto itself.”
That sort of thinking, Woo said, leads to an intellectual arrogance that asserts only journalists, and not society at large, should be able to judge journalism.
“I believe the end of journalism is to serve people in the most profound way possible, which is to give them reliable information and facts and opinions, arrived at by hard, backbreaking, intellectual labor and formed by judgment and guided, always, by integrity, so that men and women may be assisted in making the decisions that determine the outcome of their personal and civic and commercial and political lives,” Woo said.
Journalists cannot judge their own lives by bylines or titles, Woo said.
“The day [to leave] comes for every editor, every reporter, every photographer or news artist,” he said. “We are journalists for only a time, but we are human beings forever.
“Moreover, the very things that make one a superior human being are necessary to being a superior journalist. It is not the other way around. The moral cowards and the intellectually slothful do not succeed in our business,” Woo added.
“Be good journalists,” Woo told the Asian-American journalists. “I hope everyone of you is recognized as such and is rewarded handsomely. But first, be good at that thing that is central to our lives, each and every one of us, as human beings.”
The full text of Woo’s remarks is to be published in an upcoming issue of the American Editor, the publication of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
?(“Members of this organization [AAJA] have hinted to me that if only I had been a little less Asian, had only been a bit more assertive, all of this might not have come to pass . . . . In asking they are not suggesting anything so crude as racial discrimination.”) [Caption]
?(? William Woo, former editor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch) [Caption]