The Importance of Thinking Critically

When I was a writer/editor at Spectator thinking about going into journalism and more specifically sports writing, two of the people whose work I most admired were Robert Lipsyte ’57, JRN’59 and Leonard Koppett ’44. Lipsyte was then a sports columnist for The New York Times whose forte was placing sports in the context of the larger world, and Koppett, also writing at the Times, was known for his analytical approach to sports writing and his deft use of statistics to support his theses.

Alex Sachare ’71

Photo by KELLY CHAN BC’17

I was reminded of them because of our cover story on Poppy Harlow ’05, a news correspondent and weekend anchor at CNN. It’s no surprise that all are Columbians, and that all benefited from the cornerstone of the College classroom experience, the Core Curriculum.

What does the Core have to do with journalism? If there is a commonality that binds all branches of the Core, it is that it seeks to teach students how to think critically. As the Core website notes, “The habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.”

This certainly is true for the young entrepreneurs described in one of this issue’s feature stories, “A Culture of Creation.” It is equally true for journalists like Harlow, Lipsyte and Koppett, and the many others who studied at the College.

The ability to think critically, to not take everything at face value and not be afraid to question what you are being told, is a vital skill for journalists. Virtually anyone can conduct an interview, preparing questions, jotting them down on a notepad for easy recital at the appropriate time and then recording the subject’s responses. But the best answers, the ones that reveal and enlighten and make an interview come alive, rarely come in response to those kinds of questions. They come in response to the follow-ups, the questions good reporters ask when they hear something in a response that doesn’t quite ring true. Good follow-up questions are the ones that make headlines.

I don’t usually watch the cable news channels, but on a recent Saturday afternoon the temperature north of NYC was about 2 degrees and none of the 47 college basketball games littering my TV caught my fancy. So I turned to CNN Newsroom Weekend, with Harlow as anchor. Since I had never seen our cover subject on-air, I figured I’d check her out — and I was pleased that I did.

Harlow adroitly handled the anchoring duties, smoothly setting up stories and bantering with reporters to create a pleasant viewing experience. However, there are dozens of pretty faces with good hair (men and women) all around the dial who can do that. What grabbed my attention was an interview she conducted with an economist who was on tour plugging his latest book. She asked all the expected questions and he gave all the carefully rehearsed answers, sounding strikingly similar to what I had heard him say when he was interviewed elsewhere the day before. But every once in a while the interview went off the beaten path; Harlow asked a follow-up question that made it zig instead of zag, and the economist seemed surprised and somewhat unsettled. His answers became more genuine; Harlow had pushed him off script, and he was left to answer the questions directly, as one would in a normal conversation.

A good reporter has to be able to think on his or her feet, to react to what is heard and be able to take an interview in an unplanned direction. The “critical and creative intellectual capacity” developed in the Core Curriculum enables one to do just that. And even in this age of the 24-hour news cycle and the rush to “break” news without regard for context or confirmation, when everything is sound bites and snippets, there is still some good journalism to be found if you are willing to invest the time and effort to find and enjoy it.

Alexis Tonti SOA’11, our managing editor for the past four years, left CCT in January to learn what it’s like to work in the commercial magazine field, becoming special projects editor at The Week. If you pick up a copy or go to its website, you’ll note that she is using her new married name, Alexis Boncy.

To say we miss Alexis is an understatement. Her imprint can be seen throughout CCT, from the quality of the articles (and the writers she brought on board to write them) to the recent redesign/reimagination of the magazine, for which she was a driving force. She helped plan this issue, assigning several of the articles and writing two of them. We hope she will continue to contribute as her time permits.

Alexis was a diligent editor who worked well with our writers to shape and polish their articles. She brought a creative vision to CCT, its content, its look and its feel. She was a tremendously hard worker who was a pleasure to work with, and she became a friend and very much a member of our family. We wish her all the best.

Alex Sachare ’71
Alex Sachare ’71
Editor in Chief