At 10:00am on Monday morning, I read on Twitter that Anthony Lewis, the revered New York Times legal writer and columnist, had died at age 85. A few minutes later, I sent out a Tweet calling him "a giant of journalism who saved Gideon & Bosnia."
The Bosnia reference was personal. Along with writing searing columns that pressured the Clinton administration to intervene in the conflict, Lewis put my family in touch with senior White House officials when I was arrested by Serb forces for ten days while covering the war.
My uncle, Sig Roos, a Boston-based lawyer and one of legions of Lewis admirers, emailed me to mourn his passing and again praise his help. After I was released, I returned to the United States and thanked Lewis in person. He was an extraordinarily kind, gracious and unassuming man, who mentored countless young journalist as tribute after tribute has described this week.
To be honest, as soon as I sent my Tweet about Lewis I regretted it. A man whose work had inspired a generation of reporters, lawyers, and judges -- and helped save my life ‑- was reduced to 48 characters.
Tweeting about Lewis seemed somehow an indictment of contemporary journalism. Shouldn't I have taken a few minutes to reflect on Lewis and the extraordinary life he had lived? Why, in the greater scheme of things, did my opinion of him even matter? Worst of all, it was slapdash. In a rushed effort to pay respect to one of the most precise writers of our time, I used the wrong word. Lewis "championed" Gideon and Bosnia. He did not "save" them.
In a moving piece in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen explained how Lewis' Supreme Court coverage and seminal book, Gideon's Trumpet, transformed legal journalism. Lewis' simple sentences and lucid prose, Cohen wrote, turned arcane legal jargon and court procedures into concepts readers could easily understand. As shown in the passage below, Lewis made justice simple.
The case of Gideon v. Wainwright is in part a testament to a single human being. Against all the odds of inertia and ignorance and fear of state power, Clarence Earl Gideon insisted that he had a right to a lawyer and kept on insisting all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
His triumph there shows that the poorest and least powerful of men ‑ a convict with not even a friend to visit him in prison ‑ can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.
But of course Gideon was not really alone; there were working for him forces in law and society larger than he could understand. His case was part of a current of history, and it will be read in that light by thousands of persons who will know no more about Clarence Earl Gideon than that he stood up in a Florida court and said: "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."
In short, Lewis' journalism inspired people. His columns distilled the welter of half-truths that has always been political debate into clearer choices. His legal coverage told readers why one court decision -- as compared to others -- mattered to society. His journalism clarified.
Today, inspiring journalism exists, but it is increasingly threatened by the high speed and volume that the economics of online journalism demand. A recently released Pew Charitable Trust report on the state of the news media in 2013 contained an alarming finding. The long-awaited surge in digital revenues for news organizations appears unlikely to materialize, particularly for newspapers. Since 2003, total newspaper print ad revenues have fallen from $45 billion to $19 billion. At the same time, online ads grew from $1.2 to $3.3 billion.
"Stop and think about that," Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. "The total ten-year increase in digital advertising isn't even enough to overcome the average single-year decline in print ads since 2003. Ugh."