Honorary Degree: Jon Meacham
May 23, 2010
Citation presented by Matthew Pinsker, Associate Professor of History
Conferring of the Degree by William G. Durden '71, President
Jon Meacham, we honor you today as a distinguished defender of the printed word.
The students assembled before you have much in common, but nothing more central to their education than a shared appreciation for reading and writing. Some may spend the rest of their days Skyping, texting and even subscribing to a few premium cable channels, but all of them just spent the last few years learning the utility and occasional nobility of old-fashioned articles and books.
In that sense, their education was not so different from yours at the University of the South in Sewanee, where you majored in English and studied under a series of demanding professors such as Herbert Wentz, for whom you produced weekly essays on the Bible—essays that debated the meaning of Scripture and launched a written odyssey about faith that still informs so much of your work.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that after such a rigorous engagement with writing, you left college certain of two things—that you wanted to become a journalist and that you did not want to spend any more time in school. You became a cub reporter at your hometown newspaper, The Chattanooga Times, and then went to work for The Washington Monthly, where you reportedly earned $10,000 per year, which, adjusted for inflation, still stinks. Nonetheless, those experiences taught you something important about a career in writing—it often pays best in pride.
Yet your extraordinary talents as a reporter were obvious and by the time you were in your mid-20s, Newsweek magazine had hired you for their national desk and then, before your 30th birthday, promoted you to the position of managing editor. By 2006, you had become the magazine’s top editor and guiding force during a period of intense industry upheaval. Along the way, you conducted dozens of probing interviews, produced many thoughtful articles and cover stories and established yourself as a leading public intellectual.
Jon Meacham (left) listens as Matt Pinsker, associate professor of history, reads the honorary-degree citation.
Remarkably, you also found time to write or edit four major works of history, including a revealing study of the wartime friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, an engaging and “highly personal” anthology of leading essays on the civil rights movement, a judicious reinterpretation of the religious faith of America’s Founding Fathers, and most recently, a new and elegant biography of President Andrew Jackson that quickly became a bestseller and also won the Pulitzer Prize.
Now, you are engaged in a fierce battle to save Newsweek and, in some sense, print journalism, from what appears to be implacable market forces. Change is inevitable and often quite good, but those of us who have lived and learned around this campus surrounded by our favorite books and journals do understand what is at stake in the effort to preserve the invisible yet powerful community of writers and readers. We wish you well and honor you today not only for your accomplishments, but also for the promise of what you must—and will—achieve in the years ahead on behalf of words, revealed or not, that are printed ever faithfully on humble paper.
Mr. President, I am honored to present to you Mr. Jon Meacham for the honorary degree of Doctor of Journalism.
Jon Meacham, upon the recommendation of the Faculty to the Board of Trustees, and by its mandamus, I confer upon you the Degree of Doctor of Journalism, honoris causa, with all the rights, privileges and distinction thereunto appertaining, in token of which I present you with this diploma and cause you to be invested with the hood of Dickinson College appropriate to the degree.