The genesis of this, to be open about it, was somebody asking, “Whatever became of Mary Lou?” It has the ring of a movie title, of something Gothic, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This, however, is a tale of a different sort—and one that is positively benign. What happened to Mary Lou—Finlay, to complete it—is that this fall she moved from CBC TV’S The Journal, where she had been a regular since the first show on Jan. 11, 1982, to Cambridge, Mass.,, and the campus of Harvard University. When I recently talked with her by phone, she had attended a course on the nuclear age at 11 a.m., another in Latin-American history at noon, a third in LatinAmerican literature and history at 2 p.m. and, at 4 p.m., a regular seminar —one of at least two a week—at the Nieman Foundation of Journalism. She got home in time to have dinner with her seven-year-old son, and put him to bed with a story. With all this, and more, she was as happy as a clam.
Mary Lou Finlay is the latest—and the first woman—of a handful of Canadians who have been Nieman Fellows since Canadians were first included in the early 1950s. Some others have been Douglas Leiterman (1954), who in the 1960s became the off-camera genius behind television’s This Hour Has Seven Days; William French (1955), literary editor of The Globe and Mail; Martin Goodman (1962), who died at only 46 as president of Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd.; and Paul Knox (1984), now The Globe’s correspondent in Latin America. If there are many Canadian journalists who have not envied them, I am not among them.
Still, I would have said it must come as a shock to any journalist in midcareer to be jerked back into the different discipline of learning for the sake of learning, as distinct from what journalists more often do—learn for use, on paper or on the air, the same night. Not so, at least in the case of Mary Lou Finlay. She last took lecture notes when she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Ottawa 18 years ago. She finds being back in an academic atmosphere a joy-
“Well, no, it’s not a shock,” she said. “It’s like a holiday because all you’re supposed to be doing is listening to those wonderful speakers and reading, and that’s pure delight. You know
what it’s like—you chase fire engines for 15 years, and it’s a treat to hear somebody talk about something for more than five minutes, like for an hour or two, and then be able to talk to them. The people, the professors, some of them, are very accessible.
“And here’s the icing on the cake: we don’t have to write exams. I’m doing all the work in the macro-economics course [another in her fall program] because it’s a course in which there is no point in going to the lectures if you don’t do the written assignments because you don’t learn it until you do the work. That’s the only one I am treating as if I were taking a degree. [In] the other ones I am just reading, and I will keep what I keep—but I don’t have to worry about what my grade will be at the end of the term.”
The Nieman Fellows pick what they want from the riches of Harvard, from
It must come as a shock to be jerked back into the discipline of learn ing for the sake of learning
the John F. Kennedy School of Government to the law school. The program can be heavy or light. Howard Simons, the former Washington Post managing editor who is curator, suggests that they take at least a couple of what he calls “smell-the-flowers” courses—art, music, theatre, whatever; courses unassociated with work—and Finlay intends to introduce a little flower-smelling into her program in the spring.
She will be going back into journalism after her Nieman year. Up to now she has not thought much about the state of journalism in Canada, except that it stands comparison with journalism elsewhere, but she has become more aware of the limitations of journalism in general, in that there are “only so many column inches or minutes on television” in which to deal with questions so large as to be difficult to comprehend. And she uses the example of the lecturer who, perhaps only after an hour or so of talk and an extended period of questions, is able to command understanding and acceptance of the essentials of a subject.
Sabbaticals, such as the Nieman
provides, she thinks would benefit everybody. But she accepts the suggestion that they would be particularly useful to journalists, who are in the business of passing on information to other people and who perhaps occasionally need to refresh their own base stock. She recalls Henry Kissinger’s remark that someone assuming high public office must come equipped with good intellectual capital, because it is being used up all the time and there is no chance to rebuild it. “I think,” she said, “that we are all using capital we acquired a long time ago, and it’s nice to be able to put more in the bank.”
The acquiring of more capital is not all as she had described it. Said Finlay, laughing: “I just realized that the day I gave you today doesn’t sound so wildly different from the days at The Journal because it seems as if I went from here to there, to there, to there. In utter contrast, Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, or Friday, are times when I can read all day if I feel like it. I have only one class in the morning, and there are seminars, but the time is totally mine to structure. And I can go to lunch if I feel like it. Or dinner. I can go to a movie, even. (A bigger laugh.) That is very different. The Journal is funny because when you are working in the studio, it’s a little like being a doctor on call. You’re on call from about noon, or even earlier, and you have to stay around until you finish the show at night. It was almost impossible to make a dentist’s appointment, or to plan to go anywhere, because chances were about 50-50 that you’d make it.”
The Nieman Fellowships—there are 20 this year, two more than usual—are named for Lucius Nieman, founder of the Milwaukee Journal. His widow made a bequest to be used to raise the standards of journalism; it was left to Harvard to devise a program. The midcareer sabbatical that the fellowships provide is the result. There have been several periods in which there was no Canadian fellow. Before his death in December, 1981, Martin Goodman laid the groundwork for what has become the Martin Wise Goodman Trust. This and a parallel fund raised by friends of Martin Goodman in the United States together cover tuition, living and other costs. With these arrangements it now seems assured that the Canadian Nieman Fellow will become a permanent institution to the benefit of Canadian journalism.
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