Fresh Air Remembers Journalist Anthony Lewis

Anthony Lewis, the New York Times columnist and reporter who covered the Supreme Court in the late 1950s and early 1960s, died Monday. Fresh Air remembers him by listening back to a 1991 interview in which Lewis talks about the responsibilities of a columnist and the importance of a correctly-spelled name.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Anthony Lewis died yesterday at the age of 85. He had a long career with the New York Times as a Supreme Court reporter, London bureau chief and columnist. He won two Pulitzer Prizes. The Times' current Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak, credits Lewis with bringing an entirely new approach to Supreme Court reporting, writing articles that were virtual tutorials about currents in legal thinking.

Lewis wrote several important books about constitutional issues. Here's an excerpt of our 1991 interview, recorded after the publication of his book "Make No Law," an account of the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times versus Sullivan, one of the most important First Amendment cases in the court's history. As Liptak writes in his obit of Anthony Lewis: This case revolutionized American libel law and ruled that public officials suing critics of their official conduct had to prove that the contested statements were made with actual malice.

When I spoke with Anthony Lewis, he described the importance of the majority opinion written by Justice William Brennan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANTHONY LEWIS: Justice Brennan's opinion made clear that libel - that calling something libel did not exempt it from examination under the First Amendment. If the effect of a libel suit was to chill the freedom of political speech, the freedom to criticize public officials, then it was to be treated the same way as if you were prosecuted for making a speech on a soapbox in Columbus Circle.

Well, people don't do that anymore. It's an old-fashioned metaphor. But he laid down a rule for libel cases brought by public officials. That is to say, a public official could not win libel damages unless he or she proved that a false statement had been made about the official, published about the official, with knowledge that it was false, or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.

That is, really, deliberate lying, or an editor who publishes a story about a politician, even though he's been told, listen, Joe. You know that story you're going to run, I can tell you, it's really false. You shouldn't go with it. And he prints it, anyway.

GROSS: Brennan's decision is really beautifully written. I was wondering if there was any of it you'd like to read or quote from to give a sense of a specific passage that means a lot to you as a journalist and as a student of the Supreme Court.

LEWIS: The most famous passage in the opinion, Justice Brennan's statement: We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

Now, what makes that passage so meaningful to me is that while Justice Brennan could and did find passages in Supreme Court opinions here and there on which he could base that statement, by and large that had not been true through most of American history. Because right up until, oh, the 1930s - and only sporadically then - the Supreme Court had shown very little regard for the idea of freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Through most of our history, the court had given the state - the United States government, state governments - very great power to suppress speech that governments regarded with disdain, or that was critical of officials. I mean, I'll give you an example, rather shocking by our standards today.

During World War I, Eugene Debs - the great socialist leader, five times candidate for president - made a speech in Canton, Ohio in which he, almost in passing - it was not the subject of the speech - said he had been and visited two men who had been in prison for counseling draft evasion, and he admired their courage. For that statement, Debs was prosecuted under the Espionage Act - which made it a crime to interfere with recruitment for the armed forces - convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. And the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that conviction.

GROSS: Anthony Lewis, in your New York Times column, you write about - just about any political or social issue that is of concern to you and to the nation. I'm wondering what some of the strains are that accompany that kind of responsibility, you know, of being informed on so many subjects, informed enough to be confident of the opinion that you're going to state.

LEWIS: What a good question. What a worrying question.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: It's a very strange position to be in as a journalist. At least on the New York Times, columnists are what you say: responsible entirely for their own views. Nobody tells us what to say. And every once in a while, you say to yourself, wow. Am I making a mistake? Might I have said something? And, of course, we all do make mistakes. I try to confess them as quickly as I can. But those are mistakes maybe on particular facts.

But mistakes of judgment, of policy, of wisdom, those are hard to correct, and they stay with you. They worry you. What do I say? I think part of the answer is that I don't write about everything. People come to me and say: Won't you please write about such-and-such an issue in a country that concerns me greatly?

If I've never been there, if I don't know about that country, I tend to say no, because I hope I understand the limits of what I can comprehend. But I tend to write about certain general areas. Law is one of them. Human rights is another. I have experience in and concern about the Middle East, Southern Africa, the Soviet Union. Those tend to be my dominant subjects, maybe to an obsessive degree. So maybe that kind of self-limitation, though not universal, is wise.

GROSS: As I'm sure you're aware, the conservative magazine National Review often takes you to task for the opinions that you've written in the New York Times. I wonder if you subscribe to the National Review if, for no other reason, just to see what they're saying about you.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: No, I don't. I have a lot of respect for the National Review and for its originator, Bill Buckley. But I guess life is too short to want to find myself knocked in the head that often.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: I mean, I read plenty of things that are abusive about me, and I try to grin and bear it. And mostly, if they spell my name right, I'm happy.

GROSS: Anthony Lewis, recorded in 1991. He died yesterday at the age of 85. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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