Columnist: Their greatest stories were their very own

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

As journalists, we all have those dream interviews. Those people we could probably never be lucky enough to sit across from in a quiet room for a short moment in time to get a peek inside their wondrous minds.

Two of my dream interviews died last week.

When it comes to Walter Cronkite, there are plenty to account for him better than I. Of how he was trusted. Of how he got it right. Of how so much has changed since the days when so many would sit at home and watch the news unfold under Walter’s watchful eye.

So much so, that in a small way, my own thoughts seem insignificant.

The first exposure I ever had to Walter Cronkite was not in his voice but in his words.

You couldn’t get interested in journalism and not check out the father of the craft.

So I searched for him, pulled articles and books and sat inside a campus library and decided that I wanted to do what he did. Report back to the world on the world.

Cronkite didn’t just comment. He described scenes, he smelled the air and he wanted those who were listening to him to not only hear him – but understand the world that was going on around them and maybe farther off the beaten paths.

From the streets of Dallas on what would be one of the country’s most sorrowful days, to one of its most violent in the streets of Chicago, to the jungles of Vietnam to the moon … it wasn’t enough for America to sit down and turn on their television every night. Not for Cronkite. He asked of America – not for their trust – but for their duty.  A duty to understand what was happening in their world.

So as to better live in it.

Had I had the chance to meet my journalistic hero, I’d ask him, how do we get that back?  How do we do it better? How do we get the American people to differentiate those who are just here doing a job because someone told them they could, from those who love the honor and the duty and the mission of journalism? How do we get them to care? And I would probably be too mystified by him to even remember everything he said. And I would probably walk off a little blown away.

And I would go get grounded by Frank McCourt.

The truth is … it really was McCourt that solidified me as a writer.

It was the film adaptation of McCourt’s memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”

It was as a young, hopeful McCourt, a tumultuous childhood behind him, faces the edge of America.

I identified with McCourt, the way he was so aware. Of misery, of circumstance, of hope and hopelessness. How he could see the beauty for the faults in people. I identified with some of his Irish traits… “When people were generous,” he said of his Irish upbringing, “they did it in a very rough way. There was to be no sentiment, no emotion. It was a way of protecting yourself.”

McCourt loved words. “That was an important part of our lives,” he said. “The language.” Books were scarce, his world was small and burdened and I identified. He longed for America to cultivate his ideas and his desire to write.

But as a writer, as a teacher, as a person – McCourt embodied the point. That to move forward in one’s life is not to turn a back on what has been or what it really was. Images of coffins and sickness and destitution, McCourt gave them beauty and triumph in his own way. His greatest story – was his own.

They say write what you know … but if you’re anything like me, you think what you know is so little, so inconsequential, so insignificant that it would never be worth writing about.

Why on earth would you ever write what you know? So you figure, the problem is that you simply need to know more, do more, see more, live more.

In actuality, that’s not the case. In actuality it is a beautiful story, the lives we live, the worlds we live in. Even when they’re draped in misery or trouble or hardship.

I find it symbolic … as he longed for America to help him find his lot in life and I’m facing a flight to his Ireland keeping my eyes open for mine. Eager to tell all of the stories when I get back with the duty of a journalist and the heart of a writer.

If I had a chance to sit with McCourt, I’d say simply, thank you.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for the Niles Daily Star. Reach her at