Thursday, June 20, 2013

Beauty, Truth, and News

-- By Tom Phillips  

When John Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” it was probably a romantic outburst, the final inspiration of a masterpiece, rather than a thought-out philosophical statement.   But a few years earlier,  the great philosopher Immanuel Kant had laid the groundwork for just such an outburst.  Truth is "the indispensible condition of fine art,” wrote Kant in his “Critique of Judgement.”   Kant saw beauty as the great vehicle of truth and goodness, communicated not in concepts but directly to the senses, available to all.   Beauty has a universal appeal, and for Kant it was the means for moving ideas up and down the social ladder, bridging the gap between an educated elite and the common people, creating a unified culture.      

We experience beauty in nature as well as art, but Kant predicted correctly that in the modern age, art would take the leading role.  In the early years of the industrial revolution, Kant foresaw that “nature will ever recede further into the background,” and future ages will have to search for truth and goodness without a daily experience of it.  Art, he said, will bear the burden of civilization, expressing moral and philosophical ideas in beautiful form.   

That was written in 1790.   In the 20th century, the fine arts rejected the ideal of beauty, and so lost touch with the people.  Modern art, contemporary poetry and conservatory music may be conceptually brilliant; they don’t speak to the masses.   Still, beauty has a life of its own, it is everywhere in the works of humanity.  It finds its way, and we find our way to it.   

After reading Kant and Keats in college, I graduated thinking I was a poet.   Instead I spent much of the next 50 years writing the news for radio and TV, possibly the lowest form of literary work.   But in my own mind at least, it was a way to serve art and beauty.     

Newswriting is not a fine art.  In Kant’s terms, it lacks the essential element of freedom; one is tied to the facts, and there are strict limits on the imagination.   Still, there is an art to newswriting, and it has exactly the same goal as the highest poetry – to render ideas in terms of the senses, in terms common to all.    

To that end you employ definite, specific, concrete language, whether writing about a street fight or an argument before the Supreme Court.  And it has to sing.  People who listen to the radio expect music.  Every sentence needs to scan, and you dress them up with metaphors and similes, internal rhymes, alliterations, and quotations, preferably with a twist on their original intent.   

Time is precious in broadcast news, and especially on a show like the CBS Evening News, where we used to try to write the first draft of history every day, packed into about 20 minutes of airtime.  Later, when I tried to show students how to do it at the Columbia School of Journalism, one said “this is like writing haiku poetry.”   My favorite lead sentence ever was written by a student, Joanmarie Kalter, on a local story.  Somewhere in upstate New York in November, they cut down a big evergreen to be that year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.  She wrote:  “A tree fell in the woods today..”   

The golden age of newswriting seems to be in the past.  At CBS, vivid writing was once the stock in trade, and you might still hear some echoes of Edward R. Murrow on the Evening News.   But original voices like Charles Kuralt and Andy Rooney are gone and irreplaceable, and a new generation of TV journalists is more interested in the arts of digital imagery than in creating pictures with words.  Most news today sounds like it was written by robots, and some of it actually is.  But beauty-and-truth is always out there somewhere.   These days I look for it in the lyrics of wry, cryptic young song-writers on college radio stations, in independent films and videos, and in the writing of a new crop of essayists and bloggers.   Where do you find it?   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips  

P.S.  If anyone wants more of my thoughts on the art of newswriting, I spoke about it at length in a 2001 PBS interview, which they later turned into a lesson for high-school and college students.   You can read the interview at

Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Kant, "Critique of Judgement,"  translated by James Creed Meredith.  Oxford World's Classics, 2007.   See Ch. 60 "Appendix"  page 182-3.  

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