Learning over time from Difference Maker Joe Mathewson

Joe Mathewson's book about the Supreme Court provided layers of learning for me.

It is an unusual treat to learn from the same person over time.

I have had that privilege through a number of family relationships-Dunreith, my parents, my brothers, and Aidan top this list-and through several former teachers.

Marion Wright Edelman wrote in Lanterns about the role mentors have played at different parts of her life.   I enjoyed and wrote about that book in 2009, and I am writing here about the pleasure that comes both from maintaining a relationship over the course of years and, through conversation, interaction and reflection, having found different areas and subjects of learning than the one around which we first met.

As readers of this blog likely know, Paul Tamburello is atop this chart.   Since being in his fourth grade classroom more than 35 years ago, I have learned from Paul as an apprentice teacher from 1987 to 1989, as a physically vigorous person grappling with the debilitating Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a non-fatal cousin of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and as a fellow traveler on the road of life.

Dave Russell has been another man from whom I have learned much in the 20 years since we first met while waiting in the early January morning for a ferry to take us to Boston Harbor’s Thompson Island, where he was the teacher and I an instructional aide for special education students in Boston’s McKinley School.

In the ensuing two decades Dave has taught me about being a husband and a father and about approaching what can seem like a Sisyphean task with optimism, faith, and a relentless tenacity.

Medill lecturer Joe Mathewson is a third person from have I had the pleasure of absorbing different lessons over time.

We meet in the summer of 2003, when I was a student in his Economics reporting class during my last quarter at Medill.

I very much enjoyed his insistence on high standards and his ceaseless advocacy for my classmates and me.  Each clip published by one of us was a personal victory for him.  Having worked with many teachers through my own education and through my work at Facing History and Ourselves, I can say confidently that he is one of the finest instructors I have known.

Joe did share with me that he understood to some degree what I was doing in switching careers and being a husband and father.  He had started attending law school at the University of Chicago at age 40, during which time he also had a wife and children.

Still, during this first encounter I was so absorbed in mastering the elements in an earnings report and in working on my in-depth business profile about a pet psychic-this one had Joe in fits-that I did not take the time to get a fuller understanding of him and his accomplishments.

They are numerous.

Joe has been a Cook County Commissioner, practiced law and directed community banks.  He worked in television and was press secretary for then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie.  He wrote Up Against Daley, a hopeful look at the rise and future prospects of an eclectic band of reformers in Chicago and Illinois in the early 1970s.

He also covered the Supreme Court for The Wall Street Journal.

This latter experience and his legal background likely played a prominent role in the skills he brought to bear in researching and writing The Supreme Court and the Press, a look at the conflict between these two significant institutions of American civic life since shortly after the nation’s inception.

Written at a point in his life when many people younger than him have already retired, the book provided me with a broader understanding of the press, the Supreme Court and the role each has played, and could do better, in helping the American citizenry live in a democratic society that more closely approaches its lofty ideals.

Joe approaches the issue from a number of different angles. He starts the reader with a history of rulings the Court has issued about cases related to the Fourth Estate, moves through a discussion of press coverage about a series of key social issues on which the court rendered decisions, and offers some concluding thoughts about where each institution has succeeded and failed.

Deeply researched and dedicated to the “truth seekers of the world,” the result is an informative and stimulating look at what Joe identifies as the “indispensable conflict.”

A number of points stood out for me from the work.

Joe does an effective job of showing the influence the court’s composition and chief justice have on the decisions it renders.  This aspect of the book underscores anew the critical role that presidents play when they appoint members to the bench that the Senate confirms, and reinforces not so much the arbitrary nature of justice, but the role individuals’ sensibilities can play in tipping the nation’s laws in one direction or another.

The work got me more excited to read about John Marshall Harlan, the former slave owner whose stirring dissents elevated him and gave him historic victories even though he often was on the losing side of the decisions at hand.

It also illustrated how the courts intersect with the key issues of the day.  In the late nineteenth century, for instance, as the United States emerged from the Civil War and started to move full-bore into the Industrial Era, the court issued a series of pro-business decisions that enhanced corporations’, and reduced workers’, rights.  This again underscored the Court’s power and changing doctrines.

The sections on the press are equally illuminating.

In addition to showing the positive and worrisome areas of press freedoms, Joe culls from headlines and articles across the country to document how the media has covered the court.

The news is not entirely positive here.

Joe identifies five different areas in which media outlets have often fallen short of ideal coverage.  These include an incomplete understanding and inaccurate reporting of the decision under the pressures of daily deadlines as well as the tendency to favor reaction to the decision rather than an explanation and analysis of it.

The consequences of these failures are an incompletely informed and engaged society and electorate-patterns that do not bode well for the fabric of our democratic society.

In his fair-minded way, Joe also finds the court lacking in its willingness to communicate openly and to allow the media to televise the proceedings.  This incomplete access contributes to the media shortcomings he identifies in the book.

His remedies include media organizations’ committing to train their reporters in the law and the court’s opening the doors to their proceedings more widely.

More broadly, he writes in the book’s final sentences, “Journalists and justices owe it to each other and to the country to strive incessantly to elevate their aspirations for their own work and for the nation.  And to realize them.”

A stirring call to improvement from a veteran with a foot in each camp.

Through his work and how he has conducted himself, Joe has given me material from which to learn as well as a model of a dynamic, productive and engaged family and professional man.

I did not know I would gain this when I entered his Economics reporting class close to eight years, and am grateful both for his instruction and for having been around over time to have received these additional lessons whose satisfaction is heightened for having been unplanned.






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