[Viewpoint] What makes a journalist?

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[Viewpoint] What makes a journalist?

I recently attempted a mental exercise to decide what forms a journalist’s worldview after years of seeing, reading, experiencing and meeting people. After a lengthy stretch of brooding, I came up with an adage. If, as the saying goes, you are what you eat, it’s my opinion that a journalist is what he or she reads or has read.

During my 53 years in the profession, I was shaped by the multitude of people I met and in a myriad of different ways. From some, I learned from their unique writing styles. From others, I learned from their spoken words. And from a few, I learned from their well-chosen silence.

My five decades of journalism is an accumulation of all those influences. But mostly, I became a journalist from what I read, sometimes exquisite articles that inspired me in my early days, or through inspiration from reading the classics.

A month before I joined the Hankook Ilbo in 1958, Choi Byung-woo, the legendary journalist of our times and the Korea Times’ managing editor, died in the Formosa Strait covering China’s attacks on Taiwan. He was among a group of foreign correspondents on a boat that capsized during the Chinese bombing of the Nationalist-held Quemoy and the Matsu Islands off the Chinese mainland.

The newsroom was still resonant with his energy, intelligence and journalistic passion. It was then that I experienced my first intellectual tipping point. In one corner of the Hankook Ilbo library was a special shelf that held Choi’s reading collection. Among them were books he read in his middle school days, which included history texts and a collection of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Many of the pages contained annotations by Choi. I wrestled with the writer’s magnum opus “Faust” by comparing a Japanese translation with the original German at the age of 22. But Choi had read it as a teenager. His books were mostly from the humanities. Feeling comparatively inadequate, I jotted down the titles.

In 1965, I moved to the JoongAng Ilbo a month before the paper’s launch. There I met the best boss and mentor of my journalistic career: co-founder and former chief executive Hong Jin-ki. He would urge reporters to never stop reading and studying. On countless occasions, Hong asked me what book I was reading. I could never lie to him. I often accompanied him on overseas trips, and he liked to first stop over in Tokyo to buy books to read on the trips.

People in the newsroom frequently imitated Hong’s favorite admonition: “Study more!” He would flip through dictionaries of correspondents when he visited bureaus and scold them if he found the books clean and underutilized. Abroad, he would make correspondents order the meals at local restaurants to test their language skills and knowledge of the country they were stationed.

I have met many foreign journalists, scholars and politicians during my career, inhaling their intellectual views and absorbing their insights. I tried to read what they read or wrote and managed to secure difficult interviews with their help.

I remember visiting the homes of American columnists and journalists George Will, Joseph Kraft and Harrison Salisbury and being overcome by the size and diversity of their libraries. Will is a voracious reader of Greek philosophy, and I found books in English, Russian and Chinese scattered everywhere in Salisbury’s library and the other rooms of his house.

I was highly fortunate to make the acquaintance of renowned intellectuals of our time. One of them was the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is a prolific thinker and writer. He used the psychoanalytic ideas of Jacques Lacan to explain Hegelianism and used interpretations of philosophical theories to apply to such current affairs as the terrorism of Al Qaeda and the Middle East conflict.

He can be as revered as modern French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, author of “Anti-Oedipus,” “A Thousand Plateaus” and “Difference and Repetition.” Their ideas were shockingly new and illuminating, and they helped broaden my way of thinking about life.

I, too, have a habit of nagging junior journalists. I warn them to stay away from colleagues and seniors who drag them out for late-night drinking. I advise them to cultivate an addiction to books and draw up a five-year or ten-year reading goal.

I want to see them jump into the sea of humanities and swim there for decades. Reading may not make every person a great journalist. But no great journalist exists without a life spent dedicated to good books.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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