Professor Larry Pinkham, journalism educator, passes away

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Lawrence Pinkham
Lawrence Pinkham

Shyam Ranganathan

He was an inspiring and wonderful teacher who always had time for his students and a passion for truth-telling and investigative journalism, says N. Ram

A warm, gentle and assuring presence in our midst: Sashi Kumar

Pinkham memorial public lecture will be delivered in Chennai on March 18

CHENNAI: A journalism educator remembered as much for his “innovative and principled approach” as for his progressive ideas and socialist vision, Lawrence Dana Pinkham, who died aged 83 on February 28 in Massachusetts, played a valuable role in shaping journalism education in India and China.

After spending nearly eight years in teaching journalism in China, Professor Pinkham joined the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, first as distinguished visiting professor and then as dean. Between 2001 and 2002, he, along with his wife Joan, settled the curriculum of ACJ.

“Pinkham years”

Professor Pinkham's association with ACJ began when Sashi Kumar, chairman, Media Development Foundation, along with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, and economist C.P. Chandrashekhar, met him at Amherst to invite him to the college. Mr. Kumar calls 2001 and 2002 the “Pinkham years” when Larry and Joan shaped the academic programme of ACJ.

“Larry was a consummate teacher, a warm, gentle and assuring presence in our midst,” remembers Mr. Kumar.

“His exercise of deanship was never a command performance. He led by example and quiet persuasion. In the short time he was with us, he breathed fresh life into our academic programme and set it on a sound footing,” he adds.

Privileging the “process” over the “product” in a “J-school” context, Professor Pinkham emphasised the importance of reporting, writing and editing over the production of the lab journal, The Word, Mr. Kumar says.

“We continue to evoke Larry in our curricular review meetings and the “Pinkham template” fixed in our minds is the touchstone to which we bring new doubts, problems, deficiencies and inconsistencies in the programme,” he adds.

Mr. Kumar also recalls Professor Pinkham's progressive convictions and stoic ease with which he faced his medical difficulties which cut short his stint at ACJ. “Personally, he is one of the most remarkable persons I have met. One of those I unabashedly admired. I admired his core progressive convictions which emerged with such firmness in random conversation.”

“A life-changing experience”

For Mr. Ram, who was taught by Professor Pinkham at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, 1968 was a year of great significance, and “to be taught and mentored by [Professor Pinkham] in a time of radical change was a life-changing experience,” he recalls.

“At a time when journalism school saw itself as an aloof observer, he had a highly progressive vision. He was an inspiring and wonderful teacher who always had time for his students and a passion for truth-telling and investigative journalism,” says Mr. Ram, recalling how Professor Pinkham assigned his students to cover a miners' strike.

Raised by working class grandparents in Maine during the Great Depression, Professor Pinkham enlisted in the Navy during the Second World War. He was introduced to progressive ideas at college in New York. He and his wife Joan, the daughter of senior FDR administration official Harry Dexter White who was a primary participant in the Bretton Woods conference and who was charged with being a communist, participated in marches, movements and protests, and were fans of Tom Lehrer, the mathematician and singer-songwriter, remembers Mr. Ram.

Moves to UMass

After a failed attempt with some of his colleagues to protect student demonstrators in the protests against Vietnam and university governance in 1968, Professor Pinkham resigned as director of the journalism school's broadcasting programme. Four years later, when he approved a proposal by students to look at the role of the journalism school during the protests as the subject of an investigative project, the dean expressed his disapproval, and Professor Pinkham moved soon after to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

During his years at UMass, where he subsequently served as chair of the journalism programme, he spent a number of years teaching journalism in China. Starting with a short visit to the Graduate School of Journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1979 soon after the resumption of relations between the United States and China, Professor Pinkham worked successively as exchange professor at the Central Translation Bureau in Beijing, as a visiting professor, then as Fulbright Lecturer at Beijing Foreign Studies University. After retirement, he worked as Fulbright Lecturer at the China School of Journalism between 1991 and 1993.

Professor Pinkham was active in both print and broadcast journalism and helped create new programmes at Columbia to update the traditional curriculum. He was also a member of the Board of Advisory Editors at the Columbia Journalism Review, and later of the “Frontline” series Public Broadcast Service (PBS), and of WBAI-FM, the listener-sponsored radio station in New York.

In his memory, ACJ has instituted a public lecture. The first Lawrence Pinkham memorial public lecture will be delivered in Chennai on March 18 by Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism, Austin College of Communication, University of Texas. “Jensen, like Larry, is a radical who stands for just causes, and this, we hope, will be a fitting tribute to one who meant so much for us,” Mr. Kumar says.

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