Students had the opportunity Tuesday to hear Nick Kotz, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, discuss his groundbreaking book “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Laws that Changed America” on campus. In his novel, Kotz delves into the pair’s historic partnership that forever changed the face of the civil rights movement.
The University Star sat down with Kotz to discuss his beginnings in journalism and the impact of journalists on history.
Jordan Gass-Poore’: How did you get into journalism?
Nick Kotz: The short story is I was going to be the Ernest Hemingway of my generation, but I had never written anything, and he had started as a newspaper reporter, so I went and got a job as a newspaper reporter. Now that might not make a lot of sense, but that was a large part of it. I went to Dartmouth, and then I spent a year at the London’s School of Economics, and then I spent two years in the Marine Corps. On my last furlough, I went across the country looking for a job, and the last paper I stopped at was The Des Moines Register. I worked at the Register for 12 years, half the time in Washington.
JGP: What role do you think journalists play in shaping history?
NK: The expression is they write the first draft of history, and I think that’s quite important. One of the wonders of the World Wide Web today is something called NewspaperARCHIVE.com. It’s spotty, but a huge help to me. Somebody, it may have been Google, I don’t know who, scanned the San Antonio newspapers back into the 1860s, similarly with the Chicago Tribune—same thing with the clerk of Bexar County who has led the country in scanning. I don’t know how in the heck it’s done because the Library of Congress and the National Archives, they’re doing millions of pages. I’m told Google has something where they can scan a book in a couple of minutes. I don’t know how they do it. People like me say ‘I’m coming to write the second draft.’ There is a wonderful New York Times writer’s description of the Selma (to Montgomery) March on Bloody Sunday and that is better than anything. I mean that’s a primary source. He was there.
JGP: And with that great responsibility that journalists have, do you think journalists during the time of King and Johnson helped shape those legacies and how we remember them today?
NK: Absolutely. Other civil rights leaders were very aware that for their demonstrations to succeed, more than the written press, they needed to have them on television, and television wanted drama, and King and his cohorts gave them drama. But the fact is the networks were out there covering that story, and it could be quite dangerous at times.