It’s not every day that someone passes up an opportunity to attend a reception hosted by the president and first lady in favor of speaking at Fordham, but that’s what Joan Walsh did on Sept. 23.
Walsh, editor in chief of the news, politics and culture website Salon.com, addressed students on the Rose Hill campus as part of Fordham Week, a celebration of the University’s unique identity.
Of course, in choosing whether to forgo the presidential engagement, Fordham had a particular advantage: Walsh’s daughter, Nora, is a junior at Fordham’s College at Rose Hill.
“I’m really nervous because my daughter is here,” Walsh said. “She’s a wonderful daughter who always calls me before I’m about to go on TV with encouragement and then says, ‘Don’t embarrass our family.’”
Walsh, who kept students in the audience laughing with her somewhat comedic-delivery, touched on a potpourri of topics, including the future of journalism, partisan divisiveness, the so-called Ground Zero mosque and her well-known television appearances in which she’s gone head to head with the likes of Bill O’Reilly, G. Gordon Liddy and Elizabeth Cheney.
“I would say that was one that shocked me,” Walsh said, recalling a debate with Cheney on CNN’s Campbell Brown about closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. “Before the last segment we were asked to come up with something we’d have in common. I said we both love our fathers and our country. And she said, “Nothing.’ I thought, ‘Nothing? Nothing at all?’”
Walsh said she worries about the way people in both parties “demonize each other.”
“The great genius of America was its ability to mix different groups—that’s part of what made us a superpower,” she said. “Now it seems tolerance is a luxury we can’t afford anymore. For example, we are not at war with Islam. We’re at war with Al Qaida.”
Walsh said she is disturbed by the way people try to nationalize fear.
“That’s because I grew up hearing stories about how Irish Catholics were persecuted,” she said. “I relate this a bit to Islam and this controversy [over the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan]because Irish Catholics were perceived as traitors and people who could not be trusted as Americans.
“Catholic churches were burned all across the country, particularly on the East Coast. I see that as part of our history and heritage that we are dishonoring. It’s a real turning away from what made our country so fantastic.”
Walsh, who chose to forgo prepared remarks, briefly highlighted her career in journalism and then chose to spend more than an hour taking questions from students.
Many of the communications majors inquired about the future of journalism.
“There is going to be journalism. It’s thriving on blogs, Twitter, etc.,” she said. “We’ve never had a time in our history in which so many people participate in making the news. The thing I advise is that you keep yourself open. You learn video. You learn Twitter and you probably have to learn Tumblr, too.”
Walsh acknowledged that the business model of journalism was hurting.
“It’s tragic, but nothing was promised to us,” she said. “Newspapers had a monopoly and now it’s over.
“When people ask [about journalism], I tell them to stick with it. You can be part of the next business model,” she added.
Walsh told students they were in a good place to be.
“I got out college in 1980 in a terrible economy and I learned that the most important thing is developing a sense of curiosity,” she said. “You’re here. I like the fact that Father [Joseph M.] McShane [S.J., president of Fordham] talks about building well-rounded people. You’re going to be fine.
“The economy booms and busts but the thing you have to think about is being open to new opportunities and ideas. This is not a world in which you go to work for the government or a law firm and stay there your entire lives.”
Walsh said she fell in love with Fordham the moment she stepped onto the Rose Hill campus with her daughter for a tour.
“I was very taken with the sense of community and happy that it seemed like a place where whatever your present background is, social involvement is really valued,” she said. “My dad grew up in the Bronx and Fordham was this citadel of Catholic learning, so it was a very cool thing for her to come here, even if it involved her moving across the country.”
Fordham Week is an annual event planned by the United Student Government of Rose Hill. This year’s programming included a cultural appetizer showcase, a theatre, song and dance showcase, various mini-lectures and a healthy lunch.