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Newman Prize: Johnson '16 & McCay '17

March 2, 2016

During assembly on Wednesday, March 2, Madeleine Johnson '16 described her recent visit with NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, which was arranged for Madeleine as the 2014-2015 recipient of the Newman Prize. Established in 1992 by Mark Vittert ’65, the award annually gives a member of the junior class the opportunity to meet with a famous American of his/her choice. Its namesake is Eric Newman ’28, who was a student at JBS on opening day in 1923. During assembly Andy Newman ’62 (Eric's son) announced that Abby McCay is the 2015-2016 prize winner.

All juniors are encouraged to submit a brief application, listing the five living Americans with whom they'd like to meet, and to be interviewed by a small panel of alumni, including Andy Newman, Lisa Greenman Kraner '71 and Liberty Vittert '06. (Again this year, Liberty participated in the interviews from Scotland via SKYPE.)

Madeleine's prepared remarks and Abby's choices follow.

Madeleine Johnson:
Good morning, everyone.

I want to start by thanking the members of the committee again for the incredible experience I had. I never, ever thought I would be chosen for this, and it’s an opportunity I’ll never have again.

I think I had a bit of a different experience than many past winners. The Newman Prize is sometimes spoken of as a venue for deep intimacy and long conversations, regardless of whom you end up meeting, and that wasn’t my experience. But the experience I did have was just as good, and it was thoroughly the product of my choices. The women on my list, for the most part, were working, professional women, and that was part of why I chose them. The type of woman who works hard, fights adversity, and achieves great things in her field often doesn’t have three hours to just talk with you. So, when I met Nina Totenberg in January, she and I did get to talk a little over lunch, but the most important part of the day was being able to see her write and publish a story, beginning to end. 

For those of you who don't know, Nina Totenberg is a legal affairs correspondent currently working at NPR. She's worked in journalism since 1962 and at NPR since 1975, where she's won multiple awards for her work on stories from appeals trials (or the lack thereof) after Watergate to Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Few people who hear her stories could guess that she has no formal education in either journalism or law. She dropped out of college, worked her way up from the women’s page at the Boston Record American, and continued to tell stories with dignity and integrity in an age of immense sexism.

So, you can imagine that I was really, really excited when Mr. Front told me I'd get the opportunity to meet her. Because Nina Totenberg is a working journalist, and the meeting was arranged on a Tuesday, the day the Supreme Court often releases opinions, I got to start my day there, and meet her after the opinion announcements. As I'm sure those of you who know me can guess, I was totally geeking out. Any day you get to hear Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor speak live and in person is a very, very good day. 

From there, after a brief interaction with the US Marshals in which I learned that you really do have to know where you're going when you're in the highest court in America (translation: I got lost and they got, ah, concerned), I was escorted to the press room where I met Nina and her intern, Sam. I was able to see them read the opinions and begin to frame the story with the other journalists. The opinions that day were in cases Bruce v. Samuels and Hurst v. Florida. Hurst v. Florida was the newsworthy one of the day; the court ruled that Florida judges cannot override a jury recommendation or fact-find in death penalty cases. After Nina read through the opinions, we headed to NPR headquarters, where I’d spend the rest of the day while she wrote and filed her story.

Tragically, the journalistic process tends to be less sexy than all those montages in House of Cards, but for me, it was still pretty entertaining to get an inside look. There is a lot of fact-checking that goes into these stories, and if the journalist does their job right, you never notice. For instance, three hundred and ninety people were on death row in Florida as of 2012; the expert that Nina called gave that number, but another website said something different. A lot of website-checking and phone calls on the part of Nina and her intern went into verifying the number finally used in the story. I never realized how much of journalism is knowing exactly who to call when to get the right answer, whether it’s an expert or the person who gathered your statistics or someone else entirely. I also saw how NPR produces and records their stories; they pay a lot of attention to both quality and brevity, as local stations have very strict timetables. Everyone knows how to use the audio technology on at least a basic level, which I found interesting, and which fed into the idea that many people contribute to the making of a story. Everyone had a part, from her intern to her producer to even me, when I found her copy of the opinion. Meeting Nina Totenberg while she was working meant I got to see both the intellectual and creative aspects of journalism on display. It was an invaluable learning experience. Even as many begin to believe that journalism is a dying field, I saw it, alive, through the eyes of one of the top journalists in the field.

Although none of them are here, I want to give a shoutout to everyone at NPR who juggled the schedules and made it possible for me to meet one of my heroes. I also want to thank the Newman Committee again, as well as everyone here who helped coordinate the trip, for an incredible experience in D.C. All of you should apply when you’re juniors, even if you haven't been making your list since 7th grade, have very little idea who you'd like to meet, and think you have no chance at winning. I thought about and made my list the week the applications were due and was positive I had no chance at being chosen, and it worked out pretty well for me. It's a great opportunity that you won't find anywhere else.

Speaking of being chosen, I’d better leave some time for why you're all really here. Good luck to this year's juniors, and thanks for listening.

Abby with her parents and Andy NewmanAbby McCay's Choices:

  • Comedian Amy Poehler
  • Former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin
  • Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards
  • Yahoo CEO and President Marissa Mayer
  • Double Bass Player Edgar Meyer