Editorial: How to Live Forever

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday March 04, 2008

When I heard last week from Ruth Rosen that Barbara Seaman had died at 72, an age that now seems much too young to me, I looked on the Internet for the many obituary reminiscences about her which I was sure to find. They were all there, some in the kind of prestigious papers that had once dismissed her work for women’s health in the most patronizing way. But the one that rang truest was on a blog devoted to feminist concerns written by Jennifer Baumgardner: “Thinking about Barbara, I realize that she was a one-woman social networking site. She remembered everyone she had ever met and tried to connect them with everybody else she had ever met. She recalled where you were from, whom you dated, your health problems, and your writings or accomplishments and then she introduced you to people you should know.” That was Barbara, all right, and I thought my experience with her was unique. It seems that she did it for everyone. 

Baumgardner met Barbara in 1993—I knew her in the early 80s. Her books about the dangers of the hormones then being prescribed for any and all women’s ailments were pathbreaking, but her longest-living contribution may well be the way she served as a mentor and role model for generations of women who went on to do all sorts of useful and sometimes wonderful things.  

I knew her at the time I was trying to run something called the Project on Science and Technology within the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reporting on women’s issues in that time and place was an uphill battle (as it still is) and I needed all the support and encouragement I could get. Long-distance and in person, Barbara bucked me up when the going got tough, and gave me many valuable tips. My memory, now failing, is that I stayed with her when I went to New York City, but perhaps she just fed me and took me to amazing parties with famous people and introduced me to agents. Under her tutelage, I did a piece for The Nation on corporate marketing of hormones to women, a topic that still has legs twenty-five years later. 

Soon thereafter, life circumstances required me to take a 20-year break from journalism, and when I got the chance to take it up again I’d lost touch with Barbara. What I do remember learning from her is that it’s not just what you do yourself, but what you make possible for others to do that adds up in the end.  

Lately several old friends have died, and others are battling serious illnesses. It’s cause for reflection on that elusive question: What’s the meaning of life? A metaphor sometimes uses by ecologists comes to mind, the web of life. In a loose sense it represents the interconnectness and also the evolution of all living beings.  

The idea can even be expressed in crass business jargon: It’s not about product, it’s about process. Journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, produces mainly ephemera, defined by the invaluable Wikipedia as “transitory written and printed matter, not intended to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day.” Books last longer, but eventually almost all words, on paper or digitized, will blow away. But the idea that what happens to ordinary people is important, that it should be taken seriously and chronicled as well as possible, is what I learned from Barbara Seaman’s life and hope to pass on. 

Case in point: The pieces the Planet’s been doing about allegations of inappropriate treatment of special education students by an administrator in a Berkeley public school have created understandable anguish in school circles. A parent called to say that she was afraid the stories would worry parents of 5th graders who might be going to Willard Middle School in the fall. Our story quoted Willard’s principal:“We all want to ensure we represent the Willard community in a positive light.”  

Well, no. That’s not the press’s job. 

Parents have the right to know everything that might be going on in the schools to which they entrust their precious children, the bad news as well as the good. We were enormously impressed by the tenacity and dedication of the two African-American mothers of special education students who showed up at the Planet office with detailed files on what they believed was prejudiced and unfair treatment of their kids. We felt that it was our duty to give their charges a thorough airing, particularly because Berkeley Unified School District officials seem to have ignored their complaints, some filed almost a year ago. 

It now appears that the district will take some long-overdue action toward removing the vice-principal in question from contact with kids pending investigation, but that may not be enough. The public deserves, and we will continue to demand, a full accounting of how this and similar cases have been handled. Even if it makes some people uncomfortable. 

In a recent Nation Victor Navasky, who was editor when I wrote for the magazine, reviewed a recent book by Anthony Lewis, a reporter who has specialized in constitutional issues, whose law school seminar on the First Amendment and the press I had the privilege of attending long ago. Navasky said that “Lewis urges the press to follow the injunction of the British columnist Bernard Levin of The Times of London, who in the 1980s dismissed the idea that the press’s obligation was to be ‘responsible’ (in the English sense of commitment to the ideas and assumptions of the ruling class). “The press,’ he wrote, ‘has no duty to be responsible at all, and it will be an ill day for freedom if it should ever acquire one.... We are and must remain vagabonds and outlaws’—we must continue ‘the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued and the making of comments that others would prefer unmade.’ ”  

It’s a sentiment that Barbara Seamen would have agreed with. It’s an attitude she worked all her life to nurture in those who survive her and who hope to be considered her heirs. There are a lot of us.