An indispensable book for journalism classes: ‘Last Call at the Hotel Imperial’ by Deborah Cohen

By Alan J. Steinberg

There are two basic functions of a journalist: Analysis and advocacy.  There are also two primary proficiencies a journalist must master in order to successfully perform the two aforesaid functions: 1) The craft of journalism; and 2) the profession of journalism.

The craft of journalism involves the two tasks at which a journalist must excel in preparing a story: 1) the gathering of information and 2) the ability to effectively communicate it, orally, in writing, or both. The profession of journalism refers primarily to the two qualities a journalist must have both to attain and maintain public credibility 1) Expertise on the covered subject, and 2) Ethics and integrity.

These functions and necessary qualities are best taught in journalism schools by historical case studies. In this regard, the 2022 book, Last Call at the Imperial Hotel by Deborah Cohen is an unmatched triumph.  

The subtext of the title, “The Reporters who Took on a World at War” is a concise, dramatic, yet accurate description of the historic significance of this landmark work. The focus of this book is the journalism of four eminent and hugely influential American foreign correspondents who covered Europe in the lead-up to World War II:  John Gunther, H. R. Knickerbocker, James Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and Dorothy Thompson. The book covers not only the work of these reporters but also their private personal lives and how they were influenced by the milieu in which they worked.

In that era, the absence of television gave these foreign correspondents a heightened significance. They not only had to analyze the subject occurrences, but also had to paint a vivid picture of the events for the benefit of the American reader.  In that era, Americans did not have the immediacy of television, but often had to wait weeks for a newsreel showing an event. Readers relied almost exclusively on these four journalists in attempting to visualize the fascist torment about to engulf Europe in Holocaust and unsurpassed destructive war.

As an alumnus of Northwestern University, I take special pride in the publication of this book. This is a work of description of both history and journalism, and there is no university in America that can boast of the unique combination of Northwestern‘s journalism and history education programs. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism has been ranked for decades as America’s leading journalism school, and its history department year after year ranks among America’s top ten.

The author, Deborah Cohen, is Richard W. Leopold Northwestern Professor of History and Department Chair (2020-2023). The late Richard W. Leopold was considered to be the leading expert on American foreign policy during World War II and the post-war period that followed.  I am proud to say that he was my mentor in my role as student chair of the Northwestern University NROTC Public Affairs Program.

Ms. Cohen has written three award winning books of historical subjects, writes regularly for the Atlantic, and has reviewed books for such publications as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial is written in an eminently readable style.

Note to journalism professors: If you are considering recommending an historical work not only to teach your students the craft and profession of journalism but also to inspire them to achieve journalistic excellence, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial will make an ideal choice.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. Steinberg wrote this article for the Jandoli Institute.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media

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