It is fitting that today Washington and Lee honors an influential voice in media ethics, Susan Elizabeth Tifft. We were, after all, one of the first universities to incorporate into our curriculum the academic study of journalism in society, emphasizing professional responsibility and journalistic integrity. We strive to view journalism, and, indeed, all of our disciplines, in the context of honor, personal integrity and duty. So does Susan Tifft.
Tifft holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Duke University and a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Duke selected her to speak for her class at her 1973 graduation, and, as the first member of her alma mater’s young-trustee program, she served on Duke’s board.
Tifft embarked on her renowned and prolific career in journalism at Time magazine, where she worked as a national writer and associate editor from 1982 to 1991. She has published hundreds of articles in such widely ranging and widely read publications as Time, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and Working Woman, to name but a few.
In 1999, Tifft co-authored with her husband, Alex Jones, the best-selling and award-winning book The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. It is, in itself, a mammoth work of journalism that illuminates the role and the power of that newspaper, and the ethical implications of the many complicated decisions involved in daily journalism. Her first biography, also co-authored with Jones, was The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, an acclaimed account of the family behind the Louisville, Kentucky, newspapers. Today Tifft is the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy Studies at Duke University. She recently received the ultimate tribute from Duke, which created the Susan Tifft Undergraduate Teaching/Mentoring Award. The university will give it each year to the person who best embodies Susan Tifft’s gift and passion for teaching.
In our society’s understanding of how to parse the ever-increasing flow of information through news outlets, Tifft is an important voice. She brings to her readers remarkable insight into print and broadcast journalism, and a profound understanding of the media, their owners, and the influences that shape them. William Ascher, former director of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke, described Tifft as “among the few practicing journalists who are exploring the role of media in the policy-making process and the ethical responsibilities of journalists.”
For her leadership, high attainments and moral influence in the profession of journalism, Washington and Lee is proud to confer upon Susan Tifft the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.