Jim Sterba has been a foreign correspondent, war correspondent and national correspondent for more than four decades, first for The New York Times and then for The Wall Street Journal.
He began at the Evening Star in Washington, D.C., in 1966 and a year later became assistant to James Reston, the New York Times columnist. In 1969 he went to Vietnam to cover the war, and moved to Jakarta 18 months later as Times correspondent for Southeast Asia. During that time he covered the 1971 India-Pakistan war, guerrilla wars in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, famine in Afghanistan and the return of U.S. prisoners from Vietnam.
In 1973, Sterba became a national correspondent for the Times, based in Denver and Houston. He returned to Asia in 1979 to cover the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, stayed on as bureau chief in Hong Kong and China correspondent. He returned to New York in 1982 as a science reporter.
In November 1982, Sterba joined the Wall Street Journal as a reporter and editor on the foreign desk, became an assistant foreign editor in 1984 and a senior special writer in 1986, reporting mainly from Asia. In 1989, he covered the Chinese student demonstrations and the subsequent military crackdown on them in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Later while based in New York, he continued to travel to Asia and, in the U.S., write about wildlife and outdoor sports.
Born in Detroit, Sterba grew up on a farm in central Michigan, is a graduate and distinguished alumnus of Michigan State University. He is the author of Frankie's Place: A Love Story. He lives in New York City with his wife, the author Frances FitzGerald.
Another James P. Sterba
WILL THE REAL JIM PLEASE STAND UP?
By James P. Sterba
27 September 1989
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1989, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
Because Beijing in the winter of 1980 approximated life inside a vacuum cleaner bag inside a freezer, any diversion from the soot, dust, cold and static electricity therein was deeply appreciated, including the envelope I got one day from a friendly Cornell librarian containing the jacket of a book entitled "The Demands of Justice" by James P. Sterba. Since I had always wondered what librarians did at their conventions, this jacket seemed revealing. How cute, I wrote back: Some concessionaire makes up fake book jackets for you Dewey Decimalists to send to friends. Not true, my friend replied. This is from a real book.
In the endless sea of Jim Smiths and Bob Joneses, the discovery of another name clone isn't news. But in the more circumscribed pond of a James P. Sterba, one is more startling. (After all, there are 46 James Smiths in the Manhattan phone book and only three Sterbas, including a John and a Mrs. William, so we aren't talking major-burden-to-the-planet here.) In any case, as I studied the jacket I began to smell a rat because it described this James P. Sterba as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Two things didn't add up. First, as an undergraduate at Michigan State University (class of "Kill, Bubba, Kill" Smith), I learned early and often that any link between Notre Dame and philosophy was highly theoretical. (I mean, it was a freshmen exam question. Which fits best with Notre Dame: 1. Meatheads. 2. Rabies. 3. Second Place. 4. All of the above.) And I had personally witnessed drummers in the MSU marching band sharpening their drumsticks in preparation for the self-defense required to survive a Saturday afternoon in South Bend. It was said that our trombone players came away with teeth marks in their slides. This was the realm of Knute, not Kant.
Second, the Sterbas of my acquaintance were fairly close to the soil. Sure, I had heard of one who made it big in the psychoanalytic dodge and another who knew a lot about fish, but most pursued honest careers in fields containing alfalfa or soy beans and if they worked indoors at all it was usually under the hood of a battered Ford or a tired Allis-Chalmers. The idea of a Sterba having anything to do with philosophy was, quite simply, ludicrous.
Thus, with history and logic on my side, I airmailed an indignant missive to this obvious impostor in South Bend imploring him to fess up. He didn't. Whoever this guy was, he was slippery. His reply came on a Notre Dame philosophy department letterhead. He identified the P. in his name as standing for Paul, just as my P. does, which made me more suspicious. He refused, moreover, to
declare himself a philosopher, stating only that his paychecks came from the philosophy department. He wouldn't even say he was a teacher, stating instead,
". . . if teaching presupposes learning then I certainly don't earn my living from teaching, for the message that I attempt to teach is that justice requires significant sacrifices from all of us, and judging from the behavior of too many of my students they are not getting the message." I didn't know why, but he also told me he wasn't Catholic. Now I see this as early evidence of the same ecumenical tolerance that might explain the presence of Raghib Ismail in the Irish backfield.
Anyway, I figured I'd pretty well nailed this so-called Mr. Sterba as a fraud.
The following year, however, he counter-attacked, this time tracing his roots back to Prague circa 1890. This was something only true Bohemians would know right off without a visit to a library, and I didn't think that was likely in his case because I had yet to hear or see any evidence of the existence of a library at Notre Dame. Maybe this guy was for real. Then, a few years ago, I ran into Father Ted Hesburgh, president of the aforementioned institution, and introduced self. "What do you know," he said, "we have a fine young philosopher back home named Jim Sterba." My case was weakening.
Finally, about two weeks ago, my phone rang and an earnest voice said, "This is Jim Sterba at Notre Dame." He was extremely polite and confessed up front that this was a book-flogging call. Within days there arrived a 200-page paperback entitled, "How to Make People Just: A Practical Reconciliation of Alternative Conceptions of Justice" (Rowman & Littlefield), by James P. Sterba. He also included a 16-page curriculum vitae listing, among other things, the 10 other books he'd written in the last 10 years, his 87 articles and reviews in
philosophical journals, including "The Ethics of Nuclear Strategy," published just this year in Latvian translation in a publication called Proceedings of the Latvian Institute of Philosophy, as well as the fact that he's been a full professor since 1985. As resumes go, this one had heavy-hitter written all over it.
In the book itself, Prof. Sterba discusses the conceptions of justice (moral not legal) of libertarians, socialists, welfare liberals, feminists and what he calls communitarians (sort of conservative let-the-locals-decide types) and argues . . . well, I don't want to spoil things by revealing the ending for would-be readers. But I must say that it probably was not his smartest move,
marketing-wise, to begin his introduction this way: "It is generally recognized that in today's society, academic philosophers have little impact on moral and political decision-making." Still, I thought it was an interesting book. While no "From Here to Eternity," it does contain a chapter entitled, "From Fairness to Androgyny."
I should declare right here that the idea of journeying to South Bend last Saturday to meet in person such a distinguished and nimble intellect as James P. Sterba was purely that of my editor. It is true that in my phone conversation with Mr. Sterba it quickly became apparent just what a fine and decent fellow he is. But this had absolutely nothing to do with the part of our talk that veered into the subject of football and my discovery that this renowned academician had extra tickets to the long soldout Notre Dame-Michigan State game.
Alas, Saturday demonstrated just how sorely the world needs Mr. Sterba's guidance in the justice realm. Hurricane Hugo was long gone, the sky showed sun and blue, and I was at LaGuardia in plenty of time to catch USAir flight 1477 to Dayton for a connection to South Bend. About 45 minutes after the flight was supposed to leave, a gate attendent announced that we had everything necessary for its commencement -- airplane, fuel, flight attendents and passengers -- except pilots. The flight was cancelled, the game lost, and the existence of James P. Sterba the younger (he was born 48 days after me) could not be empirically confirmed.