[ always tell stories ]

Medill School of Journalism

Don't Let The Cuts Fool You. True Journalists Need True Training

The below NBC News report talks about the deep cuts in the newspaper business.

And my alma mater thinks that, since reporting and writing is moving online, graduate schools must train journalists as thoughtless, shallow, promotional whores instead of real reporters.

Well, don't let the deep newspaper attrition fool you: we need good training more than ever. If we want to find the next Frank Rich, the only way to do that is to keep training journalists the old fashioned way - and then fold them in with new media.

In other words, if we don't apply tried-and-true standards to our bold new medium, we'll just become big shipping carriers of information without the depth we so desperately need in a country with a free press.


Update On 'Quotegate'

Eric Zorn has closed the book on "Quotegate," which I'm super bummed about because he's been tenaciously digging the dirt and exposing our school for the shitstorm they have caused. I wrote a nasty-gram comment in support of his editorial.

I think the only way to stand up to this crap is to do what comes naturally to us Medillians... report and write.

More soon...

The Medill School Of Journalism: The 'Craftsmen' Cometh

(BOSTON - 14 March 2008) As I make my way to the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, hosted in Boston this weekend, my shoulders are slouched at the state of affairs at my beloved Medill School of Journalism. At stake? The journalism construct as we know it.

The one and only reason I'm even attending this Harvard-sponsored event - full of fire-in-the-eyes writers who crave the next best story, the next best assignment, the next impact phrase that might change the world - is due to my time at Medill. I picked it up off the listserv, made my reservations, and here I am.

Since graduation, I have worn the alumni badge with pride, interviewing potential students in Atlanta, giving annually to both Medill and NU, working with fellow alumni in various capacities, returning to Evanston to see my mentors and instructors - even considering returning one day long in the future as a professor.

Those days are over. At least temporarily. With Dean Lavine's sordid curriculum change, not to mention "Quotegate," his falsified-sourcing scandal that is still unfolding as of this writing, I am ashamed of a school that plopped me square in the center of a stratosphere-level talent pool, ready to take on the world.

...and it's a talent pool from the Medill School of Journalism. One more time, THE MEDILL SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM.

Yes, that's right. I'm breaking it down to repetitive, grade-school,
Bush-level communication for a reason: Northwestern University is sitting back and watching the implosion of one of the most respected *journalism* institutions in the country, the world for that matter, and there are many of us in the alumni ranks who just cant stand to listen to the noise anymore. (Some have taken matters in their own hands; I'll just do a blog post.)

The road to any meaningful catharsis is always long... but allow me to take a moment and catalog some of the comments we're picking up from the Medill Listserv, articles and blogs around the country, that may help soothe the pain. They are truly extraordinary. To wit:

The "Mush Mouth" statement. Andrew Bossone (MSJ '05) has been all over this story, pointing out recently how NU president Bienen is lamely futzing his way through this entire ordeal. He cites the piece entitled "Paging President Bienen," Chicago Tribune, 8 March 2008. "I heard from a reliable source that NU President Bienen and Provost Linzer will meet with the faculty," Bossone wrote yesterday. "Apparently the page is being answered." (UPDATE: Andrew just wrote me and said the meeting's message was "put up, shut up or get out" (I'm summarizing) to the faculty. More of the same; see my comment below about the Bush administration.)

"Journalism" May Fade Away? Eric Zorn writes for the Chicago Tribune about how the name, focus and curriculum switches have been the conspicuous symptoms of a institution with a case of walking pneumonia. "They’ve shunned an open search for the truth in a controversy swirling around Medill Dean John Lavine, brazenly failed to take the basic steps that a rookie reporter would take to investigate the allegation that Lavine made up quotes in an article he published and cloaked their excuses for Lavine in dark innuendo." Zorn has compiled an amazing "Webliography" of Quotegate, available here.

The defiant, "sure"-enough dean. Dean Lavine addressed students earlier this week and once again denied fabricating quotes for a story in Medill magazine - quotes from an unnamed source that strangely echoed Lavine's own icky-everyman vernacular. The assertion that Quotegate has sprung legs because of faculty and alumni venom over his curriculum changes is partially true - you can't run an institution like Medill without holding yourself to the same standards you ask of your students. Neither can you pursue an unpopular new direction given said circumstances, especially when said Dean is attempting to cram said direction down people's throats. No thanks.

A science that "makes craftsmen." Of all the voluminous posts on the subject, Jenny Gavacs (BSJ '00) was most eloquent. In a time when our very existence as journalists is called into question on a daily basis, she argues that now is not the time for Lavine to abandon our true self-idenfication. "The science of writing naturally has slightly different rules than biochemistry, but things like AP Style, the correct spelling of names, and quote attribution are just as fundamental to us as organic compounds are in Tech," she writes. "The problem is that in biochemistry, if something goes wrong, there are explosions or disintegration that objectively announce failure. In journalism, you may fabricate entire articles for The York Times but still have a job. Sometimes journalists only know that their science is corrupted when someone else points to the standards that have fallen.

"Journalism is a social science, like psychology," she continues. "You can't control everything in a situation, but you can control three or four key variables that will yield solid results. That's why Medill exists: To teach us to be rigorous, so we can uncover truth. There used to be a debate over whether a journalism degree was necessary - after all, people without journalism training have always gotten published. But Northwestern answered that challenge by showing that there is a difference between writing and writing well.
Eric Zorn is a writer; it takes a Woodward and Bernstein, or a McPhee, or a Talese, or a Capote to be a craftsman. Medill was meant to make craftsmen."

Like Jenny, I don't disagree with all of Lavine's ideas. But it's the way in which change has been sought, and the disregard for the craft and institution; and subsequent, convoluted denials and false bravado within Quotegate, that have turned me rotten-milk sour on what Lavine is doing.

This situation is eerily similar to how I perceive the Bush Administration... mistakes that beget more ego-fueled mistakes, and the flippant disregard in their wake; changing the storied heart of a school because blogs are the new newspaper (does Lavine even subscribe to a single RSS feed?); shifting the sails because the wind is changing and yet disregarding the rudder to steer the ship. It's all bollocks. Give him the boot and do it soon.

Footnotes to a shadow Medill:

- The popular networking site LinkedIn does not provide Medill as one of NU's official schools.
- Medill has no official information about Kappa Tau Alpha on its Web site or materials, despite having awarded its students that honor. We should have a chapter manager among our ranks. We don't.
- The Medill site also has done away with its "Alumni Voices" Web section, taking away a vibrant, creative outlet for many of us who want to rant about something.
- Our site now looks like a third-rate cable company's landing page, and neither speaks to or draws inspiration from the legacy that Joseph Medill articulated. Not even close.

If NU's president (or board or someone) does not relieve Lavine, I will permanently cease all gifts, stop my interviewing and just plain give up. Our reputation has been trashed and we're all sick of the distraction. Let's restore and keep and polish what makes us great:

Much like our country. A return to greatness awaits.
- WP


Anchor Blues: Sour Grapes, Keith O., And A Huge Waste Of Time

Fox & Friends dedicated nearly five airtime minutes misquoting Keith Olbermann. Have a look below (if you can stomach it), and also, make sure to check out the accurate accounting at Media Bistro.

"Anchor Blues" (full editorial below) is a series I started some time ago that looks at the amount of energy that news organizations waste yelling at each other.

To borrow the erudite words of Bill Maher, New Rule: Anchors can no longer be the news.

Let’s use one of the more current commissions of media heresy as our baseline. Would everyone reading this please raise your hand if you know the plural of the noun, “ho”?

Is “ho” simply singular and plural, like “elk,” or would it follow with “es” at the end? Hmmm… we’ll just go with “hos,” without the “e” and no apostrophe, lest we imply possession of a gardening implement. Or we might ask Santa Claus, since he often uses that word more than once at a time; or Hostess, maker of Ho Hos, the trans-fat lard bombs cloaked in a chocolaty veneer, which (I’m told) often comes at least two to an artery-clogging package.

Sadly, our distinguished media have successfully solved “ho” in the plural. Paula Zahn was one of them, thrusting “hos” Out in the Open when she led a panel deconstruction of Don Imus’ hideously nonsensical, random and offensive “nappy headed hos” phrase – part of his well-publicized rant about the Rutgers Women’s basketball team. Both the CNN crawl and Zahn’s program slug that night used the word “hos” in the plural; I almost did a double take because I had never seen that word on a screen before. I hope I never do again.

Like a rat gnawing at a piece of stale cheese (but without the flavor), a broader, related issue has been eating at me for months: Why is it, in this great business of ours, that we as journalists, commentators, producers and anchors have stepped so solidly in front of the news we’re supposed to be covering? Specifically, stratosphere-salaried anchors, including hosts of all stripes – radio, primary broadcast, cable-TV screamers, satellite, morning show personalities, reporters – are all consistently upstaging their content.

NBC receiving the murderous manifesto is an ironic example of how, inadvertently or otherwise, we sometimes become what we’re reporting. More on the Virginia Tech nightmare, and NBC’s coverage of it, in a moment.

The fact is, Don Imus has been pushing envelopes and buttons for 30 years… and this random sound byte is in keeping with his standard histrionics. But I’ve noticed enough drama in other media circles in the past six months that I think it begs a few questions. First, are we simply serving at the pleasure of personality? That is to say, are we making that quality in people too important? Are we building them up just so we can break them down when we’re done? Further, is this all a bottom-line, zero-sum ratings game we’re in – where the work of good, solid journalists are being eclipsed and overshadowed by, well, assholes?

Consider these recent episodes, where news – even that which attempts to entertain us – was far beside the point:

• Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera – both gunning hard for title of Biggest On-air Tool – kept the spit cleaners busy recently when they got into verbal fisticuffs that might as well have been a WWF title bout. (I thought they were going to punch each other out.) Question: did they cover the topic of an illegal-immigrant crime, as was the platform, or was it a shouting match with fancy Fox News stagelights that, making matters considerably worse, elbowed out real news coverage on other channels that day? It was a train wreck in the highest order, but yet we can’t stop watching. Views on YouTube had eclipsed the 500,000 mark as of this writing.

• With ABC’s World News gaining on NBC Nightly News, executive producer John Reiss was reportedly axed in favor of Alexandra Wallace (one of only a handful of women to serve in that role, on any network) – despite the fact that Brian Williams had, during Reiss’ tenure, continued to set the standard (of the Peter Jennings ilk) for elegant, insightful, sensitive and thoughtful journalism. This is the journalistic equivalent of a melodramatic overreaction. Without Williams’ journalistic leadership in the past 18 months – ala Anderson Cooper – New Orleans, for example, would be even more of a forgotten city. We wouldn’t be asking the right questions about Alberto Gonzales or our invasion of Iraq or the installation of Sam Fox, a recess appointee who Bush transformed from a GOP donor to ambassador to Belgium. Reiss helped power Williams and “Nightly” to multiple award victories, yet he still was apparently shown the door.

• “Some say” Katie Couric’s interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards was a smiling softball snugglefest; “others say” her style descended into a sad example of style over substance. Oh and by the by, Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer returned, right? Viewers, me included, took away Couric’s approach more than they did the newsworthiness of the Edwards’ decision to continue campaigning in a crowded 2008 election field. Aside from this misfire interview, Couric’s publicized network switch, fashion choices, chatty style and plunging ratings have, in general, far eclipsed the competent work of a field reporter like Lara Logan in Iraq – work that Couric is supposed to be shining a light on. Again, we’re missing the point.

• When I caught part of Rosie’s “View” debut last September I said to myself, “oh Jeez, Babs ain’t gonna have any of this.” By “Babs” I mean, of course, Barbara Walters, and by “this” I mean the match-and-gasoline bravado that is O’Donnell’s new anti-queen-of-nice personae. Her daily verbal smackdown on “The View” eventually spawned “Rosie vs. The Donald,” that icky mud-slinging bonanza that neither person really won and we all were subjected to. I want to see neither the real combover nor Rosie’s interpretation of it ever again. Still, “View” ratings shot up 60% in the early term of Rosie’s addition, and have been up steadily since, as she has regularly spouted off wild conspiracy theories and sparred with co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

This is just the tip of the media-sideshow iceberg: When you factor in NBC’s reluctant Scooter Libby witness and cozy-source example Tim Russert; Oprah’s holier-than-thou pushing the vast “riches” of The Secret; the exhausting audacity of Headline News’ Nancy Grace (sued for wrongful death by the family of a Florida woman she aggressively interviewed last year); and the unnecessary yet all too public “reassignment” of CNN American Morning’s Miles O’Brien and Soledad O’Brien (a team that gave us the only consistent pace, personality and sophistication of our current slew of morning shows) – anchors have more and more been the stories than reported them. It’s time for us to make a mammoth shift in our priorities, and perhaps with the Imus firing we can put people like Coulter, Limbaugh, Beck and O’Reilly on notice: is it not “mission accomplished” when you are the news.

Meanwhile, there are people who are doing yeoman’s work through this ongoing malaise. Keith Olbermann, for lively and confident news judgment that shapes MSNBC’s “Countdown”; CNN’s Kyra Phillips for mining unusual, heartfelt stories out of the Iraq quagmire; a humble Diane Sawyer serving as de facto ambassador to North Korea during her tightly controlled swing through the country; and the aforementioned Miles O’Brien, who has been a joy as the geek go-to guy for science, aviation and aeronautical issues… and who almost certainly has a copy of “October Sky” in his DVD library. I’ll miss waking up with him at 6 a.m.

With questions now being raised about NBC’s decision to air footage from Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui, the media have opened yet another chapter in their own story. And I say, we’re in quite likely the most pointed example of, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Why? As much sympathy and wished-healing I hold for the students at Virginia Tech, its alumni and the people of Blacksburg, Virginia, I believe history will look at NBC’s decision as one of measured conscience – the news-judgment process working in its most compassionate, careful and thoughtful way. As the only news organization that received messages from Cho, a clearly disturbed and tortured madman, I believe they acted on a journalistic obligation to know more about what drove him to such a horrific act. And any other news organization criticizing that move – you know who you are – sounds like sour grapes to me. The only people who have any standing to criticize are the victims’ families.

The grieving families are a living, breathing example of why we should always search for and find the story’s emotional thread and never discount its power in helping you come to a natural conclusion. I watched a lot of NBC’s coverage and I believe they did just that.

For Medill’s part, it is more critical than ever to know what your personal ethics are as a journalist as you enter this nutty business. Do not be the news, be the impartial gifter of it. If you go to the producer side of things, don’t hang your anchors out to dry because you think your closest competitor is gaining on you. Stand in your integrity. As a journalist working in a few different areas, that’s my mission, and it always will be, and it should be for all of us. Your self-defined purpose matters, and your audience cares.

Personally, I wish the Rutgers team had decided against making statements like “we were stripped of this moment” and claiming that Imus had “stolen a moment of pure grace.” As right as it might feel to express their hurt in this way, the fact is that they are giving too much power to a person who never had it, or deserved it, to begin with, despite his attempts to the contrary. I’m glad they accepted his apology; I have my own opinions about forgiveness – how to use it, when it’s appropriate, how it can change people for the better – but those statements gave away power when nobody, especially that power’s creators, should relinquish it. Nothing, nobody, will take away their Cinderella rise to the finals or the example they have set for women who will most certainly follow in their footsteps.

As such, we can say the same for assigning too much power (or in the case of Miles & Soledad, too little respect) to the anchor desk and to our media personalities as a whole. I for one would like us to bring fundamental change in this area – for the betterment of our business, and also so I can wake up at 6 a.m. with a smile on my face.

Now, I’m going back to eating the rest of my Ho Hos.

# # #