The Medill F

Medill

Some things have changed, since I was a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1979, banging out copy on second-hand manual typewriters.

Now Medill has a flashy new building, and state-of-the-art technology all around, I found at a reunion this past weekend.  But apparently, one thing hasn’t changed.

 

“I’ve already gotten two Medill Fs,” one student groaned, a little shocked by the lack of latitude given by her instructors.  One F was for a misspelled name.  One was for getting someone’s age wrong.

Ah, the Medill F.  It was tough love, meant to teach cocky freshmen that in the real world of professional journalism, deadlines and accuracy mattered absolutely.  We might have complained at the time, but years later, we silently thanked our teachers for being such hard-asses.  (And yes, Bill Cameron, I’m talking about you.)

How quaint, in light of what sometimes passes for journalism these days.  There’s CNN’s ‘report first, check facts later’ breaking story mode.  There’s Fox News’ ‘we’ve got our own facts, thank you very much’ style.  And there are myriad online aggregators, serving as fact check-free echo chambers of original content that may have been rigorously reported and edited, shoddily reported and not edited, or just made up.

 

And then there’s the whole question of how stories are framed.  A CNN interview this week discussed the US commando raid in Libya, which nabbed Al Queda senior militant Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai.    The CNN anchor didn’t question the legality of the raid, or how the Libyan government felt about it.  He asked why the commandos had bothered taking the militant alive.  The guest, a former Delta Force officer, explained, ‘we want to catch the bad guys before we kill them,’ in case they might offer “actionable intelligence”.

 

Before we kill them? 

 

To experience how this looks from outside the United States, imagine a Chinese commando unit sweeping into another country, grabbing someone there and putting him in custody in China, and saying “we want to interrogate him before we kill him.”  Sounds like a human rights report waiting to happen.

 

Now, the former Delta Force officer was speaking off the cuff, and not in any official capacity.  But the framing of the issue seemed to take as given that Americans are the “good guys,” that whatever and however we choose to go after our adversaries is justified, and that the only real question involved in whether captured suspects live or die is whether they have actionable intelligence to offer.  

 

In any country, a certain worldview is reflected in its mainstream journalism.  In China’s state-run media, it’s by mandate.  In the United States, it’s by habit.  Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, and broke the story of abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq, thinks American journalists can and should do better.  As to how – he has an idea or two.

 

“I’ll tell you the solution, get rid of 90% of the editors that now exist and start promoting editors that you can’t control,” Hersh told The Guardian newspaper.  Elsewhere in the interview, he said: “I would close down the news bureaus of the networks and let’s start all over, tabula rasa.  The majors, NBCs, ABCs, they won’t like this – just do something different, do something that gets people mad at you, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”  (A side note: The Guardian, one of my favorite newspapers, later issued corrections on three factual errors in the story.  A Medill F for the errors, full credit for running an interview that challenged convention and made people think.)

 

Hersh’s comments about ‘what we’re supposed to be doing’ got a fair bit of attention at a gathering earlier this month of past and present Nieman Fellows at Harvard.  The Nieman Fellowship offers a cornucopia of classes and conversation over an academic year, a respite meant to reenergize journalists for another decade or two of meaningful reportage.  When I was there, in 1999-2000, former New York Times Washington bureau chief Bill Kovach was curator, and his views about ‘what we’re supposed to be doing’ couldn’t have been clearer.

Bill Kovach

Bill Kovach

 

“Journalism is the closest thing I have to a religion, because I believe deeply in the role and responsibility the journalists have to the people of a self-governing community,” Kovach wrote in his book The Elements of Journalism.

 

Many of us couldn’t agree more.  But it became clear at the Nieman gathering that not everyone agreed on what that meant. 

 

“People have talked and preached that gospel with real sentiment and real passion,” said ProPublica senior editor Joe Sexton, at a panel on the use of online technology in journalism.  “And they have walked themselves off a cliff with that gospel.” 

 

A few in the audience looked stunned.  After all, Sexton is no dilettante.  During his 25 year career at the New York Times, he covered sports, politics and crime, led a team as Metro editor that won two Pulitzer Prizes, and as sports editor last year, turned reporter John Branch’s story on the fate of 16 skiers in an avalanche into an extraordinary interactive multimedia experience.

 

Sexton said he believes the role of newspapers is “to be a brawling, competitive, spectacularly broad, wildly ambitious, comic free-for-all that served all sorts of purposes,” including telling stories “of no f*cking significance.”   Not everything needed to serve a higher purpose, he insisted.  “The idea that we’re all involved in the monastic writing of God’s word – I mean, we’re a f*cking business!”

Joe Sexton and Kara Oehler

Joe Sexton and Kara Oehler

 

And if the raison d’etre of a business is to sell what it’s got to sell, others on the panel were there to help.   Kara Oehler, cofounder of Zeega, showed a five-minute news brief done with “NowThisNews.com,” a collage of short videos collected online, leading with Drake’s latest musical release, interspersing bite-sized morsels of political news with videos of a young Drake dancing at his bar mitzvah, and ending in a cute, spastic kitten being tickled.  Entertaining, sure.  Journalism?  Myeh.

 

I’m all for being entertained.  I’m all for finding creative new ways to get ideas across online.   (Jon Stewart, take a bow.)  But, when it comes to journalism, it also matters what the ideas are.  It’s not enough to entertain, just like it’s not enough to live on chips and Coke.  The body politic needs rigorous reporting and critical thinking about issues that affect Americans at home, and about how America’s actions affect others around the world.  Journalists need to provide this, and citizens need to pay attention.  To do anything less earns us all an F.   

 

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2 thoughts on “The Medill F

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Mary Kay (and welcome back). It’s an important question you raise, one that I suspect has many answers (none of which would satisfy everyone).

    I think Sexton hit on the key issue, which was to point out the tension that exists between journalism as a craft (or religion) and as a business. I’m reminded of my favorite quote by Yogi Berra:

    In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

    In this tension, and between theory and practice, there is a third party, and that is the consumer. In theory, the majority of people who consume news and journalism are critical thinkers, capable of setting aside their biases and hearing the facts; in practice, everyone’s perceptions are colored by their context, their experience, their education and their political leanings. This leads us to the fractured journalistic landscape we have now, where truth often lies in perception, not in reality, and where people might not be willing to hear credible journalism because of who is delivering the message. I suspect that we, as information consumers, get the Medill F, too.

    The democritization of publishing power has exacerbated these problems. Anyone with a modicum of savvy can create their own blog as a platform for their views of the news or politics. Similarly, citizen journalists can now report on what they see, post it to Twitter, and generate a firestorm of attention. People are flooded with all of these (often conflicting) sources of information, which makes it difficult to filter and choose the right ones, if there is such a thing. So people often opt for being entertained, for not being forced to think too hard, which just leads journalism into a race for the bottom (cf., Fox News and CNN).

    I don’t know what the answer is, but the world still needs critical thinking journalists with integrity. I hope the traditional big media outlets get disrupted, that editors with entrenched interest get ousted, that a new wave enters and restores sanity to the world of journalism and news. Until then, it would appear the truth is being held hostage by the economics of news as entertainment.

    • Thanks to you, Ryan, for your own thoughtful comment. I agree about the fractured journalistic landscape, about (many but not all) information consumers finding truth in perception rather than reality, about the need for journalists with integrity who are capable of critical thinking. But all is not bleak (and here, I’d guess you’d agree, too). The democratization of publishing makes a richer public conversation possible, and has certainly stretched me to think in new ways about many issues. The trick, with so much out there from so many competing sources, is working out who to read, who to trust, who will give you an honest opinion and who will give you a rigorously reported and fact-checked story. When it comes to good journalism, many roads lead to Rome. You can write a story, a column, a series of Tweets, a blog. You can do reported satire; The Daily Show seems to do more fact-checking than some self-professed journalists. You can even use Zeega. But if you’re going to call it journalism, some fundamentals — like the need for good reporting and accuracy — still apply. As the dust settles from the new media disruption, my bet is that more and more readers/viewers/listeners will sift the best from the rest, and that new media sites that want to retain an audience will learn what journalists have known for generations — if you don’t have your audience’s trust, you’ve got nothing.

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