3 teachable moments in the “Antifa dressed as Trump supporters” photo caption failure

On Jan. 8, conspiracy theorists reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas probably thought they had their deepest Deep-State suspicions confirmed about the melee at the U.S. Capitol that week.

According to a photo caption that accompanied an AP picture of rioters scaling walls outside the building, “Members of antifa dressed as supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the case and it wasn’t what the paper would have printed if it had a “do over.” As the readers of the Telegraph deluged the paper with questions, concerns and outrage, the journalists there scrambled to figure out what had happened. The paper’s regional editor finally tried to stanch the bleeding with a declarative tweet:

“It was not done by editorial staff. That is not the correct cutline and we are addressing it.”

In other words, “Look, we have no damned idea what this is, either, but we’re not thrilled about it, so back off until we figure out how the hell this happened and if we need to fire someone.”

On Inauguration Day, the paper published an editorial that outlined what happened, how it happened and what happens next. Of all the revelations the paper put forth, here was the least shocking one to me:

How did this happen? To the best of our belief, it was a joke taken literally. We found that no staff member acted in a malicious manner to deliberately put misinformation in your paper. Instead, what we found was a misguided and misunderstood joke put on the page when it should not have been.

The moment this caption started making the rounds in journalism circles, I gladly would have bet my HOUSE on the fact that this would all trace back to one chucklehead thinking they were funny and nobody in the newsroom noticing until everyone else on Earth started to notice it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. I have a manila file folder or three just THICK with screw ups like this, where someone punched down something in a hurry or with a taint of dark humor or both, and it found its way to the general public. The one that still makes the rounds in many journalism classes is the “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” debacle that we detailed on the blog a while back.

However, to help you learn how best to avoid being the next in the never-ending parade of cautionary journalism tales, consider these three pieces of advice:

IF YOU DON’T WANT IT TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY, DON’T TYPE IT: The rule in broadcast is that you treat every mic like it’s a hot (or live) mic, so you don’t accidentally start cussing on air. In most print/web media outlets the rule is to never type anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. It’s a basic rule that we tell ourselves and each other multiple times over the course of our newsroom lives and yet, for some reason, we STILL don’t listen.

Part of this is that journalists tend to think they’re funny, and to other journalists, they really tend to be. However, our audience rarely shared the “mortician’s humor” that we espouse. This is why writing a caption that includes a phrase like “Beth Jones, whose probably going to screw us over and die before this photo runs, celebrates her record-setting 103rd birthday Thursday during a party for her at the Shady Pines Assisted Living Center in Weyauwega.” isn’t going to be in our best interest, even if we’re just joking for newsroom eyes only.

Perhaps the greatest, and maybe entirely apocryphal, story of a joke gone wrong that either did or didn’t see print was one I’ve been looking for my whole life. The story I’ve heard was that an Ohio-based paper either nearly ran or short-printed a paper with a brief at the bottom of a local-section rail that had the headline: “Easter Services Cancelled.”

The body copy was one line: “They found the body.”

Another part of it is that we use humor as a coping mechanism. Between the low pay, long hours and general insanity we cover every day, it’s a miracle we’re not more damaged than we are. Somewhere between deciding if we should use active voice in describing a massive interstate pile up and answering the 194th phone call of the night where we have to explain that, no, it’s not a conspiracy that the “TV section” wasn’t in your paper this week, people crack.

They also crack when they’re trying to make a headline fit in an impossible hole or cram 20 inches of copy in a 5-inch hole. Thus, a quick note of “Cut the shit out of this dumbass councilman’s quote” sent back to the reporter or a filler headline of “Woman’s vagina outperforms clown car” on news feature about a family of 20 kids  seems like a good idea a the time until it shows up in black and white the next day.

The lesson here is a simple and yet seemingly impossible one: If you don’t want to get in trouble for doing something purposefully stupid, don’t do that purposefully stupid thing.

BEWARE OF TWO INCHES OF WATER: Wayne State University professor and copy desk legend Fred Vultee was fond of the saying, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was that errors, libel and general stupidity could just as easily occur in the smallest piece of copy as it can in the largest one.

What I have found in collecting stupid mistakes over the years is that this mantra holds water. (Sorry… I had to…)

Rarely was it the sprawling investigative story that accused powerful people of unspeakable acts that led to the worst problems. It was usually the relatively innocuous brief, the simple caption or the run-of-the-mill meeting story that created massive uproar.

The “Green Wave” story is just one of the many where someone inserted a fake lead or a side-glance comment. I have photo captions that note “this lady might be dead so we might want to crop her out” as well as a photo of a basketball team that refers to an unknown player as “Some Fucker.”

This is why it’s important to avoid screwing around with small copy and to also read ALL copy with the same level of concern. The first part is easy to manage while the second part can feel almost impossible much of the time.

I know that when it came to a story we ran accusing a student of trying to make ricin, everyone in the newsroom went through that story like our lives depended on it. That photo caption about the Environmental Club’s recruitment drive? Not so much.

Still, knowing the most damage can occur in the smallest places with the least amount of obvious concern should motivate all of us to dig in a little harder on these things.

TRUST IS HARD TO BUILD, BUT EASY TO DESTROY: The only real currency we have as journalists is our credibility. We use it to buy trust from our readers. It takes years to build up that accumulation of credibility and it must be used judiciously because it’s precious and once it’s spent, we might not get any more.

I don’t know how trusted the Telegraph was before this incident, but it essentially blew through whatever stash it had and went into debt on this one. And, for what?

The paper’s editorial outlines a series of safety valves that it either put into place or reinforced in the wake of this disaster-bacle. It also provided a great amount of transparency in explaining EXACTLY what happened in awkwardly painstaking detail for its readers. This was an attempt to start rebuilding its credit at the bank of trust.

It also implored its readership to hang in there and not judge the whole product and its entire history on the basis of one really dumb thing. Unfortunately, that might not be very easy, given that we tend to remember people, places and things based on the best or worst thing they’ve done.

It’s why if you ask any football fan what they know about David Tyree, they’re going to say “Helmet Catch,” while the name Jackie Smith will have them saying, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.” That said, Jackie Smith is a Hall-of-Fame tight end, while Tyree played 83 total games in an undistinguished six-year career. The best or the worst thing usually sticks.

It’s unclear to what degree the paper will be able to recover, but the fact that it HAS TO do so and because of something THIS DUMB is what really makes this situation sad. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that we need to treat the public’s trust in our work with true appreciation each time we ply our trade.

Throwback Thursday: Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

With the start of another semester, it’s a good time to remember the adage of, “Just because I’ve said it 1,000 times, it doesn’t mean the student has heard it at all.” With each new crop of students, it can be tempting to skip past the basics we pound constantly into our classes or look for ways to “jazz up” what are the seemingly tired tenets of writing.

Instead, it’s worth remembering the value of those tried-and-true “rules” that help keep the students safe and stable initially and to which they can return when they face dangerous conditions, even after they have moved beyond the basics.

Here’s a look back at our need for some “driver’s ed journalism” in the classroom:

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

“We need a more comprehensive solution.” The Indiana Daily Student is going broke, thanks to a broken media model.

The Indiana Daily Student is one of the top college media outlets in the country. Founded in 1867, it has maintained a standard of excellence that has been reflected through its string of ACP Pacemaker awards, CSPA Gold Crowns and statewide accomplishments.

And by the end of the semester, it might be dead.

Emily Isaacman (left) and Caroline Anders are the co-editors-in-chief at the Indiana Daily Student. (Courtesy of Emily Isaacman)

Co-editors-in-chief Caroline Anders and Emily Isaacman published a piece on Jan. 7 with a pretty succinct headline: “The IDS is about to run out of money. We don’t know what happens next.” The open letter explains that this semester might be the last for the paper because the coffers are about to be empty and the paper lacks the ability to come up with enough money to keep up with the publication’s needs in these changing times.

The IDS isn’t unique in current predicament. We’ve written extensively here about publications at Doane University, the University of North Texas, TCU, Drexel and more that faced either cuts, financial hardship or the risk of death. For me, the IDS situation seems much scarier because of the gravitas this publication has in student media.

For five years, I worked at Ball State as the adviser to the Daily News, and the IDS was the measuring stick. We’d never say it out loud, but our goal in every national and statewide competition was to beat IU. It didn’t happen a lot, but when it did, that was REALLY saying something.

The folks at IU student media were the 1950s Yankees, the 2000s Patriots and Microsoft all rolled into one. They won EVERYTHING and they were just BETTER than everyone else. They operated in Bloomington, where they WERE the media, covering the city better than the city paper and serving as the “must read” source of information for all people.

Watching them hit hard times is like watching your faith in the whole concept of student media get shaken to the core. It’s like, “If these folks are in trouble, what chance do any of the rest of us have?”

Over the past several years, the staff of the IDS has actively engaged in various methods to stave off this endgame and to try to keep the paper afloat:

In 2017, we cut our print paper from five days a week to two. Last semester, we reduced our printing schedule to just once a week. We post about 20 stories to our website daily, but the loss of our print product has reduced opportunities for ad revenue and chances for students to learn about page design….

[W}e rely on a professional staff to help us with jobs that are simply too large for students to take on, such as managing payroll and sellings ads. Pro staff are IU employees, but the IDS pays their salaries.

They’re our largest expense, or about 35% of our budget. We’ve already lost two in the past two years, and the six remaining have been forced to take on larger roles for no additional compensation.

As is the case with many other student news outlets that have been forced to make these types of cuts, the more the IDS eliminates its print publication, the more difficult it has been to remain relevant to readers and staffers, Anders said in an email interview last week.

“The cuts to the print paper have affected our ability to take on new students interested in learning page design and give them the experience they want and need,” she said. “Having the paper function as a weekly has also changed it to be much less focused on breaking news and much more geared toward longer pieces and things that can sit on stands for a whole week without getting stale. That means you won’t learn about any breaking news by picking up an Indiana Daily Student anymore.”

The paper has also engaged in fundraising to try to stem the tide of lost advertising revenue. Anders said that within two days of the letter going public, the IDS Legacy Fund raised more than $85,000 from 480 donors, including a $50,000 donation from IU alum Mark Cuban.

That said, the letter from Anders and Isaacman states up front that “donations will extend the life of the IDS as it exists today, but they will not save it. We need a more comprehensive solution.”

That solution, or at least a possible one, has been languishing in the world of academic bureaucracy for almost three years now, it seems.

“Our biggest priority now is getting the dean of the Media School to approve the new plan for a business model that’s been sitting on his desk for two-and-a-half years,” Anders said. “Discussions about the plan were halted at the beginning of the pandemic, and the committee that was formed to discuss the plan and how to move forward hasn’t had a meeting since March 2020. We need Dean Shanahan to approve this plan or reject it so we can move forward. Without his sign-off, the IDS is just treading water until our financial reserves run dry.”

The folks at the media school have provided some assistance to the IDS over that time, providing reporting assistance and some specified funding to touch on crucial areas of interest.

“The Media School has contributed grant money for the three semesters now (including this one) to fund city beat reporters, a diversity beat reporter and two editors to our new Black Voices section,” Isaacman said in an email interview. “But the IDS is independent and has traditionally not sought financial help from the university. As our losses become too big to salvage by ourselves, however, we’re looking to the university for assistance.”

In the meantime, the EICs are starting a new semester by training an incoming staff, preparing for upcoming news events and trying to stay positive.

“While we work with our advisers and alumni toward getting the IDS on stable financial footing, we’ll continue to produce the best content we can,” Isaacman said. “We publish online daily and once a week in print. We have more than 150 students on our staff, including almost 30 editors who work nearly every day to cover the IU and Bloomington community.”

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP:

ENCOURAGE THE ADMINISTRATION:

This is James Shanahan, the dean of the media school at IU. The students clearly aren’t looking for a hand out, but rather someone to help them get a plan toward solvency moving forward. If want to let the dean know that people are actively interested in seeing that move forward, you can email him here: jes30@indiana.edu or call him at 812-855-1963. It never hurts to let folks know that people care (and that we’re all watching), so let him know you would like to hear more about why it’s taking longer for this plan to get approved than it took for Kanye to drop a new album.

 

GIVE A BIT:

The students are doing fundraising, even as they work through the bigger issue of getting an improved model in place. If you are interested in donating to the legacy fund to help keep the publications rolling, you can go here and contribute.

 

ENCOURAGE THE STAFF:

Emily and Caroline were nice enough to provide both the letter to the public and this interview  for the blog. I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy or fun to step up and let people know that the student media outlet you love is in real trouble. If you just want to let them know you’re thinking about them or to offer them a bit of encouragement, you can email them here: editor@idsnews.com.

Journalistic objectivity doesn’t suck, but our understanding of it does

The purpose and approach of journalism has long been a point of contention among educators, practitioners and outside observers. One of the longest-running discussions is whether or not journalism should prize objectivity over other potential values.

This question came to the forefront again in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, in which a mob of riotous individuals fought with police, charged down barricades and breached the inner sanctum of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. Amid banners and flags from lost regimes, these people terrorized senators, representatives, staffers and the media, destroying property and causing chaos.

Poynter legend Roy Peter Clark examined the way in which the Washington Post relied on fact and the use of language that “pushes the boundaries of traditional neutrality” to cover the event.  In his look at “telling it like it is,” Clark laid out the following case for this kind of writing:

Throughout 2020, journalists and critics have debated about whether a new social, political and technological order requires an enlarged set of standards and practices. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic, argued for a “commitment to plain language” in moving forward from the attack on the Capitol.

He imagined sentences liberated from traditional constraints. “We have to describe things as they are,” he said. What really happened on that terrible day? “The president of the United States incited a mob to sack the Capitol to lynch the vice president — his vice president.”

This essay is not meant as an invitation to abandon neutrality, only to make good choices about when and how to find a necessary distance from it.

On Poynter’s website late last year, Sonoma State University assistant professor Gina Baleria made a stronger and more direct case  against objectivity. Her point was that neutrality and objectivity undermine the ability for journalists to tell stories that need to be told. She notes:

Objectivity and journalism — over the last century, these two words have become inextricably linked. But striving for objectivity has actually hindered us from adequately covering truth, giving context and achieving equity.

As educators, it is our role and responsibility to teach a journalistic approach based not on objectivity, but on seeking truth, providing context, and including voices and perspectives left behind by the adherence to objectivity.

Baleria’s point that no human being has the pure ability to remain a blank slate is right on the mark. Despite the best efforts of people to remain neutral and balanced, both obvious and unintended biases will affect how humans act in any given situation. Intergroup-relations research has long indicated we all hold biases toward people “like us,” whether that affinity was based on race, language and culture or things as simple as wearing clothing that showed an affinity for a particular college’s sports team.

Moving forward from that premise, it would appear objectivity — neutrality, non-partisanship or whatever else you want to call the idea of staying “above the fray” —  is, at best, a farce. However, the idea that objectivity and neutrality do more harm than good demonstrates a failure to understand what we really SHOULD be doing as journalists.

Educators who train student journalists today often have to push back against the students’ current media experiences, which involve way too much punditry, opinion-as-fact content and the idea that everything has a right or a wrong answer. (And that is usually determined by which chucklehead is screaming the loudest at the time we go to commercial.) Trying to bend back toward an objective reality requires almost a “deprogramming” of sorts that helps students understand what makes for a fact, why their opinions about something don’t matter and how best to serve the needs of the audience, instead of themselves.

For people who still think objectivity, impartiality or neutrality undermine what journalists need to do in this day and age, here are a few ways to reexamine the issue:

OBJECTIVITY AS A DOOR: Maybe the word “objectivity” has gotten a bad rap because people think of it like a light switch: It’s either on or off. Either you are totally a blank slate upon which the events of history are written or you’re a biased, compromised shill, shaping reality as a tool of The Man.

When it comes to being objective, I like to think of it more like a door, which can be open or closed to varying degrees. In some cases, a completely open door is a great idea. If you go to a city council meeting and the city reps are debating Plan A vs. Plan B regarding park usage, you probably want to keep that door wide open at the start, particularly if you have limited ideas as to which is actually better. You can listen to both plans and keep that open mind until you hear something that might cause you to rethink things.

If both plans call for more playground equipment for kids, more flowers for the park and a bike trail, you keep that open door. However, if Plan B calls for the poisoning of all the trees in the park and the installation of “Uncle Crazy’s Death Trap Playground Equipment,” you can quickly start to see how that objectivity door is closing on the value of Plan B.

In some events, you can show up with a relatively closed door with a pretty quick spring hinge on it. For example, if a group with a history of racial animus and violent tendencies applies for a parade permit, it’s pretty easy to see that things have a real chance of going to hell in a speedboat in a hurry. Could this group be using this parade as a chance to reshape its image, atone for its past bad behavior and showcase a more humane side? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

In a case like this, the opening question in the interview might be about the purpose and intent of the parade. When the leader of the group starts talking about “racial superiority” or “hoping stuff gets hot real quick,” your door on objectivity slams shut.

The folks in D.C. covering the chaos probably started at the rally, where President Donald Trump started whipping people into a lather about fake news, stolen elections and more. This isn’t the first time he’s made these claims and I doubt it will be the last. That “door” on objectivity was pretty much closed shut in regard to thinking, “Well, wait now… I bet Don has something important and truthful to tell us that will support his claims of fraud…”

Keeping the objectivity door open on most things, even a crack, can make the difference between journalism and yammering. If I told you that you were going to cover a “motorcycle rally,” a lot of things might come to mind, and I’d bet a lot of them wouldn’t be good. Thoughts of “Sons of Anarchy” and “Mayans” might be coming to mind, along with other fearful items. However, the one I covered was actually a charity fundraiser for Muscular Dystrophy, where the people were amazing and the event raised a ton of money for a good cause.

When I did the “First-Person Target” series a year or two ago, where I looked at mass shootings and gun culture in America, I made a point of trying to keep as open of a door as possible going into each interview. I didn’t treat the police officer any different from the gun-rights advocate. I didn’t try to “pin down” a source with whom I disagreed or try to elevate a source with whom I identified. The degree to which I succeeded or failed is in the eye of the reader, which is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

OBSERVATIONS ARE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE: In teaching profile writing, I tell students that they do two forms of reporting: interviewing and observing. The interviews provide a lot of the steel core of the piece, strengthening it with information from sources. The observations provide details, character and reality that go beyond what someone is saying.

One piece I use as an example in that class is Jeff Pearlman’s “At Full Blast,” a look at relief pitcher John Rocker, who had what you might call an outsized personality. The entire opening of the piece is nothing but observations Pearlman picked up while riding with Rocker to a speaking engagement:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

It gets worse from there, but it definitely shows people EXACTLY what kind of jerk this guy is.

In the case of the Post story, the opening paragraphs rely on sources for key information (one person shot and killed) while using observable reality to fill in the crucial elements (tear gas, chanting, banners flying, window breaking). There were points where Post pushed past observation, which we’ll get to later, but overall, these two forms of reporting created the basis for the opening.

Journalism relies on the adage of “show, don’t tell,” which is why observation can be both informative and yet neutral. For reasons past my understanding, journalists seem to have this burning desire to step into their stories and tell people what they think, or what they want me to think as a reader. In most cases, it’s arrogant and unnecessary.

If a journalist writes, “A lunatic took to the floor of the Senate in a brazen, unprecedented and bizarre spectacle Tuesday, making a mockery of the legislative branch,” I’m likely to mentally push back. I’m also likely to think this writer has a bias, which makes it harder for me to consider other things that writer might put out there.

Instead, relying on observation and fact does the job just fine:

“A heavily tattooed, shirtless man wearing multi-colored face paint and a horned Viking helmet frocked with fur stood at the Senate podium, abandoned by Vice President Mike Pence during the Capitol attack. He hoisted an American flag attached to a spear and screamed loudly, with veins bulging from his neck, ‘Mike Pence! Show yourself.'”

Yeah, I think I’m going to come to the conclusion on my own that he’s engaging in an unprecedented and bizarre act on my own, thank you…

When a collective chant of “Hang Mike Pence!” emerged, you can easily observe and report that. You can even report this as violent, anti-government and even seditious (by its very definition), as each of those observations are easily connected to provable facts. (Unless you think that “Hang Mike Pence” was meant as a call to elevate Pence to the office of president and then “hang” his presidential portrait in the White House. If that’s the case, move on to the next point…)

TEACH CRITICAL THINKING FIRST: My friend Tony gave me the best phrase ever for explaining the idiocy of people: “If it were ‘common’ sense, everyone would have it.”

Objectivity, neutrality and other journalism tenets don’t require journalists to be as mesmerizingly unaware as a newborn kitten. On the contrary, it requires us to think harder and deeper when it comes to what we are being told and what we are able to ascertain through critical thought. Experience can be vital in helping us figure out if a source is lying to us or if a plan is a bad idea. Then again, so can just processing the reality that is unfolding right in front of us:

Journalism has been moving in this direction more recently because common sense and critical thought dictate that it should. In 2019, the Associated Press changed its stand on the concept of “racism” and “racist,” noting that using euphemisms like “racially charged” did more harm than good. Nobody’s shouting “White Power” at a rally because they thought they showed up to promote clean energy. In other words, if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, don’t call it “duckilly charged.”

Education has undermined critical thought for years, as “teaching to the test” and “getting the answers right” have taken the place of being able to think for ourselves. I’m often amazed at how many students find it completely unnecessary to verify a claim from a source that, on its face, seems outlandish to me. They figure they asked for an answer, they got one and that must be good enough. That’s not neutrality or objectivity. That’s naivete.

Which leads to the final point…

PLAY TO THE LEVEL OF  YOUR OWN COMPETENCE: We’ve talked about this on the blog multiple times before in a variety of ways. The idea that you “earn the fungus on your shower shoes,” and that journalism educators are often like driver’s ed teachers are just two of the posts that come to mind on this. In short, you need to learn to crawl before you walk, to walk before you run and to run before you fly. You can’t show up on Day One, jump out a window and expect to be soaring through the heavens.

(Side Note: My daughter started her driver’s ed lessons this month and is well on her way to the “behind-the-wheel” portion of the process. I am currently going through all of my bad driving habits and trying to rid myself of them so I can show, not tell, when it comes to doing this right. I’m also likely to be in need of sedative recommendations, so feel free to leave those in the comments section.)

The Post writer, John Woodrow Cox, is an experienced journalist at a top-flight publication, surrounded by a well-trained staff and extremely competent editors. In reading through the Q and A that Clark put at the end of of his story, it’s pretty clear how many people were involved in working through this situation. That level of expertise and information processing helped shore up any potential weak spots and avoid any landmines.

That’s not to say if you work at the Washington Post, have a decade of experience and won a boatload of awards you can’t screw up or overstep. However, I’d probably put my money on Cox when it came to nudging toward potentially non-neutral language choices as opposed to the kid in my class who still keeps mixing up “definitely” and “defiantly.”

It’s often difficult for educators to remember this because we find ourselves in what could best be described as a “Wooderson Environment:” We get older and the students stay the same age. Over that span of time, we can easily forget that each crop of new kids is coming in with exactly the same level of competence as the previous group. Meanwhile, we’re getting better, more polished and probably picking up a few new tricks.

(I go back and look at some of the stuff I wrote in college and thank God the internet wasn’t as omnipresent as it is now. I also remember my early pro years where I was making assumptions about criminal arrests, fires and other such things that make “old me” kind of freak out. Trust me, we weren’t better than the students back then. We’re just older now and our memories suck.)

In addition, as humans, it’s difficult to assess our own level competence because we like to think that we’re better than we really are, particularly when we are trying new things. That’s where the famous “Dunning-Krueger effect” comes into play, explaining that a little knowledge can truly be a dangerous thing:

The idea of “I know something, therefore I can do anything” is the reason why “fail videos” keep YouTube full of content. In journalism, failure to fully understand what it is you’re writing, seeing or saying can lead to serious ramifications for you, your media organization, the people you cover and the audience you serve.

Developing a sense of objectivity and neutrality can serve like the gutter guards on bowling alleys: You might bounce around a little bit, but you won’t end up completely screwed. Learning how and when to open or close those doors carefully will also help you from getting snowed.

Starting 2021 asking for a favor of Dynamics of Writing readers: Help me help you.

As most of you are either just starting the spring/winter semester, or about to do so shortly, it’s time to get the blog up and rolling again.

Each semester, I start with the same concerns: “How in the hell am I going to be able to blog about something decent four or five times per week?” Each semester, the universe sees fit to throw me enough bad writing, administrative overreach on student media and general stupidity to keep the site stocked with new stuff.

That said, this site is supposed to be about what the audience wants most of all. As I say to my students frequently, “You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for your readers.” Given the array of people who show up here every day, however, this can often feel like dating a hydra with multiple-personality disorder.

With that in mind, I’m asking a simple question: Help me help you. Over the past 569 posts, what are the things you thought, “Man, I’m glad I read that!” or “Wow! That was really helpful.” Conversely, what were the things that made you say to yourself, “Well, that’s 18 minutes of my life I’m never getting back…”

I have stuff in the hopper for various occasions, and I’m sure the  media world at large will continue to feed me wonderful moments of horrid writing to critique. Other than that, I’m all ears. You can contact me here, or just post in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and we’ll kick off the term in earnest tomorrow.

Vince

(A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Veni, Vidi, Vici in 2020: Professors share their moments of triumph amid impossible conditions

Picking a worst moment of 2020 would be like the “The Waltons” trying to pick a favorite kid: There are too many to count and they all seem equal in their most annoying traits.

Educators have spent the past nine or ten months trying to re-engineer classes, move courses online and keep their sanity, all to varying levels of degree. The best laid plans went to hell in a speed boat and most of us were essentially just trying to survive.

I’ve never been a “glass is half-full” kind of guy. (I’m actually more of a “What the heck is in that glass and why do you want me to drink it?” kind of guy.) However, I wanted to see if there was a way to end the year on the blog in a positive way.

Thus, I asked people in education if they had ANY moment this year that exceeded their expectations, showed them something they are glad they saw, taught them something of value or shined in a way that no reasonable educator working from myriad locations during a pandemic should expect.

What I got was a nice collection of really positive responses that I thought would make for a good opportunity to reflect on the year.

For some, it was an opportunity to streamline or use technology in ways that made their interactions and processes better:

The rotating face-to-face plan required me to streamline my News-writing course. I learned to focus on what was most important. Filtering out the extras allowed the students to focus on the core learning outcomes, and their writing shows it worked.

 

OK quick funny story from my high school classes I teach – I’m giving a test and one of the girls I teach opens her mic and says “Mr. Garner, my mom can’t find the answer to this question.” Probably the most honest moment of the semester. But on the more positive side, I have seen a few candles that are actually burning brighter online. And in all my classes, both high school and college, we are taking the time to be reflective and dive into their work instead of feeling like we just needed to feed the machine.

 

I am a lecturer at one of the largest state universities in the US. because of COVID I have made it easier for students to connect with me by using weekly chats and automatic meeting set up using Calendly. I meet with more students now because we do not have to go back and forth for days to set something up.

 

A few weeks into the semester, I started playing music as the students filtered in from the waiting room and posting a silly poll question. It was amazing! Students started to send me music and poll suggestions. Several of my students have emailed me to say that doing that started the class off in such a fun way that it encouraged them to attend.

 

I’m a associate professor in education at public university in south la. My students really learned how to assess their students virtually during remote instruction. For me, one of my bright spots was communication. we were able to make connections even while never meeting.

 

A couple teachers saw the use of technology as an opportunity to broaden student access to important professionals:

The best part about remote teaching for me is that I can attract guest faculty who I would never be able to lure to a live session, especially on short notice.

 

We hosted guest speaker events with journalists in Seattle, Charlotte, Florida and New York via Zoom, and our journalism students and alumni could join from anywhere. Our community college is in Santa Monica, west of LA. Pre-Covid, many of us commuted an hour or more to campus.

 

Some professors said the connections they made with students and that students made with each other were so much more powerful than they had expected:

I teach Freshman Comp at a small college. In his final reflection, a class clown-type student said that I was the first teacher he’s ever had to tell him good job on an assignment.

 

I teach at a large public university. I educated myself through online training and consulting with our university teaching and learning center. I learned how to deliver an interesting and effective asynchronous online class to 100 students. I have been pleasantly surprised and gratified by the messages I have received from students saying how much they learned from and enjoyed the class.

 

I work in student conduct at a small community college with students who often come from very rough backgrounds and they are very guarded in talking. This year when I met with students online, after discussing the conduct issue, I’d ask how the semester was going and see if they needed anything. Students opened up so much more this year because they were lacking in other interactions. I had the opportunity to really help more students than ever this year.

 

I teach at a CC. On Monday, I’m having a procedure done on my spine under anesthesia. I let my classes know what was going on and that it may take an extra day or so to respond to emails. I sent the email out on Friday afternoon. As of this morning, I’ve gotten two dozen emails from students wishing me well, saying they will be thinking/praying for me, etc. These are all online students, of course, since that’s what we are doing this semester. So they don’t “know” me like F2F students would. Yet they still take the time to send a kind email.

 

I still consider myself a newbie instructor. This quarter was my first reaching Intro to cinema. I work at a TCU Tribal College/University. From the beginning I let the students build the syllabus. They chose the films and I related the content/theory to what they wanted to watch. It’s a 3 hour course so we had check-ins at the beginning. And discussion at the end. You’d be surprised how close our class got. It was supportive of one another and everyone could speak their mind. It turned out so great. At one point one of the students said “I love you guys” then everyone said I love you before we signed out. It just really made everyone felt like we all matter to one another.

 

I had a student interview me this year on my thoughts about teaching during Covid because she thought I was the most understanding teacher she had about it and “treated her like a person.” That was nice.

 

Others mentioned how students found strength in themselves that they didn’t know they had:

I had a student send me a message that her father was going to need a new round of chemo, and she just couldn’t finish her feature story because her interviews didn’t come through, so she was going to take a zero. She still had some time, and I had a feeling she was being honest about the interviews. So, I wrote her with a suggestion for a new topic and said if she did the outreach, she could Zoom me and I would help her with the story. I just encouraged her not to give up. A few days later she had the interviews in the bag and we Zoomed. Her story was already in decent shape, so I showed her some edits and helped her improve her transitions. At the end of our meeting I thanked her for persevering in the face of hardship, and told her how I had a similar circumstance and I was proud of her for being committed like that. We both shed a few tears and went on with our day. The best part of the story is, her work since then has shown much growth. It was a little ray of light in what has been a lonely semester of offering virtual help and not getting too many requests.

 

I had a student who had literally been pulling at his hair in Zoom expressing frustration with the difficulty of all online classes call me at 5:07 to excitedly say he figured out the video editing software himself. He was so happy he finished his presentation on time.

 

This semester I had one of my best dev ed math students reach out to interview me for his education class. Through this online Zoom meeting I found out that he has decided he wants to be a math teacher & I was part of his inspiration! Since that interview he has kept in touch & asked for more advice. He had to give a teaching demo, so I gave him some pointers. He was told by one school he applied to that he shouldn’t pursue math but he had a great attitude & confidently knows he can do it & he wants to do it. He is only the 2nd student in my 22 year career to come from one of my dev ed math classes & tell me he’s pursuing math. YES! Most of my students struggle to pass & hate math. I so needed this this semester!

 

Some professors found a strength that they didn’t know they had themselves:

I’m in my 6th year as an assistant professor in a geology department in the midwest. I’m also a professor with a learning disability. While the need to move to online learning and teaching was shocking and exhausting, there was also something familiar about it. I had to adapt: I had to consider what made sense to me given my approach to my classes as well as my understanding of my resources, my technological skills, and, of course, my students. My whole educational life has been about making adaptations. I suppose this year has taught me something that has always been true: my disability does make it hard for me to function in my job. It has also helped me learn how to develop adaptations. And finding a new way to consider a life-long struggle with learning and processing information is a strange and valuable personal gift of this most difficult year.

 

My colleagues have been amazing! I mean, I already thought they were pretty great, but over and over and over again, exhausted lecturers who are homeschooling while they teach are creating beautiful videos and PowerPoints and activities that they generously share. Staff who are quick to catch on to the newest tech, or just one particular program or app, help all the others get up to speed. Lots of thank you emails shooting around, showing gratitude for the above. When you’ve worked pretty much straight through since last January, even when you were nominally on vacation (and unpaid) and people gush about the output, it’s easier to keep on doing and giving.

 

I have been teaching history at a SLAC in New England for almost twenty years. Since I felt so at sea teaching remotely and asynchronously in the spring, I took a lot of workshops in online teaching over the summer and it paid off. I feel really proud of the way I was able to create a mostly asynchronous course environment on Canvas that felt personal and quirky (like me) and was also rich in historical exploration and ideas. Students responded to it and as the semester is ending, I’m hearing from a lot of them that I had made otherwise frustrating remote learning feel more like an enjoyable F2F class, and was something that they looked forward to. Not everything I learned will transfer back to F2F (next year, I hope!), but many things will and my teaching will be better for it.

If I had to pick a best moment for this academic year, it would have to be a blogging class that was doomed to fail before we even started. The course was designed to be an in-person, close-knit, newsroom-style lab class with a ton of interaction, peer editing and generally interactive elements.

Between social distancing, split lab space and students opting for online-only education, it had none of those things. That said, I found that students still managed to find their niches and enjoyed doing work that reached an audience of interest to them.

Students blogged about how to go vegetarian as a broke college student, politics in a city with almost no actual news coverage, the ins and outs of media design and high school sports during the pandemic.

The one blog that amazed me the most, however, was this one that a student created about learning how to play disc golf.

The student had a passion for the subject and found that an audience that was under-served by media and yet really wanting more content. She did everything from course reviews to interviews with star athletes.

Her work on #RespectHerGame, a movement to get rid of sexism in the world of disc golf, landed her on the radar of the movement’s founders. She also got freelance offers from people involved in disc companies and organizations.

It wasn’t so much that she was drawing attention that made me happy for her, but rather it was that I could tell she was enjoying it. She wrote more posts than required, looked for people to interview beyond the class expectations and really found herself as a trusted source for interested golfers.

In short, it’s everything a blogger wants out of the experience but doesn’t always get. It’s also everything a teacher wants a student to experience at least once in their educational career.

Thanks for hanging out with me for yet another term and we’ll see you in 2021.

Vince

(a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

 

 

 

Wall Street Journal opinion editor Paul A. Gigot defends Joseph Epstein’s column on Dr. Jill Biden, makes it clear he has yet to learn “Filak’s First Rule of Holes.”

Filak’s First Rule of Holes states: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

It’s pretty clear the folks at the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section haven’t learned this one yet.

In reacting to  the outrage prompted by Joseph Epstein’s column on Dr. Jill Biden, opinion editor Paul A. Gigot settled on a strategy that basically said, “Hey, kiddo, you wanna hand me that shovel over there?”

Gigot, who has once again proved that winning a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always good at journalism, decided that it would not only be good to avoid apologizing for Epstein’s anti-intellectual and misogynistic rant, but to actively support it. In his myopic viewpoint, any negative reaction was clearly just a political hatchet job conducted by the Bidens alone to drown out negative stories on their family:

Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue? My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism. It’s the left’s version of Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” tweets.

There’s a saying in Wall Street circles regarding bad investors who are perfect foils to bet against: “Often wrong, never in doubt.” If Gigot’s defense of Epstein’s piece isn’t a perfect example of this phrase, I don’t know what would be.

Since I’m involved in a “sweet racket” where I only work six months out of the year and never put in eight hours of day, I might as well put aside everything else I’m doing to pick apart this rectally based argumentation.

First, this isn’t a minor issue. Sexism and anti-intellectualism are two of the more troubling things in today’s society. The fact you see this as a couple “uppity broads” and a few “academic twerps” getting their doctoral noses out of joint means you’re either actively avoiding those two bigger issues or you’re too stupid to see them. Neither position is a good one from which to launch an argument.

Second, this isn’t a political thing. The reason I (and many others) actively dislike politics is because people like you manage to view EVERYTHING through this tiny lens alone. This is what allows you to dismiss things you don’t like without having to consider any other position, including the concept that your writer was just wrong.

I didn’t drill a ton of holes in Epstein’s piece because I’m part of the George-Soros-based-QAnon-fighting-ultra-liberal-conspiracy-based new world order. The mother ship didn’t send me a signal letting me know it was time to pipe up and attack an octogenarian who wishes he could perpetually live in an era where he could call any woman he wants “cutie buns.” I wrote what I wrote because this guy was an idiot, whether he was telling it to Jill Biden, Jill Munroe or Jill of “Jack and Jill.”

Third, when you mention that these complaints are an attempt to “stifle criticism,” I wonder if you really know what the word “criticism” means. Epstein’s piece is to quality criticism what Velveeta is to cheese: They’re only similar if you are really desperate to see them as such.

Nevertheless, you persisted…

The outrage is overwrought because, whether you agree or disagree, Mr. Epstein’s piece was fair comment. The issue of Jill Biden’s educational honorific isn’t new. As long ago as 2009, the Los Angeles Times devoted a story to the subject. From the piece by Robin Abcarian: “Joe Biden, on the campaign trail, explained that his wife’s desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail. ‘She said, “I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.” That’s the real reason she got her doctorate,’ he said.”

I guess you were sick the day at Dartmouth that they taught you what fair comment was. As a defense against libel, sure, it works here. I don’t think people are claiming the Bidens have a legal claim against Epstein or the paper for this column. Even in the case of “fair comment,” people have the right to get upset about comments other people make. If you think that people were overly mean to Epstein, here’s a look at what the Internet did to a 19-year-old University of Buffalo student when she wrote that women shouldn’t get tattoos.  In short, people like Epstein have a right to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to quietly enjoy it.

In any case, you follow your “fair comment” argument by saying the media has been all over this issue for decades. You support that with an anecdote that in no way supports that position. Comparing how a reporter relayed a comment the president-elect made back in 2009 about Jill Biden’s quest to become a doctor to Epstein’s column in which he crapped all over her effort and her degree is disingenuous at best.

And, yet, you persisted:

Many readers said Mr. Epstein’s use of “kiddo” is demeaning, but then Joe Biden is also fond of that locution. In his 2012 Democratic convention speech he even used it to refer to his wife in the context of his many proposals of marriage: “I don’t know what I would have done, kiddo, had you on that fifth time said no.” You can buy a T-shirt on the internet with Mr. Biden’s image pointing a finger saying “That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo!”

I can’t seem to locate any information on your personal marital status, Paul, but as someone who has taken the plunge, let me  fill you in on something. If Joe Biden wants to call his wife “kiddo” and Jill Biden is OK with it, that’s fine because they’re in a lifelong relationship of a special nature. They also probably kiss here and there, which seems to be fine as well, because, again, y’know, happily married and lovingly connected.

This doesn’t give everyone carte blanche to do this.

Here’s maybe a better explanation for you:  If I come home tonight, kiss Amy and say, “How are you doing today, sweetheart,” it’s probably fine. If you roll up to my house and do that to Amy, she’s going to knock the snot out of you.

And, yet, you persisted…

Mr. Epstein also infuriated dozens of educators defending their doctorates. (See the nearby letters.) But that status isn’t sacrosanct or out-of-bounds for debate. Mr. Epstein’s point applies to men and women and his piece also mocked men for their honorary degrees. Mrs. Biden is now America’s most prominent doctorate holder and is taking a leading role in education policy. She can’t be off-limits for commentary.

By the way, the Journal editorial page’s longtime style is to use “Dr.” only when referring to medical doctors. Henry Kissinger gets a “Mr.” Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, is Mrs. Cheney despite her Ph.D.

Man, can you even SEE the top of the hole  you’re digging at this point? Do we need to lower some water or oxygen tanks to you at this point?

Look, it’s not that we’re infuriated that you don’t like our doctorates.  And you’re right that the importance of a doctorate isn’t sacrosanct or out-of-bounds for debate, but this wasn’t a debate or a discussion about the importance of higher levels of education. It’s that this human sphincter took it upon himself to essentially say to the incoming first lady, “Look, sweetie, stop thinking so highly of yourself. You’re not a REAL doctor.”

Jill Biden is clearly not “off-limits” for commentary. If she makes a policy statement, comment on it. If the administration does something and she has a role, comment on it. However, I have to imagine you can actually see some line out there, somewhere, that the Journal wouldn’t cross simply because you won’t “limit commentary” on Jill Biden. If not, I’m actively awaiting a “Doesn’t Jill Biden have a SMOKING HOT body for a woman of her age?” column that one of your writers is probably getting ready to visit upon us all.

And, not that you don’t know this, but this isn’t about style. The WSJ can use whatever style it wants, just like AP, the New York Times and a dozen other media outlets. This was never a question of who gets what treatment in a news story.

And with all of the grace of a drunk falling down of stairs, you concluded…

If you disagree with Mr. Epstein, fair enough. Write a letter or shout your objections on Twitter. But these pages aren’t going to stop publishing provocative essays merely because they offend the new administration or the political censors in the media and academe. And since it’s a time to heal, we’ll give the Biden crowd a mulligan for their attacks on us.

Calling Epstein’s piece a “provocative essay” is like calling a Ford Pinto “a hot car with a little something extra.”

The problem you face here, Mr. Gigot — Paul — P-Diddy — Paulie No Nuts– Sweetie Muffin– is that you have the right concept (don’t let politicians and harpies force you into silence) but the wrong hill on which to make that stand (a really lousy column, delivered by a clueless writer, that is insulting to thousands of people, many of whom probably don’t like anything Biden-related).

Epstein’s thoughts reek of arrogance, sexism and personal animus and really have no place on the pages of a national publication. They should barely be tolerated at the local tavern after an old-timer has six beers in him and starts bitching about “femi-Nazis who are ruining the country I fought for!”

Your position, that this is somehow a political conspiracy built by people trying to cow your publication into writing only positive Biden stories, makes you sound like a grumpy old man who has spent way too much time watching spy thrillers at 3 a.m. on basic cable.

You don’t have to be a liberal to think Epstein’s work was stupid. You don’t need to feel entitled to a title to think the Wall Street Journal should have flushed this turd before it saw the light of day. You don’t have to be Team Biden to think your defense of this was either purposefully ignorant or painfully unaware.

Once you climb out of that hole you’ve dug, maybe you give this situation another look.

An open letter to Joseph Epstein, who is not a doctor, about Jill Biden, who is one

(Editor’s apology: When I started this blog a few years back, my editors at SAGE asked me to avoid “unnecessary cursing,” as my vernacular tended to drift to words that might upset folks in more conservative institutions. Today’s post includes some of those choice terms, but please know I find it to be “necessary cursing.” I hope you’ll agree. -VFF)

Dear Mr. Epstein,

When I read your piece in the Wall Street Journal in which you had the temerity to tell Dr. Jill Biden to drop her “doctor” title as the incoming first lady, I kept waiting for that exact moment when you revealed your comments to be a spoof. I kept thinking, “Wait for it… This has to be a joke. Otherwise, why would the Wall Street Journal run this?”

What I found instead was something the majority of my academic colleagues face each day from administrators, fellow faculty, students and the general public: A denigration of their scholarly efforts, impolitely slathered with an ample serving of sexism.

In my academic career, I have worked with hundreds of women who are fantastic educators and scholars. They are gifted, hard-working individuals that earned their doctorates in myriad circumstances. These and other women in academia don’t need me to stand up for them or to stand with them to prove their worth. They are more capable of dealing with you than I could ever hope to be.

That said, Mr. Epstein —  Joseph — Joey — J-Dog — pookie: Since you seem to value opinions that only come from people who sport a specific genitalia and who you can’t dismiss as bleeding-heart liberals, let me see if I can walk you through a few things.

First, to find out what kind of person would decide he had the bona fides to declare who should be addressed as what, I did some brief research on your prior writings in the Journal and your record in academic life. What I found is little in the way of substance, but an awful lot on self-important, self-aggrandizing arrogance that somehow keeps finding its way into the public.  For example,  a piece you wrote earlier this year took on the “Tyranny of the Tolerant,” in which you discussed issues of racism, sexual reassignment surgery, climate change and abortion in a way that just screams, “Damn hippies! Get off my lawn!”

Prior to the Biden piece, where you came within a half a step of calling a professional woman with an advanced degree with whom you have no formal relationship “kitten,” you took a similar dump on the concept of higher education. In a 2019 WSJ piece, you note that teaching college is a “sweet racket” where professors can make upwards of $200,000 a year  for “essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day.”

(If you have a line on that job, shoot me an email. I’ve got friends who are teaching for about $3,000 a class who might be interested. Some of them are even those “doctor women” you seem to value so little.)

An opinion piece you provided at the beginning of the school year, as most of us in education were heading into uncharted waters and facing unfathomable risks, explained that no real teaching goes on in colleges anymore because we’re too soft on our kids.  You noted:

There used to be a tough-guy tradition in teaching that was in good part based on shame and fear. I had such a teacher at the University of Chicago named Norman Maclean. When he asked you a question, he made you feel as if you were being interviewed by the bad cop.

(There also used to be a tradition where we smoked on airplanes, groped women with impunity and told people of color where to sit, eat and pee when they were in public. Let’s just say some things change for good reasons.)

In each of your education-based essays, although calling them that seems to endow them with value beyond what they are actually worth, you mention the 30-years you spent at Northwestern University as an instructor. I’m uncertain as to if you reference this fact as a credential to support your poorly developed views or as an indictment of the school’s hiring and firing processes. In either case, it was this line in your piece on teaching that made it clear to me why Northwestern is disavowing you now faster and harder than Peter denied Christ:

The two biggest lies about teaching are that one learns so much from one’s students and, so gratifying is it, one would do it for nothing. I had a number of bright and winning students, but if I learned anything from them, I seem long ago to have forgotten it. I always felt I was slightly overpaid as a teacher, but I wouldn’t have accepted a penny less. The one certain thing I learned about teaching is that you must never say or even think you are a good teacher. If you believe you are, like believing you are charming, you probably aren’t.

(Well, I have learned a lot from my students over the past couple decades and I have taken pay cuts to do it, for various reasons. Maybe, and I’m just guessing here, you weren’t much of a teacher. That might be why it was a money grab and an ego boost for you instead of actual pedagogy.)

In getting back to the Biden situation, maybe you should have spent those 30 years at Northwestern actually talking to people who went through the doctoral process you apparently lacked the interest, dedication or talent to endure. To get a doctorate in pretty much any non-medical field, you need to put in at least nine years in higher ed (four for a bachelor’s, two for a master’s and three for a Ph.D.), and that’s a Cannonball Run through a program. Some people spend decades working through their programs, as they balance life, work, family and other responsibilities to get it.

Along the way, many doctoral students deal with professors who treat them as something between cockroaches and scholarship slaves.  They take on additional “Joe jobs,” teaching assignments and research efforts, all with the hopes that they’ll get that sheepskin, which has become the “union card” of higher education. They then enter a world in which there are too many of them and too few jobs.

For women, it’s even worse.

They are often mistaken for secretaries or assistants. They are treated as “less than” by students who have the view reflected in your Biden essay. They are often sexually harassed by administrators and faculty, usually older men who see them less as future peers but as a T&A fringe benefit that took the place of being allowed to drink scotch in their offices.

Once these women complete this run through the gauntlet, it starts all over again as they begin the climb to tenure. They are once again viewed as less-qualified eye candy by people like you who think the world peaked in 1958. (Trust me, professorial websites like “Rate My Professor” didn’t include the “chili pepper hotness” rating for professors to “honor” anyone.)

You wouldn’t know any of this, given your mail-order BA in English from the University of Chicago you romanticize as having earned when you “took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the peacetime Army.” That “honorary doctorate” you picked up from Adelphi University didn’t cost you anything in terms of actual work. (My guess is the folks there are already trying to figure out how to revoke it.) You have somehow managed to combine the two worst things about academia: People who don’t know anything about what it takes to survive in it, along with the arrogance usually reserved for the truly academic.

One of the things I did find fascinating about you is that you have long argued against the inexactness of language and the overwriting that occurs due to it:

Epstein rails against the lapse in the standards of language use that allows clarity and correctness to be sacrificed for popular and political trends. Epstein is clear about what he feels are the effects of such inexactness: “The condition of language today is such that communication threatens to be clogged, perception clouded, the possibility for serious discourse lessened,” he wrote in Commentary. Reality itself is threatened, asserts Epstein, by vague and abstract terms that obfuscate the meaning behind the words.

With that in mind, I’d like express a thought in a clear, correct and accurate way in regard to your efforts to minimize the work of people like Dr. Jill Biden:

You are an asshole.

I mean this, of course, in a metaphoric and figurative sense that should help you see yourself as being held in limited esteem and worth. However, I also mean this in an actual sense, given your stasis and actions:

  • You’re a wrinkled, tightly puckered element that nobody wants to deal with.
  • When you express yourself noisily in public, smart people are left disgusted and quickly move away from you.
  • When you open up and fully express yourself, it’s to expel an odoriferous waste product of limited value.
  • Individuals with common sense see what you have produced and quickly flush it away.

In sum, I hope this helps you learn a little something on the off chance you crawl out of your hole again and pontificate about education, academic credentials and how women should “behave.” If not, rest assured that you’ll have plenty of doctors out there, willing and able to give you the mental enema you so desperately need.

Sincerely,

Vince Filak
(also a real doctor)

Throwback Thursday: Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

A friend of mine on a student media listserv asked this end-of-semester, why-don’t-kids-listen, why-is-God-angry-with-me question about her students and their ability to attribute information properly:
WTF is wrong with “said?” Why can’t students use it?
I’ve begged. I’ve put it on copy-editing lists. I’ve highlighted it on rubrics. I’ve talked to them individually. Nothing works.
Today I’ve seen at least 10 words in place of said and none of those situations required anything other than said.
We don’t know what the fire chief “believes” about the cause of the fire.
The university certainly doesn’t “feel” anything.
My biggest peeve: shared.

In situations like this, it always helps to know you’re not alone, and she wasn’t. More than 20 other emails popped into place after this one, all noting the various trials and tribulations of “said.”

For the last “Throwback Thursday” of 2020, here’s a look back at the last time I looked at “said.”

Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

Said.

Four letters, one word, simple perfection.

As far as verbs of attribution go, not much else can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:

SaidIsDead

The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”

 

Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.

 

According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

That said, if you want to have fun with verbs of attribution, enjoy the ridiculous ones we gathered below for your reading pleasure. (Whatever happens, don’t blame me if you use one of these on your reporting final…)

“I just can’t shake this head cold,” he sniffed.

“I’m going to have to draw you a picture to get you to understand this,” he illustrated.

“Of course I’m chewing tobacco!” he spat.

“All I know is, I love doing a ton of cocaine,” he snorted.

“This is the saddest movie ever,” he cried.

“Bethany said I was being distant, but it’s her fault we broke up,” he ex-claimed. “And that One Direction CD is totally mine as well.”

“I love this vintage, but I can’t remember what vineyard it comes from,” he whined.

“I used to have a poodle named Princess, but my ex-girlfriend stole her,” he bitched.

“Get me the phone so I can get a hold of Mom,” he called.

“Whose dog is making all that noise?” he barked.

“My empty stomach speaks for itself,” he growled.

“Don’t forget my Post-Its!” he noted.

“I know, I know, I know,” he echoed.

 

 

Confessions of an unpretentious, anti-academia professor

Over the course of the past nine months, we’ve all endured the pandemic of COVID-19 as well as the changes to our daily lives as educators and students. What I have come to notice more and more is that because we all seem to be facing mortality in a more direct way than ever before, people seem ready to rage against every microscopic thing at the drop of a hat.

In addition, it seems that most of the faux outrage and pearl-clutching behavior comes from people who should have a better sense of reality, namely folks involved in higher education. I would like to attribute it to the stress and anxiety associated with the coronavirus outbreak, but I think a lot of it has been there all along. There has long been a demarcation between people who teach and work at universities and college and “academics,” who seem to think they exist on a higher plane of reality than the rest of human kind and need to “set other people straight.”

Truth be told, no matter how many books I wrote, degrees I earned, studies I conducted or symposiums I attended, I never embraced the “academic” lifestyle. Sure, I liked having an office, a decent health plan and the ability to hear people call me “professor” from time to time, but I never forgot who I was or where I came from. I’m basically just another person who found something they liked and got lucky enough that it led to a career. Had it not been for crossing paths with a few crucial people, I might have been an auto mechanic, a cops reporter or a factory worker. Knowing that has always kept me from getting too full of myself or thinking that my excrement lacks odoriferous qualities. (Yeah, that was a bit much…)

With that in mind, here are a list of things I have actively done, said, considered or otherwise found myself thinking  as a professor that only make sense if  you understand the self-important, pseudo-intellectual, easily offended, drama-twerp reality that is “academia” and the people who embrace it:

  • When I first meet people around where I live, they often ask what I do. I tell them “I work at the U,” with the hope they’ll think I’m a janitor or facilities manager. Their view of what professors are does not jibe with what I want them to think of me.

 

  • I noticed an inverse correlation between the human decency of professors and the percentage of the final grade they assign to final exams or final projects. Students have told me some professors value a final up to almost 70 percent of their total grade. That’s insane, but that’s “academia” for some folks. I put as little emphasis on final exams and final projects as possible, making them count for about 15 percent of the total grade at most when I can get away with it. I find that keeping the percentage lower tends to relax the students a bit more, especially because they’re also working on final projects and final exams for other classes. It also takes pressure off me when I’m burnt to a crisp and grading a ton of papers. I worry less about each point I take off or give back because I don’t feel like I’m disarming a bomb.

 

  • When I read postings on Facebook groups for academics, I am constantly reminded why I hate academics. I forgot who said it, but the line about how the fights in academia are so extreme because the stakes are so low always rings true there. I have to constantly remind myself not to post something about them needing to grab a ratchet and loosen their sphincters a few turns because a) that would be undignified and b) most of those people wouldn’t know what a ratchet is.

 

  • I often refer to students as “my kids,” and it bugs me when people tell me not to because they see it as a somehow insulting to the students. First, bite me. Second, I do this because, no matter how old they get or where they go, there won’t be anything I won’t do for them. Once you become one of “my kids,” you’re there for life. Just ask the students I’ve taught who are now in their 40s or 50s and have  spent half their lives still connected to me in some truly meaningful ways.

 

  • If I have a choice between helping one of my kids and doing something that fits within the formal rigors of expected pedagogy, well, that’s an easy choice: I’m helping the kid. Nobody ever died and said, “No matter what happened, I’m so glad I abided by the strictest interpretation of academic rules.” Except for maybe people who need to have their sphincters loosened a turn or two.

 

  • When forced to attend multi-disciplinary meetings, I look around the room carefully when someone tells a fairly innocuous joke. I look at all the people around the table to see who stiffens and who doesn’t and I take note of the stiffies. If anyone notes sternly the way in which this is highly inappropriate because it insults (fill in the blank), I make note of that as well. I then guess which departments they work in and spend half the meeting looking them up through the U’s database. I’m usually dead on, or at least one of my top three guesses are right.

 

  • I would guess that about 90 percent of academics fall into one of two categories: Those who are insulted by nothing because they have no sense of anything outside of their discipline and those who are actively waiting to hear something potentially insulting and then loudly castigate everyone else for such things existing in this “plane of higher learning.” The other 10 percent usually came to higher ed after working a job in which we spent time around actual humans, so we tend to function a bit differently.

 

  • I find “woke” academics who employ guilt in Facebook discussions over petty squabbles they’ve turned into land wars totally adorable. I grew up Catholic, spent 12 years in Catholic school (much of it where nuns were involved) and remain an active Catholic. Guilt is the milieu in which I live and breathe. It’s like trying to discombobulate a fish by getting it wet.

 

  • Dealing with academics who begin every discussion by outlining their educational credentials has always made me feel like I needed to carry around a pocket full of quarters:

 

  • I fully support my female colleagues who engaged in the “Dr.” movement a few years back, where women added that term to their social media handles, academic emails and more to indicate their academic level of achievement. They take more shit than I think anyone should simply because men feel inferior around smarter women. I’ve worked for more women than men and most of my best bosses were women.

 

  • Conversely, I find it ridiculous when Ph.D. or Ed.D. academics (usually men) demand that EVERYONE call them “doctor,” as opposed to “professor,” or even “dean.” As I once explained to the superintendent of schools in Fond du Lac who required such formality of all creatures, I’m proud of my Ph.D. and I know he’s proud of his Ed.D., but ain’t neither one of us getting called into surgery tonight.

 

  • I have been blessed to work with a lot of students who are farm kids, first-gen college students and those who are attending school on a GI Bill and for some reason, we tend to get along pretty well because we’re honest with each other in a way academics tend not to be. I think it’s because there’s a shared sense that the world is full of hard stuff, so trying to make things harder for no real reason doesn’t really serve a purpose. Or that after you spend your day ankle-deep in cow manure, you can much more easily detect professors who are full of it.

 

  • I don’t get a ton of complaints about final grades and I attribute that to some really good upbringing  by the parents of my students. My friends at other universities get a lot of threats about how “you will be hearing from my parents” when students don’t get the grades they want. I once asked one of my small-town farm-kid students, “If you went home and told your mom that she needed to call me and demand that your grade was changed so you could pass my class, what would she say?” The kid paused for a minute and then she looked right at me and said, “My mom would kick my ass twice. Once for f—ing up and once for telling her to call you.”

 

  • One of the best ways to get me to do the exact opposite of what you want me to do is to ascribe to my behavior something that most sane humans would not consider logical or fair. In short, I’m calling it a “manhole” when I’m yelling out to you because I think that’s the best way to tell you what you’re about to fall into and die, not because I’m supporting the hetero-normative, patriarchal system that is using nomenclature to create a permanent underclass.

 

  • I can already think of at least a half dozen people who are furiously typing a six-page email to me, denouncing that last statement.

 

  • Humor is an honest coping mechanism for a lot of people. There’s a reason that people like Richard Pryor were so funny, and it was because humor helped keep them deal with a lot of dark stuff. Sometimes, when I’m telling a joke, I need to laugh more than anyone else does. If someone is making a joke or sharing a humorous anecdote, you should feel free to laugh even if it’s not that funny. If it might be insulting, but it’s still tolerable, let it go.

 

  • And finally, whenever I find myself in the middle of one of those “academic” shit fights that tend to show up in administrative town-hall meetings or on Facebook threads, I can hear my father’s voice in my head, reminding me that “Educated doesn’t always mean smart.”