Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher took time out of his busy schedule to crap all over student journalists at the University of Virginia for being humane in the wake of a mass shooting

Marc Fisher of the Washington Post has more than 30 years in at the paper, a fistful of Pulitzer Prizes and a resume that would leave most journalists, and journalism students in awe.

Which is why it’s a damned shame that he decided to punch down at the staff of the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia for what he considered to be a terrible approach to their coverage of a mass shooting on their campus:

If you haven’t been following the news, UVa student Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr. is accused of killing three Virginia football players and wounding several other students while returning from a class field trip Sunday. Jones was on the run for about half of a day and the school was on lock down during that time. Following his arrest, the campus went into a state of mourning, with multiple tributes made to the victims and sports activities being cancelled.

The school’s paper, the Cavalier Daily, had dutifully and professionally covered the initial incident and the subsequent fall out with stories like these:

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough for Fisher, as he lambasted the students for not going door to door, rooting out grieving fellow students and demanding answers as to how they’re feeling about all of this. When the twitterverse asked him to look at what he was ACTUALLY doing (punching down, pontificating, acting like an arrogant jerk), Fisher doubled down with a loud sniff:

In a situation like this, there are MANY ways to gather and assess information. In the case of the ongoing investigation, the students are doing just that: finding out what is going on and telling people on campus about it. In less than three days, they’ve punched out at least a half-dozen good stories on this issue, including a breaking-news piece. That’s on top of all of the other things that the Marc Fishers of the world no longer have to do, like attend class, work a service-industry job to pay the rent, study for tests and keep up with their other school responsibilities.

And, of course, they spent time calming down their own parents, who are likely freaked out of their minds that their kids are on a campus in which a fellow student seemingly randomly stood up on a bus and killed three people and shot at several others.

It’s also worth noting that this is not whiny snowflake of a paper. It’s one of the best in the country, in which its student journalists have repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to get the story. For example, here’s a look back at the series we did on how the Cav Daily covered the “Unite the Right” rally back in 2017, gathering information among marching white supremacists,  while dodging public brawls and gagging on tear gas.

Y’know, journalism.

It’s really hard not to curse like a sailor with his hand caught in a blender right now, primarily because these students deserve praise for behaving like professionals, covering an untenable situation with dignity and providing their readers with both important information as well as a respectful amount of space to process their own grief.

To that end, here are three key points I’ll end with:

COVERING DEATH TAKES PRACTICE: I have told every student I’ve taught that it’s impossible for me to adequately teach them how to cover crime and breaking news because we can’t emulate it. I can take them to a city council meeting to practice meeting stories or a ball game to practice sports stories, but there is no parallel for crime journalism. Until you have to ask someone about a dead friend lying on the ground in front of them or approach the parent of a dead kid in the hospital for a quote, you have no idea how you’re going to do at it.

I started covering things like that when I was the age of these Cav Daily kids and it really messed me up a lot. I can still remember the name, age and cause of death of every dead kid I ever covered. I can remember how some people would want to talk to me for hours about their loved ones and how others would say such foul things about me and how “your mother didn’t raise you right,” that I wanted to shrivel up and die myself.

I got better at it and one piece of advice stuck with me, years later, from Kelly Furnas, the adviser of the Virginia Tech newspaper back when that campus experienced the deadliest mass shooting of its kind: When you have to cover something like this, you offer people the opportunity to speak. If they choose not to, that’s fine, but you offer. That’s what the kids did here, even if it wasn’t exactly the way that Marc Fisher thinks he would have done it.

JOHNNY SAIN WAS RIGHT ABOUT GUYS LIKE THIS: The Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers’ Day applies perfectly here: “There sure is a lot of bullshit going on around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I have no doubt that Marc Fisher is a fantastic reporter, editor, writer and more. That said, when you get to a certain point in life, you can really forget what it’s like before you became all of those really great things.

According to his bio, Fisher graduated with an AB in history from Princeton in 1980. That would put him there roughly in the latter half of the 1970s, which means we don’t have a true sense of what he was actually writing or reporting on back then. (I lack the time and resources to head to New Jersey, pull down some old dusty bound volumes of the Daily Princetonian and dig around for his clips.)

What I can say is that I know a ton of award-winning journalists who I had as students or worked with at college media outlets who were nowhere near as good back when they were in school as the kids at the Cav Daily have been in their coverage of this situation. I can also say that I’d rather look back at photos of me in god-awful polyester suits as a kid than go back and read what I wrote for the student newspaper in college.

We all sucked at some level as student journalists, which is totally understandable. We were learning the craft by making the mistakes that made us better. We were trying things because we saw other people doing them in their writing and we found out the hard way that it wasn’t easy to emulate the great ones. We made choices we’d cringe at in our later years, asking ourselves, “What the hell were you THINKING?”

If Mark Fisher is honest and actually took a look back, I bet he’d find out he wasn’t as great as he remembers himself being.

DON’T BE A DICK: I have yet to come up with a better way of expressing this, so I apologize to those with more sensitive disposition. However, it’s the best way I can get at the core of what’s bugging me the most about this.

Marc, believe it or not, you are an aspirational figure for a lot of these kids. I bet they’ve read your stuff, seen your books, caught your act on some round-table show or in some other way come in contact with what you do. What you say MATTERS to these people because you have done a lot with your career and it is a hell of a career at that. A snotty tweet, picking on a staff of students for what you perceive to be a journalistic faux pas (which it actually isn’t) does absolutely no good.

When you hold a position of value, people remember their encounters with you, even long after you have forgotten about them. I still have students to this day tell me things I’ve told them that meant a lot to them, even when I have absolutely no recollection of haven’t said those things.

I also know what it’s like to be on the other end of this, and how a kind and supportive word from a person  you deeply admire can make all the difference. In 2000, I was working the night desk at the Columbia Missourian when we got a tip that Gov. Mel Carnahan’s plane had crashed during his campaign tour for a U.S. Senate seat. I had about two years of experience as an editor at that point and I was scared to death that I was going to screw everything up.

I scrambled to get staffers in, connect the dots and build the story. In the middle of all of this, my boss, George Kennedy, called in to find out what was going on. George wrote the book I learned from and the book I taught from. He had decades of experience and he was like a god to me. The first words out of his mouth that night were, “So… you’ve got kind of an interesting night, don’t you?”

He asked me to fill him in, which I did, before I asked him if he was coming in. I figured he would want to take the wheel on a story like this and make sure it was exactly perfect, especially since we were tearing the front page to shreds on deadline and we still weren’t sure if the governor was alive or dead. I’ll never forget what he said next:

“Why? I’ve got you.”

Then he hung up.

To this day, nothing meant more to me than that did in terms of building my confidence and making feel like I could do this job. Kennedy could have said, “Well, if you promise not to suck like you normally do, I suppose I could stay home,” or “Sure. I doubt you could do this without me.” Instead, he made me feel like a professional and an equal. I STILL would step in front of a bus if George Kennedy asked me to because of this.

THAT’S the kind of impact people like you have, Marc, over people who are still finding their way. What you might see as a tweet in passing has a lot more of an impact than you might ever know.

 


UPDATE: A friend forwarded me this while I was driving home with the line “Looks like his bosses pressured him to delete his tweet.”

For such a gifted wordsmith, Marc Fisher really sucks at saying, “I’m sorry for being a chucklehead.”

2 thoughts on “Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher took time out of his busy schedule to crap all over student journalists at the University of Virginia for being humane in the wake of a mass shooting

  1. Andrew says:

    Incredible human interest piece, and an interesting look at the ways journalistic ethics are evolving as we learn to respect the impact trauma has on us. Nobody wants a mic shoved in their face without consent in this situation. And with the sheer number of similar events in this country, I think we can guess how these folks are feeling without the need for tragedy porn.

  2. Ben says:

    Thank you for this. Both from a practical and a human perspective, this is a conversation we need to have if there is any hope for a new generation to feel like journalism is available for them and a place that they can feel like they make a difference.

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