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 Marc 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 having 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.”

Hey YOU! A brief discussion of using second-person writing in news stories

My subdued reaction when my students use second person in their news stories…

One of the more difficult habits to break for beginning journalists is the use of second person in news stories. Although they tend to mix first, second and third person into their work, it’s usually easy to kick “I,” “We” and “Us” to the curb after a few sessions. Third person generally becomes the default option for them, based on the years of research papers that demand the detachment not found in first or second person. However, for some reason, second person seems to show up without rhyme  or reason within news stories, particularly news features.

This concept took on new relevance for me this weekend when Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote an epic story about his colleague, Mary Kay Cabot. Cabot has covered the Cleveland Browns for 31 years and was recently inducted into the The Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. His story begins this way:

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Thirty-one years.

You’re Mary Kay Cabot, and you’ve been covering the Cleveland Browns for 31 years – the same team you watched on TV every Sunday while growing up in Lakewood.

Your dad was Joe Cabot, a Lakewood fireman and a Korean War veteran. He always had a game on of one of the local pro sports teams. But the Browns … the Browns were special. Your father “lived and died” with the Browns.

To see his daughter cover the Browns, that was as meaningful to him as if you had played quarterback for the orange helmets.

“If I ever run into that (Mike) Trivisonno, I’ll take care of him,” your father told you. He had heard the late WTAM talk show host rip you on the radio. To this day, you love that story.

Now, they’re your Browns, the team and the job that has loomed over you for three decades.

“It’s the Browns and our three kids,” is how you describe your life with Bill Murman, your husband of 29 years.

I’m not going to second-guess Terry Pluto, who has won more awards, published more books, covered more sports and done more amazing writing than I could ever hope to, when it comes to the use of a literary device. What I will say is that when I read this thing, I found the approach mentally jarring. It was like my brain was fighting against the way the whole “you” thing kept trying to make me a married, middle-age woman in Cleveland with a dead father.

The first time I ran into this kind of cognitive dissonance was when I was about 17 and I was going through an “’80s nihilistic authors phase” in my reading habits. Jay McInerney, a brilliant writer who has penned some of my favorite novels, used the second-person approach for the entirety of “Bright Lights, Big City,” which begins this way in a chapter titled: “It’s Six A.M. Do you know where you are?”

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not…”

So there I was, a teenager from the Midwest who had yet to take an illegal drink, trying to put myself into the shoes of a coked-up magazine copy editor who is trying to get laid in a New York City night club at the crack of dawn. It didn’t work out all that well, despite my best efforts.

In both cases, the writers were skilled professionals who were taking calculated risks, based on a variety of factors they seriously considered before stepping into the “you-niverse.” As we have said here before, if you learn the rules well enough, you can figure out when it’s best to break them. (In short, you earn the fungus on your shower shoes.)

That said, most of my students haven’t earned that right yet and tend to use second-person missives as a writing crutch.

To figure out if second person is the way to go, consider these questions:

  • How will your audience respond to this? Like most things we talk about in media writing, the audience should be front and center when you decide if you should go with second person or not. If the readers aren’t at the forefront of the decision-making process, a lot can go wrong with second person. People don’t like being told what to do, especially if it seems like you’re coming at them from a higher moral position. Thus, telling them “You should give money” or “You should donate blood” or anything along those lines can feel off-putting. Second person is also something that readers aren’t used to in certain formats and platforms, so using it can be really jarring to some folks. In thinking about my experience with Pluto’s story, I would be really interested in what the general Cleveland sports audience thought about the Cabot piece and the use of “you,” especially because Cabot is such a rare gem in the field.


  • What is the tone of your media outlet? “You” has become a staple of television news over the years, as has “I,” because broadcast is an interpersonal medium. When done well, broadcasters make viewers feel a one-on-one connection that is less like a news report, and more like shared information from a trusted friend. Columnists and bloggers often get away with “you” as well, in that the format is less formal and more conversational. To pretend to carry some sort of objective detachment feels fake or even snobby. More traditional or general-interest outlets still need that sense of detachment, primarily because the audience is so varied and the tone of formality has been ingrained over time.


  • What is the tone of your piece? Standard news stories tend to have multiple angles and facets, thus it’s hard to know which one  “you” the reader will connect with. Even a story about a landlord evicting poor tenants on Christmas Eve has multiple facets, and second person can make it look like you’re taking sides. Conversely, “how to” pieces on niche blogs or websites might need a lot of “you” moments to guide readers along and reassure them that they can fix the garbage disposal or Bedazzle a jean jacket.


  • Are you just being lazy? In the case of the two authors noted above, the use of second person was a clear, conscious choice that they stuck with all the way through the piece. They decided to ride or die with second person. Most of the pieces I’ve read that contain second person don’t take things to this extreme with this kind of forethought. It’s a case of a writer shifting into second person because they don’t want to take the time to rewrite a sentence in third person. Using second person as a literary device is worth a shot here and there. Using it as a writing crutch is just plain lazy. If you can easily rewrite a sentence into third person and the majority of the piece is in third person, take the time to do it. If you have a clear and coherent reason to go into the “you-niverse,” take the risk if you have worked your way through the points above.

Like most tools in your writing toolbox, second person can be useful in certain situations. If you use it for the right reason, you can do a lot of good for your readers. If you use it for the wrong ones, you can undermine the value of your piece and annoy your audience.

Time once again to give thanks for journalists who avoid holiday cliches (A Throwback Post)

With Thanksgiving mercifully two weeks away, I’m sure most of us are ready for a well-deserved break in the semester. What we’re probably less ready for is the deluge of cliches that accompany it, and the rest of the holiday season.

Given that we’ve just gone through an election in which well-worn phrases have pelted us like a hail storm (red wave, radical agenda…) that it feels like we won’t get a break from this kind of stuff unless we all pitch in to prevent this kind of thing.

With that in mind, here is a throwback post to the cliches we tend to see the most this time of year:



‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

Student Press Law Center to see a change at the top

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris announced Wednesday that she planned to leave the organization after five years to begin a consulting firm that develops human rights-based organizational transformation. In a “personal note” posted to the SPLC website, she outlined the myriad changes the organization saw since she walked into the office in 2017:

We held the first national trainings and summer leadership programs for advocates to learn new skills and develop strategies. We placed students in the center of our work and now are supporting grassroots groups in nearly 20 states. And as a result of that work, we got New Voices laws across the finish line in Washington, New Jersey and Hawai’i, making 16 states with New Voices protections.

We also launched a new initiative to be sure that where New Voices laws are adopted, that SPLC would work with students and administrators, school boards and policymakers to be sure that the law was understood and applied correctly. We recognized the need for accountability efforts (with the help of the SPLC Attorney Referral Network) and Know Your Rights outreach and training which we have launched in three pilot states so far. Truly transformational work.

We took a crazy idea scribbled on the back of an envelope and turned it into Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of action to draw attention to the accomplishments and challenges faced by student journalists. It’s become so successful that people now complain about the tag line!

We developed new programs like the Global Press Freedom Institute with our partners at PEN America, the Student Media Law and Policy Institute with its cool Moot Court competition, and, under the leadership of Operations Manager Alexis Mason, created SPLC in the Classroom, which zooms SPLC experts into the classroom and newsroom, significantly expanding the reach of our training and resources.

These programs have a lot of value for students and have made huge strides toward the big picture of student press freedom, for sure. However, the most important thing SPLC does, at least in my way of thinking, is during the day-in, day-out work of being there for student journalists who feel threatened and attacked for simply doing their jobs.

The sound advice and calming reassurances these legal eagles provide to students is invaluable and crucial in a time in which the press is very much under attack and people with high-priced lawyers feel emboldened to bully kids because they can. I have often referred students to SPLC with the explanation that the folks there are like “having a big friend walking with you when the school bully decides to try to steal your lunch money.”

Merely the ability to say, “I’ve contacted the Student Press Law Center and it is providing me with legal representation,” gives students confidence in their rights and gets most chuckleheads backing down quite quickly.

I could fill the internet with personal stories about how SPLC provided my students with help when someone threatened to sue our newspaper or withheld records or generally just acted like a dipstick toward us. The one I will share popped up in my Facebook memories the other day, and it literally encapsulates the value the mere existence of SPLC provides.

Seven years ago, when the Advance-Titan was in rough financial straits, a bunch of little … um… student government people decided I was to blame and tried to force me out as adviser. The newsroom kids reached out to SPLC for help and advice. The folks there wrote in on my behalf, detailing the legal issues pertaining to their kangaroo court and noting that SPLC would be watching.

At the meeting where they voted on a resolution to fire me that had about 382 “whereas” statement, the leadership was panickedly discussing behind the scenes about how a “special-interest legal group from Virginia” had somehow gotten involved. Suddenly, those little… um… people weren’t so cocksure, a reporter who covered the event told me later. They passed a resolution, but it had no effect. I stayed in place and a copy of that thing is hanging on the “First Amendment Wall” in my office.

I know dozens of other student media operations that could related reams of similar stories, which is why SPLC matters so much to us. Harris noted in her letter that the SPLC board will be working to find the next executive director between now and when she leaves in early 2023. Each time the ED position passes from one person to another, many of us in the student press community kind of hold our breath a little bit, because we know how this organization can make or break our institutions.

Each time, it seems, the organization continues to develop and grow in a positive direction that continues to serve us well.

5 simple axioms Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied on throughout Watergate that any student journalist can use, too

Journalism legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have a moment of levity Friday at the Media Fest 22 keynote event in Washington, D.C.

At this year’s Media Fest, media legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein provided a new generation of journalists with a glimpse of how they broke one of the biggest stories in news history and brought down the Nixon White House. The Friday keynote address helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in and the subsequent reporting the Washington Post duo undertook to unravel the “Dirty Tricks” campaign the president and “all his men” engaged in prior to his reelection.

The most fascinating thing about these two men was not the lengths to which they went to find the truth or the volume of stories they wrote on this topic between the break-in and Nixon’s resignation two years later. Instead, it was the way in which they plied their trade in a fashion that any student journalist in that audience could mimic in at any student media outlet in the country.

To that point, here are five basic reporting axioms they followed that can make you successful as a beginning journalist:


GRAB THE OPPORTUNITIES WHEN THEY COME: The legendary story of Watergate began with a simple break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters. Five men were arrested on June 17, 1972 and going to be charged with burglary and wiretapping the next day, a Sunday.

The editors at the Post knew someone needed to cover that story and they chose Bob Woodward, but not for the reason you would think.

“(People in the newsroom asked) ‘Who would be dumb enough to come in today?’ and the editors thought of me,” Woodward said.

At the time, Woodward was 28 years old and had about two years of journalistic experience under his belt. Instead of complaining that he had to come in on a Sunday or that it was the kind of garbage story that would be lucky to yield a byline, Woodward went to court where he noticed something amazing: The men accused of the crime were all dressed in suits.

“I’ve never seen a well-dressed burglar,” Woodward said Friday.

His curiosity got the better of him and he began down a two-year road that would turn him into a household name. It all started with taking the opportunity he received from people who thought lesser of him.

When it comes to opportunities, don’t let them pass you by.


SHOW UP: Woodward and Bernstein repeated this mantra Friday throughout their keynote, which actually felt more like two old friends shooting the bull over a couple beers. As they recalled key moments throughout the evolution of their reporting, they kept noting how they got the stories by going places and meeting people.

Bernstein said the biggest break in the early days was finding a bookkeeper for the slush fund used to pay the Watergate conspirators and finance the dirty tricks. He went to her house and knocked on her door, only to be met by the woman’s sister, who wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. Still, he persisted:

“I sort of kept my foot in the screen door,” he said. “(The bookkeeper) said ‘Don’t let him in,’ but she eventually let me in. The bookkeeper was intimidated but wanted to talk.”

From there, Bernstein hung with the bookkeeper and kept asking questions until he managed to get a big piece of the puzzle. Had he called her instead of showing up, it would have been much easier to get rid of him, but since he was literally face to face with her, the bookkeeper acquiesced.

That lesson stayed with the pair over time. Woodward said he realized he had “gotten lazy” during his later years as he was tracking down sources for one of his more recent books. After repeated attempts to reach a military official who had successfully evaded his requests, Woodward came to a simple realization:

“We’re not showing up enough,” he said.

Thus, he went to the general’s door at 8:17 p.m. on a Tuesday (“the perfect time” to get a source to talk, he noted) and knocked. The general answered the door and asked Woodward the first question of what would be an in-depth interview:

“Are you still doing this shit?”

Yes, he was, and apparently, it still works.

As much as it seems easier to shoot a text or an email to a source, it often isn’t as effective when you really need to get the bigger story. I know that I have leaned a little too much on the phone or email while I’m blogging, as opposed to going to someone’s place of business or knocking on an office door. However, I also realized that if I REALLY wanted to get something done, I had to physically go somewhere and be in someone’s presence. That still yields the best results, whether I’m trying to find out if someone got fired or if a person actually will be fulfilling my request to approve an HR document.

As uncomfortable as it might feel to go and “bother” someone, it feels much more uncomfortable for that person, which means they’ll usually give you what you want just to get rid of you.


WHEN IT COMES TO SOURCES, GO LOW: During their collaboration, the pair developed a solid working relationship, drawing from each other’s journalistic strengths and experiences. Woodward said the most important thing he learned from Bernstein was what kinds of people made for the best sources:

“Find people at the lower level,” Woodward said. “That’s what Carl taught me. We can’t go to the White House and ask people about this so we have to knock on doors and that’s the Bernstein method.”

In the early days, the sources who let the cat out of the bag were the desk workers, low-level employees and other people who weren’t in the positions of power. They were the people who knew what was going on because they were the ones who had to do the banal work of typing up documents, filing forms and moving information from one important person’s desk to the next.

It warmed my heart to hear this, because I’ve always found that my best contacts were the people who weren’t really high on the food chain. I knew the night-time deputy coroners, the secretary at the police department who kept trying to set me up with her grand-daughter, the janitor at the city-county building and other folks like that. At first, I figured it was because I wasn’t much of a reporter, so those “more important people” didn’t need to bother with me. I later realized what Woodward and Bernstein knew all along: These are the people who know everything and are more willing to tell you about it.

That’s the reason I tell my reporting students, “Never diss a desk jockey. They’re the folks who run the world.”


BE HONEST AND FAIR IN YOUR WORK: When the moderator introduced these two titans of journalism, she listed two resumes that would be the envy of anyone in the room: Multiple books, Pulitzer Prizes, important jobs at major publications and more. However, when they started working the Watergate story 50 years earlier, they were a couple unknown “kids” in the newsroom.

Each story they wrote contained unnamed sources, claiming the president and the people around him had done things no one in that office had ever been accused of doing before. The editors in the newsroom had faith in them, but many of their colleagues weren’t as sure.

“Who are these two kids?” Bernstein said, recalling the popular newsroom sentiment at the time. “This stuff can’t be true. Nixon is too smart. There was skepticism about us in this newsroom.”

As the White House continued to deny the allegations and assail the Post with criticism, the men kept at the story because they knew they were right.

“There comes a moment if you’ve done your reporting right, you understand the dimensions of the story you are working on,” Bernstein said.

However, they realized the most important thing about telling the story was that they had to make sure they weren’t trying to make reality fit what they thought was going to happen. At one point, even amid the nay-sayers around them, they figured out that this whole thing was leading on the path to Nixon likely being impeached. In explaining this to the crowd on Friday, they said it was crucial that they keep their reporting above board and not jump past where they facts had led them.

“People can’t think you have an agenda,” Bernstein said.

In today’s media, that statement might seem as quaint as if he said you needed to make sure your typewriter ribbon was fresh before starting a story, but it really shouldn’t. Journalistic fairness isn’t about finding fake balance, like publishing a story about how the moon isn’t made of green cheese but only after you find a “lunar cheeser” source to provide “the other side” of the argument. It’s about going into a situation well prepared and yet open minded.

The goal both of these guys had for their reporting wasn’t, “Let’s go get Nixon and stick it to The Man!” It was to draw the truth out of the people who knew it and present that information to their audience.  When they stuck to that, they were able to tell the stories more effectively.

When you decide to cover anything at all, try to start with that idea of being open minded about your topic and your source. That should be guided by your research that prepared you for the piece. If you think the whole goal of the parking department on your campus is to fleece college students out of their hard-earned money, OK, fine. However, when you go in to interview those folks, actually keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say. They might change your mind, or they might not, but if you go in there with an agenda, nothing good is going to happen.


STAY HUMBLE: These two guys basically ended a presidency, took home every conceivable accolade in journalism and became journalistic nomenclature for exceptional reporting. Every journalist in that room, and all the overflow rooms, would give any body part they had to be 1/10th of what these guys have become. However, both in their demeanor and their presentation, Woodward and Bernstein never seemed to smack of ego or self-importance.

Woodward said the most important thing he learned throughout the Watergate saga was being humble and remaining the person he was before all of this happened. He said that Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, helped him keep himself grounded after the Watergate scandal had ended:

“I got a note from Katharine Graham… It said, ‘Don’t start thinking too highly of yourself. Beware the demon pomposity. That demon wanders the halls of too many institutions,'” he said.

If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can keep their egos in check, it’s safe to say any of the rest of us should be able to manage it as well.



4 questions to ask yourself before you interview someone else

Of all the topics that students request help with throughout their journalism journey, the most common one is learning how to interview sources well. Whether it’s in my intro class or my senior capstone-style courses, whenever I ask, “What do you want to get out of this class?” the answer is usually, “I really suck at interviewing… How can I get better at this?”

Repeatedly doing the task is always one good way of improving yourself whenever you feel deficient in  an area. However, interviewing can cause problems for other people while you learn. It’s  like expecting people to stand against a wall while you learn the art of knife-throwing: Until you get good at it, this is really going to hurt.

I often experience a few painful interviews throughout the term, because first-year students in one of our intro classes are required to comb the building for a professor to interview and I usually make the mistake of keeping my door open. They become enamored with the bobbleheads and then, BAM, I’m explaining what life as a professor is like to some kid who looks as scared as a fawn trapped in a semi’s headlights.

A lot of what goes wrong in those interviews is covered  in the textbook, in that the students don’t actively listen or really plan things out very well. To them, I’m just a slab of meat with a mouth that can satisfy their need to accomplish a task. However, a more senior student requested a specific interview with me for a departmental blog post, only to make the same kinds of mistakes these newbies made.

With that in mind, here are four questions a newer journalist can ask themselves prior to requesting an interview that might make their lives (and the lives of their subjects) a little better:

Have you done enough preparation before requesting the interview?

The worst experiences I’ve had as a journalist were the ones where I didn’t feel prepared. In some cases, I was able to get a bit of a pass, given that I covered a lot of breaking news. Thus, there’s no real way to prepare for a random shooting or a house fire that got way out of hand. However, there have been plenty of times where I would need to profile someone or do a news feature on a topic and I kind of half-assed the prep work, only to come face-to-face with a source who wasn’t all that thrilled with me.

The results felt like an awkward blind date, only there was no waitress to bring enough alcohol to improve the situation.

Before you decide, “I’m gonna interview this person,” consider how much you actually KNOW about that person and what it is that will improve the overall vibe and informative nature of the interview. Read up on the person, the topic and the newsworthiness of both before you send an email or make a call to get that person. The better handle you have on the source, the better you can approach them effectively and get everything off on the right foot.


How important is this person to the story you want to tell?

I have found a strange inverse relationship between how important a person actually is to a story and how important they think they are to it. In many cases, I’ve gotten the, “Oh, no… You don’t really need to talk to me about this…” response from people who are vital to a piece and brilliant beyond reproach. I have also had people get into a huff that their bland comment, which added nothing to the sum of human knowledge, didn’t get published because, “Do you know who I AM?”

The value of the source can vary greatly depending on the story you intend to write. In the case of a “Everyone had a great day at the fair” story, if you’ve seen one person eating a funnel cake, you’ve seen them all. Thus, when a source rebuffs your request for an interview, it’s not the end of the world. Feel free to hunt elsewhere.

Conversely, if that person is supposed to be the star of a major profile piece or news story, you need to come loaded for bear. You need to be able to explain to that person why they matter, what makes the story worth telling and how important their participation is in this piece.

It also matters in your overall approach. I’m not saying you should treat sources poorly if they are a dime a dozen for the story, but you do need to be exceedingly careful with wary sources who can make or break a story or reticent individuals who are playing it a bit close to the vest. This is the perfect time to practice those persuasive skills you learned in your public speaking or public relations courses.


Have you practiced?

It sounds almost childlike to practice your interview, either with someone else or by yourself, but you can save yourself a lot of aggravation if you put in a few practice rounds before the big event.

Reading the questions aloud can help you figure out if they actually make sense when you verbalize them. Some things sound great in your head, but lose traction when they hit the paper. Even more, this is where you can figure out if you accidentally slipped in a loaded question or you failed to ask the question you intended to ask.

It never hurts to ask someone to work with you, especially if you’re new at this kind of process. When you ask a question and it strikes an unfortunate nerve with your practice partner, you realize you might need to rewrite that question or rethink the concept.

For example, there are 1,001 ways to ask how a person is coping with the loss of a loved one, and just as many ways of screwing up the ask. Asking “Now that your husband is dead, where do you see yourself going from here,” is probably not going to get the response you had hoped for, unless you really wanted a widow to punch you in the head.

Practice also helps you improve the interview’s flow, prevents you from having to look at your notes as often and makes it feel more like a conversation than an interrogation.


Have you considered what this will be like from the source’s perspective?

We talk a lot about audience-centricity in the “Dynamics” textbooks because the goal of journalism is to work for the audience. With that in mind, think about the “audience” of this interview: the person on the other end of the questions.

When you request an interview, what you are essentially saying is that you want someone to do you a favor. You want that person to stop whatever else it is they’re doing, set aside a block of time for you, allow you to poke at them with a series of inquiries that will likely benefit you more than it will benefit them and then leave them in a mild to moderate panic over what it is you’ll do with what you’ve learned. It’s also an even-money bet they’ll worry you’ll screw stuff up and they’ll have to spend the next several days/weeks/months undoing the damage your stupidity has done to them.

Sounds like a big bag of fun for your interview subject, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, you should probably spend some time putting yourself into the shoes of your interview subject. What can you do to make the process easier on them? What can you do to help them feel like you’re not wasting their time? How can  you structure the interview to make the process work more smoothly?

This also plays into the earlier elements as well. How would you feel if someone asked you for a favor and you graciously granted it, only to have that person show up late? Or look unprepared? Or just sit there like, “Well? Just gimme something quick so I can get out of here!”

As difficult as all of this can be on you as a newer journalist, it can be exponentially harder and uglier for the people who have to deal with the back end of your growing pains.  Do whatever you can to take that person’s perspective into account before you decide to make the interview request.




Three tips that will keep your blog operating at full steam in good times and in bad


The conversation with the PRSSA kids yesterday went really well, considering that we’ve got the accreditation team on campus, it was hour 13 of my day and I was still wearing a tie at that point in time. We talked about a number of things that would lead to a good blog and I honestly think a couple folks there might want to take a shot at developing one of their own.

One of the questions that came up during the discussion was that of “best practices” when it came to running a blog. In other words, if they got past the three basic rules I laid out for blogging, well, then what?

We picked through a couple examples that were based on their interests and kind of came up with three basic areas of importance that separated the good blogs from the ones that died on the vine. They aren’t anything particularly shocking, but understanding why they matter can make a huge difference:

Educational Acumen

Having expertise is a great thing, but you have to be able to use that expertise in a way that effectively communicates it to the people who are reading your blog. Otherwise, it’s a waste and the readers will become frustrated and leave.

This is where knowing your audience becomes crucial, as you can meter your use of jargon, your level of explanation and your overall approach to the content based on who is reading.

For example, let’s say you want to run a blog about how to fix old pinball machines. You have spent half your life working on these things and you have repaired more than 100 games that ranged from mild tune ups to massive rebuilds.

If your audience is comprised of first-time pinball owners, you will need to use a lot of visuals to show them what things like coils and targets are. You will need to explain how to do simple things like remove the glass or disconnect a coin mechanism. You will need to offer more caution regarding dangerous things to touch or things that can break.

If your audience is comprised of more veteran repair folks, you can skip some of the basics, rely more on shared terminology and even go into deeper rebuild topics. As one of the students asked, “If people in your audience are really into your topic, can you use jargon?” I explained that it’s not jargon if the people understand it; It’s shared language. Jargon is stuff that you use that other people in your audience DON’T understand.

Additionally, you’ll need consider word choices to help people complete tasks in an effective way. So if you want them to use a hammer on something, there’s a world of difference between “hit” “pound” and “gently tap.” Experts will likely know these differences instinctively, while newbies will need more hand holding.


Being good at something and liking something are not the same thing. This is the argument I have with my mother to this day: She thought I should have been a political speech writer. Her point was that I was good at speaking, speech writing and that I could really make a difference in how people saw the world. My point was that I hated politics and I hated politicians, so no matter how good I was at this, I was never going to go anywhere in this field.

Or to quote a professor who spoke to my dissertation prep class, “Pick a topic that you really love because you’re going to be with it in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death or doctorate will you part.”

To be good at something and to do well at it constantly, you need to have a passion for the thing you are doing. Never is this more true than in blogging, because without the passion, you’re never going to make it. Here’s why:

  • You have no deadlines. It’s easy enough to blow off an assignment when you have a deadline. When you don’t, you can always push something down the road a bit further. If you don’t believe me, consider the ugly yellow plastic windows we had on one of our kitchen cabinets back at our previous house. When we moved in, Amy asked me, “When you get a chance, could you get rid of those and put new doors on that cabinet?” When we sold the house two years ago, the plastic remained. We got to know the most-recent owners of the home and got a tour of the place a few weeks ago. Ugly plastic is still there. In short, when I WANT to get something done, I’ll get it done in a New York Minute. When I don’t have a deadline, I’ll blow it off.
  • The quality of the work suffers: Mom used to read the State Journal every day when I was working there. She’d often call me up and talk to me about the articles I had written. In one case, she told me, “I read X. You didn’t really want to write that one, did you?” The truth was, I hated the story she was talking about, but I wanted to know what led her to figure that out. I asked if there were flaws or mistakes or whatever and she said, “No. It read fine and there wasn’t anything wrong. I could just tell that you didn’t want to do this.”
    If you don’t have a passion for the topic, as in you love this thing and you want to spend a lot of time with this topic, writing to other people about it, you’ll end up with a really lousy blog. You can’t just have a passing interest. You have to love it. If you don’t it will show up in the writing and people will tell.
  • You will run out of stuff to talk about: People who love a topic will talk about nothing other than that. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Forrest Gump again and listen to how Bubba talks about shrimp. You want your blog to be like a diesel engine: It might take you a little longer to get started, but once it gets going, it can run long and hard without stopping. If you don’t have a passion for the topic, it’ll be like a bottle rocket: It’ll take off in a hurry, explode quickly and then dissipate.


This puts together the above two with the idea of understanding what it takes to make this thing work and forcing yourself to do it every day or every week or whatever. You must make sure you are constantly looking for things to add to the blog. You must make sure you post when you are required to post things. You can’t just blow it off when you don’t feel like writing. You can’t push it down the line because you can’t think about something or because other things become more important. If you are going to develop an audience that has an interest in you, you must continue to find things to give them.

Dedication leads to consistency and leads to success.

Nolan Ryan pitched in the major leagues until he was 46 years old and he credited his workout regimen after games for a lot of his longevity. When he won his 300th game, his family wanted to take him out and celebrate right after the game. Instead, they had to wait for him to finish his post-game workout before they could go out. Even though they pleaded with him to skip it “just this once,” he said, no and went to work.

Think about all the things that you might have succeeded at or failed at. It could be the New Year’s resolution to work out. You get going all gangbusters and then it’s really, really, REALLY cold outside and you don’t want to get out of bed and suddenly, goodbye exercise.

It could be a diet where you have meals planned and things are going along fine, but then you get caught short of your health nut mix and Hello, Taco Bell!

A blog can’t be like that if you want to be successful at it because it takes a long, long time to get an interested and engaged audience and it will take no time for them to leave you like a cheating fiancée on Temptation Island.

Honestly, not every day will be an academy award, but you have to ply your trade every day no matter what.

3 Basic Rules for Building a Successful Blog

The Public Relations Student Society of America chapter out here requested a guest lecture on blogging, as they know blogs will be part of what they need to do to be successful in their fields. Students have often told me that when they show up for an internship or a job, the first thing they are told is, “We need a blog. Go do it.”

What should be on that blog? “We need a blog!”

What’s our audience for the blog? “We NEED a BLOG!”

Do you have any advice on how to go about blogging for this organization? “Look, kid. You know the interwebs and stuff. Just go build the damned blog…”

Unless you want to be roadkill on the information superhighway (or worse), it pays to understand the concept of blogging and why it is certain blogs work and certain ones don’t. As a sneak preview of tonight’s talk, here are a few basic things to keep in mind when you want to build an effective blog:

RULE 1: It’s not about you.

Starting a blog because you want to write about something is like becoming a restaurant chef because you like to eat. The point of the job isn’t to give you a cheaper version of group therapy or to help you share your feelings with people. The point of a blog is to find an audience that has an interest in something you know about and a need for information that you possess.

What you know about your audience will largely determine how successful you are at drawing traffic to your blog. You need to know who is out there, what interests they have and how you can engage them, either digitally or interpersonally. This is particularly important if you are working for an organization that requires you to blog for it. Your personal stories won’t go far and the readers won’t give a damn about you.

To make this work, you need to learn who is out there that is reading the blog, what they need and how you can get it to them.

There are three things you need to examine to understand your audience: Demographics, Psychographics and Geographics. The type of blog you have will determine to what degree each of these elements is more or less crucial to your success. However, unless you have a sense of who is out there, you’ll never know if you can be of help to them. In marketing, we talk about the idea of a “buyer persona” while in news we talk about a “typical reader.” All we’re really trying to get across is that a certain type of person is going to be using your stuff, so you have to know who they are, what they want and how best to reach them.

For example, if you are doing a blog on fashion, you need to know who will be reading it. Are they younger people who wear a lot of leggings and ripped jeans or are they senior citizens who want to get out of the 1970s and its polyester phase? Are they New York jet setters or small-town kids who don’t want to wear  overalls every day? Do they have gobs of money or are they shopping on a budget? Even more, things like how label-conscious they are, the degree to which they have a solid self-image and how often they like to shop will all play into this.

Regardless of what you choose to do, you need to make it about them. Not you.

Rule #2: Get narrow and get focused

Blogs can’t be about everything. They have to be about something. If you decide that you’re going to “blog about things that I notice,” you have managed to violate both rule 1 and rule 2 in one fell swoop. Writing a “personality” blog would only work if you are someone like Kendall Jenner, and even then it wouldn’t work because if you were Kendall Jenner, you’d need to learn how to write first.

We don’t live in a “mass media” world any more, so you have to find something specific that will draw readers and give them something they can’t get elsewhere. (Or, at the very least, they can only get a few other places, but you give it to them in a better way) That means you need to locate a niche that badly needs something you have to offer and then fill it.

Let’s look at how best to narrow this down:

  • Stage 1: I want to write a sports blog. (WAAAY TOO BROAD)
  • Stage 2: I want to write a blog that looks at college athletes. (STILL TOO BROAD)
  • Stage 3: I want to write a blog that looks at college athletes and issues of mental health. (Probably workable)

Each cut, you see us getting closer to a niche. In this case, you have something that not a lot of people are talking about (mental health and athletics) so you have a lot of potential blogging options. You could look at star athletes and the mental pressures of success. You could look at athletes who graduate  but won’t go on to a pro game and how they deal with that. You could look at athletes coming back from injuries and their fears and concerns about this. Sources can include sports psychologists, former athletes, coaches, mental health experts and more. No matter what’s going on, you have the ability to sharpen the focus by going more narrow.

Rule #3: Before you blog, answer the question, “Why you?”

The greatest line ever delivered in the history of professional sports came from Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Tobin after the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft. A draft analyst had criticized his picks on ESPN, which was covering the event. After hearing this over and over, Tobin went on live TV and asked,

“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper anyway? Here’s a guy that criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take and who you shouldn’t take. And my knowledge of him: he’s never ever put on a jock strap, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s been an administrator and all of a sudden he’s an expert.”

His point is one you need to consider when you decide on your blogging topic: Who the hell are you and why should anyone listen to you about this topic?

If you are going to be successful at blogging, whether it’s as a news blog, a promotional blog, an opinion blog or anything else, you have to be able to explain to your readers (or better yet just show them) what it is that makes you a credible and valuable resource on the topic at hand. This is where research REALLY comes in, especially if you are working for an organization or corporation.

For example, let’s say you are blogging for a travel agency that specializes in European travel. There might be a big gap in the area of food blogging for people with gluten allergies who travel in Europe. The questions of “Where is the best quality of gluten-free pasta?” or “Which restaurants use separate prep stations for gluten-free meals?” and others need to be answered. You have an audience that really wants to know this stuff, as for some folks, it’s a matter of life and death. You can draw traffic from other similar gluten-free blogs that exist like Chronically Gluten Free and Gluten-Free Fun, as people often post a need for these answers on those sites.

However, if you don’t travel through Europe, or you have no background in celiac allergies or if you never eat, who the hell are you to talk about this stuff? If you can’t be an expert based on your experiences, you better be an expert based on research, interviewing experts and doing more than just spitballing about the topic based on what you once heard at a PF Chang’s.

You have to be able to demonstrate to the readers that you have an expertise in this topic and showcase that expertise in pretty much everything you do. Imagine your doctor starting off your surgery by saying, “I’ve never done this before, but let’s give it a shot…” Not exactly awe inspiring.

If you can’t demonstrate good solid reasons why you should do the blog, don’t do the blog. If you don’t have a choice, you need to gear up and game up through research and checking in with experts. You need to make yourself into the expert.

Once you nail those things down, you can start figuring out where a blog should go or what you should include, but that should get you a running start at a successful blog.

You’re not a woke liberal commie pinko for understanding how the First Amendment actually works

A fellow instructor and friend posted this note in the wake of the latest Alex Jones judicial smack down:

I already have people telling me that Jones needs to appeal as his free speech rights are being violated. I try to explain the 1st Amendment to them but they come back at me as a liberal, socialist. left wing, college professor indoctrinating my students in WOKE, CRT and Cancel Culture.

In case you missed it, Jones lost a suit in Connecticut the other day, the result of which was a nearly $1 billion judgment against him. The root of the suit was his claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation and that the parents of the kids were all liars. Strangely enough, the parents of murdered children didn’t take too kindly to his bullpucky and thus sued.

My colleague’s understanding of the First Amendment is right on the money: You can say whatever you want without governmental intrusion, but that doesn’t mean you will escape all repercussions when it turns out you’re wrong (or a no-talent ass-hat who causes significant damage to other people).

I doubt the people on the other end of his calm, rational explanation of the First Amendment will take this response any better, even though I think I’m maybe one of those things they listed above (college professor, on a good day). Still, here’s a throwback to another point in time where the misunderstanding of how the First Amendment works led people to freak out.

Another brief reminder of how “freedom of speech” actually works: Joe Rogan edition

In trying to boil down the “Joe Rogan Experience” over the past week or so, this is the best I’ve got:

2022 Joe Rogan: Nobody can piss off the world more than I can with my weird take on COVID.
Pre-2022 Joe Rogan: Yeah… Hold my beer…

Podcaster Joe Rogan and his $100 million sugar daddy, Spotify, spent the last couple weeks understanding that free speech isn’t always consequence-free speech. Rogan most recently got into hot water when it turned out he needed to apologize for dropping more than a few “n-words” into his podcasts over the past 12 years:

New York, NY (CNN)Joe Rogan issued an apology on Instagram Saturday after a compilation of the podcaster frequently using the n-word on his podcast spread widely on social media.

Rogan used the word more than 20 times in the clips from different podcast episodes, which he said were compiled over a span of 12 years. In his apology, Rogan said it’s the “most regretful and shameful thing” he has ever had to address publicly.

“I know that to most people, there’s no context where a White person is ever allowed to say that, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that,” he said. “Now, I haven’t said it in years,” Rogan added.

Rogan also addressed a video of him comparing a Black neighborhood to a Planet of the Apes movie. “I certainly would never want to offend someone for entertainment with something as stupid as racism,” he said.

If Rogan’s goal in this situation was to distract from his unfounded medical claims regarding COVID, he succeeded in the best-worst possible way. Prior to this mix-tape of racism, Rogan was spouting unscientific nonsense about the coronavirus, and medical professionals called for Spotify to do something about this:

A coalition of hundreds of doctors and public health experts have called out Spotify for allowing Joe Rogan to spread “false and societally harmful assertions” about the coronavirus and vaccination on the streaming platform that hosts his wildly popular podcast.

In an open letter published Monday, more than 270 medical professionals urge Spotify to stop “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance.” Rogan, whose show reaches an estimated audience of 11 million people an episode, has repeatedly downplayed the need for coronavirus vaccines and used his platform to flirt with misinformation about covid-19.

(Side note: How does one “flirt with misinformation?” I’m imagining a stock broker in a bad hairpiece telling some lady at a bar that he’s really Donald Trump…)

Multiple musicians including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young also put pressure on Spotify with requests to have their music removed from the streaming service, due to Rogan’s coronavirus commentary. As a result, Spotify issued a statement so broad and generic, it could easily have just said “We favor… Um… Stuff…”:

“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” the C.E.O., Daniel Ek, who is also one of Spotify’s founders, wrote in a public letter. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

In the wake of this rolling cluster-mess, a good number of people are complaining that anyone coming after Rogan or Spotify is engaged in censorship/killing free speech. As per usual, this tends to take the form of the mic-drop argument-ender: the meme…

Truth be told, censorship and freedom of speech are often misunderstood because people think they have the right to say or write anything they want with impunity. Here’s a quick recap of how the First Amendment actually works:

It does:

Prohibit the government from suppressing unpopular speech or unpopular press. City, county, state or federal officials cannot stop a person from expressing an opinion or punishing that person for doing so. Those same officials cannot prevent a newspaper, magazine or other “press” from putting out content that might be unpopular.

It does NOT:

Cover everything ever said or printed. The law has deemed some forms of speech (fighting words, words that create a clear and present danger etc.) to be unprotected. The traditional example is that you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. The law has also deemed some content (child pornography, for example) to be irredeemable in any way and thus not be afforded protection under the law.

Prevent the speaker (or writer) from ramifications from free expression.The law says the government, or any of its agents, can’t prevent you from publishing a story that your university president is running a pedophile ring out of the basement of the student union. However, when that story is proven to be false, you better believe the president can sue your pants off for libel. The law protects speech, but it also protects people FROM speech in many cases, which is why we have to be careful every time we publish (or say) something.

Stop private businesses from suppressing or punishing speech.Private institutions are perfectly capable of hiring or firing people for a wide array of reasons. Joe Rogan got $100 million from Spotify for his podcasting services. If they are unsatisfied with those services, they can examine the contract and find a way to sever ties. They can tell him what they will or won’t allow under his contract in terms of speech or information.

Censorship is when a person is prevented from speaking, publishing or otherwise expressing themselves. Joe Rogan is not in that situation, even if Spotify decides to smack him around or fire him. If Joe doesn’t like whatever Spotify chooses to do, he can go somewhere else. He can complain that his speech is being suppressed (he’s technically right), but he can’t say his First-Amendment rights are being violated. Trust me, if I had a First-Amendment right to earn $100 million to talk about stuff where “I don’t always get it right,” I’d have done it by now.

Force other people to listen to you or be happy about what you say.  If there were laws against ugly speech that bothered people, Fred Phelps would have never been let out of his own house. Constitutionally speaking, Joe Rogan can stand on a street corner and drop “n-words” until he drops dead. That doesn’t mean other people have to sit by, totally entranced by this and not express their displeasure. These other citizens can try to shout him down, ignore him entirely or go to the opposite street corner and scream something else.

In the case of the COVID controversy, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and other musicians have asked that their music be removed from Spotify if the streaming service decides to keep Joe Rogan. They have that right to ask for that change, given their displeasure over Rogan’s speech. People who think it’s unfair that the musicians are doing this can choose to speak out against this or stop listening to “Heart of Gold” or whatever. In short, you have the right to say stuff, but so does everyone else. You have a right to ignore them, as does everyone else.

Promote “cancel culture.”  The thing about the First Amendment is that it’s essentially content neutral. You want to tell people you hate dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you love dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you want to eat dogs, that’s fine. It’s gross and you’ll likely be home alone a lot on weekends, but it’s not against the law.  With the legal exceptions outlined above (and a few others), the type of speech doesn’t really play into whether that speech should be “free” or not.

It’s important to understand that free speech was always supposed to work this way, in which bad or dumb speech got knocked on its keester by good or smart speech. The whole concept of a “marketplace of ideas” is to give everyone a chance to speak so we could pick out the best ideas and use them as we saw fit. The ones that were dumb got discarded and the people who proclaimed those dumb ideas could either stick with their dumbness and be alone or come around to better ways of doing things and be part of those better ideas.

Joe Rogan is not being “cancelled” because people are telling Spotify that its service shouldn’t promote Rogan’s thoughts on COVID or support a guy who used the “n-word” at least 20 times on his podcast. That’s free speech. Spotify can say, “OK, we hear you, but screw you anyway.” That’s free speech as well. Joe Rogan can say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m going to tell people they can cure COVID by drinking a mixture of fuel oil and children’s tears, all while I read aloud from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ live on my podcast.”  That’s free speech, too.

The reason why Spotify ISN’T doing that and the reason why Rogan IS repenting like a Catholic priest getting caught in a strip club comes down to money. Spotify doesn’t want to lose its listeners and thus lose revenue. Rogan realizes that it’s going to be reeeeeeaaaallly hard to find another $100 million job out there, especially since he can’t shoot twice as well as Steph Curry.

They’re not being cancelled. They’re choosing to be pragmatic.

A brief reminder that parody is protected speech and should stay that way

People sometimes need to be reminded that parody is protected speech. The thin-skinned police department in Parma, Ohio, arrested Anthony Novak for building a fake Facebook page meant to mock the agency’s efforts to combat crime. Novak spent four days in jail because of the page he created in 2016.

His criminal trial ended in a non-guilty verdict, as the jury found he did not use his computer to disrupt police functions. However, Novak planned a civil suit, arguing that his civil rights were violated, but lower courts dismissed his claims.

Now he’s going before the Supreme Court with some support from “America’s Finest News Source:”

One of Mr. Novak’s lawyers, Patrick Jaicomo, said in an interview Monday that last month he contacted Jordan LaFlure, the managing editor of The Onion, which is based in Chicago, to make him aware of the case and see if he would be interested in helping raise attention.

“They heard the story, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is something that could really put all of our people in the crosshairs if we rub someone the wrong way with one of our stories,’” Mr. Jaicomo said.

In a filing that read in places like one of its articles, The Onion laid out why it believes the authorities in Ohio had acted unconstitutionally, sprinkling in sincere arguments in defense of parody while riddling the rest of the text with moments of jest and hubris — claiming, for example, a readership of 4.3 trillion, and also boasting that it “owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes.”

I’m having a hard time imagining the 5-4 stick-up-the-keester majority being persuaded by this brief, although I guess I could envision Justice Brett Kavanaugh paging through this while drinking a beer and taking a dump. (Sorry to my more “visual” readers…)

I’ve been surprised by court rulings before, including the Mahanoy v. B.L. 8-1 decision, however, the Court recently seems generally grumpy toward free expression these days. In ruling against the MyPillow Guy,  Gorsuch and Thomas grumbled again that the court should reconsider Times v. Sullivan, a case that makes it really hard for public figures to win libel suits. Also, I’m more than a little concerned that we’ve got about seven self-professed Christians on the bench, given that the key lawsuit protecting parody involves a porno mag and a joke about the Rev. Jerry Falwell banging his mother behind an outhouse.

(Of course, there’s also the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. I’m not getting into the weeds on that, but let’s just say the Court seems to be relying on this precedent in dealing with the whole concept of “stare decisis.”)

I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys being mocked, but most folks know to take it in stride and get over it. I have met plenty of people who enjoy mockery as a form of humor, which is why insult comics get some of the biggest laughs and any man over the age of 40 can probably tell you which copy of Mad Magazine was the first one they ever purchased. (June 1987, Star Trek IV cover for me…)

At the college level, as much as I broke out in hives every time a student said, “Hey, let’s do an April Fool’s Edition!” I would prefer them to operate under the blanket of protection afforded them by the decision in the Flynt case. (One year, the student newspaper here Photoshopped the chancellor’s head onto the famous Demi Moore Vanity Fair image. Something tells me that didn’t go over too well…) Of all the thin-skinned, hair-trigger-offended, self-important people I’ve met in my life, far too many of them reside in academia, so having no protection for parody would put the kids directly in the soup far too often.

One of the best explanations of why speech that people don’t like came through in yet another clip that focuses on the apparent patron saint of this blog:

If George Washington can handle the donkey cartoon, Reagan didn’t jail Trudeau and the highest court in the land could see value in mocking Jerry Falwell, the police in Parma, Ohio could have just let Anthony Novak be. The fact they didn’t should earn them some form of punishment.

And maybe a little more protected mockery…