Monday, August 10, 2009

An open letter to
Mass Comm majors

Around the country, universities are graduating students who have spent the summer completing their studies. Some are graduating from Colleges of Mass Communications with graduate degrees, some of whom will go on to become college professors, teaching the next generation of news people.

It is those few I would like to address.

I spent 25 years in broadcasting - all of them before you were born. There was one very prevalent characteristic of news people when I was in the business, a characteristic which seems to have become scarce... something called integrity. I want to ask you to help restore it.

When I started in broadcasting, the most powerful credit reference was the simple fact that you had been employed by the local radio station. By virtue of having been accepted as part of the local broadcasting, news-gathering team, you had instant good credit.You were trusted. You were believed. You were respected. Understand, I didn't earn that trust or respect, it was earned by broadcasters before me who displayed, unwaveringly, that characteristic called integrity.

Toward the end of my career, I took a leave from broadcasting to work for a newspaper. The Wichita Eagle-Beacon in Wichita, Kansas. I was employed in the advertising department, considered unfit for the editorial department because I didn't have a journalism degree!

Imagine... 25 years on the streets didn't count as much as four years screwing off in college, spending a few hours a week listening to a professor who probably never stood in a police station at 4:00am on a cold winter day, reading a synopsis of the previous night's happenings, trying to decide if any stories appeared to be of enough interest and concern to your listening audience to request the full report. (When one did, you had to study the hand written report of an exhausted, overworked police officer who, at 2:00 a.m., had tried to unravel some sort of altercation. You take notes, carefully recording names, addresses and who said what, return to your studio and write up the stories as you will read them. Then you re-read them. And you try to be sure you got it right, before you go on the air with them.)

Anyway, when I joined the advertising staff at the Eagle-Beacon, we were given a tour of the editorial department. Henceforth, we were not permitted in that side of the building for any purpose. God forbid that we may try to influence a news reporter on behalf of an advertiser. The advertisers... the city's business community... had become the enemy!

Visiting politicians, after placing their ads with my department, were certainly welcome in the editorial department. There they were celebrities, surrounded by young reporters, eager to tell their story.

That was almost 40 years ago. It has gone downhill from there. Today, some reporters not only tell the politicians stories, they adopt their ideology and happily weave it into everything they write.

Now, students, you have completed this phase of your studies. I don't know what you were taught about honestly reporting the news, but at least you have learned to avoid the real sins of writing with those dreaded cliches. You have learned to use punctuation. You have learned to use spell-check.

So, here is my request to you young professors to be. First, get a job at a local newspaper or radio station. Discover first-hand what it takes to sort out the events around you and determine what is really happening, what is true and what is not, what is important and what is not. Write the news. Read the news. Study the news. And study history.

It is true that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck. Learn to look and listen for quacks and waddles, and learn to check them out to see what they really are. Then tell us the truth. Yes, you will have to contend with editors, bosses, who started their career with a clove of garlic hanging over their computer terminal to keep advertising salesmen away. But it you learn the truth and you write the truth, they cannot always defy you.

At the end of the day, when you turn out the lights and go home, satisfy yourself that you have been only a messenger, faithfully carrying the true message, not an ideologue trying to persuade the dumb public.

When you return to academia, teach what you have learned. Teach that integrity trumps all else.

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