Well, here it is, finally. First paragraph in italics, the rest of it below the fold. And yes, I have a fold now.
By the way, you’ll see some wonderful captioned photos accompanying this article. Those aren’t mine. I took some photos, but they were all pretty terrible – these photos are all courtesy of my good friend, Free Spirit roommate, and excellent photographer Javy Gwaltney (pictured left). Thanks again, Javy.
This is one of the hardest ledes I’ve ever had to write. How do you encapsulate five busy days in the seat of American government learning about journalism from media giants? How do you condense into a single sentence what it’s like to spend five days studying journalism with 101 elite student journalists from across the country? How do you write an unbiased article about a story that you participated in?
The answer to the last question, at least, is that you don’t. The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Foundation mandated that every so-called Free Spirit who participated in the program write an article about it, and I’m obeying the letter of that request if perhaps not the spirit. This article will not appear in Blue Prints, or any other print medium – as this is an article about my experiences and things that primarily affect only me and the only people on the trip, it seems like only a blog dedicated to whatever concerns me is an appropriate forum for discussing the program. Using my powers as editor-in-chief to put something on this into the school paper would border on the narcissistic.
And in case you couldn’t tell, this is not going to be a piece of unbiased journalism. The idea of writing an unbiased work about this event is absurd – the foundation spent five days putting me up at the Watergate Hotel and doing everything they possibly could to show me a good time, so it’s a bit difficult to view them objectively. Plus, I’m one of the people that this article is about – why even attempt traditional journalism when you’re already part of the story?
So instead of doing that, I’m going to take a stab at that alternative journalism that many of the people at the conference went out of their way to warn us away from. The Free Spirit Foundation may not be happy with that, but the way I see it, I don’t have a choice – to pretend that traditional journalism is even possible here would not only be an insult to the intelligence of you guys, the readers, but also to the journalistic tradition itself.
First, a bit about the program, from the conference’s official site:
The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Awards recognize outstanding high school seniors who have demonstrated an interest in journalism and an abundance of free sprit. Each fall, hundreds of students from across the nation compete for scholarships and the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., in the spring to meet with journalists and newsmakers during the Free Spirit Scholarship and Conference Program. One female and one male high school senior are selected from each state and the District of Columbia to receive a scholarship and the opportunity to attend the conference. Of these students, two will be selected to receive $50,000 college scholarships.
I was the male representative from Connecticut. I had mixed feelings going into this, and to be honest, those mixed feelings haven’t entirely gone away. On the one hand, this was a tremendous opportunity and honor. On the other hand, the closer we got to March 17, the day that the conference was to begin, the more suspicious I became.
Part of that was purely instinct. I’m generally wary of any person or group of people who sets out to do nice things specifically for journalists, particularly if said group then expects those journalists to go out and write equally nice things about them.
Critically acclaimed anchor, TV journalist and country music star Bob Schieffer. Also pictured: RAWK.
Another part of that was some of the people behind the conference. For example, Tim Russert was to be one of the speakers, which made me a little bit uneasy. I’ve already written a little bit about why I don’t consider Russert to be a real journalist. And now he was going to be lecturing me and 101 other aspiring young journalists on journalism.
Then there was Al Neuharth himself and his paper. I’ve never really been a huge fan of USA TODAY – before the conference I tended to side with former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who famously called it a “McPaper.” That – combined with the huge amount of material we received before the conference on Al Neuharth and the requests to help honor his birthday at the conference – made me a bit wary about the conference, and painted a picture of Neuharth for me of a man with an absolutely massive ego.
Some of my suspicions turned out to be warranted. Most of them weren’t. For example, the birthday ceremony for Neuharth was not actually his idea, and was apparently a surprise to him – rather it was organized independently by the people behind the conference. That mitigated my image of Neuhart’s ego somewhat, as did hearing him speak in person. Neuharth is an incredibly warm, charismatic man, and it was easy to see why so many other people who worked to organize the conference gushed about him as much as they did. He’s a man who has earned their love and respect, and if he had a large ego, at least he knows it and can joke about it.
Russert, on the other hand, was more or less what I expected. He seemed to dodge innocuous questions almost instinctively, as if his interview skills were still impaired from his ugly encounter with the Libby trial. And speaking of the Libby trial, I found Russert’s insistence that a real journalist could not befriend politicians and had to keep asking them the tough questions more than a little ironic considering his role in that scandal. And given his own failings on that count, his insistence that “blogging is not journalism,” also rang a bit false.
The “blogging is not journalism” trope is something that got repeated a lot during the conference by a lot of different people, and it made me a bit uneasy about the breed of journalism that the Freedom Forum was trying to sell to us scholars. It seemed riddled with contradictions – advocacy journalism if it’s online, but not bad if it’s in a magazine (or else they wouldn’t have had the editor of Parade magazine be a speaker). In general, journalists can’t be advocates unless they’re advocating for the First Amendment because without that they’re out of a job. The Internet is great because it’s a brand new, revolutionary way to distribute the same old newspaper and television content from the twentieth century. Journalists can’t befriend politicians, but it’s fine for media moguls to befriend politicians and for people to bounce between careers in journalism and politics.
All the internal contradictions within “the rules” as they were laid out for us managed to drive home one important point, although I don’t believe this was the point that the conference was supposed to make – there are no monolithic rules of journalism, besides of course an adherence to the principles of truth and integrity. Beyond that, there are countless schools of thought on how to serve those principles – each school has its own advantages and disad
vantages. There’s nothing wrong with believing that Hunter S. Thompson was, in his own way, as much of a journalist as Carl Bernstein.
Free Spirit people entering the USA TODAY headquarters.
One would hope that Neuharth would understand that, and make an effort to avoid the internal self-contradiction of the modern insider’s elitist view of journalism. After all, he had to fight it fiercely to defend USA TODAY from charges of not being a “serious” newspaper. Today, those charges still exist – I bought into them before the conference, disdaining it for its lack of focus on hard news relative to, say, The New York Times.
I had completely abandoned that opinion by the end of the conference. To accept that USA TODAY wasn’t a real paper because it had less of an emphasis on pure hard news would be to admit that Sports coverage and human interest stories are a kind of less serious journalism. My personal prejudices towards hard news aside, saying that would be to dismiss the hard work and integrity of the non-political writers I met on the conference, and who I have worked with on Blue Prints. USA TODAY is a paper for a different kind of audience, but that is not a reflection on the journalism contained within.
I’ve abandoned my self-righteous journalistic elitism as a result of the conference. Unfortunately, many of the speakers have a similar lesson to learn about alternative journalism.
Despite all that, most of the conference speakers were wonderful. Judy Woodruff, Al Hunt, Bob Schieffer, Bob Seigenthaler – I may not have agreed with their vision of journalism in the twenty-first century, but each of them had decades of experience in political journalism to draw on that made then a pleasure to listen to. Some of the non-journalism speakers and activities were also learning experiences in their own way – one evening, Ken Paulson, the editor in chief of USA TODAY, rolled up his sleeves and led us on a journey through subversive or controversial music of the twentieth century that was simply incredible to listen to. And I defy anyone to listen to Playing for Peace founder Sean Tuohey talk for more than five minutes and not walk away feeling inspired and deeply touched.
Michael, Washington state’s male delegate, in a reflective moment. Not pictured: his tiny, chronically untuned guitar.
But the best thing about the conference, hands down, were the other kids I met there: one hundred and two teenagers from across America and from all walks of life haphazardly cobbled together into the sharpest, most amazing group of people I’ve ever met. I met people with brains like battleships – hard steel, ready for war, carrying some of the most advanced weaponry known to man. I met people who are going to ask the questions that are going to bring down US Senators. I met the next anchor of SportsCenter, several candidates for the next Frank Rich, and a few people who are going to be running papers of their own in a few years. If they weren’t all so damn nice and funny and humble about it, I would have been pretty intimidated.
It was scary how close I felt to some of them after only five days, but I guess it isn’t surprising – we all have the shared experiences of student journalism, and all the trials and tribulations that come with that. We all care about journalism, about truth and freedom of speech and the world around us. We all want our voices to be heard, and we’re all willing to put a lot on the line to make that happen. Our passion and the five days we shared together connect us all in a rare and wonderful way. Thank God that we can all stay in touch on the Internet, thank God that there will be reunions, thank God that I’ll be sharing a suite on the NYU campus next year with a fellow Free Spirit alumnus, and thank God that in fifteen, twenty years we’ll all be hanging out at the National Press Club swapping anecdotes about press briefings we attended, stories we ran that pissed off the right people.
The old media school of journalism that we encountered at the conference may not have been exactly what I was looking for, but based on my interactions with the other teenagers at the conference, the future of journalism is looking pretty bright.
Jayvee asked me to point towards the Washington Monument with a stupid expression on my face, and that’s how we got this picture. I’m not sure what the value of that was, but he seemed pleased. Also, if you look closely you can still see some tents from the big protest the day before.