Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Editor Tells Students about Keeping Trust

Zack Kucharski, executive editor of The Gazette, speaks with a Mount Mercy student in a conference room at the paper May 1, 2018.

The main product that belongs to any media outlet or journalist is trust, Zack Kucharski, executive editor at The Gazette told one of my classes this morning.

We were on our annual pilgrimage to the newsroom of The Gazette, our local daily newspaper. It’s one of my favorite days of the year, partly because Zack is always such a kind host to our tours.

Today, the May 1 morning began with me dithering about transportation. To bike or not to bike: That was the question. There were storms west of here, but here there were none at the time, and the weather app on my phone indicated just a 15 percent chance of rain.

But on my KCRG app, Kaj O’Mara seemed to be more sure of rain. So, I graded some papers at home and let the time slip by until driving my Dodge rather than pedaling one of my bikes became my only option to get to The Gazette.

Score one for local media. As I drove south to downtown Cedar Rapids, the sky, which has been dry for a fortnight, opened up with a warm spring thunderstorm.

Parking was a challenge, as it seemed all of the streets near The Gazette were under construction. I arrived a few minutes after 9:30 to find just a handful of my students had arrived before me. But, as Zack joined us about 9:40 to start our one-hour visit, more showed up—eventually 16 students joined us, my whole class.

Mount Mercy students meet with editor of The Gazette.

We had a quick look at the newsroom, and then Zack ushered us into a conference room for a 15-minute Q and A before the morning editors’ news meeting. A handful of editors crowded into the room with us and quickly reviewed what’s going on in the CR corner of the world.

After the news meeting, we had a few more minutes with Zack. He spoke with students about The Gazette’s new paywall, about how the students should be comfortable telling stories in many venues and about trust.

In a fake “fake news” world, maintaining trust is the main objective for journalists.

Zack also enjoined students to remember that each of them has just one indispensable asset: The trust that others place in them. That’s true whether the others are readers, viewers, listeners or professional colleagues.

“We make mistakes every day,” Zack added. But when you make a mistake, he said, admit it, correct it and learn from it—most of all, don’t deny it. To deny is to break trust.

Zack speaks in lobby of Gazette.
I believe Zack Kucharski believes what he says. And I think that, as one of the owner-employees of The Gazette, what he said reflects a spirit that is present in what The Gazette does. These days, it’s in fashion to bash the media from the right and sometimes the left for real and perceived biases.

But, trust me, if you want to know what’s going on CR, you do need a source you can believe in. For weather, for me, that Kaj. For news, for me, it is The Gazette. They aren’t perfect, but if you tune only into their imperfections, trust me, you’ll be placing trust somewhere else where it probably doesn’t belong.

And I trust students heard that message.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Stormy Feeling in the Air

Stormy chats with Anderson Cooper. All images on this post are screen shots from CBS News web site. I was flying back from England Sunday and missed the interview on TV, so I caught it online. Yay for the internet. I think.

How do you feel about 60 Minutes and the Anderson Cooper interview with Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels?

I am unclear in my own mind how I feel. On the one hand, Ms. Clifford seems to have candor and credibility. The president’s lawyer, in what may be an illegal hush payment just prior to an election, didn’t pay her because she didn’t have sex with President Trump.

He paid her because she did.

On the other hand, the sordid fact that Donald Trump is a pathetic man who would have casual sex with a porn star shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child seems simultaneously extremely icky—and possibly not all that relevant to public discourse.

Liberals can’t have it both ways. If what President Clinton did with an intern while in the White House wasn’t an issue, then neither is the Donald being a pig at a golf tournament. We already know Mr. Trump is a misogynist hypocrite. That it doesn’t matter to his base may be weird—what are all those Evangelical Christians thinking—but it is worth raising the relevance question: Do we expect Presidents, or public men in general, to be saints?

As for me, I always disliked President Clinton’s behavior. His sexual pursuit of a young intern in the 1990s was irresponsible and immature. But it didn’t necessarily disqualify him to be an effective politician.

To me, the worst part of the Clinton affair was the aftermath—the president using legal babble to try to wiggle out of his problems, and his associates attacking the object of his lust. And we know enough now about Bill Clinton to know that his public service record will always include an asterisk caused by his appetites.

So, I’m not a big Bill fan. But I voted for Hillary. I’m not sure why she stuck with Bill, but that’s her business, and I really don’t care all that much.

As for Donald Trump, he is already going down in history as the worst American president. Not the worst in recent history, not the worst since World War II. He’s a man of extremes.

Worst. President. Ever.

That’s partly because he changes his mind on fundamental issues of policy at a dizzying pace. He’s cancelling DACA. He’s blaming Democrats for the collapse of DACA. He’s not beholden to the NRA, but he’ll do exactly what the NRA wants. He’s for compromise legislation that he threatens to veto. He waffles like that not because he’s having second thoughts—as Stephen Colbert pointed out, he never bothers with first thoughts. He’s living proof that a show business career—while it requires some ability to banter, some on-camera force of personality—doesn’t need any depth behind it.

And now his presidency, which has always been on the edge of collapse, is teetering yet again because of a porn star who appeared on 60 Minutes. And Ms. Clifford has the advantage partly because she’s not at all unrealistic about who and what she is. She is not ashamed to be in the adult entertainment industry.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is his own worst enemy because he insists on constantly presenting himself as things that he is not. He’s not at heart a Republican (he’s not at heart a political animal at all), he’s not a hero, he would not rush in to a school to save students during a shooting (as his exemplary record of dodging the draft in Vietnam seems to prove). He did not have an impressive Electoral College victory--he barely got elected and lost the popular vote. He did not have an impressive crowd at his inauguration, and can't get over those facts--in fact, can't seem to grapple or bother much with facts at all. If still waters run deep, Trump is proof that the loudest babbling brooks are usually shallow.

He does have some abilities. He can command an audience of like-unminded people. He can pander to the camera.

But he’s outclassed by an intelligent exotic dancer/adult entertainer.

It’s delicious, but also unsettling. Donald Trump deserves to be removed from office for gross incompetence and for financial frauds and crimes. He’s working hard on the mid-term elections primarily because a Democratic majority may mean impeachment.

I just hope it’s not impeachment for cheating on his wife. Do I care when political men treat women as objects of lust and pleasure to the exclusion of their identities as intelligent coequal humans? Yes … but.

More than the Stormy affair, it’s the Don’s behavior during the election—the hush money—that can cause Mr. Trump problems. Whether there was collusion with the Russians isn’t the only unseemly secret that could yet trip up Teflon Don.

Trump loves to play at the edge of rules, and he’s not exactly a legal eagle. He often suggests actions that are outrageous or illegal, without any sense of where the lines are. I won’t feel any sympathy for him if, as seems likely, he loses his presidency because he didn’t care about the law. And yes, the Clintons often lived in the same shady universe of ill behavior—but both Hillary and Bill have sharper legal minds than Donald Trump. Frankly, most cats have sharper legal minds. The Clintons play hardball in ways that often make them unattractive. But, Trump plays ball without knowing what the rules are—he just wants to win, and doesn’t care if he brings a baseball bat to a tennis court.

Stormy chats with her lawyer. He's a better lawyer than Donald Trump has, because The Donald has no ability to gauge the abilities of other humans. Spank him again, much harder this time, Stormy.

And, isn’t there, or shouldn’t there be, some latitude for private lives to play out in private—even for a president? Ms. Clifford pointed out to 60 Minutes that she was not a sexual assault victim—the raunchy sex which reflected neither physical attraction nor human affection was consensual and was years ago.

Which means maybe it was nobody’s business.

Anderson Cooper, you’re a pretty potent journalist. You topped the ratings charts. Trump probably cares a lot about that because ratings are always his main scale for deal with reality.

As for me, I’m not so sure how I feel about the whole turn of events, other than I wish I wasn’t posing the question to myself in the first place. 60 Minutes is a venerable news show. One of the worst aspects of the Clinton scandal was it caused serious news outlets to carry detailed reports about semen spots on clothing. We’re there again. If I ran the shop at 60 Minutes, I wouldn’t be comfortable with that fact.

But then again, we’re in the gutter mostly because of you, Donald Trump. Your total lack of self awareness and sense of shame has put us there. Thanks a lot. Rex what right about your intelligence.

MAGA. Make American Groan Again.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Seeking Student Leaders with an Old Man

Image of me in class shot by a student.
It’s that time of year again—the MMU Times will be seeking applicants for the role of editor-in-chief.

It’s a key role for student media, and it’s a great experience for the student who is smart enough to grab for it. I hope we have several applicants.

Anyway, I leveraged the need to publicize that search with an introductory journalism class I’m teaching. Students were learning about interviews this week, so I invited the current student editor to come in and be questioned by students, who would then write a news story about the editor search based on what they learned.

In that class, students are required for report for the campus newspaper, and small-community journalism includes photography and videography, as well as writing. So, I brought in my Nikon camera and told students to shoot as they had the editor, Connor Mahan, in for a news conference. We also recorded it on the newspaper’s video camera.

Connor Mahan and me. I like this image the best. I'm using my phone to record the interview.
While there were pictures of Connor from class, one interesting aspect of the exercise to me was how many photographs of the old man I ended up with—although Connor was the primary source for the story, student photographers spent more time photographing Joe.

In part, I think that students gravitate to the familiar. They are more comfortable making my image because the act of photography seems like a personal connection, and it’s more comfortable to do that with someone you know.

Another image of that guy? In their defense, the camera was passed around the room and some students were shooting while I was the only one speaking. Professors do prattle on some.
But, a journalist is called upon to get over that, and to engage in personal contact with a stream of strangers.

It felt a bit odd for me to pick and edit photos from the class to use on this blog post. Seeing your own image is always a bit startling—the camera clearly adds years and pounds. I think that’s probably true of any “seasoned” person—in my own mind, I’m neither as big nor as aged as I appear others, and seeing my photograph gives me a peek into how others see me.

Weird. Not otherwise sad, really, because I don’t mind being of advanced years.

Anyway, most of the student images are badly focused or not framed well or ill-timed—but that’s normal. One aspect of training new news photographers is to get them to learn you have to shoot a lot to get a few good images.

It was a good exercise. I’ve not done it in this class before, but hope to continue it in the future. In the meantime, MMU students: This is your chance!

Apply today to be the student leader of the MMU Times.

Connor and me again.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Front Pages Fix Memory of Florida Tragedy

As we hurtle forward towards a post-newspaper world, I want to pause for a minute and praise papers for their ability to fix points in time; newspapers have been called the first draft of history, and history will miss them when they’re gone.

I’m heartsick over the shooting last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and admire the survivors who are fed up. Sadly, I doubt we’re at a cultural turning point, but at least I think it’s possible that we are, and credit belongs to the youth are getting out in front of the culture.

Anyway, using the Newseum web site (newseum.org), I spent some time Feb. 16 looking at how America’s oldest news medium was treating the Florida shooting.

The Boston Globe chose bold, front-page commentary. As did, and perhaps a bit more surprisingly given its conservative ideology, the New York Post:

The New York Times was much calmer in its approach, but the Times is not given much to hyperventilating:

My local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was one of many that featured candle-lit vigil images from Florida, as the Kansas City paper did, too:

And finally, closer to the action, how two Florida papers played the story, including showing the victims:

In years to come, when we look back on this event, I for one hope it serves as the start of something. In the future, it would be good to look back on the years 1999 to 2018 as the anomaly, as the odd time when schools briefly became a target before we the people were able to collectively come to grips with this scourge.

May we look back from a less violent America. And the front pages shown here will be artifacts that will preserve our memory of this sad time.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What it Means to be a Journalist

From syllabus, images of MMU students who are journalists (with cameos from Iowa Watch and 'The Gazette.'

“‘The New York Times is trying to distract you.’” Sean Hannity, Jan. 25.

From the Fake News, I suppose. We have a shocking video of the day to bring you—Fox News is not a reliable “news” source, compared to “The New York Time.” If you want Fake, think Fox (new slogan, remember I came up with it). Not that the Times is always right, but they at least have the right process to report the facts and make some effort to correct their errors.

Anyway, I had an interesting class today—the first day of Introduction to Journalism. I have a large class this spring—twice its usual size—and I suppose maybe I have the Fake President to thank for that. We’ve seen many, many examples of the importance of journalism in dark times.

And more students are interested in journalism, which is to the good.

This morning, I showed this video, which summarizes the role of journalism in the digital age. I don’t know the person who made it, but I think it’s making valid points:

Journalism students today must study and learn who to trust and when, and how to tell their stories in any medium.

Also, to talk about the process of reporting, we watched this video from “The Washington Post”:

Journalism can be thankless and difficult. But it is important. In class, 10 students signed up to report for “The Mount Mercy Times” first issue of the spring semester.

Yay! Let the sun shine. Go, Times, both NY and MMU.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Art: An Afternoon at the Museum

Oldest son looks at exhibit in Cedar Rapids Art Gallery. My two sons, a daughter-in-law, my wife and I visited the museum Dec. 26.

As a communication/journalism professor, I’m in love with the word. I worked as a reporter and editor, and I still do a fair amount of writing in my day job. Plus I write an occasional column for “The Corridor Business Journal” on media.

As part of my journalism career, I did take photographs, and am an amateur photographer now. And that’s about all of my creative endeavors. If it involves a keyboard or a shutter button, I may be OK a the task. If it requires using human opposable thumbs with other tools, you’re not asking the right person.

But, media aren’t just words and pictures. There’s video, of course. And music. Also, art.

Print of Tolstoy. Tolstoy is also reflected in the print.
I like many of my images, but I would not call my photography “art.” I tend to use images as a fairly literal story telling tool.

But, just I enjoy the work of those who can sing or play a musical instrument. I also enjoy the work of visual artists who can create provocative objects and images. I am not particularly skilled in either music or art, nor educated in them. So art, to me, is a little like pornography is to the Supreme Court—I can’t articulate very well what it is, but I sort of think I recognize it when I see it.

The day after Christmas 2017, during a very intense cold snap, a daughter-in-law who lives in California and was visiting us along with our son, suggested an outing to the local art museum, The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

In Greene Square Park looking towards CR Museum of Art. Picture from my bike blog taken in May 2016.
It was close to 2 when we arrived, which meant we would have about 2 hours in the museum. That is about right for this museum, I think—long enough to wander around at a leisurely pace and read many of the placards, not so long that you feel you’re running low on things to look at.

Detail of "Elephant Hunter."
I enjoyed all of the exhibits: The Grant Wood art, the prints, the Roman art, the human figures and the others. I liked the whimsical bench Grant Wood made for transgressors at a local school. I think the Hoffman exhibit of sculpted faces from around the world was particularly interesting, although I also enjoyed the prints, which features many repeated images with subtle changes, such as a whole series of Tolstoys.

I like the building itself, too. The art museum’s entrance lobby, which we entered from the “back side” by the parking lot rather than from the side facing Greene Square Park, is an interesting area, particularly as you climb the steps and cross the bridges to get to the second floor galleries.

Sculpture of French woman peeking into CR Art Gallery.

When we visit other cities, we often like to tour their art galleries. I think we skipped them in San Francisco because museums there are so pricey, but I’ve wandered around art museums in New Orleans, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha, Davenport, Muscatine, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington, D.C. I don’t always understand everything I see—I’m sure I am not alone in wondering why some modern artistic expressions are even considered “art.” While I like some abstract works, I do like some literal communication and some sense of craft, too.

So, I don’t “get” all art. Which is fine. I’m sure not everyone gets all of my writing. I hope you enjoy some of it on this blog, and find it diverting, just as I like art.

Art is a mode of communication, but not always as direct as words, I think. Which is one of its pleasures. To be honest, I think even a writer loses control over their creation once it’s published, anyway—readers always interpret things based on their points of view and experience. A story belongs to the audience. But the writing can still create some sense of shared humanity and experience. As can art.

Thanks for the suggestion, Nalena. Going to the art museum over Christmas break was a great idea. After that, we went home, cooked a warm supper and had apple crisp and ice cream. Our day was made complete by the various works of human hands.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Enjoying Kayla Briet's Smoke That Travels (2016)

I was looking for a TED talk to use in a speech final and stumbled upon this--a very touching, short film made by an 18-year-old young woman about her Native American heritage. She is the same age as my students, which is pretty mind blowing. The film doesn't have that many views and her YouTube channel does not have that many subscribers, but I think it bears watching.

Click to watch her TED talk. Then search her on YouTube--I enjoyed one of her songs, but particularly her short film about her father.

See what you think of her film: