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 (, 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:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Notes from Cedar Rapids Mayor Candidate Forum

Photo from, CR mayoral candidates Brad Hart and Monica Vernon.

When it really didn’t matter, Monica Vernon, candidate for mayor of Cedar Rapids, could not come up with an answer.

The question came during the rather lengthy introductory phase of a “Mayoral Forum” sponsored by The Gazette and CBS-2/Fox-28. Matt Hammill of 2/28 asked 20-minutes worth of rather fluffly personal questions, such as “What was your first job?” or “How did you meet your spouse?” I suppose I didn’t hate the one-on-one interviews, but honestly I was not a fan either.

After questioning Brad Hart, Hammill asked Vernon what Disney song she would most like to sing. She didn’t come up with an answer until she mentioned some old song from Snow White. Me, I think the appropriate Disney song for the evening would be this:

“I Wan’na Be Like You” because it was amazing how similar Brad Hart and Monica Vernon were and how much they both want to follow closely the path established by the current mayor. They had mostly identical answers—their placards almost completely agreeing during a Gazette-asked “lighting round” where they held up “yes” or “no” answers. The biggest disagreement was whether 2nd Avenue should have been closed—Hart was a yes, Vernon a no.

Me, I’m thinking it’s like a cow’s opinion. It’s pretty much a Moo point (extra credit if you get the “Friends” joke).

They both love, love, love outgoing Mayor Ron Corbett, which seems like another reference to the Disney song. If he were in the race for re-election, neither would challenge him.

On balance, I had several reactions to the forum. First and foremost, way to go, Todd Dormann and Lynda Waddington. The two Gazette opinion writers asked substantial and interesting questions. Score: Newspaper journalists 10, TV journalists 0.

I’m not even bummed that the question I submitted—how the candidates react to the sexual harassment issued and #metoo movement—wasn’t asked. The questions that were posed were more local and more relevant. Maybe my question will be part of the follow-up The Gazette hinted it might do with unused query.

My second reaction is that I’m not too worried about the outcome of this election. Both Vernon and Hart are establishment candidates. In choosing these two as the top vote getters, it seems to me that the body politic in Cedar Rapids wasn’t too upset with local leadership. That’s kind of where I stand, too.

I went into the night leaning towards Monica Vernon, but open-minded. Brad Hart did impress me as intelligent and capable, but, even if she didn’t name the Tessa Violet rendition of a Disney classic as her favorite song—as well she should—I would say my plan to vote for Vernon was strengthened by the candidates’ demeanor and answers at tonight’s forum. Although, to be fair, I also think if the chips fall the other way, Hart is not a poor choice for mayor.

My view of debate. Sadly, a friend from MMU said there were empty seats in the auditorium. Wish I could have been in one.
Finally, being the attendee who worked hardest to get there didn’t do me any good. Despite riding a bicycle in the cold dark, I was put in the overflow room, which was a bit irritating as the audio didn’t work at first, and there were some rude “stage whisperers” in behind me helpfully making it harder to hear. As it turned out, the audio was improved shortly after the forum began, and all I missed was Zach Kucharski’s introduction of the forum and Matt Hammill.

So, on balance, thanks Gazette  and 2/28 for putting this event on, and  CR Library for hosting. Also thanks to Tessa Violet for being Tessa Violet.

About 9:30 p.m., I pass the Rockwell-Collins pond on C Avenue. Both candidates would go to Connecticut to make the case to new Rockwell-Collins owners to keep jobs in Cedar Rapids.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two Interesting War Fables

Like River in "Firefly," this is one lady not to trifle with. Warner Brothers publicity photo.

Recently, in the past two weeks, my wife and I have attended two movies at the local second-run theater: “Dunkirk” and “Wonder Woman.”

I think we both enjoyed them both, and it was a bit more of a stretch for her, given she is not a fan of war movies. I don’t like all war movies—I am squeamish and don’t care too much for graphic violence, and I prefer movies that at least seem to attempt to be consistent with history as well as telling a compelling story—but I do like a lot of them.

So, for example, one of my favorite movies is “Eye of the Needle,” which is clearly fanciful, but nonetheless captures the spirit of intrigue during WWII and is a good, tense thriller. Other favorites include “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series (not really a movie, but cinematic) “Band of Brothers.”

I don’t insist on accuracy down to the rivets, just, please, nothing wild and impossible. Like “Pearl Harbor.” Sure, they did great filming the attack itself, but the whole Doolittle Raid ending felt false and silly. They didn’t use fighter pilots to fly bombers on that raid, and the idea that the Army Air Corps would seek “pilots who can fly bombers like fighters” is ridiculous on the face of it—“we’re seeking long-haul truckers who can ride bicycles like trucks.” It makes as much sense.

Anyway, there is a whole genre of movies around World War II, which ranks as the great mythic good and evil struggle of the movie era. World War I, while a smaller war, was arguably more important as a historic event, but it’s not seen as often in the movies.

Back to the two recent movies—one set in World War I, the other in World War II. One had the feel of reality even if parts of the story were compressed and reshaped for cinematic purposes—still, I found “Dunkirk” compelling partly because there was so little artifice in the story telling. The other movie featured an incredibly sexy actress in a miniskirt and armored corset battling in a mythical World War I. And yet, I forgive “Wonder Woman” if it plays havoc with the actual historic event—because, after all, it’s a movie that features Zeus and immortal Amazons and a hidden magic island and a shield that can stop machine gun bullets—it’s pretty clear we’re not watching a documentary. Still, even as fanciful as it is, “Wonder Woman” does capture something of the feeling of the hopeless, violent carnage that was World War I, so it has some value in showing a modern audience what trench warfare meant.

On the beach, looking for home. Another Warner Bros. photo--as are the rest in this post.

One film, “Dunkirk,” is almost exclusively male. The other, “Wonder Woman,” has a largely male supporting cast, but does include the aforementioned Amazons, an evil female scientist named Dr. Poison, and an entertaining secretary character.

Despite their clear differences, I did find some similarities between the two movies. One is that both are aided by compelling sound work—musical scores, for instance, that do well in setting the mood.

Both are slightly “dark” in a literal sense—the day scenes are often washed out and foggy, and, especially in “Wonder Woman,” the second half portrays both the front and London as rather dingy places. Some key scenes in “Dunkirk” are below deck in ships, and this movie more than most I’ve seen makes those dark, claustrophobic places seem dark and claustrophobic. Although the mythical Amazon island in “Wonder Woman” is a sun-bathed paradise, I appreciated the sparing use of light in the later part of the movie, and the whole muted look of “Dunkirk.”

Both have implicit anti-war themes. When Wonder Woman stabs who she thinks is the evil god she is chasing—and it turns out not to be—she is shocked that men still wage war. In part, this female-driven movie is rumination on the violence of mankind, in a literal sense. You can’t trust the boys. They make war. And I hasten to add that I consider that not very sexist. In mammals, much pointless aggression is fueled by testosterone, and we all know which human gender that impacts most.

Amazon warrior and stock Hollywood bad person--German solider.
“Dunkirk” is a heroic tale of the British living on to fight another day, but I can’t help seeing the random senselessness of the violence—which I think is fair to the reality of actual war—as carrying an anti-war message.

In both, one of Hollywood’s stock stereotypes of villains is used—Germans don’t exactly get a good name in either film. “Dunkirk” is told exclusively from an allied point of view, so Germans are distant and dangerous and shooting at us—and that doesn’t treat them unfairly according that movie’s premise, even if it’s not great PR. “Wonder Woman’s” use of proto-Nazis is a bit more troubling. It’s one of the weaknesses of the whole Indiana Jones set of movies that Nazis are almost cartoonish bad guys, and “Wonder Woman” comes close to that portrayal. German soldiers exist to be speared, stabbed, knocked out of buildings, etc. They aren’t exactly seen as three-dimensional humans.

Neither movie is anti-German—“Wonder Woman” doesn’t suggest Germans are more evil than any other set of humans, but the evil characters in that film are mostly German (except, of course, for the main bad guy).

Well, I don’t think “Wonder Woman” will fuel any anti-German hysteria—no travel ban is being suggested for October beer drinkers. I just thought the portrayal of evil doers was a bit disappointingly shallow in that tale. Beyond importing Indiana Jones Nazis in a world several decades before they existed, the movie has some other odd mojo going on—what the heck was the deal with the gas that the German general was snorting? An implied anti-drug message?—don’t snort drugs, kids, or an Amazon goddess will pin you to the roof with her sharp thingie?

Meh, I’ve lapsed into complaining about “Wonder Woman.” I really liked the movie despite its flaws.

On the dock. Was that a plane I heard? God, I hope it was not a plane ...
I did find “Dunkirk” to be the superior movie, more underplayed. “Wonder Woman” was a bit uneven to me—the early part where our hero grows up and is trained was a bit slow. But the movie picked up when the Germans landed on the beach. And I did appreciate the playfulness of Wonder Woman trying to make sense of 1918 Europe—the customs, the clothes, the odd meaning of it all. She was, in many ways, the “alien” who comments on life—sort of like Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” only less evil and more lively.

And, despite some flaws, I think I liked “Wonder Woman” on a sort of Buffy level—Buffy was so entertaining because it turned so many horror movie conventions on their heads. The blonde headed down the alley where there were monsters, and the monsters ended up dead. In “Wonder Woman,” the pretty exotic curvy woman in the teeny skirt and tight armor ended up in the trenches, and the Germans all died.

“Frozen” took the movie world by storm, partly because it’s portrayal of a strong female lead character was off the beaten track and resonated with girls (and male feminists like me). “Wonder Woman” has become a feminist icon, too.

More strong women characters in movies, please. And if a story must be male centric (Dunkirk made sense as a boy movie due to its time and place) then at least have it be thoughtful and relatively accurate in its portrayal of history. The anomalies in “Dunkirk,” having the German plane painted wrong, for instance, are mostly minor details and useful from the story telling point of view without really misrepresenting the events.

So thumbs up for both recent movies, different and similar as they are.