(BOSTON - 14 March 2008) As I make my way to the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, hosted in Boston this weekend, my shoulders are slouched at the state of affairs at my beloved Medill School of Journalism. At stake? The journalism construct as we know it.
The one and only reason I'm even attending this Harvard-sponsored event - full of fire-in-the-eyes writers who crave the next best story, the next best assignment, the next impact phrase that might change the world - is due to my time at Medill. I picked it up off the listserv, made my reservations, and here I am.
Since graduation, I have worn the alumni badge with pride, interviewing potential students in Atlanta, giving annually to both Medill and NU, working with fellow alumni in various capacities, returning to Evanston to see my mentors and instructors - even considering returning one day long in the future as a professor.
Those days are over. At least temporarily. With Dean Lavine's sordid curriculum change, not to mention "Quotegate," his falsified-sourcing scandal that is still unfolding as of this writing, I am ashamed of a school that plopped me square in the center of a stratosphere-level talent pool, ready to take on the world.
...and it's a talent pool from the Medill School of Journalism. One more time, THE MEDILL SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM.
Yes, that's right. I'm breaking it down to repetitive, grade-school, Bush-level communication for a reason: Northwestern University is sitting back and watching the implosion of one of the most respected *journalism* institutions in the country, the world for that matter, and there are many of us in the alumni ranks who just cant stand to listen to the noise anymore. (Some have taken matters in their own hands; I'll just do a blog post.)
The road to any meaningful catharsis is always long... but allow me to take a moment and catalog some of the comments we're picking up from the Medill Listserv, articles and blogs around the country, that may help soothe the pain. They are truly extraordinary. To wit:
- The "Mush Mouth" statement. Andrew Bossone (MSJ '05) has been all over this story, pointing out recently how NU president Bienen is lamely futzing his way through this entire ordeal. He cites the piece entitled "Paging President Bienen," Chicago Tribune, 8 March 2008. "I heard from a reliable source that NU President Bienen and Provost Linzer will meet with the faculty," Bossone wrote yesterday. "Apparently the page is being answered." (UPDATE: Andrew just wrote me and said the meeting's message was "put up, shut up or get out" (I'm summarizing) to the faculty. More of the same; see my comment below about the Bush administration.)
- "Journalism" May Fade Away? Eric Zorn writes for the Chicago Tribune about how the name, focus and curriculum switches have been the conspicuous symptoms of a institution with a case of walking pneumonia. "They’ve shunned an open search for the truth in a controversy swirling around Medill Dean John Lavine, brazenly failed to take the basic steps that a rookie reporter would take to investigate the allegation that Lavine made up quotes in an article he published and cloaked their excuses for Lavine in dark innuendo." Zorn has compiled an amazing "Webliography" of Quotegate, available here.
- The defiant, "sure"-enough dean. Dean Lavine addressed students earlier this week and once again denied fabricating quotes for a story in Medill magazine - quotes from an unnamed source that strangely echoed Lavine's own icky-everyman vernacular. The assertion that Quotegate has sprung legs because of faculty and alumni venom over his curriculum changes is partially true - you can't run an institution like Medill without holding yourself to the same standards you ask of your students. Neither can you pursue an unpopular new direction given said circumstances, especially when said Dean is attempting to cram said direction down people's throats. No thanks.
- A science that "makes craftsmen." Of all the voluminous posts on the subject, Jenny Gavacs (BSJ '00) was most eloquent. In a time when our very existence as journalists is called into question on a daily basis, she argues that now is not the time for Lavine to abandon our true self-idenfication. "The science of writing naturally has slightly different rules than biochemistry, but things like AP Style, the correct spelling of names, and quote attribution are just as fundamental to us as organic compounds are in Tech," she writes. "The problem is that in biochemistry, if something goes wrong, there are explosions or disintegration that objectively announce failure. In journalism, you may fabricate entire articles for The York Times but still have a job. Sometimes journalists only know that their science is corrupted when someone else points to the standards that have fallen.
"Journalism is a social science, like psychology," she continues. "You can't control everything in a situation, but you can control three or four key variables that will yield solid results. That's why Medill exists: To teach us to be rigorous, so we can uncover truth. There used to be a debate over whether a journalism degree was necessary - after all, people without journalism training have always gotten published. But Northwestern answered that challenge by showing that there is a difference between writing and writing well. Eric Zorn is a writer; it takes a Woodward and Bernstein, or a McPhee, or a Talese, or a Capote to be a craftsman. Medill was meant to make craftsmen."
Like Jenny, I don't disagree with all of Lavine's ideas. But it's the way in which change has been sought, and the disregard for the craft and institution; and subsequent, convoluted denials and false bravado within Quotegate, that have turned me rotten-milk sour on what Lavine is doing.
This situation is eerily similar to how I perceive the Bush Administration... mistakes that beget more ego-fueled mistakes, and the flippant disregard in their wake; changing the storied heart of a school because blogs are the new newspaper (does Lavine even subscribe to a single RSS feed?); shifting the sails because the wind is changing and yet disregarding the rudder to steer the ship. It's all bollocks. Give him the boot and do it soon.
Footnotes to a shadow Medill:
- The popular networking site LinkedIn does not provide Medill as one of NU's official schools.
- Medill has no official information about Kappa Tau Alpha on its Web site or materials, despite having awarded its students that honor. We should have a chapter manager among our ranks. We don't.
- The Medill site also has done away with its "Alumni Voices" Web section, taking away a vibrant, creative outlet for many of us who want to rant about something.
- Our site now looks like a third-rate cable company's landing page, and neither speaks to or draws inspiration from the legacy that Joseph Medill articulated. Not even close.
If NU's president (or board or someone) does not relieve Lavine, I will permanently cease all gifts, stop my interviewing and just plain give up. Our reputation has been trashed and we're all sick of the distraction. Let's restore and keep and polish what makes us great: journalism.
Much like our country. A return to greatness awaits. - WP
Tags: willpollock.com medill school of journalism, quotegate, controversy, dean lavine, bienen, alumni, outrage