Saturday, October 09, 2004

I rather like Dan

For my latest Vermilion column, to be published in the Oct. 13 issue, I take on one of the editors. Yes, that's stupid. But, then again, so is her editorial, censored here for lack of scanner space:

The garbage ad was a nice touch Posted by Hello

What makes this anti-Dan Rather editorial so disgusting is that it comes from the features editor, Jennifer Knight, a person who has been with the Vermilion for (maybe) eight or nine months, tops. To read her editorial is to read either the words of a hardened veteran reporter (like Rather!) or those of an insecure college student who feels the need to puff up her stature by tearing down the standard-bearers of her profession. Whatever. I'm sure she's nice.

[Edit 4/4/07: A week later, the Verm ran a correction, saying this article was not the work of Jennifer Knight, but of Jennifer Reinert, who was a higher editor at the time. Which doesn't alter the point much.]

I rather like Dan

People in the press write a lot about themselves. Pick up any journalistic trade magazine and you’ll see what I mean. Journalists are seen by the public (often justifiably so) as a cocky and self-important lot. Of course, this is a profession staffed largely with former nerds with huge vocabularies, who have the potential to inflict damage with what they write. I should know, because that’s me! Reporting requires a special type of person, and ambushing people to get their deepest beliefs and rushing to meet deadlines is good work for a Type-A, hard-driven personality (That’s not me).

Journalism, then, often becomes an ego-driven industry. Much like hip-hop. And just like rappers, journalists who screw up get hammered. Not only does the mistake-maker get the facts wrong, but it becomes front-page news! For days! Justified or not, it’s almost sickening how much satisfaction journalists get from exposing one of their own. It gives them a feeling of intellectual superiority, as well as a chance to harp on why they themselves are above suspicion.

It’s one thing to demand a virtuoso performance on the stage of public communication; it’s another to try to bump that person off the stage while they’re still trying to perform. Take last week’s Vermilion staff editorial. Entitled “Hit the road, Dan,” the editorial took Dan Rather and CBS News to task for its recent fudging of facts regarding Bush-related documents. Faced with evidence that memos featured on CBS proving Bush’s skittish military service were phonies, Rather apologized.

Last week’s editorial compared Rather’s case to that of Jayson Blair, the recently disgraced New York Times journalist who made up articles. I find it surprising that a journalism student would make such a silly comparison; if her professor accused her of making up quotes, when in fact she recalled the information correctly but it turned out to be wrong, there’s no question she’d explode. Wouldn’t anyone?

It’s dangerous business for a “junior journalism student” to give hell to Dan Rather over incorrect information. This assumes, of course, that this journalism undergraduate is never herself going to make a mistake in her career. Rather has been employed by CBS News since 1962. In that time, he has been known for only two major gaffes: this one and a confrontation he had with George H.W. Bush in 1988, in which they—get this—both screamed at each other! That’s two mistakes in 42 years. Not bad! I myself passed that two-mistake threshold sometime during my tenure at my middle-school newspaper. Besides, let’s face it: any Vermilion staffer who points fingers for mistakes is calling the kettle black, okay?

Such criticism is valid only when it is not accompanied by blatant partisanship. Why, for example, did the writer not refer to the case of Fox News reporter Carl Cameron, who completely made up the John Kerry manicure quotes after the first Presidential debate? Where is her outrage over that?

And witness Cameron’s network, the “fair and balanced” Fixed News, sorry, Fox News. Any outlet that makes a policy of sending e-mails to its anchors to inject pro-Bush statements in its news deserves criticism. Not the kind of self-serving criticism currently enveloping Rather, but the constructive kind that actually helps the profession and the flow in information in general.

One quote from the editorial is telling: “Most people don’t know this, but journalists have a code of ethics.” Yes, it seems that most people these days aren’t aware that journalism has any ethics. It might help the integrity of this great profession if journalists showed a little restraint and forgiveness when one of their own shows the occasional misjudgment. Now that would be ethical.


Flamingo Jones said...

I liked the supportive comments made by Rather's rivals Brokaw and Jennings at the recent New Yorker forum...especiallly this Jennings quote: "I don't think you ever judge a man by one event in his career." It seems a little crass for an undergrad journalist to try to make her bones by attacking Dan Rather. When she's got some Emmy awards and a couple of Peabody's maybe I'll pay some attention to her.

Jennifer said...

Well, I accidentally stumbled upon this blog while doing research. And for your information, Ian, if you had paid more attention, you would have seen a correction in a following issue stating that the editorial, "I rather like Dan" was written by Jennifer Reinert, who was the news editor at the time. Also, get to know a person before making such harsh accusations. Thanks.

Ian McGibboney said...

Yes, Jennifer, you're correct that I should never have relied on the Vermilion to come close to getting it right. The way they screwed up my column over the years (such as by inserting misspellings, not noticing that one column was completely garbled and once publishing a horribly libelous conservative column under my name that led to some misunderstandings with some professors) should have made me hip to that. I should have left the personal stuff out of the blog, and did altogether in the column.

I get angry messages all the time from people who claimed they were quoted wrong in an Advertiser or Vermilion article. That's why I long ago quit citing their articles (and also why I moved away from the whole scene). I got tired of defending errors that had no right to exist.

I apologize to you, Jennifer, though it should be noted that no newspaper should be that lax in its editing standards.

Incidentally, no one named Jennifer wrote, "I rather like Dan." I did. The editorial to which you're referring is, "Hit the road, Dan." See, I don't like to be miscredited any more than you do.