oberlin alumni magazine  
reporting for duty by michael doyle '78


"Too many reporters--especially, but not exclusively, on television--want to make a splash, scuttle a campaign, get someone indicted, blow someone or something out of the water," said Jon Margolis '62, a 22-year veteran of The Chicago Tribune who now freelances from Vermont. "Too few want to explain how things work, the way we live now, or what the world is like, all of which is both harder work and less likely to lead to an invitation on the next Sunday's chat shows.

But the Tribune's former chief national political correspondent is serious about the larger critique, and he's earned his jaundice. Having escaped daily deadlines and recently published the well-received book, The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, Margolis can see the schlock, hear the contrived TV shoutfests, feel the rumbling of a tectonic shift in information delivery. All of which can unsettle those many Oberlin graduates who know, like Margolis, the unique compensations of journalism well practiced.

"There are still times," said Bonnie DeSimone '79, a former WOBC sports director and now a top Chicago Tribune sportswriter, "when I'm at a sporting event, seeing something really cool, and I think, 'I can't believe they're paying me to do this.'"

Here's the rub. The profession is counting its pocket change and searching its soul. Individual journalists, though, can still have a high old time in what is, for all the gnashing of teeth, one of the tastiest jobs around. You don't have to sell your soul or somebody else's soap. You can touch people's lives. You're courtside at history and getting paid to learn. The powerful return your phone calls, and Mom sees your byline.

Hope Keller '79, an International Herald Tribune veteran now on leave to raise her young daughter, noted the essential fact that "newsrooms are fun, even though they're not as fun as they used to be." And, she added with a dollop of newsroom sauce, "you can still help people who are getting screwed by exposing the people who are screwing them."

"It's depressing to see the cynicism and the willingness of many papers to compromise to cater to advertisers," said Ulysses Torassa '84, who covers science and medicine for the San Francisco Examiner. "But I still feel it's a field that gives the people in it a great deal of freedom, and where most of the people in it have a genuine desire to communicate all the interesting things going on in the world."

Robert Krulwich

Consider Robert Krulwich '69.

The ABC correspondent can testify to the transformation of electronically borne news. National Public Radio, where he was once national affairs editor, has gotten "very mature and a little flat." Television news has "become much more of a business." For a journalist--even an economically fluent one like Krulwich--that's not a compliment. The old common ground of the evening newscast has crumbled. About 40 percent of American adults now regularly watch nightly network news, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Seven years ago, 60 percent of Americans tuned in.

And yet. "I'm not in the camp of 'Omigod, the sky is falling,'" Krulwich said. "I have a great job. I get to do whatever I want, on whichever program I please."

Last summer, for instance, Krulwich initiated a program entitled "Brave New World." He took "frisky people" and a fresh format and explored "unapologetically complex" ideas like human cloning. It was exemplary TV journalism. Treating viewers with such intellectual respect, moreover, may also make business sense. A 1999 survey by Rosenstiel's Project for Excellence in Journalism found, reassuringly, that TV stations with high ratings produced more long stories than those dropping in ratings. It seems the best news stations were commercially flourishing.

The survey, though, tempered the good news: 43 percent of the stories involving controversy gave only one side, and there was on the whole little enterprise reporting. Hackneyed journalism is distressingly common in the profession that, by Krulwich's accounting, is divided into three tribes. One is that of The Explainers, and theirs is a complex and sometimes costly job. It's much safer for management to deploy the other two tribes: The Entertainers and The Witnesses.

"The Entertainers choose topics that people already know about, and their purpose is to be huge," Krulwich said. "The Witness's job is to stand next to important people, and say, 'I saw you' or 'Watch this.'"

Tom Hamburger

Krulwich, as it happens, is a journalist-plus. He holds a degree from Columbia Law School. He's reflective, in that sense, of another trend in journalism: the evolution from ink-stained outsiders to advance-degreed insiders. Rosenstiel, along with many other Oberlin journalists, earned a master's degree at the Columbia University journalism school. Others have re-sampled academia through mid-career fellowships: Tom Hamburger '74 of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Zajac of The Chicago Tribune as Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford, and Ulysses Torassa at the University of Michigan as a Michigan Journalism Fellow. And at the University of North Carolina, veteran Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Scott Maier '78 is a full-ride Park Fellow earning a doctorate in communications in preparation for a teaching career.

"I used to think," Maier said, "that studying journalism was the worst way to prepare to be a reporter. There is no better training than to pound out story after story, to see how it is edited, sometimes for the better, and to experience the thrill of seeing your byline in print."

For all its obvious advantages, the increased professionalism accompanies more complicated trends. As recounted by old-time reporter Jack Germond, political writers once characterized themselves as SLIMSIN: Shabby Little Insignificant Men Scribbling In Notebooks. With Watergate, journalism became sexier; and, at the higher levels, far more remunerative. One consequence, on television, has been the rise of journalist-as-celebrity and the displacement of information. The scribbler became the talker, and the notebook was put away. Another consequence has been a growing distance from the readers journalists ostensibly serve.

Journalists are better educated, younger, and often more highly paid than the general public, a 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey found. The survey noted journalists tend to be more liberal than the public. Little surprise, then, that 77 percent of the public thought newspapers pay too much attention to stories supporting the journalists' point of view.

"Many newspapers take a liberal slant, but would never admit it, and even seem oblivious to the bias when it's obvious to readers," said Patrice Hill '76, chief economics correspondent for the conservative Washington Times. "The result is, the public discounts what it reads in the newspapers, and assumes it's not accurate or balanced."

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