Lessons abound in The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of Jeff Sessions, protesting students

Gallons of ink, mostly cyber-based, have already been spilled. More will surely flow.

This is in the wake of recent events on the campus of my alma mater, Northwestern University—events set in motion by an on-campus speech last week by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a group of Republican students.

From what I have gathered, The Daily Northwestern did a solid job reporting on his talk, as well as the protest of his presence on campus and general role in the Trump administration.

Then, editorial back-pedaling ensued, in the face of some students who expressed upset over certain elements of The Daily coverage—including its posting of protest photos on at least one of its social-media platforms.

On Tuesday, Charles Whitaker, Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, issued a statement that addresses myriad tentacles spawned by this saga. His observations are spot-on, and if you read nothing else about this entire chain of events, I urge you to read it here.

Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications Dean Charles Whitaker.

One especially important excerpt from Dean Whitaker:

“And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.”

Those words–in particular, “stay the course”–helped spur on the latest financial contribution from my household to The Daily Northwestern. The 138-year-old publication is where, as a sports reporter, columnist and editor, I enjoyed some of my best and most formative collegiate experiences. (And truth be told, it was my wife, also a Wildcat alum, who was the driving force behind the donation; after reading Whitaker’s statement, she couldn’t find the “Donate” button on The Daily Northwestern site fast enough.)

Some other initial reactions and reflections:

  1. Through each mundane story, energizing scoop, sloppy mistake, heart-wrenching encounter, and so many impossible-to-categorize pieces that I have written, here is a lesson that seeped gradually, inexorably into my soul: being a good journalist is a courageous, vulnerable, noble, messy pursuit.

2. Perfection is impossible, and excellence is not only elusive, but in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, how someone responds to a story frequently reveals much more about them than any strengths or flaws in the story itself. To wit: this entire Sessions coverage fall-out.

3. Good, old-fashioned reporting on difficult subjects has always been met with fierce resistance and come under assault. Some of my best and most important work has also been among my most reviled reporting—by a few vocal, and heavily vested, individuals. It’s human nature, after all, to try to deflect, or eclipse entirely, light that is unflattering or worse.

4. When compared with my primary time as a journalist (1984-2006), what is so dramatically different now: the weaponizing of social media. As Dean Whitaker so aptly describes it in his statement—the “brutal onslaught of venom and hostility.”

At times, journalists are the targets of that vitriol. More than ever, it is essential to develop thick skin and recognize that taking heat comes with the territory. In fact, and in my experience, it is often an indication that we are on the right track.

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Keeping Up With the State-Bound Oak Park and River Forest Huskies Girls’ Cross Country Team

Two weeks ago, when I sang the praises of Melissa Isaacson’s “State,” I foreshadowed a return to my sports writing roots as I chronicle my daughter’s cross-country team’s postseason efforts.

Having transitioned some 13 years ago from a long career in journalism to public relations and other forms of communication, I call these “random acts of journalism.” Or, as someone else recently put it, “You can take the writer out of journalism, but you can’t take the journalism out of the writer.”

The state-bound OPRF Huskies, after their sectional success. My daughter, the tallest one, is far right. (Megumi Hoshi photo)

Fortunately, against a historic backdrop highlighted by the tumult of whether Chicago Public School runners could compete during, and after, the CPS teachers’ strike, my daughter and her teammates have performed as well as hoped.

This past Saturday, they advanced from the Sectional at Lake Park High School in Roselle to the Class 3A state finals on November 9th in Peoria.

Here is the feature that I posted on the Oak Park-River Forest Patch page.

I am acutely aware of, and extraordinarily impressed by, the dedication and discipline that cross country athletes must bring to this often-lonely pursuit. An amusing, but spot-on, phrase from long-distance runners is that their sport is other sports’ punishment.

So, I made sure to emphasize those sacrifices with excerpts such as this one:

How they booked a return trip, the school’s 10th since 1979, is a testimony to their hard work and determination. On a day where the temperature dipped into the 30s and the three-mile course made for a muddy slog, the seven OPRF runners brought all their training to fruition.”

Of course, their success means my self-appointed assignment isn’t over. Keep an eye out for their performance “at State.”

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Melissa Isaacson’s ‘State’: A Coming-of-Gender Treasure That Resonates on Many Levels

One of life’s recurring pleasures is coming upon a book I wasn’t looking for—then being powerless to look away.

Three weeks ago, with a few minutes to spare before heading to a nearby meeting, that scene played out at a local library. There, prominently displayed along with other new releases, was a book whose cover was graced by a photograph of girls’ basketball players, uniforms and haircuts from yesteryear, cutting down a net in victory.

This was my introduction to “State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation,” by Melissa Isaacson.

Though we have never met, I have known of Melissa for nearly 30 years, dating back to her time as a Chicago Tribune sports reporter and columnist.  So, I have read countless stories she wrote about the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Bulls, and beyond. But I never knew her own coming of age story as a voraciously hungry high school basketball player. That came in the mid- to late-1970s, during the early years of Title IX opening the door to high school competition for girls.

As Isaacson acknowledges more than a few times, the book took many years to write, as she squeezed it into an already-busy schedule while overcoming periodic bouts of inertia, that bane of many authors and would-be authors. I am grateful she persisted, because the finished product is a lovely, heart-breaking, heart-warming, bittersweet and genuine coming-of-gender treasure.

It’s much more than a sports book, too, with Isaacson delving into the behind-the-scenes drama, trauma and triumph of her own family as well as those of her teammates, coaches, and others. Those subplots underscore the truth that we never really know all that is going on with someone else, so our default keys should be kindness, empathy and support.

In addition to those strengths, “State” resonated with me on at least four levels.

As a Former Player:

Like Melissa, I was an aggressive player long on desire with a certain ceiling in the talent department, willing to throw my body around in order to stay on the court. However, in terms of pure hunger, I have to concede that Melissa eclipsed me, a truth reflected by the 5 a.m. informal practice times she and other determined teammates carved out in order to grow their game and conditioning.

Turning the pages stirred feelings similar to those that washed over me a few years ago as I read Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season.” In that 2002 memoir, Conroy focused on his senior year (1966-1967) as the starting point guard of The Citadel’s men’s basketball team. In “State,” Isaacson recalls her journey in the burgeoning girls’ basketball program at Niles West High School in suburban Chicago.

Unlike Conroy’s final season, in which The Citadel lost two-thirds of its games, Isaacson’s team was a perennial powerhouse, culminating in a redemptive 1979 state championship.

Both books tugged at me to do something along those lines and reflect—perhaps even report—on my own basketball past.

It’s doubtful that a book of the ’85-’86 Marshfield (Ma.) High Rams is forthcoming, but here’s a nutshell: I played basketball on the South Shore of Boston, capped by a 10-10 season in the Old Colony League, a so-so mark that included exhilarating highs and extreme lows that ever since have served as personal reservoirs of confidence and regret.

My best friend and I were co-captains, months after a basketball camp encounter with the high-flying, beloved and ultimately ill-fated Len Bias that was surreal in retrospect.

For years, the Marshfield High basketball court doubled as the Boston Celtics’ summer rookie camp. Years later, when I met Larry Bird while on assignment covering LeBron James, Bird chuckled at my observation that we had played on the same court (though at different times, and against dramatically different competition).

And just as Isaacson as a teen had the good fortune of coming into the orbit of Jerry Sloan, the kind and recently-retired Chicago Bull, I had the honor of having my shooting form brusquely critiqued by Red Auerbach, the curmudgeonly cigar-waving Celtics coach and front-office legend.

As a Youth Basketball Coach:

I cherish the experiences I had as basketball coach of my son’s and daughter’s teams for roughly 10 seasons, combined, through the local park district.

Those years were filled with the thrill of game-winning shots, the disappointment of playoff losses, the joy of winning two championships, the frustration of a few winless seasons, and above all, the privilege of teaching the fundamentals of a game I love to scores of children.

 

I learned much along the way, too. It didn’t take long to detect significant distinctions between my two squads, perhaps most notably in the arena of coachability. (If you have to wonder whether boys or girls are more coachable, consider this: I took a one-year sabbatical from the helm of my son’s team because his aversion to taking instruction—or maybe it was my inability to convey it effectively enough—was damaging our relationship.)

Likewise, Isaacson touches on that gap in coachability, as experienced by her second varsity coach, Gene Earl. He had previously coached only boys and took on the role reluctantly. In short order, he was astonished by the eager receptivity of the young ladies he inherited in a program whose foundation was fostered by Arlene Mulder. She was more versed in organizational structure and interpersonal motivation than the game itself and, remarkably, would later become the highly respected and longtime mayor of Arlington Heights, Illinois.

As a Sportswriter:

More than any other “beat,” covering high school and college sports dominated my early years as a journalist. I suspect my prose is part of numerous classmates’ scrapbooks, as I covered virtually every sport other than my own during my junior and senior years writing for the Marshfield Mariner and serving as editor of the high school newspaper, The Ram Pages.

Lord knows I wasn’t nearly good enough to play at Northwestern University, but I could certainly cover the team (as well as most every other sport) for The Daily Northwestern.

Throughout “State,” Isaacson taps into local media coverage of her team, often from publications that are no longer in existence. Compared with the current bits and pieces of local journalism coverage of high school sports, her Niles West Indians received the equivalent of the full-court press that powered much of their success. Nowadays, the few remaining local media outlets do their best to keep up with high school sports, but there are many gaping holes.

As a Father of a Female High School Athlete

About halfway into “State,” it began to sink in that my 16-year-old daughter and her teammates (in cross country and soccer) are standing on the shoulders of all the women, like Isaacson, who came before them.

For nearly a half-century, the battle has raged for more equitable funding, court time, respect, and all the other ingredients that coalesce into the formation of a functional team. The struggle continues, certainly, but no doubt there have been substantial strides.

Over the next few weeks, inspired in part by Isaacson’s book, I will be filling the gap journalistically and writing about my daughter’s cross-country team’s postseason efforts. Last year, the Oak Park and River Forest Huskies came in 10th among Class 3A Illinois high schools—matching the best result in school history.

This year, it’s almost certain they will advance through their Regional and Sectional competitions to qualify for the season-ending race that draws all the top runners from across the Prairie State to Peoria.

Fittingly, that race is known in shorthand by the same name that Isaacson and her contemporaries called it 40 years ago: “State.”

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Strange Times in Oak Park: Responding to a Rant Straight Out of the Trumpian Playbook

There are times when you cannot stay on the sidelines, but must get into the fray. Over the past three years, the (mis)behavior and all-around despicable activities of Donald Trump have prompted me to write several letters and this blog post about our Liar-and-Scofflaw-in-Chief.

And this past week, on a more local level, I was moved to respond to a local elected official here in Oak Park, Ill. Below you can see excerpts from Trustee Susan Buchanan’s tirade:

Go here for the full meeting video, with the three-hour mark a helpful spot to pick up the proceedings. Observing that portion of the meeting allows fuller context for the exchange between Trustee Buchanan and others on the board.

Trustee Buchanan’s behavior was downright “Trumpian,” as I note at the end of my letter to the editor of the Oak Leaves, a Chicago Tribune-owned publication, and the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, which crafted the headline, `Shut up’ is a system of oppression.

You can also read the letter (as published by the Oak Leaves) below:

It was deeply dismaying to see the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees meeting on October 7. That’s the one in which Trustee Susan Buchanan told other (white male) trustees to “shut up” and “stop it,” among other offensive remarks, as they tried to speak on revisions to the village diversity statement.

This was no momentary outburst, but a sustained table-pounding, finger-pointing diatribe that occupied the better part of four minutes. The irony and hypocrisy are thick; the topic was the diversity statement—wherein the board affirms its commitment to, um, a variety of viewpoints, among other lofty aspirations.

To place Trustee Buchanan’s misbehavior in broader context: in over six years of serving on local government boards, I have never witnessed anything remotely resembling such a scene. Further, in my 20 years as a former journalist covering hundreds of local government meetings—including some that were wildly dysfunctional—the only close analogy would be the three-ring circus that was the Town of Cicero’s public proceedings. And even by that measure, Trustee Buchanan established a new low for conduct.

Setting aside her troubling behavior for a moment, consider the utter lack of logic that Trustee Buchanan exhibited. In her view, white men (and perhaps women?), should be constrained from voicing their perspectives on issues that, presumably, have not personally harmed them in their lives.

The brilliant “Civil Discurs-O-Matic,” as illustrated by Marc Stopeck of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.

I, for one, reject the belief that the Village Board should apply such a superficial standard to determine if he or she is “qualified” to speak on a topic.

Trustee Buchanan’s cynical tactic could have come right out of the Trumpian playbook: seize on differences in gender, race, and any other characteristics as a cudgel to silence and diminish others and their points of view.

Unsurprisingly, I am far from the only one who has taken deep offense to the trustee’s remarks. Special kudos to Marc “White Enough” Stopeck of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, who captured my sentiments through his spot-on, detailed cartoon (above).

A markedly different video than the above clip, by the way, is my 2011 “Oak Park’s Own” interview of Stopeck,

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‘Stretch Your Comfort Zone’ is Key Message in Concordia University Chicago Presentation

Yesterday, as part of the Concordia University Chicago College of Business Guest  Speaker Series, I shared key principles that have been integral to my professional and personal journey.

Many of the students in attendance are studying marketing. (Photo courtesy of Concordia University Chicago.)

Among those principles:

*Stretch beyond your comfort zone on a regular basis;
*Ask for help and seek out mentors in your field of endeavor:
*Value all people–not only those you think can help you;
*Look for ways to add value to others, without seeking anything in return.

Photo courtesy of Concordia University Chicago.

Speaking of stretching comfort zones: I shared a poster from my time, a decade ago, as the alter ego “Super Shopper Spotter” in the Village of Oak Park’s effort to spur on local shopping within the various business districts in the community. You can see the poster in the hands of the student in the image immediately on the left.

Thank you to Cathy Schlie, Marketing, Communication, and Events Manager for the College of Business, as well as professors and students who turned out–it was a most engaged audience and I appreciated the interaction and interest.

In light of the prominent role that business and personal networking has had in my career, it is fitting to note that Cathy extended the invitation for me to speak a few months after we met at an Oak Park – River Forest (OPRF) Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event at the River Forest campus.

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