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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Reunion with Fellow Beat Reporter Rekindles Wistful NU Bowl Game Coverage Hopes

Me and Steve Pastorino, after the Northwestern Wildcats' 40-10 loss last Saturday.

Yours truly & Steve Pastorino, after the Northwestern Wildcats’ 40-10 loss last Saturday.

In 1986, Northwestern University’s football squad, on the strength of winning two nail-biters at the end of the season against Michigan State & Illinois, attained four victories for the first time since 1973.

Those details are so ingrained in my memory because I was a freshman at NU and my work-study job in the Sports Information Department foreshadowed my (much) later career as a publicist.

One of my roles that first fall on campus was to sit in the press box high atop Dyche Stadium and answer a phone whenever it rang. I would then relate the game score to news agencies and television networks seeking to update the college football scoreboard for their audiences as the day progressed.

Looking back, it was such a quaint, archaic system, especially in light of anyone’s present ability to know, in real time, just about any imaginable detail of just about any college game with a few taps of their smart phone.

At season’s end, despite those slim victories representing NU’s only Big Ten wins, expectations shot skyward. As fall 1987 approached, my role had changed dramatically from the previous year. Instead of being a small cog in the athletic department’s PR machine, I had become one of two football beat reporters for The Daily Northwestern. For the second straight year, my perch on Saturday afternoons was the press box—only now as a member of the Fourth Estate.

Along with my colleague, a fellow sophomore at NU’s Medill School of Journalism, I was swept up in the burgeoning Wildcat fever. We entertained notions of the team qualifying for a bowl game and how exciting it would be to cover the contest. Alas, those visions were eight very lean years away from taking shape, when Coach Gary Barnett led the 1995 Big Ten champion squad to a Rose Bowl match-up against USC.

Instead, we chronicled a disappointing 2-8-1 campaign that sucked the life out of any buzz that had accompanied the program heading into the season. The bright moments included a 27-24 win at Wisconsin, the 28-10 season-ending thrashing of Illinois and Byron Sanders’ (future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders’ brother) dazzling workhorse performance against Minnesota, when he toted the ball 46 times and picked up 295 yards in a losing effort.

Although the team didn’t fare as well as hoped, it was a thrill to travel to other Big Ten campuses and have the regular rush of identifying stories, talking to players and coaches, and meeting deadlines.

Among other memories, I recall crashing on a fraternity couch in Ann Arbor the night before the Cats’ game in the Big House, tipping a Dairy Queen cashier in Missouri one dollar because I still had some wiggle room on the first day of my travel per-diem allowance (a whopping $10), and posing post-game questions to coaches alongside the likes of the Chicago Tribune’s Bill Jauss in the bowels of Dyche.

Steve Pastorino (right) and I on the sidelines of Dyche Stadium, before the Northwestern football team's final game of the 1987 season.

Steve Pastorino (right) joins me on the sidelines of Dyche Stadium, before the Northwestern football team’s final game of the 1987 season–a 28-10 win over Illinois.

Accompanying me on that Midwestern journey was Steve Pastorino, an easy-going, talented writer from California. We represented the two coasts: me, from the suburbs of Boston, and Steve, hailing from the Bay Area. He and I would coordinate coverage, taking turns writing the main story and sidebars on Sunday afternoons in The Daily newsroom. We would then plan a round of feature stories before ramping up to the next game with previews that would be published on Friday.

This past weekend, I attended NU’s Homecoming Game on the 25th Anniversary of our graduation—and 28 years after we covered the team for The Daily Northwestern. It was especially nostalgic because by my side for much of the action, just as in the fall of ’87, was Steve. He had flown into Chicago in the wee hours and through the wonders of 2015 technology had sent a message to my smart phone alerting me to his presence.

We wound up across the field from the much-modernized press box where nobody needs to answer a phone to tell the world what was taking place on the gridiron. While following the action closely, we caught up on each other’s families—the kids’ sports, how they were doing in school, and our spouses. We talked about our careers, both of which have led back to the promotional realm and bring us great satisfaction. And we reminisced about that magical fall nearly three decades earlier when, as 19-year-old kids, we got to cover Big Ten football.

At halftime, many members of the Wildcats’ 1995 Rose Bowl team filed onto the field to be saluted as part of their 20th anniversary celebration. Steve and I were among the thousands who cheered for those marvelous memories. At the same time, we wondered aloud if the current team could come back from its 16-10 deficit to Iowa, silence those obnoxious Hawkeye fans scattered throughout the stadium, and give us a brand-new memory to cherish.

Unfortunately, Iowa turned it into a rout, 40-10. Though NU entered the game 5-1 and ranked 20th nationally, the team’s fortunes were much more reminiscent of that sputtering 1987 version we covered than the 1995 Cats.

Looking on the bright side (a finely honed skill for longtime Wildcat supporters), there is still a good shot at post-season action for Northwestern. While the Rose Bowl isn’t in the picture, there are some bowl slots where, with another few wins, they would fit in quite nicely. After all, it’s not rare these days to see NU in a bowl contest: the team has done it nine times since that mind-blowing Rose Bowl trip 20 years ago.

So, Steve, that elusive bowl game we would talk about covering so wistfully 28 years ago? Maybe now’s not too soon to start working on securing those press credentials.

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