September 16, 2004

A Journey In The Wayback machine. . . Or Why CBS Can Bite Me

I entered into journalism by accident. Or, sort of by accident.

Initially, I had planned to go into teaching, following in my parents' footsteps. But, somewhere along the way, I realized I didn't have the patience to deal with classrooms filled with younger versions of myself.

So it was, during the first quarter of my fourth year at Winona State University, I looked at my skill set and realized that, for whatever genetic reason, I had the ability to write. I couldn't write fiction very well, mind you, but I had a knack for writing non-fiction, particularly when it came to self-deprecating humor, but I also realized that I could naturally write like a newspaper reporter. I'm not sure where this innate skill originated, but it was pretty easy to figure out that I should look into journalism as a possible profession.

I took to the WSU mass communication/journalism curriculum like a duck to water, or, to make up a different analogy, like a nightcrawler to dirt. I was good at it. My brief foray into broadcast journalism classes didn't go so well, with me calling my professor a jackass, but I really had a knack for print journalism.

Well, during the winter quarter of that year, I was in a creative writing journalism class, which was basically all about writing human interest and feature articles. I basically breezed through the whole quarter with high grades, but it was the final project that very nearly did me in.

We were assigned a lengthy feature article; we could choose the topic, but we had to interview actual sources and present hard evidence to back up our work.

Well, I got lazy. I went and wrote an article about the Amish community living around my hometown. Now, I didn't particularly like the Amish at that time. I had grown up living around them, and I was more than just a little familiar with the long trails of horse poop streaked in front of my parents' home pretty much 24x7.

The thing is, Harmony has pretty much been economically saved by tourism, thanks in large part to the Amish, with buses of city folk coming down to Harmony to witness the Amish lifestyle. It's big business for my small hometown. Still, I've always scoffed at the tourist notion that the Amish lifestyle is an idyllic existence, which went a long ways to tainting the final project I was writing at the time.

So, I was biased. . . and I was lazy. I had my preconceived notion of what the Amish were, and I didn't want to do a lot of work. So, I interviewed a bunch of my local friends and acquaintances which, not surprisingly, consisted of a lot of people in their early 20s who made it a point not to like the Amish. The eventual article I submitted for class, though it "accurately" represented my own personal bias and the biases of those I interviewed, only presented part of the entire story. I didn't really care. It was for a grade, after all; it wasn't like it was going to go to print or anything.

Well, I got an A on the project, and the professor asked me if she could run the article in the college publication "Bravura." Eep. This was my first opportunity ever to appear in print, for other people to read, and I knew that the project, as written, was basically a big, stinking pile of personal bias. Still, I couldn't resist the chance to be in print.

So, I informed my professor that, yes, my article could run in Bravura, provided she let me rework it a bit. I went back to my hometown, and I found some ex-Amish people to interview, and I interviewed business owners who had benefited from Amish tourism, and I basically worked my ass off to present a balanced account of what the Amish community meant to the people of Harmony, not just those who disliked them. And, I'm here to tell you, it was a damned fine article, possibly one of the better things I've ever written.

I submitted the revamped article to my professor, and she agreed that it was even better than the original. I also submitted the article to the editor of Bravura and told him, in no unspecific terms, that the revamped article was the one that should run in the paper. He told me he understood.

A couple weeks later, the quarterly issue of Bravura came out. Lo and behold, there I was in print for the first time. The only problem was that it was the original, entirely biased and lazy, version of my article that ran.

I didn't think much of it at the time. It was the end of the quarter and I was getting ready for spring break, and really, it was a campus newspaper; it wasn't like that had a huge readership or anything. I left for a Colorade ski trip and didn't think once about Bravura or the crappy article.

Well. . .

Upon my return, I discovered that the Winona Daily News had seen the article in Bravura and asked for permission to run it. Now, the Winona Daily News is a fairly well-read area newspaper. Like, it's read all the way in Harmony. I had scarcely unpacked my luggage before I started hearing murmurings about my shoddy piece of journalistic garbage. The letters to the editor section of the Winona Daily News came alive with people telling me to get bent, and that I wasn't qualified to weild a pen. Back in Harmony, the issue even came up in a city council meeting.

My first day back to school for the spring quarter, I was called on the carpet, so to speak, and I was to meet with the publisher of Bravura and pretty much most of the WSU mass communication faculty. I was in trouble. I was in a whole lot of considerable trouble. As in, there was talk of suspension trouble.

Thankfully, I came to the meeting armed with the revamped article that was SUPPOSED to run and I presented it to the publisher. Some intensely intense minutes passed as the article was passed back and forth and the meeting attendees murmured in agreement that the article they had wasn't the same one that ran in Bravura. My professor, also in attendance, was forced to agree.

I'm really not sure what happened after all of that. They excused me from the office, which I left, gratefully. I was never asked about it ever again, and the furor over the article eventually died down as people moved on to other issues. I never learned for certain, but I heard that the editor who ran with the original article was suspended. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. My professor was gone the next year, too, although I don't think she was fired because of the whole flap. Suspicious timing, but probably nothing more than that. The Winona Daily News apparently forgot about the whole thing, because they hired me without much question about a year later.

Life went on, in other words, but for awhile there, I pretty much felt doomed. And, really, if I had submitted the original article, knowing full well that it was the result of lazy and biased writing, I should have been suspended, without question. But, I didn't. I went back and got the full story, or as close to the full story as I could get, and that's what I submitted for print. I still had my biases about the Amish, mind you, but I got the other side of the story.

So, today, I'm watching this crap unfold about CBS and Dan Rather using pathetically forged documents to back up what was essentially a biased news broadcast, and it pisses me off a little bit. I mean, if I had defended myself by saying "well, the article may be largely wrong, but it accurately reflects my biased research," I would have been hung out to dry. I'd be cleaning toilets for a living right now. Instead, I went back out and did my job and got the full story, and that, in the end, saved my ass.

I'm watching CBS tell the world that, although the documents they presented were forgeries, those forgeries were accurate in that they augmented the content of the broadcast. That's just so crazy ass nuts, I simply want to scream. It flies in the face of every journalistic moral rule I ever learned in school. The precedent they're setting here is just vile, and people should be insulted. I sure as hell am.

Posted by Ryan at September 16, 2004 10:50 AM

And, really, if I had submitted the original article, knowing full well that it was the result of lazy and biased writing, I should have been suspended, without question.

Balls. You were solicited for publication, you agreed, and the editor ran it on his or her discretion.

The CBS situation is different. And before you get your dick in a knot-- it's different in a way that supports your point, but obviates all this folksy wisdom you're trying to lay down.

The people who are trying to dodge the forgery bullet in this case are, effectively, the editors. They have no excuse.

Posted by: Joshua at September 16, 2004 12:01 PM

Folksy wisdom.

Sometimes, Joshua, you really reek of unearned elitism. Do you know that?

Posted by: Ryan at September 16, 2004 12:21 PM

Well, when you can't attack what was said, just attack the way it was said. Form over substance--the eject button for terminally punchy guys everywhere.

Posted by: ilyka at September 16, 2004 02:33 PM

Sometimes, Joshua, you really reek of unearned elitism. Do you know that?

I know. I've tried brushing, I've tried different soaps. Nothing seems to help.

And Ilyka? I'm not sure who you were taking a shot at, since both my comment and Ryan's are basically style criticisms, but I'll assume based on context that it was me. In either case, there's a difference between "can't attack what was said" and "basically agree with what was said". I'm giving Ryan shit for using a cheap rhetorical device-- he's saying that the CBS guys should be strung up, and then justifying his call for harsh punishment by saying that, back when he was in a similar situation, he would have welcomed harsh punishment for such a thing. So Ryan's anger at CBS isn't partisan-- he's just calling for the same standards he would expect of himself.

Only the situation he used to illustrate his rhetorical device wasn't appropriate to case.

So I gave him shit about it. It's not because I want to detract from his conclusion. I basically aggree with his conclusion. But I just like giving Ryan shit. I also once gave him shit about the tacky print of a tiger, displayed on the wall next to his big hairy ass. Did I do that because I was looking at the form, rather than the substance? No. I did it because I like to give Ryan shit and that tiger print looks like something a 13 year old boy would hang on the wall above his Warhammer figurine collection.

And just as a point of order: in the future, when you're trying to mount the rhetorical high horse, I'd suggest standing on something a little sturdier than a fucking two bit ad hominem attack.

Posted by: Joshua at September 16, 2004 03:31 PM

welcomed harsh punishment

Well, I wouldn't say I would have "welcomed" it, but I was certainly expecting it.

And that tiger picture is awesome. You know it, I know it, and everybody here knows it.

Posted by: Ryan at September 16, 2004 03:46 PM
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