9/11 Reading List

As I watched news of Osama bin Laden’s death last spring unfold across four screens (a TV for broadcast news, a laptop for websites, an iPad for Twitter and an iPhone for Facebook), one message stood out. A student tweeted at me to get perspective:

@kbculver actual question (in seriousness): what was it like on the UW-Madison campus when 9/11 occurred?

I recalled the sense of helplessness. I recalled the feeble email I sent out to my class about how we would continue to meet and talk and write and edit even though the shock and sadness made grammar quizzes and lead-writing feel beyond inconsequential. I recalled wanting to mark that moment, and then I remembered the person who best captured it for me.

Leonard Pitts from the Miami Herald penned a column a few days after 9/11 that spoke to so many. In today’s landscape, it would have been a Twitter explosion and gone on countless Facebook walls. But back then, it went viral in the way of that time, via email and hallway conversations. “Did you read that ‘unspeakable bastards’ column?” Pitts captured people’s feelings by writing directly toward the mastermind of our shared nightmare:


“It’s my job to have something to say.

They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.”

Read what he concluded: http://www.miamiherald.com/2008/09/11/681912/leonard-pitts-jr-well-go-forward.html#ixzz1Xkx7E4yt

Tears moved silently down my cheeks as a I read that the first time, and they welled again when I went back to it upon bin Laden’s death.
I tweeted it at that student, so he understood that UW-Madison was like every other corner of the U.S. that fall. In Vilas Hall, on Bascom Hill and down the Lakeshore Path, people wandered, shocked and often silent. Each time a military jet flew over Lake Mendota, I wondered if I would ever again meet that sound without fear.
In those lost days and the trying times since, I found journalism speaking to me as it hadn’t before. I found interpretations of my feelings, inspiration from our humanity and insight into our failings.
Many, many examples abound, but I would suggest these pieces as a look into what journalism gave us in the wake of a national tragedy.
From Esquire, “The Falling Man” is a wrenching look into the iconic photo of a person free-falling after jumping or falling from the burning towers. Read more: http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0903-SEP_FALLINGMAN#ixzz1Xl5D5rDL
Newsweek had a fascinating piece about the final moments aboard Flight 93 before it crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. I was uncomfortable with some of its assumptions, but it was a harrowing tale nonetheless. It doesn’t appear in Newsweek’s archives, but this seems to be a full capture: http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/totw/flight_93.html
The Atlantic Monthly ran a stunning series by William Langewiesche that was later published as a book, American Ground. It details the efforts to recover the dead and remove the massive ruins of the site. The book drew criticism in certain corners for its unvarnished look at the behavior of some at the site. But it’s a gripping and rich look at what followed the attacks.
Finally, nothing brought home the reality of that tragedy more for me than the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief.” Unfurling slowly over weeks, then months, the Times gave us brief and human stories of more than 2,500 people who perished that day. The minute details of everyday lives struck me like nothing else.
A jet flew over my head this morning, set against the same brilliant blue sky of that September Tuesday 10 years ago. I was not afraid. I do not know exactly when that fear faded across all the autumn Tuesdays of the last decade. But I carry with me the work of Pitts and others, those whose words marked a time of indescribable reality.

What happens when we lose state government reporting?

The upending of the traditional business model of journalism has brought many questions and concerns, but among them, this is one of my biggest fears: are we losing courageous reporting on state government.

I spent my reporting infancy in the arms of a ferocious state reporter named Neil Shively, of the Milwaukee Sentinel. Neil was so intent on protecting citizens’ interest in monitoring their representatives that he refused to accept the governor’s embargoed budget. He declined the advanced copy of the budget, saying he wouldn’t agree to not write about it until the governor’s appointed time. Instead, he set off on a mission to uncover the key elements of the budget without ever seeing the advance. He succeeded.

The lesson this intern learned: when reporters get too comfy with officials, they lose sight of the stories they are supposed to be covering.

Today, I’m left wondering who remains in the statehouse to do the stories Neil did. His own bureau contracted, as have the staffs of virtually every other media outlet in the state. State government has not similarly contracted. It’s not as if we are collecting fewer taxes, introducing fewer bills or regulating less behavior. Add the tremendous influence of money in governing today, and you have more — not less — need for reporting.

Check this snip from a great Nieman Reports piece:

As the digital revolution devastates and reshapes the news media, I fear what’s likely to be lost in the shuffle is a next generation of statehouse beat reporters who will follow in the footsteps of people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Morgan, the Chicago Tribune’s Ray Long, Steve Walters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times. With their institutional knowledge, gigantic Rolodexes, and unending determination to afflict the comfortable and hold the powerful to account, these four outstanding journalists and others like them have been an awesome force for good government.

via Nieman Reports | Statehouse Beat Woes Portend Bad News for Good Government.

The entire piece is worth reading. We are not going to recover the old business model. What can we do to ensure courageous reporting as a check on state government power? Is part of the solution educating the public about new efforts to disguise partisanship in the sheep’s clothing of new independent news outlets?

Monday debate: The future of journalism or the future of media?

This past year has seen plenty of “future of journalism” articles, workshops, and conferences.  We too are wrestling with these issues here at SJMC, not only in terms of research (such as our new center devoted to exploring media ethics in a globally networked society) and teaching (such as Professor Young Mie Kim’s class on the social implications of new communication technologies) but in service as well (such as our partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism).

Recently, two of our faculty, Professors James Baughman and Dhavan Shahappeared on the UW-Madison program Office Hours to discuss the “future of journalism” with host Professor Ken Goldstein.  The roughly twenty-minute conversation is definitely worth a watch (click the image above to get the video). Yet I always cringe a little bit when I hear the phrase “future of journalism,” because I see the issue as much larger than this.

Over at least the last century and a half, through the aggressive deepening of a global capitalist mode of production and the broad deployment of print, broadcast, and now networked information infrastructures, the social, political, and economic processes of journalism have become tightly interrelated with the social, political, and economic processes of strategic communication.  The changing form of that interrelation today — as seen in new production and consumption technologies, new organizational forms for knowledge production, new workplace practices of information labor, and new cultural meanings about what defines “news” itself — is what interests me most.  In other words, I don’t believe you can make any substantive claims about the “future of journalism” without making related claims about the “future of strategic communication” (and perhaps the “future of entertainment”) as well.  (The Office Hours conversation above touches on this idea at about the ten-minute mark.)

I’m curious to hear what you think about alternative “futures of media” involving both journalism and strategic communication.  Any speculations or predictions?  Any hopes or fears?

Friday blog rescue: Professor Deborah Blum on snow and poison

This past week our friends and colleagues at East Coast universities have been slogging through wave after wave of wet snow.  Professor Deborah Blum, our resident prize-winning science journalist and popular author, had an interesting take on the situation a few days ago over at her blog Speakeasy Science, inspired by her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook:

We live everyday in a colorless, odorless, easily ignorable swirl of carbon monoxide.  Produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-loaded  fossil fuels,  it wraps around us,  drifting from the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles, from coal-fired plants, from wood fires, from our backyard grills packed with charcoal briquettes. Fortunately for us, the gas is absorbed and diluted by the oxygen-packed atmosphere.

But there’s too much about a big snow storm that can concentrate the gas. People, desperate for heat, put their backyard grills into their homes. Others fire up their rarely used gas generators or heaters. In homes, rooftop snow blocks flues and vents, sealing the lethal gas inside. And there’s more. Snow clogs the exhaust pipes of vehicles, causing carbon monoxide to back up into the passenger area of the car. The National Weather Service warns, in fact, that if you are in a car that gets stuck in a snowback, you should run the engine for heat at intervals of ten minutes or less.  Some experts argue that you shouldn’t the engine at all – better to be cold than inhaling a very risky gas.

What makes carbon monoxide so dangerous? It’s strongly attracted to proteins in our blood that normally carry oxygen. As a result,  carbon monoxide pushes oxygen molecules out of the way as it muscles into the blood stream. The result is a chemical suffocation, marked by dizziness and confusion, in worse cases ending in coma or death.

Check out the full post for more.

Friday blog rescue: Pro-Track listserv alert on NYT story

(Periodically I’ll repost interesting things here from other blogs around the School of Journalism & Mass Communication.   This first one is an alert that Professor Sue Robinson sent out to the Pro-Track MA listserv.)

There are a number of reasons you should have read the cover story in the Times magazine last Sunday:

1) You should read it to see how someone can go from obscurity to having market share; how to build audiences and then how to keep them.

2) You should read it to see how you write stories that work.

3) You should read it because it’s good journalism. Look at how much time the author spent with the subject. Look at how he reconciled data that was inconsistent. Look at the specifics he got.

4) You should read it if you are interested in books.