‘Are you with us or against us?’ A journalist reflects

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1968, I was working on my hometown newspaper, the Rock Island Argus.

Smithsonian magazine called it a year “that shattered America.” The Kerner Commission, after months of research, declared “white racism,” not black agitators, the primary cause of widespread urban violence the year before. On March 31, Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, sparking an intense battle for the Democratic presidential nomination and escalating demands to get out of Vietnam. The assassinations of Martin Luther King (April 4) and Robert F. Kennedy (June 4) dominated 50-year remembrances this year, as did coverage of the mayhem surrounding the Democratic Party convention in Chicago.

I was 20 that summer, still a student at the University of Illinois. But as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz recently recounted, I, too, felt compelled to witness the political upheaval of a divided nation. (Balz had been my editor at the Daily Illini). As Balz and so many others have described, there was rioting in the streets, fueled by masses of police armed with clubs and tear gas and clear orders from then Mayor Richard J. Daley. Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Republican Richard M. Nixon defeated him to become president.

Mayor Richard J. Daley stands at the microphone during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while shouts resound from the crowd. (Jack Thornell/AP Photo)

Dan and I were among many young, intrepid, idealistic work horses unwilling to take no for an answer despite the complicated climate. Balz wrote commentary and news stories for his newspaper.  I just watched and listened, a precursor to covering many anti-war demonstrations the following year as a stringer for the Associated Press San Francisco bureau when I was a graduate student at Stanford. It was exciting and exhausting to race night after night, with sometimes hundreds of protesters, from the ROTC building some wanted to burn to the aerospace complex whose windows many sought to break with thrown rocks. There were arrests. Other protesters were peaceful, encouraged in daytime rallies by singer Joan Baez and Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling.

When I was interviewing activists, I’d often be asked, “Are you with us or against us?”  It’s a question reporters are still asked today, goaded by a president who tweeted in July that journalists are “unpatriotic.”

Curious journalists wanted

We’d been schooled to be impartial, and our journalism professors held us to high standards. Gene Graham, for example, was a deep thinker, reader, reporter, writer and editorial cartoonist. I first learned of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls from him. He introduced me to reporting by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and others. I knew my father, a newspaperman in the South in his 20s, would enjoy meeting him, so I invited him to dinner with my parents.  For Graham’s editorial writing course, I did a series on abortion rights, five years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade. At the time, the university clinic would not prescribe birth control pills, even to married students.

“This is really good,” Graham told me in his slow, Southern drawl during our conference about the project. “But does your Daddy know you’re writin’ about this?”

People underestimated him because of that accent, he told us. A few years later, covering the Illinois state capitol, for what is now the Springfield Journal-Register, many of my sources underestimated me, speaking freely in the elevators, assuming the young woman with a notepad was a secretary. That attitude came in handy when I was given the political column. Gene Callahan had that column for years. When he became press secretary to Cecil Partee, the first African-American elected President of the Illinois Senate, he handed over book of sources. Cheri Bustos, his daughter, is now co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A former reporter, she represents the 17th District, hugging the Mississippi River (Moline, Rock Island and rural communities). On Aug. 16, she posted four tweets, noting that journalists’ jobs are harder today, more crucial to democracy than ever. Her last tweet concluded: “That’s the opposite of #Enemy of the People,” the narrative told by the current president of the United States.

The summer of 1968 was an incredible time to be a fledgling journalist. But so was the summer of 2018. The headlines are different and platforms have changed, but the demand for curious journalists driven by the need to witness accurately and fairly remains.

Extant journalism

This summer I taught teens in a program run by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. My colleagues and I sought to fire them up about journalism, encouraging them to find their own story ideas and sources. Yes, it was hard, especially in that time frame. And many had been told by well-meaning friends and relatives “journalism is dead…no future, no money.”

Yet several of the top students learned how exhilarating it is to keep digging till you find multiple facets of a story and see your byline on a well-crafted piece.  Ben came all the way from Toronto and had new ammunition – and great clips — for his grandparents about the worthiness and prospects of journalism. Amber came from Chicago and wrote her final piece about the dearth of people of color in news media today. Maddie came from Connecticut. She addressed the future of journalism head-on, citing research and jobs data and interviewing, among others, Tom Fiedler, a Pulitzer winner and former executive editor of The Miami Herald before he became dean of the Boston University College of Communication in 2008. He told her enrollment was up, and indeed it is at several top journalism schools across the country.

In April, Marketwatch reported a double-digit spike in journalism applications at the University of Southern California, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Northwestern University. Last month, Atlantic magazine picked up the thread. Both compared it to the era when Nixon was in his second term, and two young reporters followed the story that lead to his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s own story ended up in their book, All the Presidents Men, which was made into a popular movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Immigration was the signature issue last summer, starting on June 30, when we covered the Boston rally against family separation at the border, and continued through rallies at the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Covering these events created new challenges for these teens on the same question I faced 50 year ago, “Are you with us or against us?”

I hope history’s pendulum theories hold true. Americans are interested in holding their elected officials accountable, realizing anew that the best way to do that is by consuming credible, fact-checked, verified, accurate reporting, without any spin or worse.  The good news is that the next generation is already taking up the call.

Nancy Day is a freelance journalist and longtime journalism professor. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a Fulbright Scholar in Russia.

 

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