High School Journalists on PBS: Obviously a Different Ballgame

Yesterday, PBS brought three students from T.C. Williams HS and their journalism teacher on the show, and it was almost impossible not to cast a somewhat disparaging eye regarding projects they put together to gain that exposure. The bone of contention is they essentially *reviewed* media from this past year, while HIGHLIGHTS, the school newspaper Ray Patterson rode herd on at Linton HS during the tumultous ’70s, produced an 8-16 page product every two weeks.

Frankly, as dramatically different as the technology of multiple outlets/’platforms’ in the world of 2015 is from 1975, its apples and oranges between CREATING (including 2-3 days of actual physical pasting of copy onto waxed tabloid-sized sheets) an award-winning paper and compiling memorable stuff others produced.

That said, I read the NYTimes online version with a first cup of coffee this morning, and while perusing the weekly Creative Loafing in Charlotte, NC is a regular habit, picking up an actual newspaper is perhaps a once-a-month event, the holy grail that TIME magazine was is now an annoyingly thin red-bordered periodical that can be done without.

Since year-end is the time for reviewing all manner of ‘Best of’ or ’10 Events That Shocked’, admitting the significance of the change is legitimate. This piece is being done on an iPad, and if a tone signals something has landed in an electronic mailbox, that can be examined immediately with the push of a button. That immediacy is a singular important difference between ‘old’ journalism and any 2015 version.

The Vietnam War ended with a roar in 1975, after years of having TV deliver graphic video and body counts of dead-wounded nightly, dividing nearly every demographic in America– especially older “its a duty to your country” WWII or Korean War veterans/fathers and young-enough-to-become-part-of-‘Nam’s-meat grinder-ugliness males. Half a world away, we waited until 6:00 for Walter Cronkite, or a similarly serious news anchor, to watch the final helicopter depart the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, barely unlucky enough final figures trying to jump on-stay attached to its skids. As seminal an event as that was, who in 2014 didn’t know an unarmed (if aggressive) black man named Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri, or see the as-it-happened “I can’t breathe!” video-taped final words of another black man (Eric Garner) being choked to death by another white officer in New York City?

In 1968, Bobby Kennedy made the dangerous, incredibly courageous decision to address a largely black crowd in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, and many of those people were only becoming aware of that event hours after the fact. Would ANYONE in their right mind step before a similar crowd under similar conditions today? That city was one of the few that was unscarred by rioting that erupted across the rest of the country. Kennedy’s absolute sincerity, delivered with the reminder he had suffered exactly the same incredible loss– the well-documented assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963– was personal, unfiltered, and amazingly, not a fact he ever brought up again in public. Those present understood this was a time to mourn, not senselessly rage.

‘Journalism’ has changed, as has much in this country. Woodward & Bernstein’s efforts, still the gold standard in investigating and writing so much of what became the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, took *months*, even years, to unravel the presidency of Richard Nixon. Today we know about a cop jumping out of his patrol car and– within two seconds, fatally shooting a child waving a toy gun– and every aspect of that is available immediately on a device we can talk about or send to someone else.

‘Disparaging’ eye of comparison might be harsh; if the opportunities were available 40 years ago (Geraldo Rivera’s ‘bushwhack journalism’ style was just beginning), how many j-majors would’ve wanted their faces in front of people vs. ‘just’ a byline? We know about an almost overwhelming number of things around the world *as they’re happening* now, and shaping that tidal wave into some format, including the terrifying ‘sound bite’ reduction, should probably still be regarded as a legitimate function.

It’s also still apples and oranges to compare a class project to having everyone in school with a newspaper in their hand as ‘real’ journalism.

Glenn Shorkey

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