Cardinal Columns: “Not Real Journalists”

As expected, the Fond du Lac School District announced the resignation of Principal Jon Wiltzius on Friday.As I expected, a lot of “bullshit bingo buzzwords” were in the release, noting his “future endeavors” and how he was “grateful for the opportunity.” That said, the folks at Wisconsin Soapbox have a pretty good take on Wiltzius, how he got to this point and what kind of guy he really is/was in his time as a pre-Act 10 and post-Act 10 leader.

I stated at the beginning of this that I really believed he was between a rock and a hard place, given that his staff was supporting the kids and his boss couldn’t be more of a tool if he were sold by Sears under the “Craftsman” label. However, in talking with the kids, I keep coming back to his one underlying assumption that just drives me batty:

“You’re not real journalists.”

He said this to several students as part of his open forum on Friday. I also know he said it to the adviser, Matt Smith, as Wiltzius chastised him for his efforts to bring professional standards to Cardinal Columns.

“Not real journalists.”

This was a sentiment echoed by Superintendent Jim Sebert in several interviews and it was the gist of a quote from the school board president, who noted that the paper was really just a school activity.

Unlike other countries, the United States does not license journalists. You don’t need a degree in the field to do what journalists do. You don’t need to pass a test to publish a paper, write a blog, do a webcast or anything else that the “big boys” do. You just need to be interested in a topic and avail yourself of the rights outlined in the First Amendment. That’s what makes you a journalist. Adding the modifier “real” is as pointless as saying “completely unique” or “armed gunman.”

I have always hated this argument and have had to fight it more times than I can count.

There was the time when one of my reporters at the student paper went down to get a mug shot from the police department to go with a story. The student was told there was no such document. When the kid pointed out that the mug shot was clipped to the bulletin board right behind the cop, she noted, “Oh, that’s for the (NAME OF THE CITY PAPER). You can’t have it.” Why not? “It’s only for the real paper.”

When a disaster befell the campus, one of my students skipped a class to cover the breaking news. I’ve always been a fan of breaking news opportunities, as these are the kinds of things I can’t simulate in a classroom. I didn’t like the idea of the kid skipping class for this, but I’ve more than sinned so I’m sure not casting the first stone in this case.

The professor rebuked the student with “when you’re done playing journalist” maybe you can make it to the next class. Had this been a professor in math or sociology, I’d have given the guy a pass. However, this was a broadcast journalism professor. When he barked at me about it, I poked back with, “Well, maybe when you’re done playing professor, you can go back to school and get a doctorate.” It was childish and antithetical to what I really believed, but I knew that would irritate him as much as he had irritated me.

I can’t count the number of times my kids had a tip, called a source about it and got the “never heard about that” that response. The next day, the city paper would have a story on it, citing that exact source. When called on it, the source had a “hey, they’re kids” response and it always pissed me off.

The Fond du Lac situation bothers me for this reason, to be sure. You have interested and engaged people who are doing the hard work we WANT journalists to do, only to be told, “Shut up, sit down and eat your Happy Meal. We’ll tell you when we’re ready for you to grow up.”

Even more, this bugs me because we wouldn’t use this excuse for anything else we do at the high school level. “Mix whatever you want together in that flask. After all, you’re not real chemists.” “Don’t bother learning proper tackling techniques. You guys aren’t real football players.” “5 plus 4? Hell, just say ‘more than we started with.’ You aren’t real mathletes.”

The purpose of education is to train people how to do things right as they sharpen their skills and move toward adulthood. No, not every experience in high school will be exactly what these kids will see in “the real world” but going out of your way to make sure they don’t accidentally bump into reality is a colossally stupid thing to do.

I’ve seen what these kids have done with their publication and I’ve seen what they had to say on TV, in the newspaper and through radio shows. I’ve seen them take tough stands because things matter to them and they’re not going to roll over and play dead.

If that’s not “real,” I don’t know what is.

3 thoughts on “Cardinal Columns: “Not Real Journalists”

  1. The work makes you what you are, and if you’re insecure about your work, you tend to glom onto the next thing, which is where you do it. This is a cousin to the whole “bloggers aren’t real journalists” because we don’t have Cracker Jack badges or whatever the fuck newspaper reporters think they used to have.
    The threads that hold our world up are very, very thin, and most of us can’t think about that too long or we’ll go crazy.

  2. Great post Doc! Rip ’em a new one, they clearly need it, cause they’re full of it.

  3. Definitely agree with your argument (and dont’ believe I’m going that far beyond your point in saying) that the kids are doing what we want them to do – get involved. Not only as journalists but as active citizens.
    And if peer pressure and the general culture of being turned-off wasn’t enough to disuade them, we make sure to add some adult pressure against them too.

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