A few weeks have passed now since a gunman took the lives of four journalists and a sales assistant In a brutal newsroom attack at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. That weekend editors from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News wrote moving editorials.
Nolan Finley of the News revealed that a group of fellow journalists there personally felt the resemblance to the harassment they had also been receiving for five years from a man sending emails spewing some of the most vile vulgar, racist and anti-Semitic poison they had ever read. Peter Bhatia, Editor of the Free Press declared that “we are fact-driven. We are motivated by truth-telling. And the fact that journalists have now joined high school students and concert-goers as targets of gun violence in our country doesn’t change a thing.”
I started my career in journalism and publishing at a newspaper in Michigan and worked my way into an Investigative beat. A fellow reporter on another local paper was Investigating an illegal abortion mill that involved the local mafia. He let colleagues know that he was getting death threats. Calls went around and several of us joined him that evening to play poker all night. We didn’t have guns or even knives. But we knew we couldn’t let him face the threat alone.Nothing ever happened, but I was proud that we looked out for each other.
Today I worry that such threats not only continue. but a disturbed and angry man in Annapolis finally carried out his threats with a firearm. While I am proud that journalists are not deterred, I hope that as a nation, we can find a path back to respect for the important role of the media in a free society. Bhatia concluded his editorial by quoting Josh McKerrow, the Annapolis photojournalist. “The shrill chaos seems to be winning. But it’s not winning – and it’s not going to win.”
In a column this week, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman described the complex America he witnessed in a four-day car trip through the heart of the nation. As he wrote, the tour started in Austin, Ind., went down through Louisville Ky, wound through Appalachia and ended up at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
His conclusion was that while we do have an epidemic of failing communities, we also have a bounty of thriving ones – not because of Washington, but because of strong leaders at the local level. (Full column is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/opinion/rusting-and-rising-america.html?_r=0)
What Friedman found this year parallels what Atlantic Magazine’s national correspondent James Fallow found a year earlier and reported in the March 2016 issue, which asked on its cover “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” Fallow described how innovators in centers across the country were reweaving the national fabric in various “laboratories of democracy” and that their progress and goals will soar once the mood of the country changes and embraces it. (Read more at https://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2016/02/the-atlantics-march-issue-how-america-is-putting-itself-back-together-by-james-fallows/462180/).
I would add that if you study history, America has always swung back and forth in terms of those voted into political power, with resulting shifts in levels of confidence in the future.
We have just rightly celebrated our military heroes over the Memorial weekend holiday. Now I hope the country will also recognize the greatness of our on-going ability to constantly reinvent ourselves and embrace the challenges of the future. Yes, I still believe America in all its diversity and contrasting landscapes, remains an unmatched super power.
I was back in Alabama this year in time to watch the 2016 Academy Awards with my late husband Tim Robinson’s brother Mike, a retired Air Force Colonel and his wife Carolyn, a talented editor and retired teacher. I had flown in to visit with Tim’s amazing Southern family and friends, as well as attend an annual journalism Forum in my late husband’s honor (http://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/robinson-forum) that was featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Brad Schrade, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So it was not only a great surprise, but a special moment that Sunday night for us when the winner of this year’s Oscars for best picture went to “Spotlight,” which chronicles a Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_(film)).
Two days later, Brad Schrade told the assembled audience for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in Birmingham that “we’re at a moment again where popular culture has deemed investigative work important and even pretty cool,” citing Spotlight’s wins as Best Picture and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), coming 39 years after the four Oscar wins for All the President’s Men, a film about the Washington Post’s famous investigation of the Watergate break-in. That failed political espionage eventually caused President Nixon’s resignation and the conviction of many of his top officials. Schrade went on to tell the assembled students in the audience that while newspapers and other printed media were struggling, he hoped this film would inspire a new generation of journalists to “take up this flag.”
What Schrade didn’t know and what I enjoyed telling him later was that the last footage in the film All the Presidents’ Men shows the coverage of the Watergate trials coming off the newsroom tickertape, flashing my late husband’s byline over and over. Schrade also didn’t realize that Tim was a city editor on the desk when his favorite reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were put on special assignment. He was proud to join them on the investigative team as the White House conspiracy unraveled. Tim did such a brilliant job of reporting on the convictions stemming from the Watergate break in that he went on to receive a Ford Fellowship to Yale Law School and become a distinguished legal columnist for the Post. He was recruited to be Editor in Chief of a new publication in New York called the National Law Journal and thus blazed a pioneering trail in the field of legal journalism. My gratitude goes to everyone at Tim’s alma mater Samford University for their support of the Forum and Scholarship program in Tim’s honor, which includes an internship each year at the Washington Post. And I am will always feel grateful for such a special Southern family, which also includes Tim’s sister Terah’s family in Jasper, his brother Nelson’s family in the hometown of Dora and sister-in-law Martha in Fresno, California.
They called James Brown “the hardest working man in show business.” Now an Alabama journalist and friend of mine who has written more than 50,000 news stories in his career has been dubbed “the hardest working man in the news business” by reporter John Archibard in the Birmingham News this month.
I was delighted to see this tribute because Al Benn was also one of my late husband Tim Robinson’s closest friends in journalism. And this young Jewish kid from Pennsylvania Amish country was also my husband’s roommate when Tim was the youngest UPI reporter covering the civil rights movement out of the Birmingham office. Tim, the son of a southern Baptist preacher, was in his late teens when the pair covered some of the greatest stories of the 60s, including the Selma march. Al was in his 20s and had just served six years in the U.S. Marines.
I first met Al when UPI held a reunion for its Alabama correspondents, which included recreating the Selma march. It was a highlight of my marriage and introduced me to some of the bravest journalists I will ever know, including Al and the Birmingham bureau chief Tony Heffernan, UPI photographer Joe Chapman and many more.
Al’s profile can be read online at http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/07/good_god_50000_reasons_why_al.html
I was back in Birmingham, Alabama in April for the annual Forum in honor of my late husband Tim Robinson at Samford University http://www.samford.edu/, where he got his undergraduate journalism degree. I was looking forward to joining Tim’s family and friends in hearing the presentation by Gene Policinski, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the First Amendment Center. I was amazed however, to learn that he was focusing on the need to reinvent legal journalism.
Tim had in fact been one of the early pioneers of the legal journalism beat during his years at the Washington Post and was acclaimed for his coverage of the Watergate trials, which led to a fellowship at Yale and a degree in Law Studies, followed by a legal column and then the editorship of two legal journals. However, Policinski explained to the students in the audience that cutbacks on our nation’s newspapers has led to the demise of the legal beat at many media outlets and courts are being covered by general assignment reporters, who often are unsophisticated on the nuances of law.
Policinski’s solution was to challenge journalism schools to incorporate the study of legal journalism into their curriculums, so that students get an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of court coverage. He argued that it would give students an edge in getting their first journalism position by arguing their competence in reporting on complicated legal decisions.
I was proud that this annual Forum at a top southern university was continuing to find ways to address the challenges of today’s media age. Last year Washington Post sports columnist Jason Reid challenged students to insist on the same rigorous journalism standards for news bloggers online as the mainstream media set for their reporters to limit the amount of inaccuracies currently prevalent in the new media.
For more information on the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum and this year’s speaker, you can read the coverage in Sanford’s student newspaper, the Samford Crimson at http://samfordcrimson.com/2012/policinski-speaks-on-future-of-legal-journalism/
Alabama in the spring always comes with the threat of tornadoes, so I was just grateful that storms held off until the end of my visit last week for an annual journalism Forum at my late husband Timothy Robinson’s alma mater, Samford University in Birmingham.
This year’s Forum speaker was Jason Reid, a Washington Post sports columnist who spoke on the role of social media in sports reporting . This was also the first year that more students than alumni showed up for the event, hosted by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. I was sure it reflected both the love of sports among undergrads in the South and their love of social media.
Reid emphasized the ways that breaking news posted on social media is changing reporting into a 24/7 job for many beats, including sports. While he clearly relished the challenge and acknowledged the positive aspects of enlarging the dialogue, Reid also urged students to push for the same rigid standards for blogging and posting news stories on facebook or twitter as newspapers and other traditional media demand. Reid must provide two sources for any news leads, a standard not enforced in social media. He was optimistic that it would inevitably happen.
It turned out that Reid, who was born in Brooklyn, had started his career in Los Angeles and got his undergraduate degree from USC the same year I graduated with my master’s from USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. The previous year he had won two awards from the Los Angeles Press Club for his coverage of the Los Angeles riots – and I related how my late husband directed coverage of the police trials that led to the riots while editor of the Daily Journal, the statewide legal newspaper. It was amazing how our paths had crossed in those years.
The Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum features Washington Post speakers and the Post also announces an internship award each year to a Samford journalism student. All expenses are funded by a Robinson Scholarship, set up by the family and including donations from both family and friends. Tim had worked as an editor, investigative reporter and legal columnist at the Post during the 70s and early 80s.
I’m convinced that because Time was also a pioneer of editorial content on the web during the last part of his career, he would have championed Reid’s call to action on accountability. So I was proud that Jason Reid was sounding the alarm on Tim’s home turf that a storm is picking up strength in journalism – and that so many students were listening!