Web Letters | The Nation

Journalism Under Siege at Northwestern


In the interests of accurate, complete reporting and responsible journalism, I’d like to point out a few problems with Ari Berman’s March 23 blog post “Journalism Under Siege at Medill”.

1. Berman and other former Medill students who worked tirelessly on the Anthony McKinney wrongful conviction received a communication from the University in early December 2010 explaining the University’s position on responding to the State’s Attorney’s subpoena. It said, in part:

“The University agrees with you that the key issue before the court is establishing the innocence or guilt of Anthony McKinney, and that unfortunately, that issue has been sidetracked by the question of what documents had to be provided to the State’s Attorney’s office.

“However, I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of the University’s actions in regard to responding to the subpoena for those documents, in which you said that “Northwestern has turned over hundreds of our private memos to the State’s Attorney’s Office.” As I hope you know, Northwestern spent more than a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars aggressively asserting the application of the reporters’ privilege to your work and resisting efforts by the state’s attorney to obtain certain other documents, including your grades. However, the law is clear that any privilege ceases to exist once the supposedly privileged material is shared with a third party. As a result, when the University finally learned the extent to which your memos had been shared with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the University had no choice but to comply with the subpoena in regard to those documents. I understand from your message that you do not think that action was appropriate, but we believe that there were no legal grounds to do otherwise. The University continues to argue that it should not have to produce other documents that were not shared with a third party, including materials related to your grades and academic records.”

Even if Berman doesn’t like the University’s conclusion, surely this is a perspective that should have been represented in the piece, rather than flinging the drive-by charge that the university was “siding with prosecutors.”

2. To suggest that Medill has no commitment to investigative reporting that serves the public good is to totally ignore and misrepresent a growing and powerful set of facts.

In the last few years Medill has hired five investigative reporters/editors/educators and we aren’t finished. They include Alec Klein, an investigative business reporter at the Washington Post, and before that at the Wall Street Journal. His investigative book Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner was a national best-seller.

We’ve just launched a Watchdog/Accountability initiative at Medill, directed by Rick Tulsky. Rick is a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter and editor of about thirty years’ experience. The initiative will provide more Medill and Northwestern students with more opportunities to do this kind of work. We are in the midst of hiring another faculty member with strong professional investigative chops for that initiative. The list goes on—Darnell Little; Josh Meyer; Louise Kiernan. Look ’em up.

3. Dean John Lavine’s academic specialty is not “media marketing.” It is media strategy. Big difference.

For Berman’s information, Lavine began his career as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. He also worked in other media, such as film. He moved to the academy and studied, wrote and taught in the field of media management and strategy. He founded the Media Management Center at Northwestern. He is dean of a school that, since its founding in 1921, has included journalism and advertising, the precursor of marketing communications.

It is a school of many things and certainly journalism—my profession—is going gangbusters. In the last three years, the school has hired twenty-three new full-time faculty, sixteen of them in journalism (we currently have searches under way for eight new faculty at the professorial level, six of them in journalism); has increased graduate journalism enrollments; and has started an undergraduate journalism program in Qatar. Does this sound like a school not committed to journalism?

The school does not have, and never had, a marketing-centric curriculum—except, appropriately, in the Integrated Marketing Communications program. If Berman doubts what the curriculum dean (that would be me) is saying, he can consult the undergraduate and graduate journalism degree requirements, openly available at www.medill.northwestern.edu.

These are long-discredited canards Berman is repeating—but why let facts stand in the way of a good story, eh?

4. “Techno-gadgetry now trumps hard-hitting reporting, ” Berman writes. Tell that to the students and faculty who, on their own time and with Medill support this past Christmas break, went to report from refugee camps in Malawi, Lebanon and Namibia.

Tell that to the students in the immersive National Security Journalism initiative in our Washington, DC, newsroom who last fall studied with investigative journalist Josh Meyer and produced in-depth stories on global warming as a new national security threat—for media partners like the Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers in the United States and news organizations served by the McClatchy News Service around the world.

Tell that to the students who every day are learning the basics of database and shoe-leather investigative reporting in new classes we have introduced; who are reporting from storefront newsrooms in Chicago; and from urban newsrooms in Chicago and Washington. And so on.

5. So to summarize: Berman has denigrated the work of current students, sideswiped a number of fine Medill faculty who are dedicated to investigative work in the public interest, and smeared the Dean—without even seeking their comment.

What seems to be under siege is good reporting at The Nation.

Mary Nesbitt
Associate Dean, Curriculum & Professional Excellence
Medill/Northwestern University

Mary Nesbitt

Evanston, IL

Jun 27 2011 - 7:04pm