The J word: Medill exhibit explores journalism’s identity crisis
Ninety years after the Medill School of Journalism opened its doors, the cachet of journalism as a profession and as an academic calling clearly has fallen out of favor at Northwestern University.
Under Dean John Lavine, the J word has been systematically diminished or banished completely. Look at most documents, publications, websites and logos, and you’ll see it’s now branded as the “Medill School” or even more simply “Medill.”
Adding insult to injury, the university board of trustees last March approved a recommendation by Lavine and the faculty to change the official name of the school to Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “The expanded name fairly recognizes who we are and the kinds of professional careers our graduates enter,” Lavine explained.
The move prompted one non-alumnus columnist at the Chicago Tribune (whose courageous 19th century editor and publisher Joseph Medill was the school’s namesake) to note that it “not only cheapens the school’s heritage,” but “threatens to dilute the importance of journalism at Northwestern.”
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I visited my alma mater Thursday to take in an exhibition called Who Is the Journalist? The Past, Present, and Future of News, on display through September 2 at Northwestern University Library in Evanston. If the powers that be had gone to such lengths to devalue the word “journalism,” how would they reflect my beloved profession and its heritage to the masses?
The developer and curator of the exhibit was Lavine’s predecessor as dean, Loren Ghiglione, a wise and thoughtful man who’s now a full-time professor at Medill. Using a fascinating array of artifacts, clippings, books, videos and other materials, the free, self-guided walk-through raises thought-provoking questions for anyone who cares where the news business is headed.
“Is the present and future for journalists,” Ghiglione asks in his introduction to the exhibit, “a world of truthiness-filled infotainment? Are international coverage (down 40 percent in one year) and time-consuming investigative reporting on disturbing realities being replaced by titillating tweets about the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen? Is paranoid-filled, polarizing palaver from the left and right dividing Americans into political camps? Is the wired, WiFi world of second-to-second communication via smartphone and social media distracting journalists and Americans to death? Or has the sky been falling for centuries?”
Visitors may not come away with answers, but they should have a better understanding of how conflicted and controversial the role of the journalist has always been — at almost all times “communicator and critic of propaganda, reporter and rumormonger, educator and entertainer.” By Ghiglione’s definition, there’s room for everyone from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to Perez Hilton and Julian Assange in the world of journalism (and even a place for such inspiring “fantasy journalists” as Clark Kent and Brenda Starr).
There’s unintended irony in the section hailing journalists as investigators and crusaders. Former superstar professor David Protess and the Medill Innocence Project he headed is lauded for helping free more than 10 wrongfully convicted inmates from prison, including some on death row. When the exhibit opened in April, Protess had just been relieved of his teaching duties for spring quarter and had taken a leave of absence in the wake of questions about his methods and his honesty with university officials. Last week the school announced his retirement, effective August 31.
Medill fares quite a bit better in the exhibit’s spotlight on the careers of eight distinguished alums — Christine Brennan, Georgie Anne Geyer, Hank Klibanoff, Richard Longworth, Kevin Sites, Richard Stolley, Cynthia Wang and Michael Wilbon. All contributed personal artifacts to the exhibit.
Though purists may find little to celebrate in the falling standards and dwindling resources of today’s newsgathering operations, Ghiglione draws encouragement from the Internet, social media and other new technologies that he concludes will make storytellers out of everyone: “The golden age of journalism may well be ahead, not behind us.”