By Robert Mann
Almost three years ago, I created a blog, which I eventually began to call “Something Like the Truth.” At the time, I had not heard Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post journalist of Watergate fame, articulate his definition of journalism – “the best obtainable version of the truth” – but the name of the blog was an attempt to communicate what I later heard Bernstein say during a visit to LSU and which I found in the poem at this link.
This was my unspoken, unwritten philosophy and the spirit, which I hope has guided me more often than not:
This is what I believe to be true. We may disagree. You may, in fact, be correct and I may be wrong. What is truth, anyway? Perhaps the best we can do is wrestle with whatever facts we have available and hope that they sometimes are enough to persuade us to relinquish some of our presuppositions and challenge our long-held biases or prejudices. Sometimes, I’ll be certain I am correct and I’ll state my views firmly. Other times, I hope to share with you my own doubts and uncertainties. The best any of us can do, I believe, when we are arguing about politics, faith or life is to arrive at something like the truth.
That is not to say that I haven’t often stated my opinions as if I am certain I am right. They are opinions and they are mine. I hope they are founded on fact, evidence and a sense of justice and fairness. The blog’s title, however, has always been a subtle reminder to me, and my readers, that while I think I am correct, I do not assert that I have found “the truth” about any subject or that I have anything close to a monopoly on truth. Like you, I’m just stumbling through this life, doing the best I can – in my job, with my family and in my relationship with God.
That’s some mighty long throat clearing, I know, but it brings me to the point of this post, which is to explain some of the reasons I continue to speak out about public affairs and politics – including (maybe, particularly) about higher education, in general, and my employer, Louisiana State University, in particular. A few weeks ago, the publisher of the Baton Rouge Business Report, Rolfe McCollister, published a column in which he questioned the very ethics of my weekly Times-Picayune column and the bad example it sets for my students at the Manship School of Mass Communication, where I serve as a professor and where I hold the Manship Chair in Journalism.
McCollister also serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors and I had recently published a column in the Times-Picayune calling on the next governor to dismiss the entire board for its failure to publicly defend the university out of, I suspect, a misplaced fealty to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who appointed all of 16 them (except the one student member). I’ll let Rolfe speak for himself:
Mann is one to take full advantage of free speech and faculty tenure as he pontificates in his columns on all that’s evil. Hey, this is America, and I respect that right. But I am getting the feeling that Mann switches his hats often and there may be an ethical question with his two roles. Not a good example for Mann to set for LSU students.
I asked a former seasoned journalist about the ethics of a faculty member who has a second job as a journalist and writes about his university. He said, “Every good journalist knows that you cannot ethically cover the institution that pays your salary and the people who supervise the work you do for that salary.
The ethical equation doesn’t change if a reporter vilifies those people. Who is to say the reporter’s self-interest isn’t involved? Would the reporter be better off if the person they criticize was fired? Did the administrator make the reporter angry one day and now it’s a chance to get even? When journalists don’t recognize this fundamental aspect of journalism, everything they write, on any topic, lacks credibility.”
I wonder if Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss (who sits on the LSU Manship School Board of Visitors) has thought about that conflict? It is obvious Mann hasn’t. (I suspect I will now be the target in one of Mann’s blogs. Oh well, it won’t be the first time.)
After McCollister’s column, I responded on my blog and McCollister added his own postscript to his column. After he wrote that postscript, McCollister kindly texted me one afternoon in early April and invited me to meet with him. He observed that we had been friends for many years and that we both cared deeply about LSU. Life was too short, he seemed to be saying, to let a dispute over the conduct of the LSU Board damage our friendship. I agreed.
We met for lunch a few days later and enjoyed a lovely conversation. We had not spoken for several years, so it was good to catch up with an old friend with whom I had become estranged over my criticism of his role on a university governing board. I had planned to ask Rolfe to help me understand why he believed that my columns were unethical, but I demurred – not because I was hesitant to challenge him but because my wife wisely advised me to use the meeting to repair a fractured friendship, not to widen or exacerbate our disagreements.
So I didn’t broach the subject with him over our delightful lunch meeting. But it lingers in my mind, for several reasons. One, because the “former seasoned journalist” McCollister quoted in his column used language strangely similar to what a respected faculty colleague sternly told me more than 18 months ago when I published some particularly harsh criticism of then-LSU President Bill Jenkins.
Next, hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive an email or read a comment below one of my NOLA.com columns from a critic who says something along these lines, “God help those poor students of yours who are forced to listen to your liberal crap in class. What kind of dreadful example are you setting for them?”
I have one critic, in particular, a former employee of the Manship School, who has assailed me viciously for the damage he believes I have done to the school. He believes my strong words about Gov. Jindal and other public officials sets a terrible example for my students and is evidence of what he believe is the decline of the journalism program at LSU.
I have resisted for several years publicly answering these various critics. On one hand, I believe my work (and its integrity) speaks for itself. I try very hard to back up everything I say. If you read my columns and posts, you’ll see that I rarely quote someone or make an assertion without providing a hyperlink. It’s my way of giving my online readers “footnotes” to check for themselves if what I’m saying is accurate or if I am misquoting or twisting the words of some official or report.
Furthermore, my political leanings and my political background are rather well known. You can read them on my blog or at the end of every column I write for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. While I regard myself as a journalist, I don’t pretend to be a traditional reporter (although I once was). I’m now a blogger and columnist who expresses opinions (based on evidence and research, I hope). I don’t pretend to be neutral on most questions or issues. If I write about a subject, it’s because I have arrived at an opinion or conclusion about that subject and wish to share it with my readers. That’s what opinion writers do and have done for several hundred years. In fact,
I like to think that Thomas Paine was among the first “bloggers.” If the Internet had existed in 1776, he might well have published “Common Sense” on his blog.
I once naively thought that most people understood the distinction between reporter and columnist/blogger. I assumed that most people understood that under the broad definition of “journalist” an individual could be a city hall or a crime reporter, a political writer, a copy editor, a city editor, a columnist, a managing editor or editor in chief. Just as the word “teacher” has many definitions (Sunday school teacher, first grade teacher, high school teacher, college professor, mentor, etc.), “journalist” also has many meanings.
Likewise, “journalism” has multiple definitions. Among other things, it may be an obituary, a weather report, a summary of a football game, a lengthy magazine article, a blog post or an opinion piece. So, it has always seemed strange to me to hear critics attack or criticize me, not because they believe my opinions are wrong, because because they mistakenly believe one cannot engage in journalism if he or she is expressing an opinion.
These people, it seems, have a quite narrow definition of journalism, which I believe is this: a journalist should be nothing other than an objective person who fairly writes about an event or situation (a speech or a budget, for example) by presenting nothing but the facts. Journalism, they mistakenly believe, must not involve opinion. As Joe Friday from the TV show “Dragnet” reportedly once said, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Now, you may hold that this is exactly what journalism should be and nothing more. Perhaps you believe journalists were once held to exactly that standard and that opinion and bias were never allowed to enter into a reporter’s story. Well, you would be wrong. I don’t have time to review the history of American journalism on this space, but the idea of the objective, neutral journalist is a relatively new concept in the business of journalism.
Journalists, i.e., columnists, have been expressing their opinions on the pages of newspapers for quite some time. This is not a new phenomenon to journalism and no journalist I know regards opinion pieces as some substandard form of journalism (as long as the piece is clearly identified as opinion, which might include its placement on the editorial or op-ed page of a newspaper).
So, it strikes me as odd and even outrageous for critics of my work to suggest that I am damaging the reputation of the Manship School of Mass Communication because I do what certain journalists have been doing for a very long time. It would be just as odd and outrageous if someone attacked a professor at our school for working on the side as a copy editor for a local magazine or for publishing restaurant reviews in the local newspaper. Those people would be committing legitimate journalism just as much as me – no more, not less.
Of course, some of my critics know and understand everything I have just stated. They know that there are many varieties of journalists and journalism. They know that writing a newspaper column is a venerable part of the newspaper business.
That suggests to me that the criticism of my work is not about whether I am a journalist. It is that they are offended by or object to my opinions – or they believe that, in order to protect the Manship School from retribution from the LSU Board or the governor, I should not express my opinions. Which brings me to the question of the impact my work (including my political opinions) has on my students and the Manship School.
Remember those commenters I mentioned who suggest that I am indoctrinating my students or setting a bad example for them? If my columns are well written and employ facts, logic and clear reasoning, I fail to see how engaging in a well-respected form of journalism could set a bad example for anyone. Some of these commenters may know that, of course, so their point might be that my opinions are bound to adversely influence my students’ thinking or that my students will feel the need to conform to my opinions in order to earn a passing grade in my class.
I hope some of my current and former students will see this column and volunteer their comments at the bottom of this post. I don’t doubt that I have critics among my current and former students. They may not enjoy my teaching style. They may think that what I teach is of little value. They may believe I grade too hard or that I put too much emphasis on grammar. I’m sure that a certain number of my students have those opinions about me.
But I am certain that students cannot truthfully say that I try to indoctrinate them. While I might occasionally call to their attention something I have published (I recently invited them to read this column I published in Salon), I almost never discuss my writing in class. Unless they bring up what I have published on my blog or in my column, I have no idea if they bother to read what I write. In the almost two years of writing my column, I have involved my class in the writing of exactly one piece of my writing (this column, which their honest, incisive comments and criticism helped improve).
All that is to say that I couldn’t care less if my students read my writing and I care not in the least whether my students share my political views. In fact, some of the students I have most enjoyed knowing have been strong conservatives and libertarians.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that we rarely discuss political ideology in class. I teach students how to reason and to write or speak persuasively. My job is to help prepare them for the job market. Many of them leave LSU and work on Capitol Hill or work for political campaigns. Many of them are Republicans. I have failed in my job if I spend even one minute trying to change their political views instead of teaching them the skills they will need to find and hold good jobs in the political or government arena.
Good writing is good writing. Good writing and sound reasoning are not liberal or conservative qualities. They are just good and skillful qualities. Skills are what I teach, not ideology.
But, of course, I know I am teaching my students by example. That is often the crux of the criticism leveled at me. Sure, they say, you might just be teaching writing, but your students are watching you. By expressing your strong, liberal opinions, you are setting a bad example for them.
First, that assumes they are following my opinions as closely as one might believe. Trust me, they are not. They have active lives outside of class and what I write on my blog or in the newspaper does not command any significant percentage of their time.
But, to the extent they are watching me, what are they seeing? Well, first, I would hope they are seeing someone unafraid to speak truth to power. McCollister and his anonymous journalistic ethics expert believe that criticizing LSU is unethical for the reasons stated above in his column.
Put aside for the moment that plenty of journalists write about the organizations for which they work, what I hope I am demonstrating to my students is that if you have opinions, you should not be afraid to express them. You should not allow a professor, a dean or a college president to stop you from expressing your views on the affairs of the institution you attend or that employs you.
In the case of LSU, this is especially true. It is a public institution, one of the largest and the most influential in the state. As LSU goes, it could be said, so goes Louisiana. When you begin working for LSU or enroll there as a student, you do not relinquish your rights as a citizen. Your tax dollars or your tuition and fees are supporting this institution. You have a sacred right to speak out about its affairs, if you so choose. The fact that LSU pays my salary does not rob me of my right to write about its policies.
So, for those students who are watching me, what I hope I am teaching them is something about standing up for one’s beliefs. I hope they see in me someone not afraid to defy the chancellor or criticize the governor in defense of their futures and the future of LSU. I hope they see in me someone exercising his First Amendment right to free speech (after all, we have the text of the First Amendment hanging on the wall of every classroom at the Manship School). I don’t apologize for expressing my opinions as an LSU employee. And, as the Manship Chair in Journalism, I certainly do not apologize for committing journalism.
As for the ethics of a journalist writing about his or her employer, first, I do not “cover” LSU in the way that a beat reporter would. I am not the Times-Picayune’s education reporter. I am a part-time columnist who writes about a wide range of issues, which include higher education and LSU. Now, if I were constantly writing pieces praising the LSU Board or President F. King Alexander in hopes of getting a promotion or a pay raise, you might legitimately question my motives and my ethics. I am, in fact, doing the opposite. If anything, you might say I have sealed my fate from ever being considered for an administrator’s position at LSU. I doubt many administrators would hire someone like me, who attacks the board and often criticizes the university president.
I have tenure, which gives me a great deal of job security, which one critic has suggested qualifies me as a coward who hides behind my tenure while I lob rhetorical grenades at the LSU Board. My answer to that is, of course, this is one of the reasons tenure exists – to give faculty the freedom to express their opinions, to pursue their research, to discuss their conclusions without being punished or silenced by the school’s administration. For me, at least, it would be cowardly to hold a tenured position and not speak out.
Beyond that, to suggest that a journalist cannot ethically write about his employer is to suggest that the Washington Post should never again write about its owner, Jeff Bezos (the founder and CEO of Amazon). Should NBC News never cover anything that General Electric, its owner, does? What about ABC News and the Disney Corporation? If there were a scandal at Disney and ABC News did not report on it, it would be accused of forsaking its journalistic duty.
The New York Times and several other large newspapers believe so strongly in the principle of self-criticism that they hire their own ombudsmen or public editors. If you have ever read one of those columns, you know that the public editor has a form of tenure and can write any critical thing he or she wishes about the paper. Good newspapers, like any good and wise organization, welcome criticism from within their ranks. It’s when criticism is silenced within an organization – when people fear retribution for speaking up and pointing out wrongs – that things begin to fall apart and the organization loses its way. (By the way, when he hired me to write my column, Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss wanted to make sure that I would not shy away from writing about and criticizing LSU. I respect him for that.)
I started my blog three years ago because I was distressed at the direction Gov. Jindal was taking Louisiana. In the years since, my distress has only grown. That said, I’m sure if I could go back and rewrite some of my columns, I would make them less harsh. I might even revise them completely based on new experience or additional information.
Some of what I have written I regret. What I do not regret is my decision to speak out. I regard it not only as my right but as my duty as a citizen and a journalist.
That my words offend some people and make them angry does not bother me. Sometimes making a person angry makes him think or sparks a conversation, which leads to illumination or new information. As I told my wife a few weeks ago, I didn’t start speaking out because I wanted my views to be ignored.
Sure, it bothers me when influential people suggest that my column is evidence that Louisiana should rethink tenure. It worries me sometimes that despite having tenure, the powerful people I assail might still find a way to take away my job.
When I do fret, I think back to the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, as he ran for re-election in 1936. Roosevelt had many critics. Really, they were mortal enemies. When they squealed, Roosevelt knew he was doing his job. It was evidence he had hit his target. I have long admired FDR for many of his fine leadership qualities. But he inspires me when I read these words he spoke on Oct. 31, 1936, about the wealthy, powerful interests he was attacking and trying to reign in:
For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.
I am certainly not comparing myself to Roosevelt, but I am I inspired by his remarkable eagerness to confront and denounce those who he believed were destroying our country.
I’ve tried to make my column and my blog a place where I can use at least one of my skills – writing – to denounce the forces of greed and indifference that I believe have weakened Louisiana. I hope that you have found in my writing some solace, some inspiration and some information.
If you hate me for my opinions, I refer you to FDR’s comments on that subject.
As for my students, they are much stronger and independent than you might imagine. They are fully capable of forming their own opinions about the issues of the day without my help – and they do.
To the extent that they might seek to emulate me, I hope they will emulate – not my opinions – but my willingness to speak out as forcefully and persuasively as I know how about the issues that concern me the most.