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UNT Journalism Prof Says She’s “Disturbed” by Mayborn Conference

There’s going to be a very serious faculty meeting soon at the UNT journalism department, where there is likely to be a very serious discussion of the recent Mayborn conference. (Disclosure: I graduated from the UNT journalism department and was a speaker at this year’s conference. You can read Harvard’s summary of the event here.) This meeting may be related to the comments one journalism professor made on her public Facebook page, suggesting the event “seems to tarnish the reputation of the journalism school.”

Tracy Everbach, a recently tenured professor who teaches “Race, Gender, and Media” and undergraduate reporting classes, told me she didn’t want to comment to FrontBurner before the faculty meeting. But she’s made plenty of comments about the conference on her Facebook page. Last week, she posted a link to this DMN blog by Pultizer Prize-winning editorial writer Tod Robberson about two-time Pultizer Prize-winning feature writer and columnist Gene Weingarten’s discussion of the ethical dilemma he faced when a source offered him a loaded hash pipe. Everbach typed:

“I was not there, either, so I am not an authority, but the simple fact that people thought it was OK to do illegal drugs with a source disturbs me greatly, and also seems to tarnish the reputation of the journalism school. This, combined with the recent Dallas Observer blog post that made the conference sound like a drunk fest, bothers me as a professor at the school because I do not embrace these types of ethics and try hard to communicate that to my students.”

More outrage and Gene Weingarten’s response, after the jump.

When DMN writer Michael Lindenberger (who also happens to have a law degree) weighed in to say that, while unwise, smoking pot with a source is certainly not unethical, that it’s something on par with running a red light, Everbach replied:

“I am surprised at how many people are defending this man. I certainly would never tell my students that it is OK to do illegal drugs with a source, nor that it is OK to misrepresent oneself to get a story. I really am surprised that a working journalist, especially one with a law degree, would defend this…And to equate smoking marijuana with running a red light or speeding is ridiculous. It is an illegal drug, for goodness sakes.”

Then she goes on to quote from the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which states: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.”

A bit of background: Weingarten used his Sunday lecture session to provoke some thought among the attendees, giving a very interesting example from his own life as a reporter. While working on a story about the massive number of non-voters in this country — actually it was a profile of one such non-voter, a man named Ted Prus — for the Washington Post magazine, the main subject of the story offered Weingarten a hit from a hash pipe. Weingarten, who told the audience he had no more experience with pot than, say, an entire reggae band, explained that in this one and a half second window of time, the ethical dilemma he faced epitomized many of the tough decisions faced by immersed journalists. If he didn’t take the pipe, he explained, he knew his reporting was over and that he would have a “B-minus” story — the subject would never feel comfortable with him. If he took the pipe, he knew he’d be risking his job, as the Washington Post has a policy that states reporters should never break the law in pursuit of a story.

He took the pipe. (Weingarten made it clear to the audience that, prior to the discussion, he asked both the subject of the story and his executive editor if it was OK to talk about the situation in public and both agreed.) He said the information he got from his subject and his subject’s friends while passing the pipe bumped the story up to an “A.” He asked the audience how many would have done the same thing, and no more than a third of the people in the room raised their hands.

Then he told the story of a time early in his reporting career, when he was working on a story about a corrupt local government and went to a hospital to ask a dying man to explain the codes in his notebook. The dying man mistook him for a doctor and Weingarten says he corrected him several times (but, he admitted, he also took the man’s pulse one time). It was a fascinating discussion, to say the least.

Tracy Everbach was not in the room. Nor, to my knowledge, was Tod Robberson. But that didn’t stop them from passing judgment on the version of the lecture they heard about — or in the case of two separate DMN editorial writers, equating Weingarten’s inhaling with Rupert Murdoch’s entire sleazy journalistic operations. Because, apparently to them, smoking pot with a source is wrong no matter what, end of story.

George Getschow, the man who organizes the conference every year (and a former professor of mine), told me he didn’t want to comment on the situation, and his Facebook page is much less active.

One person who didn’t mind weighing in, however, was Weingarten himself. I sent him Robberson’s editorial and Everbach’s comments. This is what he sent back:

“Wow! There are so many underpants in knots here you could make a macrame quilt. So many earnest people. All of these great journalists really ought to have watched the address before they blow off steam about it, no?

“The only time I lied — which seems to be Ms. Everbach’s principal gripe — was in the hospital room when I took the guy’s pulse instead of shaking his hand. I SAID that was an egregious ethical violation, and didn’t defend it for an instant. I SHOUTED at the few people in the room who held up their hands to say there was nothing wrong with it.

“If Ms. Everbach thinks it is ‘lying’ to flatter a source, or tease him, or pretend to like him more than you do, in order to get him to be voluble or relaxed, I wonder how much actual field experience she has as a reporter. If she teaches her students that a writer must always tell his source exactly what he is thinking, that is seriously naive; she is sending them off ill-equipped for the real world.  It is best to be straightforward; it is sometimes unwise to be completely transparent.

“My other point with this hospital-room anecdote was that this story was about a grave matter of real public interest — municipal corruption. I was making my decisions not just because I wanted a good story, but because that story was important for people to know about.

“As far as smoking pot with someone — yes, I saw it as no different from having a couple of beers with a source.  I don’t actually feel that one was really an ethical question at all — it wasn’t dishonest and it wasn’t immoral, in my opinion — it was against a rule of my employer, and against a small law. (Would Robberson be as huffy if I had driven too fast, or jaywalked? Are you alls really that fuddy down there about personal pot use?)

“I made that decision knowing I might get in trouble for it with my employer, and was prepared to be punished without complaint. But I felt I had conflicting duties to my story. I should point out that I told the group that The Post disapproved of what I did, which I learned when I talked to my former executive editor, Len Downie, about it before the Mayborn. Downie told me that I would have been reprimanded, and maybe worse. I told this to the conference. My point in ALL of this was to show that real-world journalistic decisions can be complicated.

“Yes, it’s possible I could have gotten the cooperation I got without joining the party. Could be. Could’ve taken that chance.  But I also could’ve been iced out, big time.  I chose one route over the other because — to reiterate — I didn’t feel it was dishonest or misleading or revealing of a character flaw in me.   It wound up benefiting the story enormously.

“You’ve got a LOT of high horses down there in Dallas. I should say that even though this thing got some play on Romenesko, and I did a national chat about it, no one’s been exercised the way you folks in Texas seem to be.

“I hereby declare and aver and publish that Mr. Robberson is the son of a thief, based on his name. I could do more research, but what the hell?  He made assumptions without checking, so I’ll do the same. Why are you letting sons of thieves edit your newspapers down there?”

  • 5W&anH

    If a professor’s first responsibility is to his/her students, isn’t a reporter’s first responsibility to his/her readers? A lot of B- writing exists these days for any number of lame reasons. I am thrilled to find something good to read, especially if it seeks to explain why 50% or so members of our population can’t be bothered to vote.

  • Liz Landry

    @J-No well, I guess we should just ball up our diplomas since they are just a B.A., or in my case B.S., and not a coveted B.J. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I still managed to find jobs and that my class had quite a few success stories even with their clearly lacking degrees. In fact, the Mayborn still lists us on their alumni list. I’ll inform them we must be dropped post haste.

  • J-No

    I guess Mayborn just gave me that 2-year scholarship that let me attend her school of journalism for grins then….

  • Doug Swanson

    I’m a little late to this party–in fact, the party seems to be over except for a few people snarling at each other over in the corner. But I have to echo the remarks of Dave Tarrant, Bill Marvel and Lee Hancock, and say that with the Mayborn conference, my friends George Getschow and Mitch Land have created something extraordinary. The conference has spread UNT’s name in literary circles to an extent unimaginable a few years ago. Any suggestion that the conference has tarnished the image of the journalism school is absolutely laughable.

  • Rita B

    The Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism existed before the Mayborn School of Journalism. The Mayborn School of Journalism broke off from the College of Arts & Sciences on Sept. 1, 2009. This is public record. Prior to that it was just the department of Journalism, but the Mayborn family gave money to name the graduate school several years before that. This is probably the source of the confusion. It’s still the same school–it just sold naming rights to some rich people who wanted something named after them.

  • Joy Tipping

    1) Disagree with Tracy’s opinions, but we should be glad she’s willing to stand up for them in spite of all this hubbub.
    2) I was in the room, and my primary reaction was that thank God this conference was digging deep into ethical issues.
    3) Funniest thing on these comments is how Lee Hancock’s last name keeps getting **** out.

  • BP

    @LeeHancock 😀 You rock! I’m one of the winning bio students and I agree with you a 100% about being able to figure out the gist of things, even as a student. It’s silly, isn’t it, how people seem to know “so much” about an event they didn’t even attend! 😉 Thanks, again! This article gave me a good laugh tonight. 😀 haha

  • Zac Crain

    @Joy: I know! Wish there was a way to fix Lee’s name but it also makes me laugh, so whatever.

  • Erik Calonius

    I have three suggestions for the Mayborn:

    1. Intall a five-second delay on the conference mikes, this monitored by a blue-ribbon committee (seated behind a curtain). Zap anything that might discredit the school.
    2. Install a sign near the exits: “Over-imbibing sometimes occurs at professional conventions, particularly after hours when the participants share stories and rub elbows. IT WILL NOT HAPPEN HERE.”
    3. Pulitzer Prize winning journalists should be pre-screened. What they say cannot offend young ears or put the school in a bad light. Double Pulitzer Prize winners will be escorted from the premises immediately.

    Other than this, let the Mayborn be! It’s the best writing conference in the country, and we all know it!