Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Have the Work. Do the Work.

A former student who now works for Yahoo News came in today to talk to my Advanced Reporting class. Going over her life and times, she said she remembered the moment she decided to make journalism her career.

It was 9/11, she said. She showed up at my class that day, and I said (she said): Okay, let's lay out A-1 for tomorrow morning.

That was the moment she said, right then, taking control of the terror.

I remember that morning. My sister-in-law woke us up by telephone with the news that we were at war. That is my sister-in-law's gift. You can usually count on things not being as bad as she says. I got dressed and drove the Bay Bridge. My wife considered this quite daring, possibly even brave. Simple probability told me that if anything was going to happen to the Bay Bridge, it would have already happened. I was just doing my job.

Also, it was one of those rare mornings when traffic was light. Actually, I was most of the traffic. One or two National Guardsmen were standing to the right of the mouth of the eastern opening of the Yerba Buena tunnel, rifles poised. For months later a lone guardsman stood post there each day, supposedly providing comfort but more like providing evidence of the rudimentary nature of military public relations.

When I got to class, I kept doing my job, which was to use the moment to teach journalism -- and to soothe myself by having something to do and doing it. I may have actually spelled it out for the students (though I don't remember):

In the face of tragedy, it is your job to understand, to discover, to shape and to convey. It is also your privilege. It is certainly your responsibility. And it is your comfort, to have something worth doing while others cringe, hide or dither.

(Bush did the trifecta, I recall.)

We assigned stories, chalked pages on the board, considered possible headlines, sought for balance, wondered about being fair, brain-stormed whole sections.

You are lucky I may have thought and may have said to the students.

I know at this moment that I am lucky I hope I realized but certainly did not say.

Someone got the message. Who knew? Who dared hope? And if this seems self-congratulatory, cut me some slack. As the fellow said, even a blind pig occasionally finds some lipstick.

We talked about headlines. We agreed that no one would do -- or should do -- a headline like this. But then in our own San Frandisco Examiner....

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