A journalist walks across the Modesto Junior College campus in the mid-1990s and peeks in the newspaper office, where dedicated students ankle-deep in gluey paper strips are laying out eight broadsheet pages, scissors and pencils in hands. Though their backgrounds vary, they have each discovered in the task of producing a newspaper the purpose they need to keep coming to school each day. Along the way, they’re developing a sharper focus on the world outside Modesto—and the hidden world inside Modesto, too.
Cut to the fall of 2011. The newsroom is now a tutoring center. The Pirates’ Log, which MJC students had published continuously since 1926, is no more. The last online edition is a stale cyber-ghost. The student radio station is silent. The state-of-the-art TV department has been taken over by the administration and used to make marketing videos.
I was that journalist, hired in 1996 to teach students the essentials of journalism. For fifteen years I tried to train them to ask deeper questions; to seek answers; to value teamwork, tenacity, and technique; and above all to lift their gaze from the flat, hazy terrain of California’s Central Valley. Then, last spring, faced with a potential $8 million budget shortfall, the college eliminated the journalism, radio, film, and television programs, along with all student media, without so much as a backward glance of regret.
This scenario tells you everything you need to know about a community which, in its isolation from any real sense of the new-media renaissance, fell victim to the banal contempt for journalism so prevalent in mainstream America today. In a region where corporate media outlets have shrunk to the point that most residents simply ignore them, college administrators made a facile case that student media were a luxury they couldn’t afford. They must have realized what was at stake: the proven value of journalism studies in promoting media literacy, civic engagement, and awareness of the wider world. They just didn’t think it was worth fighting for.
When you drive over the coastal Range that defines the western wall of the Central Valley, the radio diversity of the San Francisco region is immediately cut off. You are left with, essentially, Clear Channel’s corporate rock music, many Christian stations, and Mexican radio on the lower end of the dial. NPR has some affiliates out of Sacramento, but it might as well be Al Jazeera given how few people listen to it.
Both progressives and conservatives criticize Modesto’s one newspaper, the Bee, for opposite reasons, and its readership has dwindled like that of most American newspapers. The region’s few independent online publishing ventures have pushed music, lifestyle, and entertainment content, not compelling news or intelligent discussion of current events.
And yet. The popularity of MJC media classes swelled in the years before the cuts. Though lacking exposure to quality models of media, whether print, broadcast, or online, students still flocked to these familiar formats. And those who stayed to join the newspaper staff eventually discovered that the practice of daily journalism, on a college campus or in the real world, is nothing less than a commitment to find, share, and protect the truth in the interest of democracy. That’s an ennobling validation for a Central Valley kid.
So you can imagine how they felt when the newly hired president of the college, Gaither Loewenstein, proposed taking it all away. Journalism as we knew it was obsolete, he argued, nowhere near as relevant to today’s world as computer graphics and video games. “In light of resource limitations,” he wrote, “MJC must focus on maintaining its strength in the core disciplines of art, music, and theatre, which will provide students with the creative skill sets they need to apply their talents in the age of new media. In the absence of actual talent and fundamental training in these disciplines, the entertainment and information industries must be reduced to sophisticated mechanisms for delivering mediocre content.”
Loewenstein’s argument stunned media students and faculty all over the state. This was not an analysis of why much contemporary media is mediocre and how students should be trained in order to improve it. It was a baseless assertion that what today’s media professionals were producing didn’t require any training specific to the field. Maybe the news media didn’t need to exist at all, he seemed to say. Entertainment had taken over, and would suffice.
Students reacted to this news with tears and rage—and, for the rest of the semester, they went for broke in the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
“How dare you tell us that our hard work is ‘mediocre’ . . . and how dare you cut our voices short because you don’t wish for us to speak,” wrote Dani Porter, a Log columnist and journalism major.