Tuesday, April 19, 2005

UA professor beats us to My Turn

University of Alabama (that's us) communications professor Minabere Ibelema got his personal experience published in Newsweek for the April 25 issue. I ran across it looking for my last homework assignment. Not sure if I got the link right, but here goes nothing.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I will miss this class!

School's Out! Posted by Hello

Cliché leads for this entry
  • All good things must come to an end.
  • “I’d drive from Dothan to stay in this class,” said Lauren King a graduating journalism student.
  • Wow. This opinion class really rocked.
  • What do you get when you put 14 talented writers in one room for three hours every Thursday afternoon?
  • Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll.

    I have to admit to ya’ll, I’m really going to miss this class. I’ve been teaching for 12 semesters and I’ve had wonderful, talented students who have gone on to do amazing things. But somehow, this class, this semester has knocked me over with the array of talent, compassion, humor and genuine camaraderie. When I first starting teaching, I was concerned that few if any students in my classes knew each other. As graduating seniors, they had not built a network of classmates, professors and mentors that I feel is one of the most important things you can do as an undergraduate. I set about trying everything I could think of to foster friendships and camaraderie.

    Some semesters it worked others it was a dismal failure. Sometimes there would be a negative force within the class, other times it was just the usual apathy and indifference toward journalism and fellow journalists. Gradually, with the fiction contest and then, reading pieces aloud, things began to come together. I’m not a real teacher. The only education class I ever took was for two weeks at U of Texas. I dropped it when I realized that I wasn’t cut out to get an education degree. No literature. No philosophy. No foreign studies. No psychology.

    I’m not a professor either. I didn’t do the hard work, endless research and academics needed to obtain a PhD. What I did do is write and publish in newspapers and magazines building a solid freelance career that I love. I wake up and am amazed that I get paid to do something I love to do. And I feel the same way about teaching. There are things about journalism that are never found in textbooks. Lessons from editorial meetings, intern coordination, interviewing, hiring, firing and writing interesting, boring, complicated, heartbreaking, joyful stories that I want to teach about. So, that’s what I try to do.
    The last minute addition of the group blog may have something to do with the charisma of this class. For one thing, I got to know you by your profiles, your writing, your interests, hobbies and dreams for the future. This is usually impossible in a short semester with merely classroom time. Plus, I was able to put names and faces together quickly, instead of struggling through it all semester long. And you got to know your fellow classmates the same way.

    Some of the memorable moments include the ongoing war of letters to the editor beginning with Andy Duncan’s evolution letter, the war of words in Christine’s blog and of course, the freaks and geeks who write to the CW just to keep our class amused, outraged and ready to fire back. The fiction contest, humor pieces and book reviews all demonstrated your talent and creativity.

    Probably no single class ever stands out in my memory as the one where you read the Newsweek pieces. Your words, powerful, moving and wrenching set a standard I doubt will ever be reached. I cannot express how beautifully written, revised, polished and well done these pieces were. For your classmates who chose not to read aloud, let me assure you, they were equal to the ones read in class.
    I expect that you will see each others’ bylines in years to come. I know you will email the writer to say, well done. I hope you will continue to write essays even if you go into sports writing, newsrooms, magazines or law firms. As you can see, your words hold the power to cause change. Even if it’s just getting granola bars into vending machines. It’s still power.
  • Use it wisely.

cheerleader mother Posted by Hello

Cheerleader Story

Here's the cheerleader piece I wrote for MSN.com a few years ago. I got some nice hate mail from this one!

My daughter's a cheerleader
And other bad things that happen to good moms
By Carolyn Magner Mason


I spent most of my high school years really hating cheerleaders.
I hated their little pleated skirts, their cliquishness and most of all, I hated their cartwheels. Of course, they didn't notice me hating them; they didn't notice me at all.
Being careful not to get what you wish for is nothing compared to being careful not to hate something so much the gods cannot resist a good laugh at your expense. Which is what must have been going on when my 14-year-old daughter announced she was trying out for the high school cheerleading squad. I tried to be supportive, but secretly I was seething. Was this her way of sticking it to me? Did she deliberately set out to become an anachronism just to prove that mothers like me can spawn cheerleaders in spite of our best intentions?
Everyone who knows me well has gotten a small chuckle out of my predicament when this daughter of mine actually made the squad. Not only am I the mother of a cheerleader, it gets worse. I am a cheerleader mother. These mothers speak a certain code. Most of them were cheerleaders in their former life, the life they miss a lot. They understand things like when the gift maximum is $5 per gift, it really means $15 per gift. The secret, underworld cheerleader mother code is incomprehensible to me. I am always one step off the beat, one gift short, one sock missing and one daughter late enough she has to run a mile as punishment for a bad mother.

"But why do you want to be a cheerleader?" I ask her, exhausted by another cheerleader mother meeting where we plan endlessly for camp and order objects like matching, monogrammed pom bags.

It's a sport now, I am informed. It's less about cheers and more about winning competitions with complicated pyramid formations and gymnastic displays. What football team? It's also about injuries and torn, sprained, wounded body parts. It's not for sissies but it's also not where the popular girls hang out.
"What?" I exclaim. "It's not about being popular?"
I narrow my eyes and get in my daughter's face. "What is it about then?"
She answers as honestly as a 14-year-old can answer.
"It's about the skirt."
Like mother, like daughter?

Admit it. You get pregnant, have a kid, and you figure it's going to be somewhat like you. Take it a little further and you hope it has your good qualities and none of your fatal flaws, Achilles heels or irritating, obsessive-compulsive disorders. You secretly hope her hair is either blond or brunette but not the muddy dirt color yours would be, if yours were yours, that is. You wouldn't mind if she tanned naturally so you didn't have to freak about sunburns and all that.
A nice voice would be nice. A sense of rhythm would not be too much to hope for. Other things, math ability, kind heart, curious mind and if you are really lucky, not too much of an overbite. I know, I know, 10 fingers and toes and the right amount of chromosomes would take precedence over all of the above. Let's just say that's understood.

Watching her personality emerge is like opening a beautifully wrapped present; ribbon by bow, by paper, by box, by tissue and there it is. Not a lot changes. SAT scores inch up or down slightly, hair color darkens or lightens and the ability to laugh at oneself becomes apparent. Qualities flicker before they take hold, but the adult is plainly visible in the teenager. It's not a finished product, but it's lurking there.

I can already see that she is easily amused, kind to animals, disinterested in gossip, curious about relationships, weak in math, strong in language and absolutely awesome in shop, where she can take apart an engine and put it back together again.

Her cartwheel is perfect and her back handspring suitable enough to win a spot on the coveted squad. None of which, I ought to mention, comes naturally. I have sat in the waiting room of gymnastic workshops for years as she has willed her splits and handsprings through rigorous training and determination without an ounce of natural ability. I am in awe of such determination to change the course of nature.

But this is not the daughter I had in mind. A daughter of mine ought to be gawky, bookish and unable to clap to the beat of the music. I just don't understand how the gene blender produced her. She's a beloved alien. Her perfect posture, quick smile and glossy black hair, combined with her ability to do things easily, would never qualify for daughter of mine. There's just not a recognizable trait that could link her to me. She doesn't possess the paralyzing shyness, awkward gait, discordant drummer that led me through my adolescence.

Lessons from a high-school reunion
And now she's the anti-me. The daughter who will make geeks like I was twist with envy as she flips her way down high school hallways, effortlessly swirling her pleated skirt in their wake. They will work harder, diet more relentlessly and hope, by the night of their 20-year reunion, that she has gotten fat, sluggish, divorced and depressed so they can gloat and reclaim their belief that they were something in spite of her.

I went to my 20-year high school reunion really hoping the aged cheerleaders would be fat, boring, black-rooted, multi-married frumps who never quite got over being popular in high school. The cheerleaders looked 20 years older and, unfortunately, most of them looked pretty darn good. Some had traded their cheerleader skirt for a tennis skirt, but others were lawyers, doctors and Indian chiefs. There was no revenge of the nerds. Everyone was still the same, just older, more gray, thicker and less anxious to fit in. I asked most of my classmates the same question. Did you like your high school years? The answers were surprising. Almost everyone said they felt insecure, left out and unnoticed. I was expecting to hear strains of Springteen's Glory Days, but instead, it was Janis Ian, At Seventeen. It seemed that everyone thought everyone else was having a blast — especially the cheerleaders.

I left wanting to share my new-found wisdom with the miserable, unnoticed teenagers I know. I want to prove to them that it all works out, gets better and that nobody is as happy as you think they are in high school. But they wouldn't believe me, would they?

While driving to practice, I urge my daughter to be kind to others, to think of her little pleated skirt as a privilege, something that comes with a price tag she doesn't even know about yet. And she turns those black-fringed eyes upon me and says that she is nice to everyone.
I believe her. At the reunion I can honestly say that all the cheerleaders were nice to me. It was a shocking revelation when I finally realized it. Even that night of hugs and do-you-remembers, nobody was not nice. After all, acts of malice are rare and isolated; it is the brutality of indifference that leaves its mark.
So I figure I've given the wrong message after all. I haven't imprinted my cheerleader with the right legacy she ought to leave.

Next carpool, I will tell her to forget about being nice to everyone and to notice them instead.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Cutting Corners, A Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale for all journalists!

King Kaufman's Sports Daily - - - - - - - - - - -

April 12, 2005 I am Mitch Albom. We are all Mitch Albom.
I don't mean I've committed the same sin Albom has. Except when obviously joking, I've never made things up in a story, invented reality, the way Albom did last week in his column about former Michigan State stars Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves attending the Final Four.
What I'm saying is this: It's fine to throw stones at Albom because he did break that cardinal rule, but let he who has never cut a corner really put some mustard on that rock.
Albom wrote in his Sunday column last week about Cleaves and Richardson, now NBA players, attending Michigan State's NCAA semifinal game the night before in St. Louis. He described how they flew in, how they sat together wearing MSU gear, how they talked about the camaraderie and good times of college life, which they miss now that they're in the moneyed but isolating world of the NBA.
The problem was that none of this had happened when Albom wrote the column, which he did on Friday because the section in which it ran was printed Saturday, before the game. He'd interviewed the two men, who told him their plans and gave him the quotes about campus life.
But their plans changed, they didn't show at the game, and Albom, the Free Press and Tribune Media Services, which syndicates his column, all issued apologies, though it took them a few days to get to it.
Albom has been suspended while the paper investigates whether this was a pattern of behavior on his part or just a one time bad assumption, as Albom downplayed it in his weak, half-hearted mea culpa.
It's easy to dislike Mitch Albom. He's rich. He's hugely successful. He has bad hair. He's everywhere, writing a column, hosting a radio show, making TV appearances and penning sappy bestselling books. He's a blowhard and a cheap sentimentalist.
He's a hypocrite, too. His massively successful "Tuesdays With Morrie" chronicled his conversations with a wise old dying professor who had a tough social conscience forged during the Depression, when Morrie witnessed brutal working conditions in factories. While he was talking to Morrie and writing the book, Albom was a scab at the Free Press, having crossed the picket line during a violent, wrenching newspaper strike.
The guy's a piece of work. He's instant schadenfreude. Feel free.
But there's more to it than that. Albom's column passed through several hands before it hit the press. Each person who read it -- I'm guessing, at the very least, a sports editor, two copy editors and a makeup editor -- knew that what Albom was describing could not have happened yet. No one said a thing.
Albom's column was reprinted in papers all over the country, with at least a copy editor most likely reading it before publication in each, all knowing that the semifinal game hadn't happened yet. They all pushed it through, with one exception.
Nikki Overfelt, a rookie copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune, changed the tenses in Albom's copy, according to the Chicago Tribune, making it read as though the game hadn't happened yet, which it hadn't.
Overfelt, fresh out of Kansas University, is the Copy Editor Appreciation Society's woman of the month, and that says a lot, because all she did is what everyone in her position was supposed to do and didn't. "I've been telling people that I hope they don't think I've done a huge thing," she told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal World.
But it is a big deal, not because she did the right thing but because no one else did. And that's why this whole thing, while it's most certainly about Mitch Albom, is not just about Mitch Albom.
It reminds me of something that dawned on me about big-time college sports two years ago in the wake of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy's murder. The killing led to revelations that the basketball program, a perennial doormat, had been rampant with cheating and corruption.
"Every time we learn something about big-time college sports," I wrote then, "we learn how corrupt they are."
I had that same thought when I heard about Albom's Final Four column. Only now we're talking about my profession. It seems like every time a bright light shines on a newsroom, we see lying, corner-cutting, plagiarism, conflict of interest and, yeah, bad assumptions. I don't have to list the familiar names for you: Jayson Blair, Mike Barnacle, Stephen Glass, Dan Rather. And so on.
What's so dismaying about this is that at its heart, journalism is the simplest business in the world. "It's about -- simply put -- telling the truth."
You know who wrote those words, don't you? Mitch Albom, in a 2003 column about Blair.
The Detroit Free Press publishes its code of ethics for all to see. Here's how it starts:
"1. We tell the truth. We don't mislead readers. We do not publish made-up material ... We quote people accurately. We don't imply we have witnessed events we haven't seen or been in places we haven't been."
Pretty simple.
It's been widely noted that Albom, like most star columnists, benefited from a hands-off editorial policy. You don't touch the big guy's golden prose. That's why all those Free Press editors let his column go. They're used to not challenging him, reading him closely. What's the point if you're just going to be told to leave it alone? Of course that makes it easier for mistakes, even huge ones, to get past.
But it's not just the stars. I cut my teeth on the night copydesk at the San Francisco Examiner, a paper pretty much like any other in most ways. Early on, I was working on a story and found some inconsistency. Something didn't make sense. I brought my concern to the story's editor, who brought it to the boss of the moment, the metro editor. We were right on deadline.
The metro editor, evidently with better things to do than make sure the stories in the paper were accurate and made sense, turned around and said in a loud voice dripping with sarcasm, "Tell the copydesk their concerns will be forwarded to the Pulitzer committee."
The story stood and the lesson was learned. They weren't paying me enough to make my little corner of the paper better over the objections of the bosses. I learned to coast. My main objective on each shift: Get to the end of the shift with as little effort as possible.
You see, I started out as Nikki Overfelt. The business turned me into Mitch Albom. And the business has only become more brutal in the years since as costs have been cut, work has been sped up and all pretense of having any goal other than maximizing profits has come to seem quaint.
A few years later I was writing for the paper. I got sent to Lollapalooza to write pretty much whatever I wanted about the music festival. I wandered around, talking to kids. There were about 20,000 people there, and some of the kids I talked to wouldn't give me their last name. It occurred to me how easy it would be to just make up a good, funny quote if I needed to, attribute it to "15-year-old Jennifer from the South Bay."
I didn't do it, though if I had nobody would have known.
I didn't do it because even then, in the pre-Web days when it didn't seem like a huge audience was looking over my shoulder waiting to catch me in the slightest misstep, I was afraid I'd get caught.
I didn't do it because this is all I have, you believing me. Yeah, I can rattle them nouns and verbs around a little, but that wouldn't matter a bit if readers didn't believe I was telling the truth, not making things up, not copying other people's work, not taking favors from anybody to push a certain point of view.
That's all any of us have. Like Mitch Albom wrote, it's simple: Tell the truth. Not easy -- there's little spots of blood on my forehead every day from thinking about this column -- but simple. And if you blow that, you blow everything.
Part of me wants to hate Mitch Albom for what he did, to fire a rock at him with everything I have. Because even though he can afford to take a chance like he did, figuring no one will notice, and even though he can afford to get caught, to lose his column even, the rest of the profession can't.
And thanks to Albom, we've all lost a little bit of our credibility, again. We've all been painted just a tiny little bit with the broad brush painting Albom, this time, as a cheat.
But I can't throw that rock full speed. Because the profession, my profession, created Mitch Albom, let him do what he did, let him not get challenged, not get caught until it was too late, and only then because the basketball players didn't show up when they'd said they would.
It's not necessarily true, you know, that there are cheaters and liars and plagiarists everywhere you look in journalism. There are studies that suggest journalists score fairly high on moral reasoning tests, though there may be a disconnect between test answers and real behavior.
I'd like to think the honest and fearless outnumber the cheaters and shortcut-takers, that we only hear so much about misbehavior because ethical behavior isn't news.
It just doesn't feel that way right now. We have Mitch Albom to thank for that, but we have a lot more people to thank than Mitch Albom.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Story about Health Mag re-design. Click here!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Back from the Break!

Back from the Break
In spite of torrential rains, flooding, tornadoes in transit, 15-year-old girls obsessed with The OC, straightening their hair and shaving excessively, it was a great week. I took my daughter and her friend to Seaside, Florida where I was surrounded by college students from Auburn, Alabama and Michigan. The house of Michigan guys was rocking but sadly, they simply could not attract a single southern co-ed. I don’t know if it’s a north/south thing, a spiked hair and saggy jeans thing or the Pearl Jam blasting from their speakers but those boys totally struck out in the pick- up department. I suggested they try some Modest Mouse or Beck and maybe wash their hair from time to time. Not that I was watching. No sirreeee. I was watching my own crew of 15- year-olds bomb through the seaside on bikes; Ipods in pocket, cell phone in basket and cash stashed in their American Eagle hooded jackets. They are perched between the misery of pre-teens and the agony of full-blown teenagerhood. Somehow they seem oblivious to the angst. I must not see it. Or, maybe I’m just tired of seeing it so I choose to put on my fake Chanel sunglasses, break out a cold Ultra light Beer and, over the course of 4 days, read 672 pages from start to finish of Eliot Perlman’s The Seven Kinds of Ambiguity. It was so heavy it made my rented bike wobble from the weight. It’s a good yarn although now I know how to count cards while playing Black Jack. Which means I’m going to have to try to get kicked out of Vegas for a good first person story. Dontchathink?

By now, I hope you are putting the last touches on your Newsweek piece.
Spell Check is your friend
Read aloud to someone not your mother
First person means you use the pronoun.
100 words on either side of the word count is okay. 101 words is not. Check your word count.
Examine adverbs. Search for words that end in “ly” and kill them.
Kill all your darlings. Anything that you are very very fond of, kill it. I’m sorry, it’s cold but darlings stick out.
Write a good headline.
Put it to the Maxwell test. Is this a writer with passion? Do you care about this story or is it just another assignment.
Rawk on!