Off The Record: How to make journalism boring

February 02, 2004|HERB BROCK

Several of my colleagues regularly receive invitations from area schools to participate in their "career day" programs. I will receive such an invitation about the time that I, a University of Kentucky lover and a University of Louisville hater, am invited to speak at a testimonial to former U of L basketball cad - I mean, coach - Denny Crum.

The career day shunning of yours truly began about 15 years ago. For my first five or so years here at The Advocate I had received about as many invitations as my co-workers. It apparently took that five-year period for word to circulate from one area school to another that I was one career-day speaker who should be stricken from the invitation list.

So while some of my colleagues - notably Brenda Edwards and Annabel Girard - have made separate careers as career day speakers, I have been blacklisted.

While Edwards and Girard have gotten rave reviews for being interesting and witty and bringing their jobs to life, I had been panned for being boring and humorousless and making the profession seem lifeless. I was blamed for turning off more young people to newspapers than MTV and VH1 combined. I was blamed for doing more harm to the profession of journalism than Janet Cooke and Jason Blair combined.


While some journalists earn Pulitzer Prizes from juries of their colleagues, I have received numerous Pew-litzers from countless school teachers and students. "He could've read a phone book and been more interesting" is what one high school student mumbled under his breath after one of my unengaging career day engagements.

It's not that I didn't try. I researched books on journalism. I designed props. I typed my speeches on index cards and practiced them in front of my cat. I guess when Blanche Marie covered her ears, I should've taken the hint. She definitely was giving me a signal of impending doom when she trotted to the litter box and seemed to say, "Dad, whenever I'm low on kitty litter, I know what you can use to line the bottom of the pan."

Examples of my futile efforts to fire up young people for a career in journalism are too numerous to list. Let me recall one where I really thought I had done something imaginative to grab and keep the attention of the youngsters only to bomb miserably:

I had made the centerpiece of my speech a discussion of the value of journalism as a watchdog of the government. While I seriously made that case, citing Watergate and other episodes in American history when journalists protected and promoted the public's interests against runaway governments, I was at the same time slowly making a pressman's cap out of a newspaper.

At the end of what I thought had been a riveting tribute to journalism's role in American's culture, I took the cap and put it on my head and said, "As you can see newspapers not only are valuable in protecting our freedoms, they also can protect our heads."

Standing there wearing a stupid cap and an even dumber-looking smile, I realized that what was supposed to have been the punchline to which I had been building my speech had about as much punch as a left hook from a Teletubby trying to box Mike Tyson. It was so soft it had absolutely no impact on the class. That is the one member of the class who was still awake at the end. I felt like putting mirrors to the mouths of the other students to see if they had assumed room temperature. Well, at least kindergarten teachers would have applauded me. All these slumbering slobs who had blown me off needed were little cups of grape juice and vanilla wafers for their after-nap treats.

But what I needed was a belt of something harder than grape juice. I felt like a total failure. As my lip quivered with the emotion of someone who felt utterly rejected and like a total failure, I asked the lone student with his eyes open if he had any comments or questions, and he replied, "Like, I thought this was, like, going to be the class where the Air Force fighter pilot dude was, like, going to speak. You, like, were talking, like, about newspapers or something. Guess I, like, signed up for, like, the wrong class."

At least the student dude got, like, general nature of my, like, talk, unlike the other kids in the classroom, who probably could not have been awakened from their sleep if the fighter pilot dude had dropped bombs on them.

Despite one failure after another, I did succeed once. Or at least I thought I had until I was informed afterward that I had been used.

I was invited to speak at an area high school on journalism. I decided to skip pressman's caps, other props and anything else I thought would cleverly draw the kids' attention. I just delivered a straight speech on The Advocate. And it produced an incredible amount of interest and response.

The students actually had pulses. They actually were awake. They actually were waving their hands to ask questions. They seemed so into the topic they actually were competing against each other to get my attention.

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