Fire and Fury … but fake?

Insightful book, but bad journalism.

img_5058-2“Fire and Fury” gives an unflinching look at the Trump White House. Wolff’s recounting of his conversations with Trump staffers reinforces several unflattering notions about the President: his inability to focus, he’s hot-headed and short-tempered, his narcissism and ultimately he doesn’t really care about the issues and only cares about being liked. It also sheds new light on the Bannon / “Javanka” rivalry, Trump’s frustration with a revolving door of Cabinet members, and how deep the Russian investigation may go. In the end, Bannon comes off like a genius mastermind — much to the dismay of the President — and the Trump administration is doomed.

The big concern with this book is that Wolff admits in his prologue that some of the content is essentially made up — what the author believes to have been said behind closed doors, rather than actual accounts of what was said. Wolff’s recollections align with popular perception, but is the perception feeding the narrative or the narrative building the perception?

As a journalist, the latter should be the case. But Wolff, a veteran journalist, breaks all journalistic rules by (admittedly) constructing some conversations with which he was not a witness, leaving the reader questioning what is actually true. And as President Trump continues to blur the lines between reality and “fake news,” this book does a disservice to credible journalism.

Joe’s Judgment: 2.0/5.0

The Weekly Wednesday: An Unexpected Passion

Originally published Sept. 16, 2015 on

I was unsure if I should be eager or anxious, but I definitely knew I was overwhelmed by his words and intimidated by the passion coming from the journalism adviser at Decatur High School.

It was in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the NSPA/JEA 2004 Fall Convention where Jon Reese introduced himself to me. “We could be doing so much more with GSPA,” he told me, then listed off numerous things that would make GSPA more beneficial to students and advisers. “GSPA can be a premier organization for the high school press.”

I had been in my position for barely a month, already having been thrust into “hosting” NSPA, a national convention with roughly 5,000 high school journalists and teachers in attendance. I knew GSPA had already been through numerous directors in its recent history — I was the fourth in six years. Admittedly, I anticipated my tenure to be short as well — get my master’s degree within three years, then get back in the professional world writing for a publication somewhere in the Midwest. At 28 and with a newly born baby, GSPA was the de facto “reset” button for my professional career.

But then I kept talking to Jon Reese. And then to Debbie Smelley of Starr’s Mill High School. And Coni Grebel of Lee County High School. And Kristy Cates of Lowndes High School. And Brian Holt of Effingham High School. And Sonya Boyd of Shaw High School. And David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School. And Cal Powell of First Presbyterian School. And Elisha Boggs of Chestatee High School. And these people — who at one point were on or are still on the GSPA Advisory Board — changed my career.

The passion each of them had for high school journalism and more importantly, journalism students is contagious. I caught the disease. They came to me with idea after idea on things GSPA could be doing better, and for the most part we implemented them. Because after multiple conversations with members of the board, I recognized that not only were they full of good ideas, but they were willing to step up and help institute the ideas they espoused. From hosting student workshops, creating and developing an adviser training seminar, teaching multiple sessions at conferences, and mentoring new teachers, these individuals served as the core of GSPA over the past decade … without getting any of the credit (or pay).

Almost immediately, I embodied their passion for high school journalism. My 3-year plan became a 5-year plan, then 10-year plan, and then a life plan. While knowing I had a tremendous backbone of support at the state level, I merged my academic goals with my new professional passion and began to conduct statewide and national research on scholastic journalism, presenting my results at national academic conferences. I began to critique papers for publications in various states around the country. I became involved in SIPA to reach young journalists in the Southeast. And back home, we continuously reshaped GSPA’s offerings, continuously taking feedback from not just the board, but all advisers who offered input.

After 11 years, I figured this was my lot in life. And I was OK with that. Family-wise we are settled in Athens. And professionally, as my passion for fostering journalism among high school students continued, I developed another passion — teaching college students. As my position evolved at Grady to a faculty role, I had the best of both worlds. But then an opportunity came to me that I just couldn’t turn down — the chance to teach at the collegiate level full time. Starting Jan. 1, 2016, I will be an assistant professor of mass communications at Piedmont College, splitting my time on both their Demorest and Athens campuses while advising the college newspaper.

It’s a new chapter in my life, as well as for GSPA. It’s a chance for the organization to get a new perspective, and continue to grow the organization into one of the most respected scholastic press associations in the country. And I’m confident that whoever takes over GSPA — despite his or her initial motives — will develop the same passion and care for high school journalism that I did. Jon Reese — and every other teacher who is part of GSPA — will make sure of it.

The Weekly Wednesday: Do as I say … AND as I do

Originally published on on Aug. 26, 2015.

An odd number of students in my editing class forced me into action for the first in-class writing exercise: write a short profile of a classmate following my “Anatomy of a Journalism Story” format.

The “Anatomy” format is formulaic:

  • Open story with a one-sentence lead, focusing on the who and what.
  • The second paragraph is a quote from your main source, reinforcing the lead.
  • The third paragraph is the nut graf, filling in the essential details not covered in the lead.
  • The rest of the story comprises transition/new information, quote. Transition/new information, quote.
  • The story always ends with a quote, ideally tying the back to the lead.

The idea is to introduce students to a journalistic format that is simple to follow and flows well for the reader. It is the only time I confine students to a specific format. Admittedly, this was the first time I subjected myself to simultaneously work on the same exercise I gave my students. The pressure was on: if I couldn’t pull this off, how could I expect my students to do the same? After interviewing my subject for 10 minutes, I started writing. It was a flashback to being a student in school, complicated by the inevitable self-evaluating of my teaching methods. I told students I wouldn’t even read their stories if the lead didn’t capture my attention, so I spent most of my time — definitely too much — trying to get my lead perfect. Did I overemphasize the lead to students? As caught myself straying from my format, I wondered why in the world am I so stringent on following this format for this exercise? I had the perfect ending to my story, but it wasn’t a quote as I required. So I was forced to change my ending. Was I stifling my students’ creativity?

As I put the finishing touches on my story, the student in me was very proud, and the teacher in me was relieved. I pulled it off (story below).

It was truly educational for me, as a teacher, to force myself to do what I was asking my students to do. In this particular case, it reinforced in me the benefits of this exercise. But would that be the case if I forced myself to do everything I asked of my students?

It’s tails: VanMeter flips to journalism

A flip of the coin led Chenault VanMeter to journalism.

“I was torn between advertising and journalism,” said VanMeter, a Grady College senior. “So I flipped a coin. And that was it.”

Her unconventional decision-making methods matches her unique first name, Chenault. Named after her grandmother, VanMeter was raised on a 120-acre horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. With four brothers, including her twin, carving out her own identity has always been a challenge.

“It was always really hectic, really loud,” VanMeter said. “It helped me become an outgoing person.”

Standing in the shadows of her brothers is difficult enough, but she also has lived under a strong VanMeter family legacy in her hometown, where the VanMeter name is plastered on roads, buildings and professional practices across town.

“Our family stretches back 12 generations (in Lexington),” VanMeter said. “I’m constantly learning new things about my family.”

With an entrenched family legacy in the land of Wildcats, it’s no surprise VanMeter — fueled by her desire to be adventurous — moved to the Bulldog nation to pursue her education. Although her family is extremely important to her, VanMeter is eager to gain new experiences on her own.

“It’s really important for people to get away,” she said. “There’s so much to see and do. If you don’t leave home, you can easily get stuck.”

With her heart set on Nashville, Tennessee, or Washington, D.C., VanMeter aims to tell people’s stories while building her own life story — with the chapter on her career opening with that fateful coin flip.

“It was tails,” she said. “So I picked journalism.”

How Literary Magazine Changed My Life

The Weekly Wednesday: Literary Magazine Changed My Life

The Weekly Wednesday is a column written for members of the Georgia Scholastic Press Association, mostly comprised of high school journalism teachers.

by Joe Dennis

As I was shuffling through boxes at my mom’s house, I came across a folder packed with random pieces of paper filled with forgotten poetry, half-written short stories and attempted drawings from my high school days.

Most memorable was a stack of song lyrics I wrote. It was the early 1990s and I was going to be a rock star! My best friend played guitar and I would take my folder of poems and we would jam. He would play riffs as I shuffled through the papers finding a set of lyrics that best fit with the jam. Once I found a fit, I adjusted the lyrics as he strummed some different chords and we would develop a chorus and intro for the song. We ended up writing almost 20 songs that way.

Each song was deeply personal to me. “Change in the Weather” was about Ivey — the girl I so desperately wanted to be my girlfriend, but I didn’t quite know how to make that happen. “Dial the Devil” was about my inner demons that wanted to come out every time I lost my temper. “Confusion” was about my battle with depression (although I didn’t know it at the time). As I read through each lyric sheet — with the chords scribbled above them — the emotions of that teenage boy 25 years ago took over me.

I was very guarded with my lyrics — they were deeply personal and I feared letting others read them would leave me vulnerable. It’s why it was such a difficult decision for me whether I should submit a poem to my high school’s literary magazine. I was pretty successful at staying under the radar in high school. An all-boys Catholic school with a proud tradition of state championships in football, basketball and hockey, one had to either be an athlete or an Ivy-league bound genius to get recognized. I was neither. So I made a conscious decision to stay invisible. But my English teacher (and literary magazine adviser), presumably being impressed with some of my poetry written for class assignments, encouraged me to submit something.

So I transformed my darkest and most personal lyric into a poem and submitted it to the literary magazine (here’s a segment):

Sadness. Happiness. They battle for my mind.

My sense of self is impossible to find.

Confusion. It’s taking me over again.

I don’t know what message to send.

In my sorrow you get amused.

I’m angry and confused.

When I learned it would be published, I experienced the full gamut of emotions, from pride that my work would be published to fear that my true self would be exposed. Weeks later when the issue came out, I grabbed my copy, proudly looked at my name in the table of contents and flipped to page 16 to see my words. Almost immediately, a sense of accomplishment — one that I haven’t felt in high school — took over me. That sense of pride grew when teachers complimented my poem, when other students in the literary magazine befriended me and when I was actually approached to join the drama club. After three years, I was finally visible in my high school.

Being published in the literary magazine was the start of my journalistic career, and more importantly the evolution of my public self. It’s scary to think my life may have been completely different if Mr. Taylor didn’t give me that extra push to submit my work to the magazine. Because of that seemingly uneventful, but truly fateful moment in my life, I try to look out for those students flying under the radar, and give them that vote of confidence and extra push when appropriate. They don’t know it yet, but It just might change their life.

GSPA Weekly Wednesday: Adrenaline Rush

The Weekly Wednesday: Adrenaline Rush
by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

As a former journalist who worked in a newsroom, I miss the adrenaline rush of doing the interviews, writing the story and getting it published all in one day. Sure it was stressful — and one of the reasons I left the newsroom for academia — but I rarely find something that matches that feeling of accomplishment that I sensed seeing the paper, filled with a day of my work, come off the press.

On Tuesday night, that feeling came back. With another Grady professor we served as editors of a six-person Election Day newsroom. Our team of student reporters were dispatched at 7 a.m. to various polling locations across Athens. Their mission was to get the “stories behind the story” — talking to voters, poll workers and election managers as to why they are there, why they vote, who inspired them to vote, etc. By 8 p.m. we had several written stories, photos and videos posted on a website we created — — and eight student-written stories or videos also posted on the Athens Banner-Herald website.

At the end of the day, that feeling came back to me, but more importantly the six students felt it as well. Working together for almost 13 hours we put together a pretty solid body of work. Of course there were challenges — at times we argued, sniped at each other and had periods of grumpiness. But we also laughed a whole lot, high-fived, shared humorous personal stories and bonded in a way we never could through a typical classroom environment. And we learned, again in a way that we could never learn in a standard classroom.

For example, in teaching video shooting I consistently emphasize the importance of good audio. But still, with every video assignment I have students turning in good clips with horrible audio. Typically, they can just go out and shoot again. In our deadline-driven Election Day newsroom, though, there were no “redos.” So when a student came in with a video piece with horrible audio, we just couldn’t do anything with it. Her hard work was essentially wasted — a tough lesson to learn. But I bet she gets good audio from now on.

This experience got me thinking how a same-day deadline newsroom scenario could be replicated in high school journalism. Perhaps you can open your classroom after hours to have team coverage of a home football game, school event or “High School After Hours,” dispatching students to various events happening on a particularly busy day after school. The focus of stories would be on people — and why they are there — not your standard news story of the event.

Finding a scenario that would allow willing students to get that newsroom rush would be great for staff bonding and morale. And who knows, you might get that rush of adrenaline too.