To Sir With Questions: What the Dutch Fork HS students asked me

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Yesterday, I kept a long-standing engagement to speak to Kelly Payne’s class at Dutch Fork High School. I forget the name of the course, but it has kids from all grades, 9-12, and they study current events and media and such. She told me in advance that they all read my blog (the poor things) and some of my columns from when I was with the paper.

They had a list of questions, which they asked me from little strips of paper.

You may peruse these questions with particular interest, of course, since their teacher is a candidate for the GOP nomination for state superintendent of education. On a couple of occasions, my answer included an aside along the lines of “with all due respect to your teacher and her political allies…” I asked Kelly to send me the full list of prepared questions — including some they didn’t get to — afterwards. So here are the questions, with short versions of my answers:

1. How do you feel about elected officials leaving office and then going to work for the government they left? I’m the wrong journalist to ask, because I tend not to get my shorts in a knot over stuff like that per se, but most journalists get mighty indignant over it. I actually have a long history of making OTHER people indignant over my lack of indignation. (NOTE: Probably because of my answer on that one, the student didn’t ask me the followup:) Why is it different for a member of the media to leave his or her position and go to work with a government agency as a media relations expert?

2. How much were you making as an editor for the paper? I told the kids – and then warned them NEVER to expect to make that much working at a paper in the future, and explained to them the only reason I was laid off was because I DID make that much – but I’m not going to put it on the blog. That would be tacky. And did USC pay you more than that when they hired you? Nope, it was less (I took that as a reference to the three-month consulting gig I did with the university last summer.)

(Isn’t that the problem with government? They pay more for the same position than the private sector does) Once again, the followup question wasn’t asked, probably because my answer wasn’t what they expected. Interesting assumption, though. Wonder where they got that idea?

3. How can anyone defend the approach the administration is taking to national health care reform? I didn’t know how to answer that; instead I went into a rambling discourse on health care reform in general, and confided that at the moment I’m not sure what’s in the bill, so I’m not sure what I think about it.

(With shutting down debate and calling for an up and down vote on a bill no one knows what’s contained in it) The student didn’t include the parenthetical, which might have helped me to answer the question. I probably would have said I don’t know whether it’s true that no one knows what’s in it; it’s just that I don’t.

4. When you endorsed candidates for primary and general elections what percentage of the time did voters agree with you? About 75 percent of the time. I expounded on that, but that’s the short answer.

5. We read the account of your leaving The State paper. If you were the master of every function why did they let you go? Because I made too much money. But in the future I think I might adopt that as a sobriquet, the Master of Every Function.

6. Why do think the print media is losing so much of its market share? I explained that market share wasn’t the problem, loss of advertising revenue is. Again, it would have helped if the student had included the parenthetical:

(We keep reading advertising revenue is declining)

7. What do you think will be Mayor Coble’s legacy? Oh, boy, I don’t know. I spoke of the Vista vision of Mayor Finlay finally being realized.

8. Through the years you’ve been pretty easy on former councilman Cromartie? What? You’re kidding, right? Who’ve you been reading? Again, this rest of the question wasn’t included: “He’s been a slumlord” and was often notoriously delinquent in paying his taxes and utility bills. Are there other elected officials you’ve been that tolerant of?

9. Warren Bolton seems to be a single-issue editor. Why or why not is that a good idea? I had to ask what the single issue was. I was told it was predatory lending. I said good for Warren.

10. Where do old newspaper editors go when they die? Someplace good, I hope.

11. People say newspapers lost their souls when they lost their local ownership. Why is that the case? Basically, I gave them the pros and the cons: The pro: Outside ownership makes the newspaper independent, rather than having sacred cows according to whom the local owners like. The con: It becomes entirely about the money. Again, the rest of the question wasn’t asked: It marches to the beat of a national owner rather than to the sensitivities of the community. If I HAD heard that part of the question, I would have said no, you’ve got that backward: Outside ownership has no agenda other than to make money. That’s good and bad.

12. In your writing do you pull for the “underdog?” They didn’t get to this question, but I would have said not necessarily. Sometimes the overdog is right. Always pulling for the underdog would be as arbitrary as always agreeing with Democrats or Republicans. I suppose if there’s a powerful person I agree with on one issue, and an underdog I agreed with on another and I only had time and room to right about one of the other, I’d probably go with the underdog because the big shot wouldn’t need the help.

13. Realizing that you pride yourself on being balanced and middle of the road would it be easier for you to be an extreme liberal or an extreme conservative and why? It is my perception that people who DO identify with the right or the left do so because it IS easier, much easier. They don’t have to think anymore. All judgments are already made for them. Also, they have a ready-made team of supporters. Me, I can do without that.

14. How would you refute the widespread belief that schools of journalism are overwhelmingly liberal? I didn’t hear that question right; I thought it was that journalists trend liberal. I said that was the case for two big reasons, ones I’ve gone into on the blog before. The very, very short version: First, journalists are change-oriented, or they wouldn’t go into such a profession. Second, because they try hard not to inject opinion into their work, the opinions they do hold tend to go unexamined, and therefore never develop beyond the rather facile, vaguely liberal views they had when they were sophomores in college. Oh, yeah, there was a third reason: Journalists who work for morning newspapers don’t have normal social lives, and tend to associate mostly with other journalists. So they don’t think they have particularly liberal views because they think like everyone else they know…

15. How often did it happen that you advocated for an issue that you eventually regretted? No issues popped into my mind, but I mentioned some endorsements, such as the one for Mark Sanford, and the one against Lindsey Graham.

16. What sort of tension and competition existed on your editorial board the last couple of years you were with the paper? Explain the dynamics? They never asked this question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. The greatest tension was the constant effort to do less with less, and waiting for the next ax to fall.

17. Who was your favorite publisher when you were with the paper? They didn’t ask this one. It’s a tough one. In some ways Ann Caulkins, in some ways Fred Mott. Probably Ann, ultimately – Fred and I had more disagreements, although they were amicable.

18. How have career opportunities changed in the print media over the last decade? They didn’t ask this, either. The answer would have been, they’ve essentially disappeared. There certainly are none for them, with a huge cadre of experienced scribes looking for work.

19. When you left The State Paper why didn’t go to another one? They didn’t ask this either, but there are two reasons: I’d had enough of being in that dying industry – it was really, really depressing and frustrating the last few years — and I wanted to stay here.

20. How much of the current economic problems could be caused by too much spending by government and can anything be done about that? I said I had no idea. I did tell them that this certainly wasn’t the case on the state level, but whether it was on the federal level was highly debatable (and hence the interminable debates). I talked about the problem with entitlement spending, and talked about the relative merits of Keynesian theory and letting the market work, but I told them that any ideologue who said it was all one way or the other is full of it.

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9 thoughts on “To Sir With Questions: What the Dutch Fork HS students asked me

  1. Doug Ross

    When I read the questions, I got the idea that some of them may have been planted/inspired/suggested by one of Ms. Payne’s buddies, Will Folks.

    Was there give-and-take on the questions or did they just ask them and sit back and nod?

  2. Burl Burlingame

    That’s a tough age to talk to. Little kids are cool, and college-age kids don’t care about makin’ A, but middle- and high-schoolers are socially awkward.

    BTW, a couple of years ago I was talking to one of the teachers we had at Radford High School, and she said they all remember us from that era. I was staggered. Why? She said it was because we were all so polite. Staggered again.

  3. DFHS "It Kids"

    Thank you for coming to speak to our class! (2nd bullet- right vs. write-) Our teacher is a stickler for grammar! Please come back again!!

    In your writing do you pull for the “underdog?” They didn’t get to this question, but I would have said not necessarily. Sometimes the overdog is right. Always pulling for the underdog would be as arbitrary as always agreeing with Democrats or Republicans. I suppose if there’s a powerful person I agree with on one issue, and an underdog I agreed with on another and I only had time and room to right about one of the other, I’d probably go with the underdog because the big shot wouldn’t need the help.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I was on our High School News Quiz team in high school–we came up to Columbia and went on ETV Radio–woo woo–and then Cromer’s. We knew everything there was to know about everything then–maybe it was an Aiken wonk thing. We would have asked very similar questions, I think. They seem genuine to me.

    I find it so encouraging that some kids are that knowledgeable and interested in current affairs.

  5. Susan

    Seems like their questions have an underlying assumption that government is bad, and that they would mostly have self-identified as either Republicans or some other (more) conservative group. Did it seem like when you were actually there talking to them as well?

    I usually think of young people as tending to be somewhat more liberal than their parents (or at least anti-whatever their parents are for) — but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. (Unless there’s a group of hippies out Dutch Fork way that I’m not aware of).

    Great that these kids are interested enough in media and current events to take a class in it!

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    I was the kind of “good kid” who was featured prominently in the front of the yearbook pictures and frequently lauded in the paper. I was about as conservative as my parents–which would be center right today, until I got to college. My math teacher (who was from away far more recently than most of the Savannah River transplants) in high school was quite liberal and would spar with the ueber-conservative member of our news quiz team. When I got to college and left the bubble of Aiken, I saw how right she was. I think Dutch Fork kids who are involved in the current events club are probably fairly similar. Their teachers are from the community and largely share the community values. It is the upscale region of Lexington County. Are we surprised the kids are fairly conservative–for now?

  7. steven

    we weren’t saying that government was bad we were just trying to get an idea about how and why the government allowed our economy to get so bad and why they waited until now to try and fix what has been messed up for awhile now.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    Hi, steven!

    A lot of us wonder about why the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to various financial issues, such as under-regulated financial institutions that grew “too big to fail” and why they let Lehman Brothers fail but not other similar entities. The short answer is that they believe in laissez faire economics—keeping government hands off the economy because the “hidden hand of the Market” will cure all…which it may well do, but will often result in a lot of dislocations in the process–like people out of work and out of a home. The Bushies, however, did not completely believe in the hands-off approach, since when it hit too close to their wealthy friends, they DID bail out the banking industry. People think it started with Obama, but it didn’t.

    Obama, like me, believes in a more interventionist approach, but as your question seems to indicate, you realize that it was kind of late by the time he got in control. A stitch in time save nine, right?

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