’60 Minutes’ host, long-time journalist visits Lamar
Journalist John Dickerson visited Lamar University, March 9, the latest presenter in the 2020 Judge Joe J. Fisher Distinguished Lecture Series. Prior to the main event, Dickerson spoke to members of the local media in the Rothwell Recital Hall.
Members of the University Press joined journalists from The Beaumont Enterprise, The Examiner, Clear Channel Radio and LU broadcasting to hear Dickerson discuss the current political climate and how journalism is practiced in an era where “normal” standards and practices are being redefined.
Dickerson offered some simple advice to students — read a lot, write a lot and ask questions about everything.
“Writing is organized thinking,” he said. “Being a curious person who knows how to put things in order is a pretty good way to live life.”
As an educator, the hardest thing is to teach students to be curious, which is the foundation of journalism. The writing I can teach, the intellectual curiosity is much harder to develop.
Dickerson talked about the problems of “false equivalency,” finding balance in reporting. He said that politicians do not pay a heavy enough penalty for making false statements — something that has changed as part of the new normal.
Regarding the current hostility toward “the media,” Dickerson said working journalists are lumped in with the broad spectrum of “media” — which includes online outlets and television which tend to over-hype stories. Then, when the reader begins the story and finds the story does not match the sensation headline they are disappointed.
It was interesting that Dickerson cited interviews with creative types as among his favorite interviews. He said that he can spend longer with them as they are more willing to give time, as opposed to politicians who restrict their time. He mentioned Glenda Jackson and the creative team behind “Hamilton” as standouts.
Interviews that relate to traumatic events are also meaningful, he said, as viewers are finely tuned to what is being said.
Dickerson mentioned his mother, Nancy, who was the first woman on air at CBS News. He said women are now found at all levels of the industry, but when his mother was breaking through she was told that “Women weren’t seen as authoritative by audiences.”
Journalists should interview people in a way that lets them feel heard, Dickerson said. Then they will feel respected and not used.
Dickerson addressed his “Dickersonian” style of interviewing, which often challenges political figures on their positions. He said he spends a lot of time preparing, but the key to interviewing is to really listen, which is hard as we are conditioned to check our breaking news or social media and have shorter attention spans. The best follow up question, Dickerson said, is “Why?”
One concept that Dickerson mentioned that would do well in a classroom would be to get students to write down their preconceptions of people in a particular place. Then when the students return from interviews, they should compared their preconceptions with the reality they found. Dickerson said that we often find the reality to be at odds with the perception.
Dickerson was asked about his views on the election. He said the media should not be in the prediction business — “We are really bad at it,” he said. Rather than trying to reflect day-to-day polls, journalists should let people know that situations are nuanced and may change, that “Clouds are moving fast — it may be raining today but it’ll be sunny tomorrow.”
He used an extended sports analogy, saying that when we report on sports, if we say a team is up 20 points at the half, the reader understands that teams can come back, that it is not necessarily the final outcome. Yet, if we report that a certain candidate is ahead in particular polls but ultimately loses, the tendency is to accuse the media of getting it wrong.
Dickerson returned to advice for students, that I think applies to everyone. We should treat critical thinking as if it is an instrument or an art. It should be practiced. We should spend time thinking about why we believe what we believe.
“Critical thinking is hard,” he said.
Writing is an integral part of developing our critical skills, and that applies to all disciplines. Of course, as I teach writing I may be biased.
His evening lecture was interesting, but I am glad I was able to attend a more intimate setting where he could expound on ideas of journalism and writing in general.
Now I need to get his next book which, as he may have mentioned, comes out June 9.