Letters from the Issue of July 14, 2005

Dying newspapers, ATV defenders, and tough-talking college deans

Now, as much as I'd like to keep writing, I have weeds to kill. I can feel them growing, growing, growing ...

Dennis Giardina

Immokalee

FIU Speaks

From the dean to the world, including disgruntled former employees: I am writing this letter to correct factual errors in Edmund Newton's recent article regarding the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) at Florida International University ("Newsroom or Classroom," June 9). I also want to add a few important facts he failed to include in his article.

The article charges that I and the school censored student journalists writing for an experimental classroom Website. The disgruntled former employees referenced in the article have put a spin on some routine management decisions that ultimately benefited all involved. The picture painted in the article is colorful, but is completely inaccurate.

As a board member of the Student Press Law Center and as a frequent speaker about freedom of the press, I take the First Amendment rights of all citizens very seriously, including those of students. I have worked to protect those rights for more than two decades. At the same time, I have an obligation to protect the best interests of FIU and SJMC -- and those interests were not well served by a Website without key standards of professional journalism: editorial policy and administrative oversight. The New Times article says I pulled three articles from the Website. I did not. The Website was not student-run; it was set up by an instructor who made all decisions about what was placed on it. As the editor, he had the right to remove those stories, and he did so in consultation with faculty members, including Kevin Hall.

But more important, I take the good name and reputation of SJMC very seriously. I must point out that if New Times had given as many column inches to the words of those who actually work here, readers would have learned exactly how we have overhauled SJMC to prepare journalism, television, advertising, and public-relations students for professions that have grown more ethnically diverse and globally interconnected than ever before. We have revitalized a school that became outdated under the old administration.

New Times readers would also have heard how we've infused the curriculum with international and multicultural-oriented courses. Readers would have learned we have vastly improved our writing program by teaching the tools of the trade -- grammar, AP style, story structure, et cetera -- beginning with the first writing course they take, through the entire set of required writing courses. This is a dramatic change from the way J. Arthur Heise and Mr. Hall approached the teaching of writing.

Readers also would have learned that the source of Mr. Hall's frustration is the fact that after he notified the school he would not renew his contract to provide SJMC with use of the "writing exam" he was selling to the school (a conflict of interest, in our view), we readily replaced it with a more modern test patterned after the one used at the University of North Carolina.

Finally, readers would have learned that the faculty attrition owing to retirements and voluntary resignations has allowed us to hire journalists with recent field experience instead of depending on "grizzled old reporters" who haven't written a word in a decade or more.

The SJMC has a distinguished record of producing awarding-winning print and television journalists, as well as advertising and public-relations professionals, and has a distinguished record of research and service from its faculty. We are continually working to improve our curriculum to make it even more responsive to the needs of today's students and their employers. We invite the South Florida media community to join us in our efforts rather than trying to undermine them.

Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, dean

School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Florida International University

Disgruntled Speaks

From grizzled old reporter to FIU, including the dean: Sadly, Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver's letter confirms the self-destruction under way at FIU's once-respected journalism program. Instead of addressing forthrightly the serious issues of lost values and lowered standards at the school, Dean Kopenhaver responds to the story in three hackneyed ways.

First, attack the messengers: Call them "disgruntled," a cheap and pejorative buzzword carefully chosen to spin the belittling image of "small-minded and vengeful" -- without directly saying as much (because she couldn't defend it). Call them "grizzled old reporters who haven't written a word in more than a decade" to make their criticism impotent. This is a mighty accomplished group of disgruntled educators and journalists who have left the school. They were reporters, and then they were editors, and after that they were dedicated teachers who have devoted the past ten or twenty years to sharing their experiences. Their criticisms should be taken seriously. Yet she characterizes them as old and out of touch -- ironic stuff coming from someone who is of similar age to the people she damns as old, who is far less accomplished than they are professionally, and who is removed from her own small journalism experience by nearly four decades. If she believes what she says, then she too should step aside.

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