As a reporter for the Yale Daily News, humorist Calvin Trillin ’57 said, he learned that fairness and balance were essential.
“I always say I learned the first lesson of journalism at the Yale Daily News,” Trillin said. “Which was we try to be equally inaccurate about both sides.”
Trillin was one of about 500 former Yale Daily News board members who returned to campus over the weekend to celebrate the paper’s 125th anniversary. Events included a banquet and seven panels discussing the evolution of journalism and the issues facing modern reporters. Graduates from as far back as the class of 1941 reminisced about their own years as Newsies throughout the weekend.
“At Yale I went to a few classes,” Lanny Davis ’67 said. “But I graduated from the Yale Daily News.”
Davis spoke during an afternoon plenary session panel about the “egg and chicken” relationship between politics and journalism. In addition to Davis, a lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the panel included fellow former presidential consultant David Gergen ’63 and three journalists — Dana Milbank ’90, Robert Semple ’59, and John Stacks ’64 — and was moderated by professor emeritus of history Gaddis Smith ’54. Yale President Richard Levin welcomed the panel and said technology has forced him to become more media savvy.
“The campus is no longer a world apart,” Levin said. “I can no longer expect to say anything to a Daily reporter without expecting to see it in The New York Times.”
The panelists discussed the changes necessitated by the 24-hour news cycle, where cable news can provide up to the minute access and print journalists scramble to compete. Washington Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank ’90 said the Bush administration has been especially clever in using this demand for immediate news by sending out small bits of information.
“There’s no time to question it, or Fox or MSNBC are going to have it,” Milbank said. “By the time we catch up and say, ‘Maybe that’s not true,’ we’re already on to something else.”
Milbank said reporters have become complacent and given up their aggressive style. He called this situation “the Prozac newsroom,” and joked that 40 percent of Washington Post reporters were on some kind of anti-depressant. But Davis said reporters had become more aggressive, particularly in digging for scandals and personal details.
In an earlier panel on journalistic values in American newsrooms, Jonathan Kaufman ’78, the Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, said he thought the cynicism surrounding reporters during much of the 1990s was disappearing.
“Since 9-11, I feel the energy returning to journalism,” Kaufman said, “[Young journalists] are in it for a reason again.”
The atmosphere at the panel grew contentious during the questioning period. Audience member Christopher Jordan ’04 said the News this year ostracized black students by criticizing the invitation of controversial black poet Amiri Baraka to Yale and by not covering other events of Black History Month. He also said the News should do more to censor its online forums, which allow visitors to the News’ Web site to comment on stories. Jordan said the forums sometimes featured white supremacist views.
Yale Daily News Editor in Chief Rebecca Dana ’04, one of the panelists, said the News assigned several other articles for Black History Month but reporters failed to write them. She said she and the managing editors plan to take greater control of the content of the forums, but she objected to Jordan’s characterization of the News as racist.
“We rack our brains to make the Daily an open place,” Dana said. “That said, we don’t change our editorial decisions because it might make people uncomfortable.”
Later that afternoon, at a panel on the evolution of commentary and editorials, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau ’70, recalled his years at Yale. Trudeau said dining halls in his day were “a sea of Yale Daily Newses.” He compared it to dining halls today, where students can pick from several Yale and national publications.
“At that time — you could get a lot of attention because we were the only game in town,” Trudeau said. “It was a lot easier for anyone on this platform to find an audience than it is today.”