For me, this particular week will be most remembered as one where I had a golden opportunity to hear THREE journalists speak here at the University of Alabama– CNN Anchor Don Lemon, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and WIAT-TV CBS 42’s Jim Dunaway.
Don Lemon’s talk was the one that provided me, a mid-career journalist who’s now teaching full-time, with some lessons I can apply immediately.
Despite my antics in an earlier post about Mr. Lemon’s name and his book TRANSPARENT, I think a more serious tone can be taken with the SEVEN takeaways from his visit with my graduate and undergraduate students here at the The University of Alabama this past Thursday.
1. You can make it big even if you’re not a good student in college.
Lemon was very frank and open about his story of not being an honors student at either Louisiana State University where took classes in the Manship School of Journalism and Mass Communication or Brooklyn College, where he eventually finished his degree.
If you consider working on NBC’s “Today Show” or anchoring at CNN “making it big,” then Lemon definitely demonstrates it doesn’t matter where you start, but how you finish. (And, he’s clearly not finished)
2. You can do a LIVE REPORT from a gay bar in Alabama.
Perhaps the most memorable television news war story was Don Lemon’s account of how he localized the 1997 murder of Italian Fashion Designer Gianni Versace, a virtual unknown to Lemon’s co-workers in the WBRC-TV Fox 6 newsroom, where he worked for 11 months.
Lemon recalled the opening line of his story, which he presented live from a gay bar in the Birmingham area (Versace was openly gay.)
“HIS RUNWAYS STRETCHED FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA, BUT STOPPED AT THE ALABAMA STATE LINE”
Couched in this story was an important lesson about diversity in the television newsroom, a key focus for my Communication and Diversity course.
“You have to be bold. You cannot be afraid,” Lemon told the University of Alabama students.
His journey from Birmingham to St. Louis to Philadelphia and then to networks of NBC has been filled with opportunities to offer a perspective the newsrooms where he worked lacked.
3. You can be transformed by writing your story.
As he began his talk, Lemon told the students how telling story in his 2011 book, TRANSPARENT, transformed him. He’s finding himself doing a lot more speaking engagements like the one he had this week on our campus here in Tuscaloosa. This reminds me that I need to finish my own first book.
The words “TRANSFORMED BY BEING TRANSPARENT” seem to be applicable here.
4. You can be inspired by Jean West
Apparently I’m not the only one who was inspired to get in broadcast journalism by those who blazed the trail before me. In college in the early 1990s, I had posters of former NBC Today Show anchor Bryant Gumbel all over the wall of my dorm room. I wanted to be the next Bryant Gumbel.
For Don Lemon, a former Baton Rouge anchorwoman, who now works in the Louisville television market, Jean West, was his role model. Today, West is apparently still showing there’s life after two decades as a local television anchor. She’s producing Jean West’s Medical Digest and Jean West’s Medical Daily via her own company, Faces West Productions.
Since Lemon’s visit on Thursday, I’m inspired by just reading about her work.
5. The journey to “THE TOP” is better than the destination.
“The top is not that exciting,” Lemon said. “What’s exciting is the journey and you didn’t realize it.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Actually, those were almost my exact words ten years ago when I gave the student commencement address at the University of Georgia when I completed by Ph.D. degree in mass communication.
But, rather than my eight-year television news career, I was talking about the three-and-a-half year journey to obtaining a doctoral degree.
I suppose Lemon’s advice applies to any major effort we pursue in life.
It really is the EXPERIENCE going through the process toward our destination or the journey to our goal that is most rewarding.
6. The path for diverse newsroom perspectives has already been blazed
While noting that racism hasn’t ended, Lemon urged students to not worry about those challenges now, as the stage for diverse newsrooms has already been set.
“You worry about being excellent,” he said. “Just be excellent.”
7. Reporters still have to cry (and GET ANGRY) sometimes
I have a new case study for the unit I do each summer on “Journalists and Trauma” in my basic news reporting class.
Having been trained in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and its link to news reporting by reporters and editors who covered the Oklahoma City Bombing, I had not heard of specific cases of trauma for reporters covering the December massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
Lemon told his story of crying on-air while covering the tragedy in Newtown, CT last year. He says he’s still going through counseling for PTSD.
But, he also stepped out of the role of “objective” journalist to take his own stand. His statement about assault weapons has been archived on YouTube.
“I was not a reporter in Newtown,” Lemon told the UA students this week. I was just a human being talking to you.”