Fundamentals and Defense

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Feature Story

Posted by zmeunier on December 12, 2009

AU Methodists
By Zachary Meunier
November 7, 2009

When American University brought Starbucks to campus in 2005, the United Methodist used the school’s Methodist roots as the basis for their opposition.
The Book of Resolutions, the guide to United Methodist social principles, has a specific resolution calling on United Methodists and United Methodist-affiliated institutions to only use fair trade coffee. As a result, there are multiple fair trade coffee options available on campus.
The coffee incident reveals a fundamental question for a school that was once the nation’s flagship Methodist institution – what does it mean to be “United Methodist-affiliated” in the 21st century?
“(Being United Methodist) means there is a certain moral, ethical and philosophical underpinning for the university,” said Mark Schaeffer, the United Methodist chaplain for American.
American’s relationship with the church dates back to its founding. The school was the brainchild of Methodist Episcopal Bishop John Fletcher Hurst. Hurst would become the first president of the university when it was chartered by an act of Congress in 1893, according the American University web site.
University archivist Susan McElrath said in an e-mail interview that the university charter and bylaws spend a great deal of time discussing the relationship with the church including a mandate that two-thirds of the members of the Board of Trustees be United Methodists.
In 1952, McElrath said, the school issued a statement to the Methodist Church about events and goals of the university illustrating its close ties and dependence on the church. As late as 1960, the school advertised its ties to the church as a specific reason to come to the school.
For a significant portion of the school’s first century, it received financial assistance from the church. Schaeffer said that the church would inject “millions to keep the school afloat,” playing a particularly important role in endowing the School of International Service. In return for its long history of support, the school deeded 10 acres behind the school to create Wesley Theological Seminary.
According to the Kay Spiritual Life Center web site, the school had some of the closest ties of any school to the church in the country. The school was required to adhere to all Methodist bylaws or the church could seize the school. Any change to the school’s charter required the church to approve it. The church had a veto power over trustee nominations.
However, the relationship between the church and the school has changed a great deal.
Today, the school is no longer financially dependent on the church. Cody Nielson, Associate Pastor for Campus Ministries at Metropolitan United Methodist Church, said that this has had a major impact on the relationship. “Because there is no funding, there school is under no obligation,” Nielson said. He said the school today is “loosely Methodist-affiliated” but not completely independent.
“The school legitimately rebelled in the 1970s,” said Nielson
The Nebraska parking lot is still a point of friction between the school and the church said Nielson. According to Neilson, in the 1970s, the church considered moving the Methodist Building from behind the Capitol. It was of feared that the government would invoke eminent domain and claim the building for security reasons as it was doing with most building in close proximity to the Capitol. The church decided to purchase the land that is now the Nebraska parking lot.
The fear soon abated after the assurances were received from the government and church stayed downtown but still owned the land. AU hoped that the church would either give the school a reduced price or outright deed the land in return for the land for Wesley Theological Seminary. The church refused and AU had to pay full price for the parking lot Nielson said.
Schaeffer also sees a change in the relationship. He said the church now takes a hands-off type approach to the university. Most of the direct interaction between the church and the school happen above him in the church hierarchy. The Bishop of the Washington-Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church as well as the General Secretary of the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation sit on the school’s Board of Trustees, but the imprint of the church is not strong.
“Some students go through four years unaware (the school is UMC-affiliated),” Schaeffer said. Several students acknowledged being unaware of the school’s Methodist background when coming to AU.
Some students, however, took umbrage with the Schaeffer’s assessment.
“It’s definitely advertised,” said Liz Blakeley, an AU sophomore who said she was raised Presbyterian but is now agnostic. Blakeley specifically cited advertisements on campus as well as the tours the school gives prospective students which reference the school’s heritage. But she acknowledged the messages are subtle and said she “appreciates they are not all in my face.”
Stephanie Caravias, an AU sophomore and self-described atheist, said she noticed the church’s imprint enough that she would prefer a secular institution to a religiously affiliated one.
“I believe that religion and education should be very separate,” she said.
An informal survey of AU students found that few could identify any defining traits of Methodism on campus.
“I know pretty much nothing besides it has some vague correlation to Christianity,” Caravias.
While many students were unaware of United Methodist doctrine or theology besides what Caravias called the “weird signs,” that the United Methodist Student Association uses to advertise Sunday worship, students were well aware of the effect of going to a United Methodist-affiliated school.
“It means we’re dry,” said Blakeley, referencing the church’s longstanding opposition to alcohol and its role in prohibition movements.
The church’s relationship with the school is also altered by the fact that American has a large number of other religious communities on campus.
The initial creation of Kay Spiritual Life Center was highly controversial. The intention to build an interfaith chapel at the nation’s flagship Methodist University had the potential to rankle a lot of people in the church hierarchy. Abraham S. Kay, who initially proposed the project, said, “There is one problem. You know that I am a Jew and your institution has a Protestant background.”
Today, Schaeffer speaks highly of his relationship with other spiritual leaders. He said that one of the roots of Methodism is a respect for open inquiry. He said that the reason that there is not a lot of animosity is that the groups do not overlap very much and are not targeting the same kids. Schaeffer said that he people usually ended up where they were supposed to be.
“We want people who could benefit from our community to know that we are an option,” Schaeffer said.
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COMM 200: American Forum

Posted by zmeunier on October 14, 2009

Young Voters
October 14, 2009
By Zachary Meunier

Barack Obama’s inability to turn his lofty campaign rhetoric into government action has led to growing discontent among young people a panel of journalists and media experts concluded Tuesday.

The panel, hosted by the American University School of Communication’s American Forum at the Katzen Arts Center on the AU Campus, spent about an hour discussing how the young voters who came out in droves for then Senator Obama in 2008 have responded to President Obama’s actions in office. The members of the panel blamed declining popularity on his inability to make his presidency as transformative as he promised during the campaign.

“(Obama) became a far more conventional president than people expected him to be,” said David Corn of Mother Jones Magazine and PoliticsDaily.com.

Young voters have been the cornerstone of Obama’s support since the presidential primary. He won almost two-thirds of voters 18-29 in 2008 according to the CNN National Exit Poll. Since being sworn in, young voters have registered among the highest approval of Obama in the Gallup Poll’s weekly tracking.

However, as David Winston, founder of the Republican strategy firm The Winston Group pointed out, Obama’s support has been dropping. According to Gallup, Obama’s approval among young voters fell to 60% in late September, the lowest of his presidency and a dive of 15 points since the middle of June.

David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press said that the Obama slide was a result of the Obama campaign. Gregory suggested that anti-institutionaism among young people made it difficult to keep them supporting the nation’s institutions, no matter who is in power. He also suggested the speed of the legislative process did not translate well for volunteers used to the speed of a campaign. “Campaigns are highly efficient,” Gregory said. “The federal government is not.”

Erin McPike, a reporter for CongressDaily, said that the Obama team also was not doing as good a job of communicating its message. She used the recent credit card bill as an example in concluding young people are not paying as close attention now as during the election.

Corn said that part of Obama’s problem was that he has not connected on the same cultural level since taking office as he did during the campaign even saying the Obama communications team “dropped the ball” reaching out to young voters. Anthony Vargas of the Huffington Post agreed saying that the Obama campaign “wrote the playbook” for social networking in campaign politics, but had not been able to translate it into governing.

Despite his decline in popularity, the panel was not ready to declare young voters would defect in droves to the Republicans in the 2010 midterms. McPike said that much of the support for Obama was directly linked to a dislike of President George Bush. A recent Research 2000 poll reported that only 7% of 18-29 year-olds held a positive view of the Republican Party while 86% had an unfavorable view.

Winston did not see a GOP resurgence on the horizon among young voters either. He said that the Obama youth phenomenon was a myth and that 18-29 year-olds voted for Democrats in the 2006 midterms by a similar margin to Obama’s margin to 2008. “Is it 18-29 year-olds following Obama or Obama following 18-29 year-olds?”

Winston also said that the GOP attempts to engage the youth vote through social networking like Twitter and FaceBook did not solve the real problems. Winston said Republicans “don’t how to talk” to young voters and would continue to face election defeats if they do not close the gap among young voters.

Vargas also said that the Republicans’ efforts concentrated too much on technology and not enough on message. He said that three days into RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s term the party held a technology summit but did not address the issues young people care about. “At the end of the day, message matters,” said Vargas.

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COMM 200: 21st Century Journalism

Posted by zmeunier on September 27, 2009

Media pundits are fond of bemoaning the state of American journalism by citing studies showing a plurality of young people say they “get their news” from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.” But Stewart steadfastly objects to any suggestion he is a newsman or journalist. Instead, he argues that most people know far about the news than they give themselves credit for. If they didn’t, he says, his audience would not find his humor funny.

Stewart’s defense makes an important observation about news in the 21st century. It is all around us. At an event in MGC last week, Meghan McCain spoke about the merging of pop culture and politics. I have a hunch that part of the reason for the blurring of the definition of news is this fusion. People learn about the news in more ways than just picking up the newspaper in the morning. They see posts on FaceBook and twitter, they get political references in their music, they see newsmakers on MTV and Oprah. People pick up news without realizing it.

But despite all the changes in journalism, I find it interesting that the rules of good journalism really haven’t changed. Professor Walker’s summation of the rules of good journalism are not new or earth shattering. The best journalists, whether at the advent of the newspaper or in today’s Twitter age still have similar skills. They have the guts to follow stories. They understand how to write to a deadline. They have a passion for what they are doing. They understand they do not exist in a vacuum and that they work in a business and must use the most efficient tools to do their jobs. Most importantly, they understand they are not writing for their own amusement. They have an audience to pay attention to.

Audience is also the most important part of the reading in pages 104-109 in the Harrower reading. As a political junkie, I find legislative maneuvering and procedure interesting, but most people do not. The most important part of covering any dry or boring event is to make it relevant to the public. Part of the reason there has been so much fervor over healthcare is that people recognize how directly it ties into their lives. Good reporters bring that same sense of relevancy to topic ranging from zoning laws to credit default swaps.

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COMM 200: Greek Life Resurgent

Posted by zmeunier on September 16, 2009

A student waits nervously in his dorm. After all the pomp and festivities of rush, he has been asked to wait in his room for an hour. He has already banished his roommate out of nervousness. He turns to the stack of homework next to his laptop but quickly dismisses the thought of actually getting anything done. Instead, he flips on the TV mindlessly, not paying any actual attention to the show. Time drags on and seconds seem to be hours. But then, finally, the knock at the door. He trepidation, he gets up and opens it as four young men in suits greet him with grins.

Greek-letter organizations on America’s college campuses have had a turbulent last few decades. The vehement anti-institutionalism of the 1960s and 1970s causes chapters to fold all over the country. Although membership slowly began to recover during the Reagan years, abusive hazing practices forever tarnished Greek life for many people. Movies such as “Animal House” and “Old School” also contributed to the popular perception of fraternities as little more than partying organizations.

But recently, the number of chapters and members has actually begun to grow again. The National Pan-Hellenic Council (PHC), an inter-sorority organization, has added chapters each of the last ten years. In 2002, the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) approved a resolution supporting “open expansion” (i.e. allowing fraternities to establish themselves on any campus.)

Part of this growth can almost certainly be attributed to evolving views on Greek Life. “I didn’t really like Greeks when I was younger,” said Liz Blakeley, an American University sophomore and new member of Sigma Delta Tau. “But then I met the guys at my brother’s fraternity at Dartmouth. And I really like all the girls I’ve met.” The fact that Greeks have a better understanding of where opposition comes from also changes the recruiting landscape. Every fraternity website disavows any kind of hazing and has a guide for parents expressing a commitment to philanthropy, academics and brotherhood or sisterhood.

The changes in Greek life are noticeable at American University. In the last four years, two new fraternities – Sigma Phi Epsilon and Tau Kappa Epsilon – has gained university recognition while a third – Zeta Psi – is attempting to colonize. At a university where the 60s and 70s almost saw the death of Greek life, that is a change.

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COMM 200: Blogging class

Posted by zmeunier on September 14, 2009

Journalism is a craft that requires many different skills. That is the primary thing that can be taken away from Monday’s class. We covered a wide variety of topics but each was an important part of being an effective reporter.

We led off with a discussion talking about CNN’s erroneous report that the coast guard fired on a civilian recreational vehicle on September 11. We discussed possible reasons for why CNN would report it. There was a consensus that the glory bias as well as the 24 hour news cycle were to blame. The story’s initial reproting was certainly questionable, but once the story got rolling, it was impossible to walk it back. This was an important discussion because it reinforced the importance of being 100% sure before publishing a story. Any reporter that doesn’t risks being chastised by the White House Press Secretary on national television.

We then spent time discussing previous assignments. Professor Walker discussed what she was looking for in each assignment. Many students had failed to properly attribute or were vague in attribution. The professor made it clear that good reporting hinges on attribution. Next, we discussed our descriptive writing. The theme was “Show, Don’t Tell.” One of the problems students ran into was assuming too much background knowledge. Occasionally knowing less can be an advantage. Finally, we talked about our leads. There were three kinds of errors lots of people made. First, people used the passive voice instead of strong, active verbs.

Finally, we talked about interviewing. Professor Walker spoke about the importance of having a tape recorder at all times because interviews are the primary way to get information. We also discussed the importance of getting relevant information about the interviewee and how to go about beginning the interview. Obviously, it is somewhat awkward to just walk up and ask for an interview. Instead, it requires some tact.

To wrap up, we watched videos of old interviews. It was interesting to contrast Steve Kroft and Bob Schieffer’s interview styles. Kroft was long and wordy while Schieffer was more long-winded. However, both were able to get revealing answers out of the person they were interviewing.

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COMM 200: Objectivity

Posted by zmeunier on September 2, 2009

Over the summer, Larry Atkins wrote on the death of Walter Cronkite:

Walter Cronkite was everything a journalist was supposed to be. He was truly fair and balanced; not in the Fox News sense. He was thorough and prepared and he asked the tough questions that needed to be asked of politicians and government officials, whether they were liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican.

During his 19 years behind the CBS desk, Walter Cronkite uttered his opinion only once. And that was when he took the case to the American people that the war in Vietnam could not be won. The story of President Johnson’s response is now legendary. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” LBJ said, “I’ve lost middle America.” Since leaving the desk, Cronkite’s liberal opinions have become widely known. But before he left the desk, only those closest to Cronkite knew his opinions. That is the definition of objectivity.

To say objectivity is the absence of bias is far too simple an explanation. Everyone has biases. What differentiates the best journalists from pundits is that journalists keep those biases to themselves. They relentlessly pursue the news no matter what the situation is. Their loyalty is to the public and the truth, not any ideology.

Both liberals and conservatives will always say that fidelity to the truth requires the news to tilt one way or the other. The truth clearly favors their side, shouldn’t the news as well. The problem is that truth is a tricky thing. When Ben Franklin was arguing for the passage of the Constitution he asked the delegates to “doubt their own infallibility” and support it. Journalists must do the same thing. They cannot be the final arbiters of what is true and what is not. What they can do is be accurate.

That is not always easy. Anything that involves controversy is going to seem to have a certain natural spin. A corrupt politician does not reflect well on the party of the politician. The death of an American soldier is not going to reflect well on the war. But that does not mean the reporter should emphasize the politician’s party or the rising death toll. Likewise, glossing over corruption in government or dead Americans does a disservice to the public. Instead, reporters have a responsibility to say what happened. Nothing more, nothing less.

Walter Cronkite ended every broadcast with the phrase, “That’s the way it is.” Telling the public the news in that straightforward kind of way should the goal of every journalist.

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Comm 200: The Work Begins Anew

Posted by zmeunier on August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy said those words in his 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention. On the day of his passing, it seems an appropriate title for a post about my expectations for this course as well as a reading about the history of journalism.

The most striking part of the reading is that while the style and pace of journalism may have changed over the years, the marks of good journalism have not. The fundamental job of a journalist, first and foremost, is to report the news. That is why we still view the days of yellow journalism with chagrin and celebrate first amendment cases that guaranteed reporters the right to give the public the news of the day.

However, the conventions of good writing have changed. The inverted pyramid is an important tool in writing.  Especially in today’s world, people do not have the time to read every word of every article in a newspaper. Putting the most important news at the beginning of the article makes sure the reader gets the most important news of the day. While reporters might like the reader to know what an analyst’s take on the market is; knowing the percentage drop in the DOW is more useful and important.

An understanding of how reporters write their stories serves an important purpose for someone like me who wants to work in professional politics. While I have little interest in PR, I have a lot of interest of getting reporters to cover my candidate.  I often see my father (a former journalist) get annoyed by politicians thinking something is newsworthy.  The fact is what candidates want to be news rarely is. But that does not mean that with a little work it cannot be turned into something newsworthy. A press conference about healthcare hardly merits more than a blurb. A congressman holding a no-holds-bar townhall is slightly different.

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Hello world!

Posted by zmeunier on August 26, 2009

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

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