I don't usually cry when I read the Omaha World-Herald. But Matthew Hansen's May 25th article, "They Covered Whiteclay," made me shed tears.
He wrote that the University of Nebraska's journalism school had just won a prestigious national award, a grand prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights journalism award. To win, the students beat out HBO, the New Yorker, National Geographic and every other finalist: a TV network, magazine and U.S. newspaper. No student had ever won this award before.
For such a victory, I felt like cheering, so why did I sit in my recliner in my living room, the newspaper on my lap, weeping?
The students won that award for their "Wounds of Whiteclay: Nebraska's Shameful Legacy." It focuses on that shameful 12-person town of Whiteclay, where four beer merchants sell 3.5 million cans of beer annually to desperately poor, addicted Oglala Lakota Indians living on a nearby reservation. http://www.woundsofwhiteclay.com.
To do this, the students, during the past year, "wrote stories, snapped photos, shot video and designed a website," Hansen wrote, while they also took classes and worked part-time jobs. Their high-powered professors challenged their students to go beyond "poverty porn."
I could imagine myself as one of those students working with the professors. In 1958-59 I was a journalism student at UN-L. My professors, and particularly Neale Copple, taught a kind of realism I hadn't known before. "Copple demanded a lot," a student recalls, "he expected a lot. He had very high standards." Reaching, grasping, pulling myself up, I found capacities in myself that I didn't know I possessed. As these 11 students must have.
So I wept in memory, but also with gratitude for Nebraska's farseeing journalism program. When Will Owen Jones taught the first journalism university class in 1894, he inaugurated the same kind of professional expertise that I experienced and that so obviously motivated those 11 students. So I wept in pride.