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George Pyle: At Dixie State U, a Kobayashi Maru for student journalists

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1993 file photo, writer Russell Baker, ponders a reporter's question during a New York news conference where he was presented as the successor to host Alistair Cooke for the PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre." Pulitzer Prize-winning author and humorist Baker has died at age 93. Allen Baker told The Associated Press that his father died on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, from complications after a fall. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

“The ideal journalism school needs only one course. Students should be required to stand outside a closed door for six hours. Then the door would open, someone would put his head around the jamb and say, ‘No comment.’ The door would close again, and the students would be required to write 800 words against a deadline.”

— Russell Baker

The president of Dixie State University, accompanied by a suitably earnest entourage, dropped by for a meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune’s Editorial Board the other week. A courtesy call designed to explain that DSU is and will be a wonderful place. A position that we were quite happy to accept as true.

Until an article appeared in The Tribune outlining how that same university, its student government and its faculty senate are making life difficult for the student-run newspaper, The Dixie Sun News, by closing meetings and denying access to public records. The student editors are fighting back, with the aid of an attorney and, of course, an editorial.

What seemed most striking about the whole mess was that DSU President Richard Williams had just been regaling us, quite properly, with tales of how his university was making a point of building its ever-expanding academic offerings around the real-world needs of both students and employers, equipping graduates with skills they will need to move into the working world.

I’m pretty sure Williams did not say, “Except journalism.” I would have remembered.

Assuming that the president’s macroeconomic crystal ball does not say that training the next generation of journalist would be like offering a master’s degree in making horseshoes, it seemed odd that DSU would be teaching student journalists to sit down and shut up and take the word of their betters for what was and was not public information.

That’s like telling math majors that the value of pi is 7. Or teaching basketball players that they can get away with carrying the ball more than two steps. (Well, wait. If the goal is to excel in the NBA, maybe they should teach that.)

This sort of thing has cropped up before. High school principals and university presidents try to silence the reportorial and opinionating efforts of their own students when those fledgling journalists discover, write or argue something that the grown-ups find embarrassing, distasteful or disruptive. Disruptive, in this case, meaning that it is something that the vice principal couldn’t do when he was in school, so you can’t do it, either.

A recent example was the blatant censorship of the Herriman High School Telegraph when the grown-ups were steamed at the students for doing their job and reporting out the facts behind the sudden and unexplained dismissal of a teacher. Work that should have resulted in a spot on the dean’s list instead was silenced.

Go figure.

But, then, Russell Baker died.

The long-time op-ed columnist for The New York Times, the gold standard writing the for the gold standard, of course received a lengthy obituary in his newspaper. Among the reminiscences was the quote at the top of this essay.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Dixie State, and all the other educational institutions seen to block and censor their student journalists, aren’t committing educational malpractice. They are posing a real-world scenario for their charges to overcome.

If you are a Star Trek fan, here’s where I just say “Kobayashi Maru,” and you get it. Put the students in a situation that requires them to size up a problem and to figure a way through, over or around it. Or die trying. The students who at least try to overcome the official stonewalling get some attention from the editors who will count the effort as relevant job experience.

Sorry I doubted you.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is indebted to Russell Baker for teaching him the meaning of some really cool words, like “eleemosynary.”

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