UWM Was His Harvard

Photo by Tony Hugill

Milwaukee – Although the program wasn’t called “Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies” (JAMS) when Boston Globe op-ed columnist Derrick Z. Jackson graduated from it, he still set aside some time to return to Milwaukee to visit campus and talk about some of his experiences with JAMS students.

Packed in a tiny room full of journalism students in Johnston Hall, Jackson was upfront with his advice. “Whatever you are doing right now matters,” Jackson said. “Journalism is a craft that takes you places you don’t even imagine you can go.”

Some of the proof lies in a photograph Jackson took of a basketball player 41 years ago that still sells today.

While a student at UWM, Jackson was fortunate enough to shoot photos for the Associated Press. Debuting in sports, Jackson has covered the NBA, U.S. Open, and the Olympics in 1984. “[Sports are] fun and good, but what’s really, really meaningful is when you can do some journalism and … listen to people who really are changing the world,” Jackson said. “It’s wonderful. Journalism has allowed me to be a voice for the voiceless.”

If you’re unable to find motivation as a journalist, Jackson suggests closely examining your local government or even environment for wrongdoings. “Hold administrations accountable,” Jackson said, “I will, at some risk, say that the environment is one of the three top stories of this generation’s lifetime.”

Jackson also pointed out that most issues are intertwined in some fashion if you think about them deeply enough. The environment is no exception. “There are very few environmental issues that don’t have a massive tentacle reaching out to something else,” says Jackson.

There was also some discussion on where journalism is headed.

Jackson’s son, an art editor of his campus’ newspaper, told him, “People in our generation still read. It’s just not the way you’re reading it.” Jackson silenced the room when he predicted the end of print newspapers for this generation of college students. “I don’t necessarily think that’s disastrous or anything. The whole issue for me is quality,” says Jackson.

Anne Panter led the effort to raise money to get Jackson back to Milwaukee from Boston. She believes it’s important for students to meet alums and see how the college education applies in real life. “[Some] might not think it applies to them, but it gives you a perspective. To hear someone who’s done it,” says Panter. “It’s important to produce students that are critical thinkers.”

Jackson is renowned for his college graduation rate bracketology for March Madness. When filling out graduation rate brackets for UWM’s Sweet 16 appearance in 2005, Jackson was discouraged with UWM graduating less than 20 percent of its roster. This knowledge piqued Jackson’s interest in academia.

“What you see at UWM is part of a national shame … UWM is only a microcosm of a much, much larger problem,” Jackson said. He also pointed out that blacks, Latinos, and poor people in general are not getting the support system they need. The end result is “a laziness that affects everybody.”

Overseas, in countries like Sweden, Germany, and Denmark, students don’t pay a penny for tuition. They’ve made a commitment that education is subsidized from day one. Some of the graduate programs even have subsidies.

Jackson offered up solutions as well. “It’s’ a tough problem. You gotta engage families. You gotta engage cultures. You gotta engage communities. You gotta engage capital — financial as well as human,” said Jackson. He’s seen firsthand, kids at some of the worst schools make turnarounds that you would never guessed the predicament they were in just two years earlier.

There was also discussion about reporting versus editorializing. “The best reporters in the country have tons of passion inside of them. What they do with that passion is they make sure when they are doing the ‘straight reporting’, that they are asking biting, tough questions that get answers in the paper,” Jackson said. “The moment you put your opinion in these things, you’re biased. You’re seen as biased forever.”

In reviewing the civil rights movement, Jackson believes part of the reason the movement gained as much steam as it did was because journalists were centering their cameras on dogs biting girls, and the hoses, hosing down children. “That wasn’t biased, that was just reporting,” says Jackson. “The reporters didn’t have to get on a soap box then and say, ‘Free those people!’ The journalism said, ‘Free those people.’ That is the power of journalism.”

In closing, Jackson went over the benefits of restraint and not “spouting off.” While in Mississippi covering the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988, he asked a member of Citizen’s Council (a “peaceful” offshoot of the KKK) what he thought of Dukakis. The member replied unabashedly, “Well [long pause], he’s one of those northern lee-burr-als (liberals) who, uh…you know? He’s kind of for the rights of black people. You know what I mean?”

Instead of lashing out in anger, Jackson simply printed the quote. He allowed the readers to decide whether it was ignorant or not. “Some people are amazingly candid with their ignorance,” Jackson said.