On a strangely cool August day several years ago, I walked into a New York City classroom to begin my first day of classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Inside that small, overheated room were a dozen other students, and the air was filled with the smell of coffee and breakfast pastries.
At the front of the room sat a gruff-looking man, dressed in a rumpled suit, and sporting wild white hair. A thick set of papers lay in front of each of our chairs on a rectangular conference table, and on top of those daunting reading materials was a brown paper bag.
Journalists are naturally inquisitive folk (or nosy, depending on how you look at it), and it didn’t long for us to ask about the lunch sack in front of us.
“Ah,” said the man, now introduced as the class’ professor. “I have a story about the bag. How many of you have covered professional or college sporting events?”
I raised my hand, as did several others.
“What is in the press box or media areas of those events?” he asked.
We looked at one another quizzically.
“Uh, computers?” I asked. “Stress?” offered another of my classmates. “Food and drinks,” said a third.
“Exactly,” said my professor. “They feed you. Sandwiches, soda, sometimes even a full-course meal with beer and wine. Why do they do that?”
“They want to be nice,” said the woman to the left of me.
“No,” I said. “They want you to be nice to them.”
“Right,” said my professor. “There is a reason behind that turkey sandwich. When you hear rumors of recruiting violations, grade inflation or other misdeeds, they want you to think of their hospitality. Nah, they want you to think, ‘They’re nice people. They wouldn’t do any dirty deeds.’
“But as journalists, you have to ask those questions, track down those leads, and find out what’s really going on. You can only do that if you keep your integrity, and you can only keep your integrity by remaining truly independent. Independent of the institutions and people you cover, and independent, if necessary, of the very institution that employs you.
“For that reason,” he said, “as long as you’re working for me, you’ll buy your own lunch. That’s the reason for the paper bag.”
Just so you know, this is an extraordinarily conservative position, and many people in that class thought the statement was downright weird, off-putting and almost reactionary. But it was something my professor deeply believed, and it was a rule that had served him well in his long and distinguished career as a sportswriter and investigative journalist.
But more than that, it also showed our class a real picture of the strength of his character, and how that strength was informed by his ethical beliefs. Ethics are a tricky subject, as many things are based on background and, often, religious belief. It is not a sin for me, a Catholic, to have a glass of wine after work. Were I a Muslim, however, it would be forbidden, and if I was a recovering alcoholic, it would be downright dangerous.
In the same way my professor laid out a physical symbol of his beliefs in the paper bag, I hope we at the paper have shown our character and ethics in these pages. If not, I hope you let me know what we could have done better. My professor would expect no less.
DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org