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Rachel Corrie died on March 16, 2003, at the age of 23.
March 16, 2019
When I was visiting the University of Illinois last month, I had the good fortune to meet with Tracy Sulkin, a deeply intelligent, empathetic person who also happens to be the dean of the Department of Media. She has an important job, and the worst part of that job has to be meeting with out-of-town alums who have All Sorts Of Ideas how she should do that job. One of the smartest things about Sulkin is she has a tendency to ask questions and listen to the answers, even when the person she is asking questions of and listening to is an idiot.
I was in Champaign to spend two days talking to students in the Department of Media, along with hanging out at the Daily Illini and of course watching an Illinois basketball game. So before my first class, sitting in Sulkin’s office, she asked me, “What do you tell students about the future of journalism?”
I tend to have fewer Big Opinions on this question than most, but nonetheless: Here’s a couple paragraphs. It’s my belief that journalism itself is more important, more valuable and more widely consumed than it has been in any other time in history. It’s the business model that’s broken. (When people stop wanting news and analysis, then I’ll worry.) Journalism is currently an unstable industry not because journalists are doing bad jobs, but because the business people who were entrusted with the job of safe-guarding their industry and their role as a public trust decided instead to be capitalist vultures more interested in chasing every stupid trend and quick buck rather than having the slightest interest in or understanding of the business they were in and the customers who valued it. People want information and perspective and always will. We all just have to figure out how to make the finances work. But this has been going on forever. People have been panicking about there being no jobs for media and journalism majors since I went to college: I got lectured about wanting to do it when I was 17 too. My philosophy is just to keep my head down and keep working. It’s all I can control.
I told Sulkin this, and also the other wrinkle I tell students when they inevitably ask about their chosen profession. Basically, it goes: I know it’s your parents who are always bugging you about working in journalism, right? That’s because they’re worried about you having a stable job and a stable life. They’re parents, after all: That’s all I want for my kids too. But you know what else parents want? They want their kids not to be boring. They want their kids to have passion for what they do, and to enjoy their lives. So, kids, when your parents freak out about journalism, tell them: “Yes, it’s not stable, but it will never, ever be boring.” Would your parents rather you have a stable, dull job in which you sit in the same windowless cubicle under the same flickering fluorescent light for 30 years ... or would they rather you go out and see the world, meet fascinating people, have experiences you’d never have otherwise? Working in media is challenging and unpredictable and constantly changing ... but it’s never, ever dull. Other jobs are dull. You don’t want me to be dull, do you, Mom?
I really sold this hard to Sulkin, just nailed it, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. She smiled at me and sighed. It’s almost as if I wasn’t the first graying alum to come in her office and act like he knew what was Best For The Kids.
She was very polite about it. But she then went about explaining about how I have no idea what college is like now.
“You have to realize,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing and reconstructing our conversation from memory, so know that she surely said this better than my version of her here will sound, “that the relationship between students and their parents is dramatically different than when you were here.” The thing that has changed the most, the thing that always changes the most, is the money. When I went to college, college was expensive, but now, it is essentially the largest non-real estate financial transaction most families will make in their lifetimes. Combine that with increased reliance on the parent and the rise of helicopter parenting, and suddenly, it’s not just the kid who’s in college: It’s the whole family. And the last thing that family wants to hear is, “hey, your career will be unpredictable and may end terribly and could never even get off the ground at all ... but what a ride it will be right?”
She illustrated this most succinctly by illustrating how the average student handles their average test. When I was in college, I don’t think my parents even knew what classes I was taking, let alone how I was doing in them. They got the report cards twice a semester, and as long as I wasn’t flunking out and as long as I was on pace to graduate on time, they generally didn’t sweat much. Of course then, unlike now, I didn’t have to spend my entire high school experience building up my resume with straight A’s and extracurriculars, turning my teenage years into a family-wide scavenger hunt to impress strangers. Today’s parents are so invested in this process that every step of college is part of that same journey. They’re all-in, on everything. When her professors pass out their graded tests, Sulkin told me, the first thing almost every student does is take out their cellphone and ... call their parents to tell them how they did. On every individual test!
“So you see,” she said, almost feeling sorry for me now, “it is difficult to be so whimsical with the parents.”
I thought about this conversation constantly this week in the wake of the Varsity Blues academic scandal. It seems absolutely insane to me that any parent would encourage their child to cheat and lie to get into college, to lay the foundation, at one of the most formative moments of their life, that they are not good enough to thrive on their own and the only way to make it is through complex deceit. But I dunno. It’s possible I just don’t think of college the way kids and parents think of it now. It’s so competitive, and so absurd, that the scandal feels like a logical end to the road we were always on. After all, who wouldn’t do whatever they could to make sure their kids have good lives? That’s what parenting is. You do what you can to give them a good life. Whatever it takes. Even such lunacy.
Sure, this ignores the more important ability of giving them the tools to give themselves a good life, but hey, we’re all busy people. You do what you can, with what you have. You almost understand how they could fool themselves into thinking this was what they were supposed to do. To worry about their own kids, about their own parenting, no matter how many opportunities it might be costing the more deserving and less affluent, no matter how much it may be hurting their kids themselves in the long run. It did not make me sympathetic to the parents: They cheated, and they took away chances other kids should have had. But it did make me feel terrible to the kids. And it made me feel extremely lucky I went to college when I did.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.
1. My Big Annual Player-by-Player Roster Breakdown of the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, MLB.com. Obsessive and over the top and one of my favorite things to do for six years running.
2. The Worst Big-Time Sports-Related Part of the “Varsity Blues” Scandal, New York. A last-minute add-on suggestion of New York editor Ezekiel Kweku turned out to be a handy addition to this crazy story, I think.
3. Atlantic League Baseball and the Trouble Balancing Tradition with Progress, New York. Another one of those annoying pieces where I think everyone involved is right.
4. Your Big NL East Preview, MLB.com. The odd team out is ... the Phillies, I think.
5. Debate Club: ‘90s Horror Movies, SYFY Wire. The decade I never tire of revisiting.
6. The Thirty: Best Promotions, MLB.com. So many bobbleheads.
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
No show this week: Back in town taping next week. Get caught up on all the old shows, including one of my favorites with the great Lea Thompson, on Amazon or on SI TV.
Grierson & Leitch, we tossed around “Captain Marvel,” Grierson soloed on “Apollo 11" and “Gloria Bell” and we had fun talking “The Apartment.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I talked from Jupiter. (Florida, not the planet.)
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL POWER RANKINGS
Beto’s in! So. On one hand, the guy doesn’t have much experience, he seems a little lightweight and naive (particularly if he makes it all the way and has to face Trump) and he’s still pretty green on the national stage. He’s also a white dude in a year that hardly screams White Dudes. On the other: I find him legitimately inspiring to listen to — and it’s worth noting the last two Democrats to win the Presidency were legitimately inspiring speakers and figures; the last three to lose were wonky, smart, dull policy wonks — I line up with him politically about as closely as anyone in this race and (not for nothing) he seems to have spent his first few years in New York as listless and broke as I did. But let’s not kid ourselves here: I love this guy because he may be Generation X’s last great hope to ever make a footprint on the national stage, our best chance not to be simply skipped over from the Boomers to the Millennials. The Vanity Fair story is basically a Generation X narrative arc. “Priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream,” he once launched an alt-weekly, he blogs incessantly about truth and fear and doubt, he got obsessed with Bob Dylan in his 30s. I mean, he’s such a ‘90s kid that someone made this campaign “ad” to make fun of him:
If that’s a joke you can even think of making about a guy ... he’s probably my kind of guy.
He doesn’t go to the top of the list because he’s got a lot to prove and because I’m more on the “it needs to be a woman to crush Trump in front of the whole world” side at this point ... but sorry, I’m not one of the Beto skeptics. I’m into Beto, probably more than I’m yet willing to admit.
1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Beto O’Rourke
4. Pete Buttigieg
5. Jay Inslee
6. Julian Castro
7. Cory Booker
8. Kirsten Gillibrand
9. Amy Klobuchar
10. Andrew Yang
11. John Hickenlooper
12. Bernie Sanders
13. John Delaney
14. William Weld
15. Marianne Williamson
16. Tulsi Gabbard
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I love writing back and forth with the same people every week — it’s like getting to know someone a little better every week, and taking your time to do it — but getting letters from people I haven’t heard from yet still puts an extra pep in my step on the way back from the post office. Send me thy postage!
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Wake Up,” Arcade Fire. There was a time that I thought Arcade Fire was one of the greatest rock bands on the planet. It has been a long time since I thought that, but that doesn’t mean “Funeral” isn’t still amazing.
Fredbird is awesome and I will listen to no evidence to the contrary. Here he is with two generations of Leitch boys:
Have a great weekend, all ....