Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.

Advertisements

The Truth About Krispy Kreme

donuts

They’re awesome, particularly chocolate frosted.

But that’s not the truth I want to talk about.  Instead, now that it has been officially confirmed that Krispy Kreme is opening a location in Auburn, I’m referencing a tweet I posted a month ago:

Doughnuts and journalists have a long and storied relationship.  An old-school joke asks, “What’s the hardest thing when a copy desk staffer dies? Prying the doughnut out of his cold dead hands.”

Journalistically speaking, the story was a fun experience, and it provided the basis for some fun lessons on how to source and when to tweet:

Protecting a Source

I originally caught wind of the Krispy Kreme story through a friend who told me how excited her husband was that we would be getting the purveyor of hot doughnuts.  She had heard the news from a family member, whom I also knew.

So I contacted the family member, and he (only clue you will get) confirmed that, indeed, Krispy Kreme was planning to locate in Auburn.  So I started from there.

Even though we are not dealing with the identity of CIA agents or U.S. policy in Iraq, I will not tell you who my source was.  He was not authorized to announce it, and while neither of us would have gotten thrown in jail, it is still information worth keeping confidential.

The worst thing any journalist can do is burn a source. First, it shows dishonesty toward the source.  Second, you are costing yourself good future sources.  Any source with worthwhile information is probably doing to do his/her homework on you, and can easily tell if you have revealed another source’s identity.

When to Tweet

I had the information from one source, and it was a reliable source.  But I did not want to move too quickly, particularly on this topic.

In January 2014, someone set up a fake Instagram account and announced that Krispy Kreme would be coming to Auburn.  It got a lot of excited tweets, followed by some crestfallen follow-up tweets after the national office exposed the fake.

Krispy Kreme did send a retro bus with free donuts later that week.  I actually got a heads-up on that news from a friend at Auburn, via e-mail.  Even then, I was afraid to announce the bus’s visit via Twitter, and sent him a nervous e-mail to make sure it was true.

It was and the bus came — no, not freshly made, but I still ate a couple.  But KK fans in Auburn returned to yearning and trips to Columbus/Montgomery.

Thus, I had no interest in putting out a Krispy Kreme tweet that was not true.  I called around to some folks in the City of Auburn for confirmation, but could not get a second source to confirm.

Then, I saw some authentic paperwork related to the new site (again, no help on the source).  In my mind, that represented a second reliable, independent source.  I talked to a couple of journalism colleagues, and they liked the information too, as well as the prospects of those hot, fresh doughnuts.

Even so, for about three days, I held off on the tweet, mainly because of the previous reaction.  I called around to my city sources again, but no help.

Finally, by June 17, I had to decide to go with what I had.  To be honest, one big factor in my decision was that I had tired of the internal back-and-forth.  I just wanted to get it over with, and decided the information was good enough.

The point is: fear of getting it wrong is always the right response for a journalist.  We need to be as positive as possible before giving out the news.  To throw something out there and then shrug when it’s wrong — as often as it happens — is the wrong response.  We are only as credible as our information, and we should guard both zealously.

So, I clicked on “Tweet” for the above. It got great response, as I expected, along with pleas that I not mess with folks’ hearts.  I assured them that I would never tweet the info if I did not feel it was solid. Still …

What If It’s Not True?

I will admit that I spent a nervous couple of days, fearing a denial by the Krispy Kreme main office.  The longer I waited, the better I felt.

But another doubt emerged: What if Krispy Kreme pulled the plans on the new site? Or what if all of the redevelopment near Auburn Mall took so long that it delayed our doughnuts?

As I checked various sources online and on social media, I came to a nervous discovery: The Krispy Kreme corporate account was following me.  It was not a recent follow after the news; they started following me during the January 2014 debacle.

So that made me feel better, because they had known about it pretty quickly and had said nothing.  It also made me wonder: If I had remembered that before the tweet, would I still have done it?  I don’t have to worry about the answer to that question, but I am glad I didn’t remember.

But, of course, the Facebook post by Elizabeth White of WTVM in Columbus confirmed everything, and I allowed myself a little bit of gloating to hide my relief.

So now, I guess there is nothing to do but let the construction process take its time, and then join the rush.

I will see you there, and we can raise a hot glazed or a chocolate-frosted to a fun story with a happy ending.

Shame in the Game

First published in the War Eagle Reader. You can find it here. MilesTweet

So perhaps West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. was not too smart in calling out Kentucky before their Sweet 16 game last night.

Predicting a Mountaineers victory was preferable to pre-signaling defeat. But to claim the Wildcats “don’t play hard” might have been reckless.

But the media’s post-Daxter takedown on Twitter following Kentucky’s 78-39 double-down was an unnecessary slaughter of its own kind.

Some samples:

@SportsNation: “Daxter Miles had the same amount of points as Kentucky has losses. None.”

@JimRome: “36-1? Maybe Daxter meant the score.”

@darrenrovell: “Daxter Miles Jr., who said West Virginia would beat Kentucky tonight, finishes with ZERO points for the Mountaineers.”`

@BasketballPics: “Y’all misinterpreted Daxter Miles; He said ‘Kentucky would have a 36-1 run.'”

Reports emerged that Miles “hid” in a bathroom stall and had to be coaxed out to face the media, and the laughs grew louder.  (Hey, Dax: For future reference, when the pros hide from the press, they use the training room.)

And just as predictably, when Kentucky player Devin Booker tweeted “36 and WON” postgame, the rout was on off the court as well.

At this point, of course, I should qualify that the shaming was by no means unanimous and many media members either defended Miles’ expression of confidence or at least condemned the over-reaction to it.

Still, one of the most curious unintended consequences of Twitter is its enabling of mass shaming.  The verbal equivalents of an embarrassing Snapchat photo descend on an unfortunate individual whose decision deserved the drop, but not the flood.

Sometimes it’s a good thing — when Twitter’s democratic muscle calls the rich and/or powerful to account.  But when the media mob attacks an 18-year-old (and the takedown continued old school, on “First Take” and the other morning talk shows), is it going too far?

My thoughts are not directed at the fans.  Fans are fans, and if they were rational — well, I shudder to think what we would watch on CBS and three cable channels this week.  The UK faithful were as savage toward Miles as would be expected.

For Auburn fans, Miles’ words reminded them of a similar situation involving Tre Mason before the 2013 Iron Bowl.  Mason expressed a confidence in facing an Alabama team that was being hailed as a juggernaut similar to this year’s UK hoops team.

Tre did not suffer the same fate.  After al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky took Mason to task for his comments, the snarky backlash swarmed Scarbinsky more than Mason.  And of course, Mason’s team fared better than WVU.

Still, I wonder about those tasked with covering sports.  It is bad enough that sports style has evolved into a more personal, opinion-laced style.

But throw in the snark potential of Twitter, and if there is a line out there, sports journalists often cross it. The profile plea, “Tweets are my own” are no excuse.  Readers can connect the name dot to the byline dot.

At another place and time, I would have joined in the fun — maybe not toward Miles, but certainly at a more satisfying target.  And when the culprit is a misbehaving media member, the sharper the comment, the better.

As I’ve thought it through, a recent article by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute provided focus and clarity.  Whether as participants or as detached observers who end up making a situation worse, journalists need to be careful around those who play with fire.

McBride concludes, “My hope is that … professional journalists will distance themselves from the shamings of private people that create very little social good, recognizing them as click bait and nothing more.  Most Internet stone throwers could be ignored.”

I would extend that standard to shaming of other public figures, including athletes, where there is no social good, only ridicule.

One reason for my re-thinking: Within the past couple of years, I had the chance to interact with a journalist who had been the object of shaming as a result of some reporting that had gone wrong.

I will be honest; I had at first participated in the flip criticisms of the reporter.  But from an outside source, I learned some mitigating details that caused me to backtrack on Twitter and to suggest critics take a second look.

From there, a mutual friend on Twitter encouraged me to contact the reporter, who was dealing with the firestorm.  So I reached out, in confidence (which is why I am being as vague as possible here).

We talked through the situation and possible remedies.  I did suggest some courses of action but was mainly there as a listening ear and an encouraging voice.

The reporter, through excellent subsequent work, has prevailed.  The firestorm is but a distant memory, and I don’t want to dredge it up here.  We DM on Twitter from time to time.  But the experience taught me, maybe more than I was able to help the reporter. No, it’s not as dramatic as those stories where a celebrity confronts a troll.

But it did have a disturbingly similar effect, reminding me that the people we snark on — whether a college basketball freshman or a well-known media member — are flesh and blood and feelings.

That, plus a desire to stand firm within the shifting sands that swirl traditional news and social media, have shaped my thinking.

As I have written before, one of my goals is to avoid being “that guy” on Twitter.  When you draw together enough “those guys,” it only gets worse.

No doubt Daxter Miles Jr. has learned his lesson and will probably do his talking on the court from now on. Sports journalists should realize that for them too, silence can be golden.

Rather than talk the talk on Twitter, they should walk the responsible walk.