Richard Reeves

Journalism Is Alive and Young

LOS ANGELES -- There is a line in "Anna and the King of Siam" that I remember and think about almost every year: "When you're a teacher, by your students you will be taught."

I teach at the University of Southern California, in the Annenberg School for Communication. The greatest satisfaction in doing that, of course, is seeing one of your students reach a new level of thinking or writing. That's rare, but it happens now and then, and makes it all worthwhile. The second pleasure, as Anna found teaching the king's children, is learning from the students. And I did in the semester that just ended.

Most of my students in "Media and Politics" are, as you might expect, journalism or political science majors. This year their job was to serve on the editorial board of a make-believe small newspaper trying to make a name by winning a Pulitzer Prize or some other attention-getting award. Each of them had to come up with an idea that might make readers -- or me -- sit up and say, "Wow, that's good; I didn't know that." Or, "Somebody should do something about that!"

These are some of the things I learned this time around:

-- In "The Sisters of Stella Maris," Zaynah Naija Moussa wrote about -- and filmed -- the bare lives of 12 nuns grown old a few blocks from the university. They are among the 42 percent of Roman Catholic nuns who are now 80 years old or older. They weren't paid much during their lives as teachers or health workers, so they get very little Social Security, usually about $150 a month. Each order of nuns is responsible for its own sisters -- archdioceses take care of old priests -- and most nuns took vows of poverty.

At Stella Maris, they take care of their own, barely. The residence isn't much, but the women make do. One way is by putting the deaf ones in the rooms along noisy Vermont Avenue. Elevators are a must for the elderly, and the nuns have just one creaky machine there. Inside, there is a prayer posted: "O Angel of the Elevator, please see to it that what goes up comes down, and what goes down comes up, and what opens closes, and more importantly, what closes opens. Thanks a lot."

-- In "Overworked and Underpaid," Katie Noelle O'Brien chronicled the life of a 42-year-old assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., who 14 years ago took a 50 percent pay cut to move from Akin, Gump and Strauss, a premier law firm, because she thought putting bad guys in jail was more important than keeping them out.

"Laura" did find it more fulfilling but certainly less rewarding -- at least in terms of money. So now she earns maybe 10 percent of what she might have made as an Akin, Gump partner, working 60 hours a week with no overtime, handling 50 cases at a time compared with two when she was with the firm. "I find myself having victims explain fact patterns to me several times. I can't keep all their stories straight. For every case, especially in financial crimes, there are several victims to remember. ... I hate to admit it, but cases get dismissed all the time because I can't meet the nine-month indictment deadline."

-- In "New World, Old Solution," Christina Marie Cardellio takes on Rachel Carson, the revered author of "Silent Spring," the 1962 book that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT.

"In the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Sumatra, lay the Mentawai Islands," Cardellio wrote. "A surfer's paradise ... crystal waters greet the white sand. ... And then there is the other side of the islands. Impoverished barefoot people walk about the undereducated, malnourished and disease-ridden villages. ... Fifty percent of the children will die before they reach the age of 5. Here, 100 percent of the families are directly or indirectly affected by a single disease. ... Malaria is the suppressor here, yet it once had a cure."

The cure was DDT, killing the mosquitoes that carried the disease around the world. And she ends with the question of whether DDT could safely be brought back, reporting that there is evidence that, properly used, the pesticide might fulfill the promise it once seemed to have.

Journalism, taking its lumps these days, has promises to fulfill as well. And there are days, teaching and learning, that you think these students and others will be important in that mission.

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