Tell the truth and shame the devil: Profiling 129 years of editorial freedom

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 1:13am

This week, The Daily celebrated 129 years of publication. Since that first day in 1890, The Daily has produced Pulitzer Prize winners, famous authors, national activists and world-renowned journalists. Every person that steps into this newsroom feels its impact, and when they leave they carry that influence into the world. For the Paper B-Side, we felt there was no more appropriate way to honor paper than to talk about our very own. Below is a timeline of interviews with Daily staffers of the past, from the ’50s to the 1990s. Among them are American sports writer Adam Schefter and publisher Philip Power, familiar names that were once scrappy student reporters like the rest of us. As journalists come under fire for daring to search for answers, we look back and remember that it was never the popular choice to tell the truth. But someone’s got to do it. 

— Samantha Della Fera, Senior Arts Editor

David Kessel — Class of 1958, Medical faculty at Wayne State University

David Kessel was a graduate student studying biochemistry at U-M when he discovered the magic of The Michigan Daily’s newsroom. Having completed his undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kessel was looking for something more to do on the University campus outside of academic obligations. 

“I quickly discovered that the typical graduate students were not the most interesting people on Earth, but The Daily was full of interesting people, so that’s the place I tended to gravitate toward,” Kessel said in a phone interview with The Daily.

Much like The Daily today, students in the ‘50s dedicated significant amounts of time and energy to produce the paper. “I wondered if they were really taking courses because they seemed to be there all the time,” Kessel said. 

The culture of The Daily and the University during the 1950s was significantly different than what we know today. 

“There was a high degree of repression in those days. Women had to be in their dorms by 9 o’ clock. If they got in after 9 o’clock, they sent a note to their mothers,” Kessel explained. It was a time where the Board for Student Publications could influence articles that ran for The Daily — they even had the power to censor, Kessel said.  

Despite apparent subjugation at times, many incredible stories ran during Kessel’s time in the newsroom, including the testing of the Salk vaccine, a mild scare when people at the pharmacology and mathematics departments were accused of being Communists and the death of Stalin.

“When Stalin died, they got out this headline that said ‘STALIN DEAD,’ and the guy was in charge of the publication … came in the next day — he was furious. He said,‘I was saving that font for the end of the world!’” Kessel exclaimed. 

Kessel is on the medical faculty at Wayne State University. He says that although his life is filled with scientific writing, The Daily is where he really learned to write. To Kessel, a college newspaper like The Daily is not only valuable to the people who write for it and the student body, but to society as a whole. 

“Our room was always sort of a protected area — it was always a center of culture and knowledge. And I hate to see all of this disappear. But when newspapers disappear, it’s going to go with it, I’m afraid.”

Harry Perlstadt — Class of 1963/Public Health Class of 1979, Award-winning sociologist and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Michigan State University

Harry Perlstadt wrote for The Daily when Tom Hayden was editor and sat in the newsroom in the presence of future world-renowned academics and journalists. Perlstadt went on to become a distinguished sociologist and academic himself, currently teaching at Michigan State University (but he still reps his U-M pride when our sports teams beat State). 

But before Perlstadt was a renowned sociologist, he was a news reporter for The Daily, eventually working as the Sunday Magazine co-editor from 1962-1963.

“It was an exciting time on The Daily. I couldn’t stay up late enough when J.F.K. came and made his famous speech on the Union steps,” Perlstadt said in an interview with The Daily. 

Perlstadt said The Daily played a major part in shaping his college career. He scheduled his classes earlier in the day so that he could be at The Daily from four or five o’ clock in the afternoon until one in the morning. He and the rest of the newsroom survived off of the Cottage Inn that was always ready for editors and writers to pick up during Daily production.

“I wanted to call myself the 10 o’clock scholar,” Perlstadt joked. He remarked that he only skipped class once for The Daily, and that was to interview a member of the United Kingdom Parliament — a fine excuse for a political science major. 

Perlstadt most notably wrote about the GRE exam, calling it an “insult to intelligence.” The story ended up being picked up by other college publications all across the country and eventually into the hands of the powers that be who write the GRE.

A couple months later, James A. Lewis, then the Dean of Student Affairs at Michigan, sent Perlstadt over to Dean of LSA Roger Heyns’s office. In the Dean’s office, he was read aloud a letter which stated:

“Please be assured that the opinions of Harry Perlstadt expressed in The Michigan Daily do not represent those of the administration or the faculty of the University of Michigan,” Perlstadt recalled. He ended up winning an award for courageous editorial writing.

Perlstadt formed strong bonds with those in the newsroom, which he continues to cherish to this day. 

“My wife and I just had our 50th wedding anniversary a year ago in the summer, and we had a Michigan Daily table,” Perlstadt said. 

Philip Power — Class of 1960, Founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan

It was an easy choice for Harvard University transfer Philip Power to join The Daily. 

“Because family friends had been on The Daily, and I’d heard about The Daily, it seemed clear to me that The Daily and the people on it were the most interesting, most involved, most informed and most exciting place in the University,” Power said in an interview. 

Power became night editor for The Daily two months into his junior year, eventually serving as editorial director, managing columns and editorials on the paper.

The Daily newsroom was set-up very differently than it is today, with on-site hot type printing, set by typographical machines and all. Power remembers all of this vividly. The night editor would move into the “slot,” a gap in the middle of a circular desk, at about eight o’clock at night, to read through, edit and write the headlines for all the pieces to run the next day. 

The stories were then sent down to the dumbwaiter, a contraption that served as an outbox for pieces that lead to the composing room where they would go to the letter press to print. 

“It was a rather more labor intensive and complicated way of getting a paper ready,” Power explained, “but the fundamentals were the same; namely, good reporting, good writing accuracy and a commitment to what I consider then, and consider now, serious student journalism.”

Power became very close with his peers at The Daily, spending entire days and nights working on the paper with people like Tom Hayden. 

“Our job was to do what The Daily does today. Keep an eye on malfeasance and student concerns, and when the administrative screws up to do our job as journalists,” Power explained. Even though there was a journalism department at University at the time, there was no place like The Daily to get hands-on training in journalism. 

Power grew to love local journalism, running many local newspapers. Now, he publishes and distributes Bridge Magazine, a Michigan newspaper read by 2.2 million people in Michigan and named the best newspaper in Michigan for the fourth year. He also served on the Board of Regents for 11 years here in Ann Arbor.  

Dan Okrent — Class of 1969, Pulitzer Prize nominee and first public editor of the New York Times

Fresh from editing the sports section of his high school newspaper, Dan Okrent quickly found his niche at The Michigan Daily. A tried and true fan but no athlete, he pursued the next best thing in the sports world: working as a Daily sports staff writer. The ’60s political and Daily scene, however, quickly got a hold of him, lending his talents over to the News section by his sophomore year. “I saw that, particularly, given the time … ’65 to ’69, the real action was on the news side.” 

Just as much a product of its time as it was its students, Daily news coverage at the late ’60s spanned historic political events from the ongoing Vietnam War opposition to enduring civil rights movements. These very events embed themselves in the undergraduate career of Okrent. 

“In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I wrote the obituary that appeared in the paper the next day. I had about an hour to write and I was pretty proud of that.”

It’s moments current Daily writers envision as history, from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the 1968 presidential campaign and election, that Dan Okrent paints across the Michigan Daily he knew as a college student.

Okrent said the hustle and bustle of 420 Maynard enveloped his entire college existence, far beyond the words he wrote as a student. It was the rumble and chug of the printing press at 2 a.m., in-and-out flow of Cottage Inn pizza boxes and everlasting bridge games that embodied the writing sphere of these journalists.

“It was just such an exciting place to be. You know, we socialize with each other, but there were no formal events. It’s just that we were very much involved in one another’s lives because the institution brought us together.”

It’s this world that amplifies the “quest for truth, fairness and honesty” that embodied Okrent’s undergraduate ambitions with more sophisticated packaging. Just as much as he shifted across newspaper sections, his style and voice evolved with every interview and article that wrote his Daily experience. Now a prolific editor and author, he traces his strides and accomplishments to one obvious source.

“That’s where I learned how to chase things down that I felt that the world needed to know… I don’t know what I would have done had I not worked at The Daily.

Sara Fitzgerald — Class of 1973, Author and former Washington Post editor

Sara Fitzgerald joined The Daily on the recommendation of a friend. Taking off as a staff reporter second semester of her freshman year, she quickly found herself engrossed in the habit of taking on news assignments by day and writing headlines by night. She eventually rose through the ranks to Editor-In-Chief two years later. 

“People have told me I’m the first woman Editor-in-Chief. I’m always a little bit wary, because I know that there were some women, particularly in the… World War II years, and I know another woman who was the Top Editorial Official but didn’t apparently have that title. So I’m always careful. I don’t want to claim too much.”

Fitzgerald’s tenure coincided with the surge of second wave feminism. Right before her very eyes, Fitzgerald watched as the political sphere transcended legislation into her social space, women taking on more leadership roles than ever before. 

“It was challenging because the only models you had were the older guys you had seen in those roles.” 

This backdrop permeates throughout her work as a Daily writer. The articles of Fitzgerald’s time span significant political hallmarks from the Vietnam War opposition to the 1972 US presidential election. However, a feminist underbelly reigned apparent in this time period, more so than ever before. This glares prominently from articles that detail neglected sex discrimination claims and the gender wage gap, to a playful jeering at the concept of a “Playgirl” calendar. 

“And so I think The Daily provides an important function both in giving students an opportunity to express themselves in an organized format, whether it’s, you know, friends or online. And the flip side of that, I think it’s important for students to have their voices represented on campus.”

The topics Fitzgerald embraced as a young Daily staffer still follow her. Her upcoming novel, to be released in 2020, centers itself on a group of Ann Arbor women she wrote about in The Daily in the ’70s who stood up against sexual discimination. 

“I think, just being at the University in the years of 1972, ’69 to ’73, those were the years it turned out to be a very empowering time for women.”

John Papanek — Class of 1973, Former Editor-in-Chief of Sports Illustrated, founding editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, founding Editor-in-Chief of ESPN The Magazine and Editor-in-Chief of ESPN.com

“Those were the wild, wild days,” former Daily Sports writer and editor John Papanek said in an interview with The Daily of his time at U-M. 

“The first week [of the school year] was non-stop protests … yelling and screaming and ultimately occupying the registration building, culminating in police riot busloads of police swinging clubs and getting guys and gals over the head. That pretty much was my indoctrination to college life,” Papanek explained about anti-war sentiments of the time. This made for a riveting time to be a journalist at The Daily. 

What fascinated Papanek the most, however, was how all the political chaos on campus came to a complete halt during football Saturdays. 

“At the game, you have all the radical students, the hippies, the long hair, people with smoke coming out of their nostrils all week, sitting side by side with the teachers, the professors, the alumni, the establishment, and they were all yelling and screaming together to kill Ohio State,” Papanek said.  

Papanek recalls a particularly humorous story that was written by Bill Alterman, a Sports writer at the time, where Frank Lauterbur, then coach of the Iowa football team, was so distraught by his loss to the University football team that he delivered an aggressive string of profanities when asked about how felt about the game, which no one but the Daily published. To avoid another argument over publishing a string of profanity right now, I’ll link the article here for you all to see. 

Ironically, Papanek used his experience in a paper journalism to help Sports Illustrated and ESPN enter the digital landscape far ahead of most publications. “Magazines on paper and newspapers on paper are a very endangered species, and they’re disappearing fast,” Papanek explained. 

This significant transition comes with implications. Papanek believes there is still a value to print journalism — a value that is lost when you switch to digital platforms.

“Without even reading a word of what you’ve written, someone could pick this up and say, ‘There’s quality here. There’s good work that’s been done here,’” Papanek said. The challenge presented to young journalists and The Daily today is now that anyone can publish their thoughts on the web, Papanek said. How are we to establish ourselves as credible and truthful, when there is so much propaganda being published? 

“I hope and pray that Michigan Daily continues to stand for editorial freedoms, accuracy, truth and fearlessness,” he said. 

Tony Schwartz — Class of 1974, Former New York Times reporter and staff writer for New York Magazine and Esquire

Tony Schwartz joined the News section as a freshman, and when his work appeared on the front page of the paper below The Daily logo, he was hooked on writing.

“Here I was, 18 years old and walking around the campus, and everywhere I walk there was my piece with my name on it. That was intoxicating to me … And so I continued to write,” Schwartz said in an interview with The Daily. 

Schwartz also pitched and successfully launched the Sunday Magazine, a magazine that ran inside The Daily. The Sunday Magazine would be published for years after he left, and it went on to win awards as the best college magazine. 

“To the people who were out there reporting news stories every day ... The Daily was their life and academics were purely secondary,” Schwartz explained. 

The Daily was a launching pad for Schwartz’s own journalism career. He got the opportunity to interview many high-profile people such as University alum Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) and Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”). Heller happened to have a friend who was a managing editor at the New York Times, who vouched for Schwartz to get an interview, and Schwartz ended up getting a job at The New York Times. 

“I learned how to be a reporter [at The Daily]. The standard to which we were all held was very high, and the respect that the paper got in the University community was high,” Schwartz said.  

David Blomquist — Class of 1976, Editor and publisher at the New Jersey Journal

Before becoming editor and publisher at the New Jersey Journal, David Blomquist was a writer and editor for the Arts section of The Daily. 

“For as lively an art scene that Ann Arbor had in the 1970s, the Daily Arts desk was not as hot. Perhaps because the news of the era was just so consuming,” Blomquist said in an interview with The Daily. A smaller Arts section, however, bought him the opportunity to quickly ascend the ranks at The Daily. 

During his time writing for Arts, Blomquist got the opportunity to interview classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz. At the time, the University Musical Society was wary of student journalists, he said. The director warned Blomquist that when he met Horowitz, he was not to touch his sacred hands, not even to shake them. 

“Horowitz walks in the room, grabs my hand, squeezes the bejesus out of it and just says,‘Horowitz.’ One word of introduction. The director (of UMS) looks at me like the world has just coupled. But we had a lovely conversation,” Blomquist said.

Blomquist eventually found himself at the newsdesk of The Daily during a particularly exciting morning. He was one of the first to catch wind of former President Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate Scandal broke.

“I was sitting alone as the morning news editor. The phone rings, and it was a guy who was one of our regular news editors, who was on a summer internship at the News Bureau in Washington who called us and said, ‘It's all over. (Nixon)’s going to give a speech tonight,’” Blomquist recounted. 

“We were determined to produce a great product. There were certainly University scars. Universities, then as now, were grappling with creating fair opportunities for women, and fair opportunities for people of color. Some of the first struggles over that happened in the ’70s,” Blomquist said. The fast pace of the newsroom was endearing to Blomquist. 

“I today fall back on the experiences I got at 420 Maynard Street,” Blomquist said.

One particular person who had an influence over Blomquist in the newsroom (or rather underneath it) was Lucius Doyle, for whom the bench in the entrance of the Student Publications Building is dedicated to. 

“Lucius and his colleagues taught us things about the gravity of the printed word, about the necessity as a manager to get things right to communicate clearly and to respect the needs of others. 40 years later, Lucius is in this office with me every day, reminding me what it takes to do the job right … of all the people I was exposed to on the staff at Michigan, no one had a greater influence on me,” Blomquist said.

Gary Kicinski — Class of 1979, Managing editor for Transport Topics

Gary Kicinski joined The Daily writing for the Sports section, covering minor sports and eventually making his way up the ranks to editorial work. 

“Everything that I learned at The Daily turned out to be much more valuable for my career than anything I learned in the classroom,” Kicinski said in an interview with The Daily. 

“We had this really good process in Sports of posting a daily critique of that morning’s paper … It would be an examination of the page layout for sports and the writing that everyone produced for that paper. It was often written in a very entertaining fashion ….  everyone would stroll in between classes to read it,” explained Kicinski. 

Kicinski remembers the amusement and fun that everyone on the Sports section had coming up with content for The Daily. They had an IM flag football team called the Daily Libels. 

“We had a group of 13 seniors in Sports at The Daily who graduated in 1979. Six of us went on into journalism right after graduation and in general we stayed in pretty regular contact with each other for a few years; I would produce occasional ‘Libel newsletters’ that I typed up and mailed around, sharing news of job changes, relocations, family news, etc.” Kicinski wrote in an email to The Daily. The Libels recently had a reunion in 2016 at a Chicago Cubs game to reconnect. 

Diane Haithman — Class of 1979, Staff writer at the LA Business Journal, Former staff writer LA Times

Diane Haithman was an Arts writer at the edge of change in not only The Daily, but journalism as a whole.  

“I remember when I walked in to for my internship at the Detroit Free Press … when I walked into the front hall, they were scraping the words ‘Women’s Section’ of a door because … ‘Women’s Section’ was no longer politically correct,” Haithman said in an interview with The Daily. Haithman went on to have an illustrious career in arts journalism, eventually landing at the LA Times as their West Coast Bureau Correspondent, and as a writer for a business journal.

In addition, Haithman was one of two Black staff members on The Daily, an unfortunate reflection of the student body.

“I never felt, I gotta say, in terms of the writers and editors and stuff, I never felt any kind of bias, writing and that kind of thing at all. I just felt like, I wish that there was something in the University that would sort of create that pipeline,” Haithman said. 

Haithman, now an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College in California, is still astonished by the caliber of journalism coming from the Daily newsroom. To Haithman, the value of journalism, especially at The Daily, is the raw training and writing experiences that students gain in the newsroom, which produces journalists ready to compete or even better than those produced in a classroom.

Adam Schefter — Class of 1989, NFL Insider for ESPN

When former Daily Sports editor and current ESPN Insider Adam Schefter called me back, I was caught in between classes and didn’t realize who I was talking to from the lack of Caller ID. 

While I, a measly Arts writer, was staggering out of class and scanning through my brain all the names of people I had left to interview, he mentioned how he wouldn’t be where he is today without The Daily. When I asked where he was now, he said, “Google me!” I very quickly and shamefully put two and two together. 

“The Daily gave you the opportunity to learn how to report,” he said. “I got more education from The Daily than I got out of classes.”

After graduating at the University in 1989, Schefter received his Masters in Journalism from Northwestern, worked for the Denver Post as well as Rocky Mountain News covering the Broncos and is now top NFL insider for ESPN. His Twitter following surpasses 7.5 million, so it should be of little surprise that he has been named “the most influential New Yorker on Twitter” according to data PeerIndex, a social media company. 

Schefter’s time reporting and editing at The Daily “tremendously” shaped his career during and after college. He said The Daily acts as a sort of “laboratory for students” to learn how to run a newspaper.

At the end of our brief conversation, I mentioned how great it was that he credits the Daily with catalyzing his success since to which Schefter said, “Welcome to the party.”

Steve Knopper — Class of 1990

Steve Knopper knew there was no way to approach The Michigan Daily other than to take it by storm in the late ’80s. Hot off the printing press of his high school newspaper, he quickly joined The Daily with ambitions of becoming Editor-in-Chief, a position he soon took with a ferocity in the summer of 1988, only to later get booted. 

“It was definitely one of the worst parts of my life. And, you know, I did not expect any of that to happen. And I handled it poorly … it was a hard lesson,” he said.

The turmoil unfolded in one of the hottest and most politically heated summers at the University of Michigan. Political strife and activism had taken ahold of the student body during Robben Fleming’s temporary return as University President. And students demanded Fleming do something about alleged cases of discrimination at the University. He furthered strife in the introduction of a new Code of Conduct. 

“What Fleming did was super shrewd and super interesting that very first day. He put out a document that would punish people for racist attacks. So he basically split those two activist groups in half. The group that was ‘no code’ was opposed to what we’re saying, but a lot of students were like ‘yeah, that makes sense.’”

This divide was reflected among Daily staffers, too, as many staffers sought to use the paper as a tool for activism while others prefered it abide by more general journalistic pursuits. 

A particularly memorable incident plays off of a front page that embodies this dynamic. Knopper, who never specified whether he fit into any particular political group, wrote a neutral front page news article on the Code of Conduct that drew off interviews he had done the day before, one with Fleming himself. Another editorial piece places itself directly next it, absolutely trashing the administration for the new code. This inevitably brought Knopper a predicament in which Fleming was less than satisfied with the placement of the stories.

“I call him and he comes on the line quickly, and he goes, ‘Oh, it’s you! Why don’t you just come to my house and kick my dog and yell at my wife?’”

But with as much trouble as The Daily caused him, Knopper still maintains absolute adoration for the opportunities and memories it provided him. From making new friends at Daily parties to running newspaper deliveries half awake, he credits The Daily for some of his best memories. 

“And that’s been my passion ever since,” he said. 

Christine Young Ritzen — Class of 1996, News producer at CBS. 

“I got all my training from The Daily,” said current CBS news producer Chris Young Ritzen.  “They taught me how to ask questions, they taught me how to write a story, they taught me how to go about structuring a story. It was a life changing experience. ” 

Ritzen endearingly calls her former editors her “teachers,” saying that the relationships she made at The Daily would not only strengthen her writing significantly, but give her contacts for the rest of her life. 

“I feel like I could call any of my old editors, and say, ‘Hey.’ I haven’t seen them in 20-how many years. There’s just so much respect,” Ritzen explained. 

Ritzen started off as a general assignment reporter for the News section of The Daily, reporting on Ann Arbor’s city council. She later expanded her reach, interviewing then presidential candidate Ross Perot and competing with major newspaper outlets to do so.

“Here I am, and I actually had a lot of time, and I sat down with him. That was a great opportunity,” Ritzen said. 

To Ritzen, the adrenaline rush of the newsroom at The Daily prepared her for the topsy-turvy world of professional journalism. 

“Back in the day, I just remember like, oh my gosh, all hours of the night, rushing at the last minute It was just always chaos, you know, but it was a beautiful thing, because that’s kind of what this world is all about, you know?” Ritzen explained. 

She also learned this when she reported a story on first year student who had fallen off the roof of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. Shortly after the story ran, the brothers of the fraternity harassed Ritzen. 

“It really taught me very quickly how (reporting) works and how controversial some of these articles and reporting was going to be,” Ritzen explained.

The ups and downs taught Ritzen and her colleges about what it takes to be a journalist. Many of her colleagues have gone on to wonderful careers (in journalism and otherwise), taking these lessons with them. 

“It's really beautiful to see people that have inspired you and help you with your career do really well,” Ritzen beamed.