The Power of the Press


The press badges on two junior high reporters caught the president’s eye at the steps of Air Force One. “Oh, I see you’re starting early,” Richard Nixon told the students as he stepped forward to shake their hands.
The two student reporters, wearing the same press credentials as the half dozen professional reporters also at the aircraft, were the only ones who got to talk with the president. He was in Rockford, Illinois, to deliver a campaign speech. It was one of countless journalism adventures that tapped the skills and honed the judgments of students from Johnsburg School District 12, which serves a small community in northern Illinois.
Two and a half years later, three other reporters for the Johnsburg Journal student newspaper attended a White House press briefing that was dominated by Watergate questions. Afterwards, they saw President Nixon in the Oval Office. In Johnsburg, even junior high students were empowered to practice authentic journalism’without the threat of arbitrary censorship or the practice of prior review by administrators. I taught journalism and advised the newspaper staffs in Johnsburg for 34 years, including my last 25 years advising the Johnsburg Weekly News after we became a high school district. I was blessed with working in an educational environment that inspired students intrinsically to pursue their highest potential.
The man who hired me in 1969 became my mentor. Dr. Duane Andreas was a ‘hometown boy’ who returned to Johnsburg after college and military service to forge his career as an educator. His leadership as a teacher, principal and superintendent inspired not only the people inside school but also the entire community. That’s because a core principle of his school philosophy was partnership. Andreas believed every good citizen was a stakeholder in our educational institutions, and each had an inherent responsibility to promote democratic learning, civic engagement, accountability, transparency, empowerment, trust and other essential features of an effective partnership in education. His belief was deep and his advocacy was genuine. He spoke by his actions, not by using cosmetic rhetoric motivated more by public relations than by true partnership resolve. Andreas particularly sought to amplify the voices of education’s most important stakeholders: the students. He supported free and responsible student news media to help achieve that end. He appreciated the value of student media and the profound affect they can have on school culture. Unlike too many administrators, he sought to cultivate rather than control the student press. He worked with student editors and other partners to strike a proper balance between the press rights of students and the pedagogic responsibilities of educators.
Students were empowered but not emancipated; educators were authoritative but not authoritarian; and the school culture was collaborative and not autocratic. The partnership nurtured the competence and ethical development of student journalists in an environment that inspired civic engagement and First Amendment values. Controversial stories were never discouraged. Students practiced authentic journalism’maintaining an independence from those they cover, providing a forum for public criticism and compromise, serving as an independent monitor of power and disseminating popular and unpopular perspectives of students and other citizens. When the high school principal was arrested and charged with operating a motorboat while under the influence, that was covered on page one of the JWN. When he was exonerated, that too was covered on page one. The morning the Monica Lewinski/Linda Tripp audio recordings were made public, three JWN reporters attended the 11 a.m. press briefing in the West Wing and had an exclusive interview with Joe Lockhart, President Clinton’s press secretary.
Indeed, Johnsburg student reporters are ‘starting early,’ and they are learning authentic journalism in a school environment that allows all stakeholders to have their voices heard and their values and priorities weighed in the robust arena of democratic engagement. I credit my mentor, Dr. Duane Andreas, for building a partnership that created such an effective foundation for democratic learning.