Bennett from the Bleachers: Thoughts on summer ‘Free Spirit’ journalism conference

Bennett Durando
Sports Columnist

BENNETT FROM THE BLEACHERSIt all started how most things did junior year, really: with a disruption of Suzanne Fillion’s fourth hour Honors Pre-Calc class.

When then ECHO news editor Jake Collins poked his head in then pulled me out into the hall to tell me I’d been accepted to the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, I went into some subconscious daze. The next several minutes were all a blur as I stepped back in to plead to Fillion to be excused from class awhile, telling her it was “confidential ECHO stuff,” then proceeding to float downstairs to the newspaper room.

I was only snapped out of my trance when advisor Donald Johnson sent me into a sudden state of panic. I had apparently been emailed of my acceptance over a week prior and had just missed the deadline for a response the day before. The concerned people at Free Spirit had contacted Johnson, surely confused by a lack of my ecstatic response. The universe must’ve been against me coming to this conference because as it turned out, the email had come to my junk mail.

I shudder to imagine how different things would be if I had never seen the congratulatory email, if Karen Catone of the Free Spirit Program had never contacted Johnson, if I had been passed up for not responding while a runner-up be chosen to attend in my place.

Instead, I was fortunate enough this last summer to be honored as the Missouri representative at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C. The “Newseum”-based five-day event, which was from June 18-23 this year, is an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation’s capitol for a once-in-a-lifetime experience featuring seminars from prominent journalists, trips to professional news organizations, and tours of the city’s countless monuments. A $1,000 scholarship is also included. Fifty-one incoming high school seniors, one from each state and D.C., are selected to attend the conference.

Sitting here at my computer, I honestly don’t know where to begin or end with this conference, so I guess I’ll begin, naturally, at the end.

It’s late Wednesday night in Washington. In the lobby of a downtown Holiday Inn, dozens of teenagers exchange tearful hugs, lingering a few minutes past curfew to say their final goodbyes as a full group. An onlooker would guess that this group has a special connection, one formed over a long period of time together.

Only part of this true. While the Free Spirits have indeed formed quite a bond, it was done over less than a week at the conference. Our reaction to leaving each other can only be a testament to how uniquely amazing the experiences of the week were.

Five days before this, on the morning after I turned 17, I descended into Washington for the first time in my life.

The plane’s turbulent descent over the Potomac River and onto the bumpy landing strip tossed my stomach around more, adding to the unease in my gut. Without a doubt, my anxiety partially arose from my traveling completely alone for the first time. What if my suitcase was lost? What if I couldn’t find my travel representative? I knew that’s not all, though. An onslaught of other, scarier questions bombarded my mind, one echoing particularly loud: “Do I even really belong here?”

I soon discovered that the 50 other Free Spirits had been asking themselves the same question. Things were briefly awkward as we siat and talked in a private hotel dining room while waiting for everyone else to fly in, but very quickly we began to grow close. By the end of the day, after an intense game of “Newsmania” trivia and introductory speeches from all of us featuring our favorite First Amendment freedom (press was a common one, shockingly), it already felt as though we’d known each other for more than just half a day.

Things only kept getting better. The highlight of Day 2 without a doubt was our early morning trip to NBC Studios to watch Chuck Todd tape “Meet the Press” and then have a talk with him after he had finished the show. Todd had a lot of interesting things to say on the common depiction of media as a biased political campaign rather than an objective, reliable news source.

“To erode the credibility of all media … well if we do that, we erode our democracy,” Todd told us. “So I get angry about it. That said, I don’t think we should portray ourselves as victims. I’m sorry that the public isn’t as upset about it as I think they should be, but this goes to a longer conversation.”

He continued, “I think we in the media in general have not fought back hard enough on charges that we’re somehow dishonest. Like, any other field, if you get accused of being dishonest, you fight back … yet we as journalists are always told don’t fight back, don’t fight back, don’t become the story, don’t become the story. And that is my mindset. I don’t want to become the story, but I think we’ve done ourselves harm by not defending ourselves … and it is not a point of pride that only Congress is viewed worse than the media when it comes to trust in institution … so it bothers me. I don’t know what the right answer is to improve this.”

Also that Sunday was our tour of the Newseum, followed by our free time to explore what I can now call my favorite museum ever. Let me just say that with all the attention that the Smithsonian gets, the Newseum isn’t always in the spotlight, but it’s a true hidden gem of D.C. In fact, you probably had never heard of it prior to reading this. It’s a museum telling history through the eyes of the media. Favorite areas of mine include the Watergate exhibit, the wall of today’s front pages, the election news gallery, the actual chunk of the Berlin Wall and the wall of Pulitzer photography.

The Newseum was sort of a home to us Free Spirits throughout the week. The seventh floor classroom above all the exhibits was home to all of our seminars and luncheons.

One of my favorite seminars came early Monday morning from Sara Ganim, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for local news reporting. If you don’t recognize her name, you’ll recognize the names from the story she’s associated with: Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.

Ganim, who covered the development of Paterno’s involvement and lack of action against Sandusky during the child molestation scandal, said that sports reporters and their victimization of Paterno was one of the toughest obstacles in covering the story.

“It’s really easy to be a fan. You’re going to get very passionate but very misguided information,” Ganim said. “You need to be able to do other things; that’s something I want all sports writers and sports broadcasters to be aware of. You’re not a fan; you’re a journalist.”

As an aspiring sports journalist myself, these words spoke to me especially strongly. In the professional world as a journalist, we owe it to our audience to cover it like it is, not how a fan wants to see it.

I can also say as an aspiring sports journalist, the most thrilling moment of the entire week was getting to meet Chris Berman, the iconic baseball and football broadcaster for ESPN, at the Tuesday luncheon and discussion with him.

Amazed as several of the sports geeks and I were to see him walk into the room and sit down for lunch, imagine my shock when ESPN PR representative Josh Krulewitz tapped me on the shoulder, told me he knew my dad from the sports journalism biz, and offered to individually introduce me to Chris.

Getting to chat personally with Berman and getting to ask him two questions during the discussion was perhaps the highlight of the week for me. Though Berman also accepted the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media that night, giving a fantastic acceptance speech, our luncheon with him was much more personal since his words were directed toward us.

“It’s so exciting that we come to work everyday not knowing what’s going to happen,” Berman told us. “Sports, there’s no ceiling. It’s one of the last things we have that’s not scripted for us.”

By the end of the week, which also included visits to USA Today, the Capitol Building, the Federal Courthouse for a mock trial with a real federal judge, and seminars with the editor in chief of National Geographic, a group of Freedom Riders, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photographer of the last three presidents (I could write an entire article on anyone of these things, there were so many amazing opportunities), I was ready for an unscripted night of fun and relaxation. On a boat.

I don’t think it was until the last night, while we were all enjoying the last night party and our ride down the Potomac, that it hit me just how hard it was going to be to leave these 50 people who had so quickly become among my dearest friends.

Whether it be messing around with a GoPro at the White House with Isabelle, rooting for the Cavs on the tour bus at the end of Game 7 with Adam, sharing a love for Snarky Puppy with my roomie Nick, celebrating nearly-twin birthdays with Ian, memeing with Nina and Jacob, learning traditional Hawaiian dance from Amy, envying the landscape around Sara’s and Audrey’s homes, talking about saxophone and clarinet playing with Olivia, or just talking with any one of my fellow Free Spirits, the memories I made with these 50 new friends will last me a lifetime.

Most of all, I’m so proud to share a career passion for journalism with all of these wonderful people, and I can’t wait to see them in the newsroom someday.

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