Interview Segments on Topic: Journalism Education
Rick Rodriguez is the former executive editor and senior vice president of The Sacramento Bee, who joined the Cronkite School at Arizona State University as the Carnegie professor, Southwest Borderlands Initiative. His staff, while at The Bee, won many of the country’s most prestigious journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, the George Polk award for investigative reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, National Headliner’s award, Sigma Delta Chi, Overseas Press Club, American Society of Newspaper Editors diversity writing award, and many others. He was the first Latino to serve as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is a graduate of Stanford University.
INTERVIEWER: So in your own career, you develop all these ideas about ethics, about doing the right thing I mean, in your case, where would it come from, in terms of, how much of it was formal training? How much of it was mentoring by the editors you worked under early on? How do you develop this set of guidelines or principles for yourself?
RODRIGUEZ: You know, I think the guidelines…the ethics I developed were really developed primarily in my childhood. I think my mom and dad and my grandparents—they were poor but they were really honest people. And my hero when I was a kid was the Lone Ranger, truth, justice and the American—you know. And you know, he had his trusty Native American friend. Unfortunately his name was Tonto, which in Spanish translates to dummy. But I liked what he did. He helped folks and, even watching those shows and those values. And then my high school journalism teacher was very good, talked a lot about ethics. Then, I had three great mentors. Eric Rosell who I’ve already talked about who picked me out of the El Choritto Market. And then, I was about to quit journalism actually after I got to the Sacramento Bee because I never could move up. I was being kind of pigeonholed. I felt like folks didn’t respect me because I had come from the Fresno Bee to the Sacramento Bee and the whole terrible hierarchy that occurs within news organization.
INTERVIEWER: I know, I feel lucky that you’re even speaking to us.
RODRIGUEZ: But you start thinking, I was thinking about that and I had this guy named Bill Endicott and again, was supposed to have lunch with him on Friday but Bill was the former political capitol bureau chief of the Sacramento Bee and he just took me under his wing. I remember the day he called me in and I said oh man, what did I do again? He closed the door and he says, why have they been keeping you on the sidelines covering this penny ante stuff because you’re really good.
INTERVIEWER: What were you covering?
RODRIGUEZ: Politics. I was covering for Fresno and Modesto. And he says, you’re really good, you may be the best political writer in Sacramento. And he says, I’m going to give you an opportunity, I believe in you. When you hear people believe in you and you look at their ethics and how they conduct themselves; and then Gregory Favre, the editor of the Sacramento Bee, senior vice president of McClatchy, you know he promoted me, I was essentially a recruiter—I was assistant managing editor but I was essentially the recruiter, did special projects for him and edited special projects. It was kind of like the AME that was people who, because they thought he was never going to go anywhere, he’s a Latino sitting in the corner, he’s never going to go anywhere. So when the AME job came open, nobody gave me a chance and I didn’t give myself much of a chance but I never wrote a budget, never supervised anybody, never done a review of anybody, didn’t have anybody reporting to me. And all of a sudden, out of a nationwide search he chooses me to be managing editor. I still ask him, why did you choose me? He said, I knew you would have to grow but he said you had the ethical foundation that I was looking for, you were very principled, you had—and he said, I knew you wouldn’t be the best managing editor I could hire at that moment, he said I knew you would be in about two years. And he taught me a lot, the whole issues about race…he’s a distant cousin of Brett Favre but he says he doesn’t…he pronounces his name Făv…yeah, he pronounces his name right. And he grew up in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi and Bill Endicott grew up in Kentucky and Eric Rosell grew up on the other side of the tracks in Salinas and you know, why were these folks attracted to me, why did they take me under their wing and I think it’s because we share the same values, the same principles, building blocks. We cared about people, we had passion for the business and had a lot of principles ingrained into us by our folks and we’ve talked about—to each one of them, all of them had their real ethical values set in their young childhood which was, I think the same way that we’ve been honed by the people you hung around.
INTERVIEWER: The only real follow-up I wanted to ask you about this is, what did you do in terms of preventative measures after these fabrications were uncovered?
Rodriguez: Yea, we had Bob Steele come in from the Poynter Institute to do a series of stuff on ethics. We wrote policies, very explicit policies and handed them out to everybody who is on staff. Everybody I interviewed for a job from that point on, I talked to them about fabrication, plagiarism, made them sign before they started something that said, with every fabricator we understand that fabrication or plagiarism is not part of the DNA at the Sacramento Bee and anything like that could lead to, up to including termination. So I took some really strong, both reactive steps to go back. See, this is the kind of thing that was weird because, I didn’t think I had to explain that to people. I thought it should be part of the reporter or the editor’s DNA. I thought this should have been engrained in us through our careers or through journalism schools or from my own perspective, through your own childhood. I thought that’s what you came to journalism about is to be about, try to tell the truth as close to it as you can get.
INTERVIEWER: Yea, you know when people ask me when I was a reporter were you ever tempted I said you know, in a way the challenge of the job is to write a good story with what you have and no more. It’d be like trying to write a fourteen-line sonnet in fifteen lines it’s like no; the challenge is to write it in fourteen lines you know.
Rodriguez: I was never tempted but what I ended up doing is I always told myself, I’m a good enough writer if there’s a hole I’m going to write around it. And so if I don’t have it, I’m going to write around it. In a way I was still lazy, but I wasn’t dishonest and lazy. It just appalled me. I was just surprised how many people did…before I was still editor, I had the dean of one of the journalism schools, a real prestigious journalism school in the country called me and said, students these days don’t see anything wrong with lifting stuff from the Internet without attribution.
INTERVIEWER: The remix man.
Rodriguez: Yeah. And I’m saying oh wow. I mean, teaching ethics now is more important than ever. Because it’s so easy in this Internet age. You have so much information at your disposal. You say okay, I’m going to lift it, no one’s ever going to find it. Interestingly enough it’s easier to find stuff too cause you can run all kinds of programs to look for plagiarism too and so students or journalists who are thinking they’re being clever might end up wrecking their careers. Once you do something like that, you’re pretty much blackballed. I mean, once you’re fired for plagiarism or fabrication, you’re gone. You could be one of the best writers in the country; you could be whatever, time to go into fiction. You’re not going to get back onto an organized journalism site. I’m not sure though, is that going to change with the Internet? Is that going to change with self-publication? Do the standards change nowadays and so it’s a challenge that I think we as educators now and the current crop of editors and reporters and bloggers and people who are doing their own sites is a challenge, that discussion needs to be had.