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On Deadline blog: Dwight Bentel presented a contrast to Stanford journalism/communications education

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson on May 25, 2012

The passing of Dwight Bentel in mid-May at 103 marks the passage of an expansionist era in the education of future journalists -- one with direct parallels, and differences, between San Jose State College (now University) and Stanford University.

Dr. Bentel (as I knew him when a student at SJS and editor of the Spartan Daily) was the founder of the Department of Journalism and Advertising at SJS and was its department head for many years. His tenure at SJS followed a period as a working journalist and later his graduation and getting a Ph.D. from Stanford.

His counterpart at Stanford was Chilton Bush, known as "Chick" to his friends and "Dr. Bush" to his students.

Bush arrived at Stanford in 1934, the same year that Bentel, at age 25, founded the Spartan Daily.

Both men pushed hard to create continuing institutions of training and education of future journalists, and both retired with many honors. Bush died in 1972. (Details on each can be found via a Google search.)

Reading an excellent obituary on Bentel in the San Jose Mercury brought back memories of the man I knew circa 1958-62. But it left out some of the personal essence of the man, although it touched on his dynamic energy and dedication to quality journalism and well-educated journalists.

I recall him as a compact, stocky man who wore heavy-rimmed glasses and sat in a large swivel office chair behind his desk in the building now named for him.

When he was excited, or upset, about something he had a habit of rocking back and forth, taking his glasses off and putting them back on repeatedly. I once, during such a discussion, asked if he wanted to be editor of the Daily. No, no, he said, and we continued as student, teacher and friends.

He was an expert in the libel law of the time and its history -- including back into the past century to the landmark case of the Cherry Sisters, who had a singing act that horrified a Midwestern newspaper reviewer. They sued for libel. The judge asked to hear the sisters sing, and agreed fully with the reviewer -- thereby establishing the precedent that truth is a complete defense against a libel suit.

Bentel was especially proud of his extensive collection of newspaper headlines with embarrassing flubs, including the famous "Dewey Wins" headline of the Chicago Tribune. Most of his collected headlines were grammatical mistakes, poor wording that led to inadvertent puns or double meanings (sometimes racy), and typographical errors.

One of his favorite examples involved famously overweight President Grover Cleveland. On one page was a photo of a stationary exercise cycle. The caption said, "This is what the president rides every morning before breakfast."

On the opposite page was supposed to be a photo of the winner of the state's Miss America contestant.

The zinc photo engraving plates got switched.

I met Chilton Bush during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Spartan Daily in 1961, when I was serving as news editor, then editor of the Daily. I was aware of the long relationship -- and a friendly rivalry -- between the two distinguished educators.

The contrast between them was physical as well as philosophical. I recall Bush as a tall, lanky, easy-moving man compared to compact quick-moving Bentel, whose bounce lasted virtually his entire life. At his 100th birthday party, Bentel entered the room with hands clasped over his head in a victory gesture.

It was common knowledge that Bentel's philosophy of journalism education contrasted in some fundamental ways with that of Bush, as characterized by comments of the two men.

Bush once was quoted as saying that his primary aim was to train students to become foreign correspondents for the New York Times.

Bentel's stated vision, which I heard personally from him, was to prepare students to walk into any newsroom in America and be able to sit down at a typewriter and write any kind of story.

The visions are not mutually exclusive.

Both men believed strongly in requiring a strong foundation in general history and political science, and of course in basic English grammar and usage. At SJS, no one could join the newspaper staff until their junior year -- and thus had to focus on humanities, history, political science and journalism writing and editing courses.

A big difference between the two institutions was that the Spartan Daily was part of the curriculum -- which had good and bad points -- while the Stanford Daily was an independent publication from the department -- which also had good and bad points.

Both programs required students to do internships as part of their graduation requirements.

In the latter 1970s, as a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, I was assigned to brief new reporters and interns on the paper's operation and local communities. This consisted of them "shadowing" me for a week or two as I checked police and fire, attended City Council meetings, covered Palo Alto and regional news and sometimes filled in for other beats.

I quickly noticed the difference between interns from SJS and Stanford. The latter, with some exceptions, required much more attention to basic newswriting and how to write tight, on-point leads (sometimes spelled ledes) for their stories. But by the late 1970s, a small group of teachers at Stanford had sharply upgraded the education in basic newswriting.

"I felt that someone with a communications degree from Stanford should know how to write a news story," Professor Marion Lewenstein told me, recruiting me to be a part-time lecturer in newswriting, which became a five-year stint.

There are outstanding writing teachers in the department, and many outstanding journalists as graduates, shining as award-winning reporters, editors and sometimes publishers. But the department has always had something of a schizophrenic nature, divided between academic studies of media, history, trends and technology and the basic training in newsroom skills -- which of course could be picked up in a newsroom later.

One intern/shadow I recall had special trouble identifying a lead. In one story the "news" lead didn't show up until halfway down the second page, following six or eight paragraphs of history on the topic. I wrote him a long note about analytical thinking that helps pick out "news" from background, and how to focus on the essence of the story.

The note worked. He became one of the best lead writers at the Times, with sharp, incisive, often clever leads -- and today is a respected editor of a Northern California newspaper.

"Journalism teaches you to think," Esther Wojcicki, nationally known journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, summed up over coffee one morning a few months back. I once was told by a professor that 85 percent of a news story goes on in one's head before any words are put on paper -- that holds true for keyboarding into computers, or cell phones.

Despite differing emphases, honing the ability to think analytically is the common gift that both Bentel and Bush bequeathed to the thousands of journalists who passed through the programs they created.


Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com.

Comments (2)

Posted by Where-Have-All-The-Dinosaurs-Gone?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2012 at 7:55 am

> Despite differing emphases, honing the ability
> to think analytically is the common gift that both
> Bentel and Bush bequeathed to the thousands of
> journalists who passed through the programs they created.

If only that were true. It is very difficult to see a lot of what one might call analytic thinking in much of the so-called media these days. Far too many journalists are wallowing in a sea of thinly-veiled politics, unable at times to differentiate fact from fiction, substituting opinion as news, when that opinion should be ensconced on the OpEd page.

The world has taken note of the sorry state of "journalism" (or perhaps newspapers), and voted with its feet over the past four decades--

Welcome to a dying industry, journalism grads:
Web Link

Even Warren Buffett Can't Save the Dying Newspaper Industry:
Web Link

The reasons for print-media's decline are fairly well understood—the emergence of more competitive, flexible, channels for the distribution of information, such as radio, TV, and now the Internet. Newspapers have not been able to keep up. They know what they know, but don't seem too interested in innovation. This is particularly true because their whole business model needs to be rethought—which seems like suicide to those responsible for the industry, rather than an evolutionary change necessary to function in the age of digital media.

Journalism, more often than not, is an afterthought to most people's need for a newspaper. Particularly when journalism (whatever that really is) morphs into advocating for political causes that are more unpopular with the general population, than not.

Most journalist seem poorly educated, when it comes to mastery of the tools of running a modern society. Few seem to understand mathematics, or statistics, or demonstrate basic computer literacy. And then when it comes to the classics—how many of today's journalists took Latin, have any depth in history, or classic literature? How many can even name the countries of the world? Anyone who has talked someone claiming to be a journalist often finds himself/herself talking to a blank wall. Too often, today's journalists seem to traffic only in sound-bytes, and are not remotely interested in an explanation that involves more than a couple of minutes of narrative. More often than not—journalists in today's world come into a situation with a pre-conceived set of notions, and are only interested in pushing those views on the world.

Of course, journalism is only one aspect of the business of print media. People generally don't buy journalism—they buy the paper for news, sports and ads. Advertising in a digital world is just not as simple as in the print world. And then there is the issue of how many media outlets can the digital world support?

Journalists as analytic thinkers? Maybe--but then again, maybe not. It's hard to see that attribute in much of today's journalism.


Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus
on May 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Dinosaur-hunter: Seems to me that the ability to think analytically and write clearly would be valuable in any profession or in any mode of communication, whether in print, on a website, in blogs or anonymous comments. ;-)> -jay
P.S. I took a couple years of Latin, two years of Humanities (heavy reading from Ancient Egypt through early 20th Century) and have read extensively in history, including the entire set of History of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Still not sure how any of that helps write a sharp news lead or cohesive, tight story, though.


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