Award-winning journalist: Good reporting isn’t dead
The Burger Kings were closing all around Columbia, and Craig Melvin was on the story.
Melvin — then a freshly-graduated associate producer at WIS-TV in 2001 — had little experience, but it was a seemingly simple story. The Whoppers were gone. Why? So to the field Melvin went “panning, tilting, zooming and bringing these Burger Kings to life.” One problem: he’d forgotten to turn on the camera.
“Even when I lacked talent and skill, I never lacked confidence,” Melvin said, drawing a collective chorus of laughs from a crowd of about 150 inside Gambrell Hall’s Auditorium.
Melvin, now an MSNBC anchor and correspondent for NBC News in New York City, returned to Columbia Wednesday night and delivered the Buchheit Family Lecture, the headlining speech of the College of
Mass Communications and Information Studies’ I-Comm Week. His speech was a potent mix of self-deprecating humor, powerful inspiration and intriguing analyses of the current media environment. His jokes — some scripted, some off-the-cuff — brought dozens of laughs.
Among his witticisms:
On his first award in journalism: “I remember thinking to myself, who else was competing?”
On Stephen Garcia: “I like him, especially when he’s not throwing the ball.”
On the current genre of prison reality shows: “It’s the same story line over and over. The guy’s in prison for 30 years, he got some tats, did some bad stuff in prison and he’s angry. How many times can you show that?”
But at the crux of his comments, past his rollicking jokes and brief recounting of his time in Columbia, was his clear passion for boots-on-the-ground journalism that is fair, poignant and sometimes uncomfortable.
That’s the kind of journalism that brought him to a job offer with MSNBC but made him hesitant to accept said offer. A top compliment for Melvin: when both Republicans and Democrats say he should be fired for his biased reporting.
“I remember thinking, ‘Eesh! I’ve seen what they do on cable news sometimes after 5 or 6 o’clock,’” Melvin said. “‘Do I want to be associated with that?’”
The path to becoming a “screamer and shouter” often looks lucrative, Melvin said, with rewards of “promotions, more resources and more staff.” And that is coupled with the public’s changing appetite — its desire for reporting with distinct bias and strong opinion, Melvin said. Should the current television shows be saved into a vault for remembrance 200 years later, the public wouldn’t be collectively proud, Melvin said.
As a journalist, “Once you sell out, you can’t sell back in,” Melvin said. “It’s not a path I’m prepared to take. I’d much rather tell stories and attempt to be objective and not have people worry about my angle.”
Melvin said that deepening partisanship is often reflected in his encounters with politicians. He briefly recollected a recent interview with a U.S. senator who totally eschewed his first question and launched into previously prepared talking points. Melvin cut him off, reminding him he didn’t even vaguely answer the question.
The senator then asked him what the question was.
“These are men and women who spend their days and nights worrying about re-election and not solving this country’s problems,” Melvin said.
But cutting through the crud and culling strong stories that evoke passion and change, he said, require “young men and young women who like to write, like to read, have an intellectual curiosity about them and want to spend their days telling stories.”
“What we do [as journalists] can still be impactful,” Melvin said. “... Journalism is not dead. It’s changed, and it will continue to change.”