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CNN reporter, Marshall alum tells grads to reach for greatness

By Staff | Jun 29, 2011

When Marshall University’s distinguished graduate Joe Johns stepped on campus in the early 70s, he recalled that events took place in one auditorium, Old Main. Johns graduated in 1974, but not before earning a political science degree, participating in theater (“Purlie,” “Tobacco Road,” “Charley’s Aunt”), earning track and field honors and participating on the debate team.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist chose not to go where the pathway leads, but in the words of Robert Emerson “go elsewhere and leave a trail.”

That he has done. As a Capitol Hill correspondent, he covered the impeachment of President Clinton, the anthrax mailings that followed the 9/11 attacks, and West Virginia’s Sago mine disaster.

You’re just as likely to see him providing Anderson Cooper’s lead “keeping them honest” story or handling the anchor desk, which makes him one of the gatekeepers as news breaks. Sorting through an inbox with over 20,000 messages, Johns credits interactivity and the Internet for an explosion of expression that is changing the world. He also recalls his college experiences spent juggling note cards and scribbling references in the Morrow Library.

Before landing a position at WSAZ-TV, his life and career consisted of a unique brand of “undergraduate research,” which meant carrying note cards and sitting on the floor in the dimly lit bowels of Morrow Library with two or three heavy, dusty volumes balanced in his lap. Then, he would go to the dorm and use his high school graduation gift — an electric typewriter complete with minor error correction fluid. Woe to anyone who screwed up a bottom of the page footnote, which meant retyping the page from scratch.

Johns relied on his flair for the dramatic to recall an under the gun extemporaneous speech competition in which the participants had 30 minutes after drawing a topic to prepare and deliver a seven minute talk with confidence. Johns told of sweating his pick, a subject of which he knew nothing: “Explain and explore the balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Telling of his dilemma through the gestures and vocal inflections of a master storyteller, Johns spoke of a then-young college student and compared the countdown to his speech to “something bad happening in a science-fiction movie where a voice keeps coming on warning , you have 15 minutes until self-destruction.”

Although a fellow debater with notes from a news magazine saved him from embarrassment, ironically, Johns said that Google has turned research into 243,000 results in eight tenths of a second.

“It’s almost too much information,” he suggested, adding that his inbox has about “23,000 emails.”

However, the deluge of data still favors someone who “cuts their teeth on undergraduate research.” Instead of digging for more and more information, the man who covered the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, the anthrax mailings that following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and WV’s 2006 Sago mine disaster that claimed twelve lives, explained that you must read, develop questions, talk to original sources and develop your own statistics.

“I try to go to the source and test the hypothesis, but that started in my years at Marshall University.”

Johns has a set of “little rules” for evaluating information. The alphabetic series begins with the accountability of the source. With his job that means a fact check on whether a politician’s statements are “absolute truth,” and “following the taxpayer’s money” to determine credibility of the source.

“Where is the money going he asks?” Journalists must glean differences between facts, assertion, and opinion versus what has been verified through reliable sources.

As a caution to slackers, he warned, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to see on the front page of The Washington Post.”

Though he did not share his full A to Z list of do’s (something this reporter would like to see), he dwelled on the significance of all of us being “interconnected,” which builds on the value of relationships.

Demonstrating the intertwining of pulling skills together, he told of reporting to work in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001. The first word was that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. Fact checking revealed it was a 767. He had just gotten into his seat at work when the plane struck the Pentagon.

Peering outside, he told that the so-called “doomsday plane” circled the Capitol (the one that stays in the sky to ensure that government will continue even in the worst of scenarios). Gnawing at his gut and in the minds of millions of others, “the one last plane” from which there had been “no communication.”

Johns painted a scenario that had doomed passengers not overpowered the terrorists it would have crashed not into the White House but called its “likely destination” the U.S. Capitol. Hence, his own life became interconnected to those heroes on board United Flight 93 which went down in Pennsylvania.

He credits the same Internet which triggered an explosion of information and references for the Middle Eastern revolutions that have spread from Egypt. “Why did people finally rise up against the dictator(s)?”

Social networking systems, such as Facebook and Twitter, receive credit.

He told of speaking with “people who want to be free” but before the Internet, dying in silence did not bring change. Now, in a 24/7 world of near instant communication in which anyone can be a “reporter,” the oppressed now stand up and face death. Why? “Now, we can tell the world,” he paraphrased their answers for demanding freedom, for if they perish, their deaths will be witnessed by millions be it streamed on the Internet or bounced off satellites for news broadcasts.

Yet, in the United States, the free speech climate following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has undergone heightened scrutiny. Where voicing an idle threat once meant nothing, except possibly needing time to cool off, a similar statement in the wrong place at a politically sensitive time could become equal to shouting fire in a crowded auditorium.

Establishing the Department of Homeland Security and its controversial airline passenger search methods has led to privacy and nationality challenges. As have unduly violent essays by middle and high school students.

Have Americans lost part of their First Amendment protections since the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon?

“I think it was (former) Chief Justice William Rehnquist who said, ‘in times of war, civil liberties contract and you have fewer of them than during times of peace,’ Johns explained. He agreed that free expression and the interpretation of the edges of freedoms “swing” as a pendulum with a “balance” necessary between “liberty and security.

Although First Amendment rights in public places have seemingly contracted, Johns pointed to the Internet as a location where abundant viewpoints flourish. “I do know that what’s different from past years is the (wide availability) of information. … The First Amendment is robust and healthy.

Natural disasters in Japan and the United States have added another issue to the overcrowded plates of government regulators and law makers. Spin and credibility require fact checking by journalists. On the other hand, viewers tend to favor certain personalities. Today, the FOX News team; in the early days of television, Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

Favoring a personality can mean, in Johns words, going to a news outlet which has someone “trusted and respected,” adding “who am I to question that.

However, the choice of news anchor based on presentation style places an objectivity and opinionated balancing act on the person delivering the news. Johns admits to a “slow realization” during his career, “you can’t always be objective depending upon where you come from. There are subjects when you have to put your cards on the table and say this is how I feel. I try to stay away from opinion and stick to facts.

Facing daily a demanding gatekeeping post, Johns paused thinking deeply when asked if he preferred anchoring to reporting in the field. The winner of two National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence awards paused, and gave an either-or styled answer.

Under some conditions, the anchor imparts the news to viewers. However, in a “breaking news” scenario, the anchor has command of digging facts out during phone interviews. On the other hand, the field reporter has the responsibility for gathering and assessing the thesis that becomes the story. Both are interconnected.

And, for Johns, whether breaking a “keeping them honest” story on “Anderson Cooper 360” or delivering a stand up with the White House or Capitol behind him, he’s also committed to bleeding green, something that binds him to the sons and daughters who cheer, “We Are Marshall.”

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