By Pete Weitzner
I graduated with a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in fall 1987. I’ve been a working journalist from Day One and became a professor of broadcast journalism at Chapman University in 1997. This fall marks 33 years essentially in two work venues: newsrooms and a college campus.
There is nothing in that brief resume that should give cause for pause — except, know that I am conservative. And being conservative is hardly the path of least resistance in journalism and academia, even in Orange County –well, what was Orange County.
So why did I choose to pursue careers in such “hostile climes?” How does a New York-bred journalist-professor come to identify as a conservative?
It happened early. A few years before Michael J. Fox and Alex Keaton, but in much the same way.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, in New York and New Jersey, left two indelible experiences:
- This country was in trouble. Especially New York. The Bronx was burning, and The City was on the brink of default. This coupled with singular events like the Son of Sam serial-killer, David Berkowitz, in 1976 or the New York City Blackout of 1977 – one could only feel that Manhattan was a city in decay, bordering on disorder, and the most vivid metaphor for the nation – a nation mired in a decades-long steep recession. Recall the misery index—inflation plus unemployment— hitting 20! We were a nation still reeling from Vietnam syndrome, losing the Cold War thus far, and waiting on three-hour lines for $3 worth of gas. And we would end the 70s unable to get our hostages out of Iran or do anything about the Soviet Union’s invasion of a sovereign country, Afghanistan.
- I lived in a part of the country where political and ideological thought was monolithic and dissent not tolerated. This part of the country was not just liberal, but often radically liberal – what novelist Tom Wolfe termed “radical chic.” And it always struck me as so odd, that this part of the country that prided itself as an intellectual and cultural hub – Broadway, Lincoln Center, The Gray Lady – could be so lacking in independent, critical, and diverse thinking. General Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
It was as if this collection of otherwise bright, eloquent and searching intellectuals collectively decided to be closed off to one very important aspect of life, of our mutual existence and well-being: What do we need to do to emerge from this difficult time and, yes, defeat our enemy, the Evil Empire? And do you think what we ARE doing just might not be working?
But inside the bubble of the clusters of New York intelligentsia – popularly known as “Café Society” – they seemingly could not be bothered.
I turned 19 in June of 1980; November would be my first vote in a Presidential election. I recall the commercials: “Morning in America.” “The Democrats are out of Gas.” And Republican Nominee, Governor Ronald Reagan’s resolve: “Here’s my idea of the Cold War. We win, they lose.”
I cast my ballot for Governor Reagan, and believe it or not, so did 46.7 percent of New Yorkers, enough to give the Republican candidate the state’s 41 electoral votes. But it is not as if there was a sudden epiphany or burst of critical thinking on the Upper West and Upper East Side. Upstate New York, and other conservative state pockets (like Long Island) came out in droves for Ronnie. And the presence of third-party candidate, liberal John Anderson pulling in nearly 8 percent of the vote, likely ensured the black swan event, a Republican carrying New York. Consider that Michael Dukakis carried NY in 1988, by ten points.
By any objective measure, President Reagan’s two terms rank among the most successful in history. America and Americans got our collective swagger back. The Soviet Bloc fell. And the economy rose like a phoenix. Not too long ago there was a movement in Washington, DC to add the 40th president as the fifth president on Mount Rushmore. Really.
In 1987, I made a career switch from accounting to journalism. I was attending Northwestern when the Professor who ran our Washington DC program – we culminated with a semester in the nation’s capitol – came to Chicago to give us an orientation. I did not know what Professor Lou Prato’s politics were then, and after a long friendship, I still don’t know. 22 years into teaching at Chapman, I don’t know what my students’ politics are, either. Unless they tell me. I never ask. Sort of like asking someone what they do for a living. I don’t do that either.
Professor Prato, in the midst of his DC orientation, cheekily asked the room of 40 budding journalists how many would describe themselves as conservative or Republican. I raised my hand. So did a young lady named Linda. She was coming off a stint with the international, Christian musical tour “Up with People.”
2 out of 40. That’s 5 percent! 5 percent, with Ronald Reagan and the USA at the height of its power.
I started to reconsider my disdain for auditing and flowcharts. That caused me to leave my job as an international auditor at Johnson & Johnson. But, I was well on the way to being wedded to the Fourth Estate, to the ideals of objective journalism, and to telling stories. Even if I’d been warned that I’d be a fish out of ideological water.
People have always asked me about the challenge of being a conservative in journalism.
Well, there’s more tales and Hesperians to come. 😊
Congratulations, Ryan and Preston.
Pete Weitzner ran the broadcast journalism program at Dodge College from 1997-2017 before leaving to become The Editor at the Orange County Business Journal. This spring he is teaching Mass Media Law and Ethics at Chapman.