HSJ Headline News
Journalism teacher presses students to serve, be vigilant
The Capital Times
February 27, 2006
They really don't make teachers like David Wallner anymore.
Not journalism teachers, anyway.
Wallner, now 57, has spent the last three decades teaching Stoughton High School students about the importance of a free press and how a democracy is best served by a vigilant and aggressive media - not to be confused with the lapdog journalism that's now the status quo at many corporate-owned TV stations and newspapers these days.
And while he admits there are days when he wonders how much longer he wants to serve as adviser to the school's award-winning newspaper, the Norse Star, truth is he's still having too much fun to step aside.
Besides, none of his younger colleagues is exactly begging and pleading to take his place. "Whenever I bring it up, they say, 'Are you kidding? All the grief and all those long nights? Never!' " Wallner says with a laugh.
Which is probably just as well, because if the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's 2005 Better Newspaper and Advertising Contest is any gauge, Wallner and his staffers are still at the top of their game.
The Norse Star captured no fewer than 11 awards, including firsts in general reporting (Nate Endres), column writing (Alec Luhn) and investigative reporting (Emily Braun, Ken Ginther, Mychelyn McConley and Luhn).
The first in investigative reporting - the fourth straight year the Norse Star has won the award - was for a riveting four-part series on homelessness in Dane County. Wallner says the honor is particularly gratifying, seeing as how this is the 30-year anniversary of "All the President's Men," the movie about how investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post brought down the Nixon White House. And seeing as how investigative journalism in this country is practically dead.
But it's not just the demise of watchdog journalism that worries him, says Wallner, a former Madison City Council member. It's the fact that many Americans won't even take the time to read newspapers anymore.
Wallner notes that he's been polling his students for two decades on how many of their families get a daily paper delivered to their homes. Until the early 1990s, about three fourths of his students raised their hands. Today about one-fourth do.
But his staffers on the Norse Star are clearly an exception. In fact, what sets the Norse Star apart is its willingness to take on controversial issues and stretch the limits of free speech - something that's almost unheard of in high school journalism these days.
Back in 1999, more than a few people in Stoughton - including several members of the School Board - wanted Wallner's hide after one of his staffers, David Carrano, wrote a commentary highly critical of the Kosovar Albanian refugees who'd recently settled in the area. They were becoming a drain on taxpayers, Carrano wrote, and should be sent back to their homeland.
Wallner also found himself in hot water in 1994 when staffer Gerald Liebhardt wrote a satirical commentary on what it would be like if Jesus Christ ran for Congress. (The commentary took first place in the annual AP high school journalism contest.)
But that controversy actually was a turning point of sorts, Wallner points out, because it led to the formation of a committee of educators, city officials and journalists that hammered out a series of guidelines that the paper has operated under ever since. (Among them: The Norse Star is a public forum, it can cover volatile issues, and it can editorialize.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wallner and his staff did recently discuss whether there was any purpose in reprinting a Danish cartoon that depicted the Muslim Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, and which triggered rioting throughout the Middle East.
The answer was no, Wallner says. However, his staffers did decide to print a cartoon by Mike Konopacki (which appeared in The Capital Times on Feb. 4) that pokes fun at those who would suppress free speech, as well as an insightful commentary on the subject by assistant editor Mark Piper.
And what was Wallner's position?
"I don't think you do something like that just to wave the red flag under the bull's nose," he says. "On the other hand, should the Muslim religion be able to take criticism or satire? I think so. Just like the Christian religion, Jews, the government."
I reminded Wallner of something he told me seven years ago: about how, at the beginning of each semester, he tells his students that in a democracy you don't stifle unpopular opinions. You air them publicly and provoke a debate and try to reach some sort of resolution.
"I think that still makes pretty good sense," he said last week. "I still stand by that."
Copyright 2006, The Capital Times. Reprinted with permission