By Gina Scialabba
On March 25, we sat down with Nanette Asimov to talk about the accreditation crisis and her coverage of City College for the San Francisco Chronicle.
In Part 1, which ran in Issue 7, we asked about her background, how she got started with writing about higher education for the Chronicle and the state of City College.
In Part 2, she explains what it has been like to report on the school during its accreditation crisis. The commission is expected to render a decision in July.
The Guardsman: Are you the only person at the Chronicle who covers higher education?
NA: I am.
TG: Is there a reason for that?
NA: It is a budget thing.
TG: You wrote an article on March 5, 2013 titled “CCSF Regulators: Sensible or ‘Gone Wild.’” In the article you question the ACCJC and some of their members’ qualifications.
NA: Just to be clear, it’s not me questioning, but it’s the people I’ve interviewed that have raised questions. It is an important distinction. I’m just the reporter.
TG: OK, as a reporter. Some critics have argued that article comes a bit too late and are wondering why you, representing the Chronicle, hadn’t looked into that issue earlier.
NA: I am only one person. I tried to.
I’ve done 33 or 34 stories on City College while covering the rest of my beat. Chronicle reporters also have to do other reporting as needed. There is a website that has all of my accreditation stories listed on them. If I go back and look at the order of them, all of them are important, but would I reorder them? Maybe? Would I not tell the story of how they got this way? Would I not tell the story of the achievements in December? Would I not tell the actions of the Board meeting that ended at two in the morning last October? There’s a lot of stuff if I was to take the ACCJC story and say, “OK, instead of that one there, I’ll put that one there.” The timing has to be right for all those other things as well. So sorry if it was a little late. I got to it at that point.
TG: Were you getting any outside pressure asking why you hadn’t looked into the ACCJC before? Did any readers write letters?
NA: No, not really. I always welcome suggestions. I get story ideas from tips. If someone calls me and says, “I’ve got this great idea. Have you considered looking at this?” That’s helpful. But if someone calls afterwards and says, “You idiot. Why didn’t you write about this?” Well, too late now.
TG: Several people have argued the Chronicle’s coverage is consistently negative and does not seek out the other side of the story.
NA: If I were to go back and look at the coverage, I would see that I have talked to a lot of instructors. I talk to Alisa Messer frequently. I talk to students a lot. Could it be better? Absolutely. Could my coverage be better? Of course. But negative? You know the news is negative. That is for sure. This is painful, hard, sad stuff. The stories come off as painful, hard and sad because that’s the topic. I am not somebody who can write an opinion. If I were to write my opinion it would be “Go, Go, City College!” every step of the way because I love City College, but that’s not what I do. That’s not good journalism. That’s not helpful. If you want to throw darts at me, OK. That’s my job as the messenger.
TG: Do you believe you seek out both sides of an issue in your coverage?
NA: The way that I do it is, whatever the topic is, I’ll interview the people who know about that topic who are presenting whatever it is and get the opposing position. That’s the basic formula. If there is room, they restrict us on space, maybe I’ll get another opinion. And that’s the formula. Do I violate that formula? No. I think they have been fair. I welcome anyone to show me a specific example. I don’t have people pointing to specifics. I’m inclined to believe I’m being fair.
TG: If you did get letters to the editor pointing out errors, would you address them?
NA: I always do. A couple of occasions there have been errors in the story. Just the other day, there was a fact missing in the story. Luckily we have the web. So I changed it.
TG: There’s been criticism that the administration and Larry Kamer gives you press releases, facts and figures, and that you just report the information without doing any further investigation.
NA: If the administration says this is their budget or this is how they feel, I say in the paper, “Peter Goldstein says this is the budget” or “Larry Kamer says this is happening at the university or the college.” I am not sure what investigation there is to do. If I attribute that, they have the right to give their opinions as well, but I always attribute it.
I’ve been taking pains in this interview to say it’s not my opinion. I’m attributing it and that’s how I write my stories. People may disagree with the administration and that’s fine, but it’s not me.
TG: We put out a question to our readers on Twitter and Facebook asking if they had any questions for you. One was whether or not you had any connection to the “for-profit” college system?
NA: Yeah, I’ve written about the high debt load their students have. I can tell you stories about that. What exactly do you mean?
TG: Do you have any relationship to them other than writing about them? Any financial ties?
NA: This gives me an opportunity to say I am very proud as a journalist since 1984, I am completely independent. My job is to be a watchdog, not to be in anybody’s pocket. So no. Loud and clear.
TG: Anything else you would like to leave us with?
NA: Long live City College. Long live the Guardsman. Long live the Chronicle.