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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

I went home last weekend to revel in an atmosphere that was part past, part present and entirely aimed at the future of journalism in our benighted nation.

Which is to say I went back to Madison, Wis., the town where I grew up, for the 120th birthday party of The Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper where I learned for certain and forever that being a reporter was to be my life.

The Cardinal, with the bird itself as its emblem, was and is a unique institution, the sixth-oldest campus paper in the nation.



Founded in 1892 as the official University of Wisconsin student newspaper, it lost that distinction in the early 20th century after the university concluded that the paper was not toeing the line of propriety that befitted the institution’s self-image.

By the time I went to work on the paper, in 1975, it had become a democratically run enterprise entirely independent of the university but overseen by a board of directors that inevitably included some faculty types as well as student-journalists.



That meant that we elected our editors from among the staff, ranging from the editor in chief down to the campus, city, editorial-page and other minor editors.

I, for example, was elected city editor after being on the staff for a year, covering municipal politics and, if warranted, any state-government news that I felt should be trumpeted to our diverse readership.

It was a heady time because we were an iconoclastic outfit and oriented toward progressive, even radical views of our job and the news. The demonstrations and violence of the previous decade were done but still with us in the form of lingering criminal prosecutions against people who had partaken in those tumultuous days of rage and freedom.

The Armstrong brothers Karl and Dwight, along with David Fine, were three of a quartet of radicals who one night in 1970 bombed Sterling Hall at the UW campus.

The act was in protest against the presence there of the Army Math Research Center and its work on behalf of the military-industrial complex and its war against Vietnam. One man, physics researcher Robert Fassnacht, was working late in the building that night and was killed, leading to murder charges against the bombers.

At the Cardinal we followed their capture, their trials and convictions and incarcerations, their lives and their motivations.

We also covered the hunt for the fourth alleged perpetrator of the Sterling Hall bombing, Leo Burt, who was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list but was never captured. There continue to be occasional reported sightings in various locales around the world.

Yes, it was an interesting time for one such as yours truly, a young man deeply concerned about the sanity of society and the world in general. I learned more at the Daily Cardinal than from any of the classes that I took. Of course, I must admit that I spent far more time on my Cardinal duties than any of the aforementioned classes, but I saw that as a natural thing.

I learned, at the Cardinal, about everything from the democratic ideals that kept the Cardinal going to deeply held certitudes about the role of journalists in this madcap world.

I learned about the technical aspects of the journalistic business and about how my words went from my brain to my fingers on the keyboard to the typesetting department and the press.

I learned about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and how it is used and abused every day. I learned about the perfidy of large corporations, which even then were beginning to buy up small newspapers in a spreading contagion of monopoly newsmongering that continues to this day.

I learned how to ask questions that interviewees really did not want to answer and how to dig into public records to ferret out the secrets that these interviewees tried to hide.

I learned that the hardships endured by people often told a more complete story than the press releases and carefully choreographed half-truths of the official government and corporate worlds.

Yes, I learned how to be what I am at that spunky little paper, and I am grateful to The Daily Cardinal and the culture it embodied in ways I can never fully express or explain.

I also made friends for life, connections that were renewed and deepened by last weekend’s festivities.

So, you see, it’s true that I went home last weekend – in more ways than one.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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