Pat Fitzgerald, a beloved son of Northwestern, has been fired, and the program he led for a combined quarter-century as both a player and coach is in shambles, beset on all sides with scandal and controversy.

And none of it would have happened or come to light without the old-school, dogged, muckraking journalism of The Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper.

Last week, Northwestern’s leadership formally concluded a months-long investigation into complaints of hazing within its football program with a brief news release, calculatedly issued late on a Friday in an effort to subvert and obstruct the media and, in so doing, avoid accountability. In said news release, Northwestern President Michael Schill announced the independent, third-party-led investigation found hazing allegations against NU football to be credible but couldn’t establish whether Fitzgerald knew about the alleged impropriety. For that, Schill suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay.

And that was the end of it. Or at least that’s what Northwestern’s leadership planned for and expected.

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But the student newspaper on campus blew up Schill and Co.’s PR scheme Saturday morning when it published, in painstaking detail, the specifics of the alleged hazing that had become ingrained within the Wildcats football program, complete with the testimony of multiple former players. The particulars, which are too gruesome and unsettling to repeat here, completely undid the work of Northwestern’s late-Friday news dump from the day before, drawing the attention of media and outrage from everywhere.

Within a few hours, Schill felt compelled to issue a statement admitting he may have “erred” in only suspending Fitzgerald, which is insulting to the intelligence of anyone paying attention. Schill learned nothing new from the campus paper’s story. Those details were included in the full report he himself commissioned, which he had already been privy to. The only thing that had changed in the few hours between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning was that those details had been made available to the general public. 

When Schill said he may have erred what he really meant was, “Now that The Daily Northwestern has completely exposed me for the disingenuous, craven excuse for a leader that I am, I’m engaging in PR theatrics that involve professing to prioritize the wellbeing of my students, then scapegoating Fitzgerald in an obvious-to-everyone-but-me attempt to save my job and my own ass.”

And that’s how a student newspaper brought down a multimillion-dollar head football coach who was the closest thing to an untouchable demigod on Northwestern’s campus, and how it might take down the university’s president, too. The budding journalists at The Daily Northwestern, as well as their professors and mentors, should be incredibly proud. This is the essence and duty of journalism — to hold those in high places to high account. The Daily Northwestern didn’t settle for the university’s brief summary of the internal investigation of hazing within the football program. The student journalists there acted in a way that, unfortunately, has become quite novel in contemporary media.

They sought out the facts for themselves.

What does it say about the media in Chicago, the third-largest market in the United States, when it’s not just scooped but completely outclassed by a student newspaper in the most rudimentary of ways? The Daily Northwestern blew the lid off of this undeniable scandal, and it did it by simply asking questions of people involved. The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, and every other media outlet in America’s third-biggest city couldn’t be bothered to do that bare-minimum journalism, instead settling for Northwestern’s official account and reprinting Schill’s statement without the necessary context of the accusers’ side of the story.

What the Chicago media did here isn’t journalism, and it’s not acceptable. But it’s becoming more and more common. You don’t have to look far for a local example.

Just a few months ago, while The Detroit Free Press and the rest of this state’s legacy media were busy publishing puff pieces about Jim Harbaugh loving the University of Michigan too much to leave for a job the NFL wasn’t offering him, U-M’s student newspaper was breaking a story about Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator being dismissed for alleged computer crimes. While professional journalists, some of whom have raked in considerable sums of money over the years through book deals, were basically providing U-M football with free PR, 18- to 22-year-old students in Ann Arbor were reporting on Matt Weiss’ home looking like a scene out of a mob movie as authorities in unmarked cars seized his computers and other property.

Why are amateur journalists beating their professional, veteran contemporaries? Why are student newspapers doing better journalism than papers of record? Why is TMZ publishing more groundbreaking investigative pieces than the industry’s standard-bearers?

It’s, at least in part, a consequence of the decades’ worth of erosion newspapers and their staffs have experienced. Even small-market newspapers used to have multiple departments, each with their own team of reporters and editors. But after 20-plus years of cutting to the bone and beyond, virtually every newspaper is operating with a mere fraction of the manpower they used to wield. All the while, journalists are expected to do more with less. The reality, though, is that the actual journalism has suffered. There’s less of it, and what there is is of a lesser quality. You need only visit your local paper’s website for evidence, probably in the form of a “story” you’ll see featured relatively high on the page about the five best restaurants in your town for cheeseburgers. You know, the kind of content that as recently as 10 years ago a newspaper wouldn’t deign to create, leaving it instead to the local affiliate or other anonymous blogs.

But here we are.

As genuinely astonishing and outright concerning that it is to see student newspapers better uphold and exemplify the tenants of serious journalism, it’s even more astonishing and concerning to think about all the controversies, corruption, and scandal that are being missed entirely. We’ll never know. But that’s the reality we reside in.

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