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A renowned journalist returns to his roots

Michael Smerconish '84, author and noted TV and radio talk show host, advised students seeking journalism careers to "get published," which in today's digital media world, he said, most likely means online bylines. (Photo by Katie Hommes '14)

As a TV talk show host, a nationally syndicated radio personality and a New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish ‘84 is accustomed to a large audience.

Earlier this week, he made his mark in a more intimate setting when he returned to Lehigh’s journalism and communication department for the first time in 30 years.

Smerconish, the host of a new weekly TV program that airs Saturday mornings on CNN, visited on Tuesday with students in Journalism 122: Media Ethics and Law and also with the staff of The Brown and White.

He had simple advice for journalism students who are hoping to start careers at a time when newspapers are losing money and ceding influence to the Internet and digital communications.

“You have to get published,” said Smerconish. “The game has changed. Getting published used to mean writing an article for a newspaper or a magazine. Today it means getting your byline on websites and other venues that need quality work.”

A pleasant surprise

In his presentation to the students in Journalism 122, Smerconish decried what he called gridlock and the polarized political environment.

“I see a causal connection between the surging popularity of talk radio and cable TV news in the past 30 years and the polarization in Washington, D.C.,” he said. Other reasons for this political polarization, he added, included the drawing up of hyper-partisan congressional districts, closed political primaries and money.”

Smerconish, who also met with Donald E. Hall, the Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said his first reaction upon arriving to campus was pleasant surprise.

“I was overwhelmed by the fact that there are more than 100 students involved in The Brown and White,” said Smerconish, who worked for the student newspaper three decades ago, “and also by the high number of majors in journalism and communication.

“I was thrilled to learn that, despite the fact that newspapers are really struggling, journalism here is a very popular major.”

“A great stage presence”

Becca Bednarz ‘14, news editor for The Brown and White, said Smerconish’s remarks were revealing and encouraging.

“I thought Smerconish had a great stage presence—something that I’m sure is a major benefit for someone in his profession,” said Bednarz, a journalism major and a teaching assistant in Journalism 122.

“I loved how he was able to intersperse funny personal anecdotes with real-life advice—especially the encouragement to remain passionate about the things with which we involve ourselves.”

Another comment that impressed her, Bednarz said, was Smerconish’s statement that “the stories that matter most are the ones that people actually want to talk about.”

Before joining CNN in February, Smerconish was a contributor to MSNBC, where for four years he served as a guest host for the show Hardball with Chris Matthews.

He also hosts The Michael Smerconish Program on SiriusXM Radio and writes a Sunday column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Smerconish’s sixth book, Talk: A Novel of Politics and the Media, is scheduled for publication in early May. Two of his previous books were New York Times best-sellers.

After graduating from Lehigh, Smerconish graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and practiced law for 10 years with Philadelphia trial lawyer James E. Beasley.

“Our department was very pleased to welcome Michael back after 30 years,” said Jack Lule, department chair of journalism and communication. “We have many, many alums working in media but Michael's position as host of a CNN program has an especially high profile.

“Michael stands out in the crowded cable television field because of his principles, his convictions and his utter reasonableness. [He has] shown our students that a television journalist can succeed with substance rather than style and with compassion rather than combat.”

“I think our students were excited to hear from such an accomplished alum,” said Kathy Olson, associate professor of journalism and communication. “I think they were also inspired by how he made things happen for himself, working on political campaigns and doing a lot before he was even out of college.

“I think they realized that they can do a lot now to set themselves up for a successful career, and that it’s possible to make their own opportunities.”

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, March 14, 2014

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