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Education Wed Mar 23 2011
David Protess receiving the Puffin/Nation prize for Creative Citizenship in 2003
In the winter of 2005, I enrolled in David Protess' Investigative Journalism class at Northwestern University. By then, I had completed all of the core requirements for my journalism degree, and this course would be my last journalism elective before graduation. I was unsure about my future career path, but I knew that I did not want to leave Northwestern without taking this course. Older classmates I had spoken to told me that Protess was likely to change your life and your perspective on the U.S legal/justice system.
When I received word that I was accepted into the class, I was excited and nervous at the same time. We would be investigating possible wrongful convictions and trying our best to free innocent people in jail. That is a lot of pressure on a group of 22-year-olds, but as we would learn, Protess was never one to give up easily.
On the first day of class, I walked quickly to Fisk Hall, where many of the journalism classes were held. I arrived to class a little early, sat down among other eager students and took out my pen and notebook. A few minutes later, Protess walked in to begin class.
I can't remember his exact words that day, but I remember he gave a brief introduction about himself. In the 1970s, he was inspired by the unraveling of the Watergate scandal. In the era of muckraking journalism, famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were some of his heroes. He began looking into possible wrongful convictions and started to see corruption, police brutality and blatant injustice all around him. An innocent person could spend the rest of his or her life in prison - or worse, be killed on Death Row prior to Illinois' moratorium and recent abolition of the Death Penalty - simply because he or she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, wrongful convictions were more common in lower-income communities, although the middle-class was not immune to the problem either as we learned when we read Protess' book Gone in the Night.
"I want to take you out of your comfort zone," I remember Protess saying. We spent the next few months knocking on doors, chasing long-lost police documents and interviewing key witnesses years after a case had been closed.
I had never met someone so single-mindedly focused on a mission. Protess often joked that his phone number was the most popular number written along every prison wall.
I was only a part of his class for one quarter, but it was definitely one of the most challenging and memorable times in my life. It certainly was not always easy dealing with the magnitude of wrongful convictions, but I am a better person for the experience, and I hope that I always remember to help those in need, just as Protess has done for his entire career. The motto of the defunct magazine Brill's Content always comes to mind when I think of Protess' class: Skepticism is a Virtue.
Last week, Northwestern announced that Protess will no longer teach investigative journalism, though he will remain executive director of the Medill Innocence Project. I don't want to comment on the university administration's reasoning for removing Protess from the class, as that is a separate issue, but I will say that I hope Protess will be able to teach many, many more students. Beyond teaching me about wrongful convictions and the skills of investigative journalism, Protess taught me how to fight for a cause even when no one else is following you. It would be a shame if other students don't have the chance to learn the same thing.
Alumni have established a petition protesting his removal from the class. You can view and sign the petition here.
You can also find the movie version of Gone in the Night on YouTube. Protess is played by Michael Brandon. At the end of the quarter, and after reading Protess' book, we watched the movie version for fun. See the clip below to see the Hollywood-version of Protess in action.