Jim Warren ’74: Inside Looking Out: Reporting on the Media
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 01:38
Photos courtesy of New York Daily News
“No matter how good or bad I am, I wouldn’t be half as good without that intellectual prodding I got at Amherst,” Jim Warren ’74 said.

Imagine waking up one morning, walking into Val and seeing the new issue of The Amherst Student on the newspaper rack.

You grab a copy and start flipping through it. Much to your surprise, there’s a letter from the president saying that the college is shut down for the rest of the semester until he can make a final decision on whether women will be allowed to attend.

This is just one of the pranks journalist Jim Warren ’74 and his friends played during their time at Amherst as a part of the group they coined Rubber Chicken Enterprises.

“Most people quickly realized that this was the Rubber Chicken Enterprise guys,” Warren said. “One of my friends who was a dorm monitor had one of his freshman literally packed up and walking to the bus stop downtown thinking it was legit. The Washington Post wrote about it. We did stuff like that and we were occasionally called into the dean’s office but in the end, after four years, [college President John William] Ward was very good about it.”

A Fateful Bus Ride
While still in high school at the Collegiate School in New York City, Warren’s guidance counselor suggested that he visit Amherst. After an early morning bus ride with his mother, Warren arrived on campus for an interview.

“A freshman, who had gone to my high school picked me up and I was actually a little bit hung over,” Warren said. “We had won our high school soccer championship the day before and celebrated that Friday night.

“So I got there and I went to his dorm and literally put my head into a bowl of cold water while my mother waited somewhere outside. I had my interview at 11, took a bus back a few hours later and on Wednesday, the acceptance letter came.”

At Amherst Warren spent his time outside of the classroom writing and editing for The Amherst Student, hosting a midnight sports show on WAMH (then WAMF) and playing soccer.

“Life at Amherst was intense in many ways,” Warren said. “Obviously it was academically very intense. I worked a whole lot. I spent a lot of time in Frost Library off in a corner. When I think back I remember working really hard, partying really hard and athletics were my one release.”

Warren attended Amherst in the early 1970s, a tumultuous and politically divisive time on college campuses.

“There was coeducation, there was the Vietnam War, there was the Civil Rights Movement around the country,” Warren said. “It was a very fascinating time to be going to a place like Amherst, especially with as many brilliant and provocative teachers as one had.”

While it might be hard to believe now, the prospect of coeducation at Amherst was met with lots of opposition. Amherst allowed women to attend the college in 1975, however, the year after Warren graduated.

“It’s hard now to look back and to realize the depth of outright animus to the idea in some sections of the community, notably alumni,” Warren said. “It’s hard to believe that people didn’t want it. They thought that somehow it was going to ruin this place. We thought that was foolish.”

Career by Chance
After graduating with his bachelor’s in English, Warren started his career in journalism by working as a reporter at the Newark Star Ledger, mostly due to chance.

“It was totally an accident,” Warren said. “I planned to go to law school, but I decided to take a year off and through a connection, I got a job at the Newark Star Ledger, a newspaper in New Jersey ... I ended up liking it, staying there and moving on to Chicago. I didn’t necessarily have it in my blood, but I enjoyed writing.”

From there, Warren wrote for Chicago Sun-Times and then Chicago Tribune.

He ended up staying at the Tribune for 24 years, working as the Washington D.C. bureau chief as well as the managing editor of the features section, among other positions.

“The Tribune Company, the same company that owns the Chicago Tribune, also owned lots of TV stations and decided to throw us all in together to see what we could do and it was no more specific than that,” Warren said.

“All the print guys and all the TV folks had a natural suspicion of each other, the TV guys thinking the print guys were self-righteous jerks and the print guys thinking the TV guys were airheads. By living together, essentially, in the same office, we realized that really wasn’t the case and we ended up doing a lot of great stuff together,” he added.

While this combination of TV and print organizations was new at the time, it’s become commonplace, if not expected, around the country.

“Now you see that sort of thing all the time,” Warren said. “You see the camera in the newsroom of The New York Times or The Washington Post in the background. Well, there was none of that in 1995. We were one of the first.”

A New Era in Media
Over his time in the media business, Warren has seen the industry evolve to where it is now.

“With the internet revolution, it’s just apples and oranges,” Warren said. “There’s very little similarity to the world I started in where newspapers were king. There were maybe four or five or six media gatekeepers who decided each day what was news.

“Now you’ve got this revolutionary time in the news world where you can sit in a dorm room at Amherst College and be blogging or reporting stuff that could conceivably have an impact.”

Warren does see this move toward a more digital age of media as a change for the better.

“It’s appealing in a visual way that we could never be in the old print world,” Warren said.

“The world I knew is gone, but you have to stop mourning that,” he added. “It’s like the pissed-off alums in the early 70s. There had to be a statute of limitations on mourning the end of all-male Amherst. It’s the same thing here.”

Currently, Warren writes a daily column for both Poynter Institute and Vanity Fair in which he explores how the media reports on the news.

Warren finds that this sort of writing is especially interesting given President Donald Trump’s attitude toward the news industry.

“It’s fabulous not only to try and make sense of Trump, but also to make sense of the media as it tries to make sense of Trump and to see what impact, if any, its reporting and analysis of him will have,” Warren said. “And to me, most importantly, if the media over time will be able to regain some of the trust that’s clearly lost during the Trump era, in no small measure because of his effective bashing of the media.”

Warren wrote an article for the September issue of Vanity Fair on the reporting done by The New York Times and The Washington Post during the Trump presidency. Cullen Murphy ’74, editor-at-large of Vanity Fair, edited Warren’s article.

Warren and Murphy were editors together on The Amherst Student, and Murphy remembers the long nights they put in when the newspaper was still housed in the basement of Morris Pratt Dormitory.

“We were on a very tight deadline, and he was handing over 1,000 words a day, and I think one of the things that made the whole process work was simply complete trust in one another,” Murphy said.

“Plus, we enjoy being in touch around the clock when closing a piece like this,” he added. “It’s like Pratt basement all over again. But without the pizza.”

Although Warren’s career went in a different direction than he expected when leaving Amherst, he still finds ways to connect the two together.

“I’m in a world that at times can be relentless in its dailyness and what might seem its superficiality because you’re just immersed in what’s happening today and that was very different after four years at Amherst,” Warren said. “No matter how good or bad I am, I wouldn’t be half as good without that intellectual prodding I got at Amherst.”