Learning was two-way street in mentorship of exceptional scholar

Raymond Braun

Recently I wrote a recommendation letter for a former student, the incomparable Raymond Braun, and it opened with a story that’s worth sharing:

My initial encounter with Raymond Braun had the potential to turn unpleasant. That’s what I braced for, at least. Here’s what I didn’t count on: I was about to meet a young man of exceptional intellect, maturity, charisma and drive.

It was Sept. 27, 2011. Raymond stopped by during office hours to express his interest in COMM 273, my Public Issues Reporting course for graduate journalism students. Each fall, I reserve two slots for non-journalism master’s degree candidates, and Raymond coveted one of those seats. Drawing upon a long career as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post and other major newspapers, I root the course in reality. Each student covers a news beat, defined by geography and topic, and we publish the best articles online in partnership with the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED, the Bay Area’s public radio station. Raymond was eager to report on issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but I had discovered a barrier to his aspirations. Three years earlier, he donated $100 to the campaign opposing Proposition 8, the ballot measure to ban gay marriage in California. He also served as one of Stanford’s campus leaders for the “No on 8” campaign. Evidence of his donation, easily found in a Google search, sat on my desk when he walked into the office.

After an exchange of pleasantries, we got to business. I explained why journalists should not give money or volunteer their time to support groups, individuals or causes they might report on. All it takes is the perception of a conflict of interest to undermine journalistic credibility. While I was confident that Raymond could set aside personal feelings to pursue the facts, his campaign contribution was a public record; others could find it and use it to question his impartiality. At this point I expected him to be angry that I had investigated his background. And how dare I tell him it was wrong to support a cause he believed in passionately and saw as a civil rights issue. If he felt those emotions, Raymond didn’t show them. He gave me a look I’ll never forget. “Openness” is the best word to describe it. He wanted to learn. He began to ask a series of insightful questions about journalism’s code of ethics, where it came from, whether it allowed exceptions and, if so, when and why. By the time the meeting ended, I welcomed Raymond to COMM 273.

I went on to become co-adviser for Raymond’s master’s thesis, titled “The Video That Started a Global Movement: Dan Savage and the It Gets Better Project.” And so my recommendation letter ended with another story:

In spring of 2012, I joined Professor Fred Turner in advising Raymond on his master’s thesis. In many ways, we had come full circle since our initial encounter. The thesis was a research project, not pure journalism, and different rules applied.

We knew that Raymond held strong beliefs about the topic — how social media propelled one man’s campaign to stand up against the bullying of LGBT youth — but we had faith in his commitment to intellectual rigor and the pursuit of truth. I stood in awe as Raymond worked tirelessly to identify, locate and interview more than 50 subjects to tell the story from the widest possible angles, including a gay soldier who couldn’t show his face in an “It Gets Better” video because of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (in effect at the time) and a lesbian from the Bronx who peered into the lens of a video camera and said: “It doesn’t get better. What happens is you get stronger.”

“It Gets Better” founder Dan Savage, a television personality, initially agreed to speak with Raymond for only 10 minutes. Just wait until he meets Raymond Braun, I thought. Sure enough, Raymond flew to Portland, where Savage was receiving an award, and their conversation lasted three hours.

This is the video President Obama recorded for the “It Gets Better” campaign: