One of the most interesting, innovative and, I think, important examples of how American journalism can serve the public interest in the Internet age will be highlighted this weekend in Stillwater, Okla.
No, it's not how the news media covers the annual Bedlam showdown between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the University of Oklahoma Sooners, as important as it is, with the third-ranked Cowboys and 11th-ranked Sooners competing for statewide bragging rights well as the Big 12 Conference title.
Instead, it's the ground-breaking effort by two veteran journalists-turned-professors to use the occasion to tell Oklahomans about the sacrifices being made by the men and women soldiers of the Oklahoma National Guard in far-off Afghanistan.
The two are Mike Boettcher and John Schmeltzer, faculty members at OU's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Norman. Both are award-winning former journalists -- Boettcher for ABC News and Schmeltzer for the Chicago Tribune, where he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team.
Boettcher is embedded with Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade in Afghanistan as Schmelzer coordinates the work of some 25 student journalists from the Gaylord College, Oklahoma State and Cameron University in Lawton, to describe the impact of the war on the families and loved ones of those fighting in Afghanistan.
Boettcher's dispatches from Afghanistan and the students' reports from the hometowns of the 45th Brigade's soldiers are made available to all Oklahoma media outlets through the Oklahoma Press Association and Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters.
In recent weeks, they've produced a series of print and multimedia stories about the 45th Infantry Brigade, one of three Oklahoma National Guard brigades deployed to Afghanistan. The 45th has suffered heavy casualties while fighting the Taliban along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, with 14 of its members killed since July.
But let the 57-year-old Boettcher describe this unique exercise in public service journalism in his own words, as he did when I spoke to him last month, just after he returned from a year-long embed with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan and was "physically, emotionally and mentally" drained and ready to "say goodbye to Afghanistan, forever.
"When I came back, I saw casualties rise in the 45th and I was feeling very guilty that no Oklahoma newspapers or TV stations were covering them," he said before returning to Afghanistan late last month. "But here I was teaching my students advanced multimedia and I decided I need a hook to make people pay attention. I looked at the football schedule and decided the OK-OSU game was going to be huge.
"So [Schmelzer] and I decided we'd have students from OU, OSU and Cameron University in Lawton, which is where Fort Sill is located, go out and cover the impact of deployment in their communities, while I'd go to back to Afghanistan and cover the 45th. Then we'd combine our coverage and put on it our website while making it available to every Oklahoma media outlet."
"All this will be made available free through the cooperation of two universities that are normally at each other's throats this time of year in order to bring them together and to recognize the sacrifices of the Oklahoma National Guard and to remind people to not forget about them."
As Boettcher wrote in a Nov. 28 dispatch from Combat Outpost Xio Haq 100 miles east of Kabul, "Bedlam is less than a week away and for Oklahoma's soldiers in the middle of a tough fight, the game is a welcome diversion...
"Wagers have already been placed between Sooner and Cowboy fans among the 45th Infantry Brigade's Special Troops Battalion. Spc. Cesar Arambulamedina, a Sooner fan from Norman, and Cpl. Sam Jenkins, a Cowboy booster from Shawnee, have agreed that the loser of their wager is required to tattoo the winner's emblem on his buttocks."
Boettcher quoted the 45th's top enlisted man, Sgt. Major Gordon Carlin, who said the Bedlam matchup has been a welcome diversion from the daily grind of war. "Here in Afghanistan, there's not a whole lot to look forward to but mail, hot chow and Bedlam. Bedlam to us, its not a matter of who wins and who loses. It's Bedlam. It's a little part of home over here and obviously it's going to be bragging rights for the remainder of the deployment."
And the 45th's commander, Lt. Col. Tommy Mancino, an associate dean at Tulsa Community College, told Boettcher that the Bedlam game is important for his troops' morale. "The opportunity to watch and participate in the game will raise morale even more, and as a commander, the only tricky thing for me is to talk the the soldiers about which team I'm going to root for." Boettcher added, "He's not saying."
Finally, Boettcher noted that the war will not pause for the Bedlam game as many of the 45th's soldiers will be on patrols or missions when the game is telecast live in Afghanistan on the Armed Forces Network. "Chances are pretty good we're not going to be watching it at all," Col. Mancino said. "We're hoping for updates from the tactical operations center on the radio while we're on patrol."
Boettcher summed up the purpose of the unique journalistic endeavor he started, with these words from his latest report from Afghanistan, "Our mission is clear. We will not let a big game get in the way of an important story. The 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and their families deserve no less."