As a legislative aide to a New York congressman nearly 50 years ago, Eric Freedman quickly realized that journalists had more fun than any group of people with whom he interacted.
So the newly minted law school graduate became a reporter instead of pursuing a legal or political career.
Was it the right move?
“Oh, absolutely,” said Freedman, 74, who on Friday was named one of six journalists to be inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2024. “I applied for legal jobs and newspaper jobs. Fortunately, I got the newspaper job first and I haven’t looked back.”
It was a decision that launched a career still underway and one that resulted in a Pulitzer Prize, numerous professional and academic accomplishments and a legacy of turning green journalism students into accomplished journalists.
In 1976 he started his journalism career covering courts and then city hall for the Knickerbocker News in Albany, New York. One of his favorite stories was about a brothel that operated under police protection in a city-owned building.
“The madam’s name was Trixie,” he recalled recently with a reporter’s attention to detail.
Then for five years he reported on New York politics and the state capital. He once traversed the state to report on tiny communities receiving disproportionately large federal subsidies. It gave him the chance to do the shoe-leather reporting he loves and the statistical analysis that he does not.
“It gave me a chance to meet real people,” he said. “And in some ways, it was data journalism.”
In 1984 he moved to the Detroit News to join a major expansion of that paper’s state bureau in Lansing. There he reported on courts, state government, politics, public affairs and historical and environmental preservation. He once wore snowshoes to report on state conservation officials tagging moose calves in deep snow.
“Academic achievements aside, Eric’s journalism career alone is hall-of-fame material,” Roger Martin, a retired Lansing public relations executive and a former chief of the Detroit News Lansing Bureau, wrote in a letter supporting the hall of fame nomination.
It was during that period that Freedman and fellow reporter Jim Mitzelfeld uncovered a financial scandal that led to 10 convictions, including the director of the House Fiscal Agency and a member of the state House of Representatives, the removal of the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee and the enactment of new oversight measures.
That story earned them the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting, an accomplishment Freedman modestly refers to as “solid journalism work.” Others are more effusive about the impact of the reporting.
“Eric’s work did not only topple a powerful House Appropriations Committee chair and an entrenched agency director,” said former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds. “It resulted in a House cleaning and helped to cement a bond of trust between the newly elected House co-speakers, the late Curtis Hertel and me.”
John Truscott, press secretary to former Gov. John Engler, described Freedman as a “pro’s pro” who is “direct, tough, inquisitive, and most importantly, fair.
“Eric would often catch people off guard because he knew how to melt into the background, survey the situation or event, and then wait for an opportune time to hurl a tough, pointed question,” Truscott said.
Freedman started teaching journalism as an MSU adjunct in 1989, becoming a full-time visiting professor in 1996 and then progressing through the professorial ranks. Today he holds an endowed full professorship in environmental journalism.
While at MSU he has won a rare three Fulbright Scholar Awards for teaching and researching abroad. He is a sought-after international expert and speaker on press restrictions in the former Soviet Union and on the political and physical dangers reporters face when covering the environment. In addition to his journalism duties, he has held administrative posts in MSU’s International Studies and Programs.
He has written or edited more than a dozen books on environmental issues, international journalism, American political history and higher education. He has also written 83 journal articles and countless news stories about Michigan politics, government, history and environment. The innovative educator still reports, writes and edits important public policy stories.
And he has mentored hundreds of students who continue the kind of journalism he advocates and practices. Building on the work of Michigan Journalism Hall of Famer Bill Cote, Freedman directs an unusual university-based state news service. At Capital News Service, called CNS, students are held to exacting professional standards while providing news to more than 40 Michigan news organizations.
CNS contributes substantive news to a profession struggling with change. It produces journalists steeped in the values of the profession practiced at a high level. It is a powerful legacy.
“His passion for journalism and his students’ success has changed the trajectory of my life,” says Danielle James, whose work at CNS caught the eye of Michigan Information & Research Service Inc. where she is now a correspondent.
MSU graduate Tim Alberta, now a staff writer at The Atlantic, recalls how he chased Freedman down the hall following one of his classroom pitches encouraging students to join CNS.
Alberta joined and soon his reporting aspirations shifted from covering sports to reporting on politics. Alberta credits Freedman with launching his career in his best-selling book, American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump.
“If I promised to work hard, Freedman said, he promised to mentor me, push me, and put me in a position to succeed,” said Alberta, who has moderated a presidential debate and interviewed the president inside the Oval Office. “It is not hyperbole to say that this conversation changed the course of my life.”
Derek Wallbank, now an editor in Bloomberg’s Singapore bureau, recalls Freedman’s impact on his career some 20 years after he was in his classroom, sweating whether he could ever land a job in journalism.
“For some, he was their first seemingly impossible high standard, a benchmark, a challenge,” Wallbank said. “For others, he was a mentor, a Virgil guiding through the infernos of a changing media industry as they tried to find safe footing from which to start on their professional paths.
“I’m simply one of thousands of people whose lives have been made better because they intersected at a critical chapter with Eric Freedman.”
When former CNS student Zholdas Orisbayev returned to his native Kazakhstan after his MSU journalism studies, he started a university-based political news service there. It is based on Capital News Service and informed by Freedman’s mentorship when he was his student at MSU and after he returned home.
“His influence on individuals in the profession, both in the United States and abroad, stands as a testament to his enduring impact,” Orisbayev says.
Freedman still reports and writes, having as much fun as he once anticipated.
“I’ve probably had more fun,” he said. “Journalism has got its moments. It has its economic uncertainties. But the reporting part I still enjoy.”
The Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame recognizes those who have advanced the legacy of a free and responsible press and who have elevated Michigan journalism. Induction memorializes extraordinary and clearly outstanding careers. Others to be inducted at a banquet April 14 are:
- John Bebow: Investigative reporter who launched the Center for Michigan and Bridge Michigan
- Carolyn Clifford: WXYZ-TV journalist and anchor, a Detroiter who has won 22 Emmys
- Molly Abraham: Detroit News & Detroit Free Press restaurant reviewer, she set the table for Detroit dining
- Jeff Gilbert: The only U.S. radio journalist to cover the auto industry full-time
- Larry Lee: Built Gongwer News Service into the authority on Michigan government