Robert Clampitt, Children’s Express

Twenty years ago I met Robert Clampitt, then in middle age, who had a vision that successfully occupied him for the rest of his life. He wanted the media, in his words, “to rethink dramatically how they cover children and children’s issues. Like canaries in a coal mine, the voices of American children have for years been signaling DANGER AHEAD.”

So Mr. Clampitt started Children’s Express (CE) — a non­profit youth leadership organization which “uses oral journalism to give children a significant voice in the world.” In short, he decided that, given a chance, pre-teen and early teen youngsters can show what needs to be done by becoming journalists at that early age.

It was an immediate success, attracting excited and imaginative children from all backgrounds. At the Democratic Presidential nominating convention in 1976, a 12 year old scooped all the veteran press reporters by breaking the story in the Children’s Express convention newspaper that Mondale was Carter’s choice for Vice-President.

As a guest interviewer with David Brinkley on network TV, one little CE reporter looked at Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and asked: “Why are you supporting President Ford after he just dumped you?” After completion of this exchange, Mr. Brinkley wryly said: “Well, I wish we could ask questions like that!”

Children’s Express is researched, reported and edited by reporters (ages 8-13) and teen editors (ages 14-18) for audiences

of all ages. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. (1400 New York Avenue) and news bureaus in Indianapolis, New York, Marquette, MI, Oakland and London, the output is based on oral interviews and is abundant.

CE’s Indianapolis Bureau turns out weekly stories for the Indianapolis Star (the state’s largest newspaper). I was interviewed there by these youngsters a few days ago and their questions, unlike many older reporters, are fundamental. Ronald Reagan found out that some of the toughest questions asked him as President came from youngsters.

CE produces two weekly syndicated columns to newspapers across the country, has published three books on the condition of children in the country. They have convened public hearings, testified before legislatures and have appeared on the network morning shows and news magazines like 60 Minutes and 20/20. They regularly are interviewed on local television and radio.

Bob Clampitt succeeded in raising considerable foundation money — enough to send his young reporters all over the country and to foreign countries such as Kuwait and Bosnia where they focused on the troubled lives of the children.

One effect of all this work is that newspapers are beginning to beef up their reporting on children and placing these stories in more prominent places, including page one. Youth violence on youth has been one of the regular features of such papers as the Detroit Free Press and the Chicago Tribune. And such coverage has led to action on behalf of children.

The voices of children were what Bob Clampitt gave voice to through other children as young reporters. Children can strike up a good relationship with younger children and they have a real desire to speak to them and to listen to them. CE editors even offer grown-up reporters six points of advice on how adult journalists can do the same.

Writing in 1994, Mr. Clampitt said that “young reporters had reinvented Children’s Express; instead of ‘by children, for children,’ it became ‘by children, for everyone.’ We learned that when children are given important responsibilities, their confidence and interest in the world around them grow very rapidly. It was clear that children want a voice and that they have much to contribute.”

CE is an oasis in the otherwise interminably gazing desert where millions of American children spend tens of hours each week staring at television and videos. And they are staring at action programs that display violence as a solution to life’s problems, low grade pornography and the addictions to go with them.

CE continues to develop, spread and take roots. But this brainchild of Bob Clampitt’s will have to go on without him. He died a few weeks ago from a heart attack. The obituary in the newspapers was smaller than that accorded a second-level Hollywood movie star. But the memory of his vision-come-true and the example he set will remain far into the future. Because children are forever.

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