Oakland University students who took a media law class from Jane Briggs-Bunting learned quickly that homework was not optional.
As a journalist who earned a law degree, she would have them read hundreds of pages of First Amendment case law, then stand them up in class and drill them with questions, leaving no refuge for slackers.
"Despite the fact that that class had a reputation for being so difficult, her students became very loyal to her," said Garry Gilbert, a former pupil and editor of The Oakland Press, who now runs the university's journalism program. "They knew that she would work them hard, but they also knew that she cared about whether they were going to be successful."
Briggs-Bunting of Rochester died Tuesdayof complications from cancer.She was 70.
In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Briggs-Bunting was a vocal champion of open government and was an expert on media law who helped educate hundreds of journalism students. Those students remember her exacting teaching style, but also her kinder side, when she became their friends, attended their weddings and advised their careers.
"Janegave me and so many students a solid foundation in journalism, but more, a foundation for life," said Gail DeGeorge, a formerpupil who now editsthe Global Sisters Report, a website that focuses on Catholic women. "We were alwaysthe underdog at Oakland University, in the shadow of better-established and well-known journalism programs at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, but that didn't deter Jane from pushing her students to reach high.
Briggs-Bunting grew up in Fairview Park, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, and attended the nearby Magnificat High School. Her passion for journalism began there,said her husband, Robert Bunting.
"She attended ajournalism summer camp at the University of Detroit and she just loved it," he said. "She said'This is what I want to do' and it became her passion."
Briggs-Bunting later enrolled at U of D in the journalism program, where the Free Press's then-managing editor, Neal Shine, was an instructor.
Jane Briggs-Bunting hugs Neal Shine after Briggs-Bunting was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, April 12, 2003. Briggs-Bunting use to be a staff member at the Detroit Free Press and Shine is a former publisher of the paper.(Photo: Mary Schroeder, Detroit Free Press)
"Jane was my father's student at U of D and he hired her at the Freep," said Shine's son, Daniel Shine. "I think he was drawn to her commitment to right and wrong, her passion to find the truth no matter the cost or consequences."
Briggs-Buntingbegan her career at the Detroit Free Press in the early 1970s as a reporter working on Action Line,a Page One feature that promised readers it would cut red tape ... stand up for your rights.
She was "a 1970s version of Hildy Johnson from 'His Girl Friday.'" An "aggressive reporter who didnt stop until she was sure of her answers," saidPeter Gavrilovich, an Action Line colleague who went on to become a longtime reporter, editor and columnist at the Free Press.
"Jane was special," he said. "Those of us who worked with her will always remember her zeal for the profession, her love of the Free Press."
They'll remember her kindness, too, Gavrilovich said. Shine once noted his love of model trains and lamentedthat he'd never had one as a kid. That yearat Christmas, Briggs-Bunting and her Action Line colleagues bought one, set it up in their office on the fifth floor of the Free Press building and invited Shine up for a surprise.
Shine was so tickled he immediately sat down on the floor to play with it "right through deadline, as I recall," Gavrilovich said.
Briggs-Bunting was promoted from the Action Line to the police beat, where she met her future husband, Robert Bunting. They met at the old Detroit Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien, where Bunting worked as a detective sergeant on the staff of Police Commissioner John Nichols.
She worked in an office the Free Press kept in the building. They talked regularly and soon learned they were both law students, sheat U of D and Bunting at what was then the Detroit College of Law.
Briggs-Bunting earned her law degreein 1974 andmarried Bunting that same year. She continued reporting for the Free Press covering stories like the Oakland County Child Killer and the disappearance of former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa.
In 1978, she left the paper to teach at Oakland University. She would stay there until 2003, when she left to take over the journalism program at Michigan State University.
In those academic roles, she molded the character of future journalists, pressing them to hold public officials to account.
She assigned students to cover the Oakland University Board of Trusteesmeetings and ordered them to remain there until they were forced to leave by a board that wanted to conduct a presidential search in private.
She served as adviserto the student newspaper, which waged campaigns against the university, includingtwo lawsuitspressing for more transparency in the search.
By the early 1990s, her dictums carried so much weight, students referred to them as "Jane Says,"a nod to a then-popular Janes Addiction song by the same name. Briggs-Bunting smiled at the phrase for years.
"She was such an important influence on so many in our formative years that critical period in college when you're figuring out how to get through life," saidMark Clausen, a former pupil who's now anattorney in Seattle.
When Briggs-Bunting was inductedto the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003, staffers ofthe school paper, The Oakland Post, published an eight-page special section with stories by current and former students describing the impact she'd had on them. The front page headline was "Jane Rocks."
Jane Briggs-Bunting of Oakland University displays a present in 2003 from her staff at the student paper as she was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.(Photo: Mary Schroeder, Detroit Free Press)
"I remember how her eyes would sparkle when she talked about the importance of the First Amendment and the role of the press in helping to safeguard democracy," said Ann Zaniewski, who was editor-in-chief that year. "She said many times that she would put her life on the line to defend the First Amendment."
Another former pupil, Meg O'Brien, said Briggs-Bunting was fearless.
Jane didn't shy away from fights that needed to be fought, said O'Brien, who went on to work at the Chicago Tribune as associate business editor and online business editor. She emphasized that journalism wasn't a popularity contest and trained us how to challenge institutions and take on powerful people when they weren't doing the right things. The profession needs passionate, fearless watchdogs like Jane now more than ever."
Bunting said he'd seen his wife'sinfluence firsthand when he would travel the country for his law practice. Briggs-Bunting would often accompany him and make arrangements to visit with her former students.
"We're traveling around the country, and we're running into, you know, editors, top reporters, everywherefrom the Miami Herald to Bloomberg News," Bunting said. "We were always having lunch or dinner with former students."
Students were naturally drawn to Briggs-Bunting, said Ritu Sehgal, politics editor at the Free Press.
"She was smart, funny, sassy," Sehgal said."For a generation of students, she epitomized what it meant to be a journalist someone who believed in protecting what the First Amendment stood for, even when it came to the student publications she oversaw. Many students remained lifelong friends and turned to her for advice even in their professional careers.
A lifelong lover of animals and nature, Briggs-Bunting also authored three childrens books about them, Whoop For Joy: A Christmas Wish, Laddie of the Light and "Llama on the Lam."
To escape from their busy careers, the couple lived on a 48-acre farm in northern Oakland County, where they raised horses and rescued other animals.
"We really had an idyllic life," Bunting said.
Oakland University journalism professor Jane Briggs-Bunting poses with Whoop for Joy, the inspiration for her first children's book, "Whoop for Joy: A Christmas Wish," on her Addison Township farm in this 1995 file photo. The gentle brown giant was a racehorse who won his first and only race at the Detroit race track on July 19, 1975.(Photo: EDWARD NOBLE, Associated Press)
From her university position, Briggs-Bunting also was able to combine her passion for media and law, explaining and defending media rights, the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. She also authored a handbook used by reporters titled, Legal Guidelines for Reportersin Michigan.
She was a tough and smart but also very caring person,"said Steve Byrne, who served on the board of MSUs student paper with her for six years. "With her management, legal and journalistic background, I thought she was literally the perfect board president for the State News. She really cared about journalism, and seeing young journalists grow and thrive. And she wasnt afraid to push people to help make that happen.
Through it all, she remained a journalist at heart.
"Jane was always the journalist-professor, not the professor of journalism,"Clausen said.
Throughout her career, Briggs-Bunting continued to press for governmental transparency. She was a founding member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit thateducates Michiganders about their rights to see their government work.
The group created an award for governmental transparency, naming it for Briggs-Bunting, who was its first recipient.
Even after turning to teaching, Briggs-Bunting continued to write, freelancing pieces for Life magazine and People. One of the biggest stories of her careeris one she never shared in print, Gilbert said.
Jane Briggs-Bunting(Photo: Provided by Jane Briggs-Bunting)
In August 1987, Northwest Flight 255 crashed on takeoff from Metro Airport, killing 156 people. The nation was mesmerized to learn that 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan somehow survived.
Media from around the world were competing furiously to land an interview with the girl, who became known as America's orphan. But Cecelia's extended family, who took custody of her after her parents died in the crash, insisted onprotecting her privacy, arguing she deserved a normal life.
Life magazinetasked Briggs-Bunting with getting the story to run on the six-month anniversary of the crash. She tracked down the girl in Alabama and flew there to join a photographer.
Gilbert recalled how Briggs-Bunting described the scene.
"They find Cecilia at the condos where she was living with her aunt and uncle," Gilbert said. "Jane goes up to the door and knocks. The babysitter answers the door and Cecilia is standing right behind the babysitter."
Briggs-Bunting asked to speak to the aunt or uncle. The babysitter said she expected them home soon and she invited the two journalists inside to wait.
"Janesaid 'No, we'll wait out here,'" Gilbert recalled.
When the uncle arrived a few minutes later, he politely declined an interview, stressing again the family's desire to protect the child'sprivacy.
"Jane basically said 'Thank you very much' and walked away," Gilbert said. "She felt that was the right thing to do. Some reporters probably would have tried to, you know, push or to find some other way to get a story out of that. But she felt very strongly that that little girl deserved her privacy."
Cecelia maintained that silence until 2013, when at age 30, she appeared in a documentary about plane crash survivors.
In addition to her husband, Jane is survived by her sister, Sally; nieces Catherine, Eileen and Sarah; nephews David and Giles,grandnieces and -nephews, a menagerie of adopted and rescued animals and by journalists nationwide who will continue to embody her fight to defend media rights. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date after the pandemic abates.
Free Press editors Sally Tato Snell and Ritu Sehgal contributed to this report.
Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jwisely
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Jane Briggs-Bunting, who championed the 1st Amendment, dies at 70 - Detroit Free Press
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