I just finished reading a book by David Maraniss titled, “The Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967”.
Maraniss meticulously follows three threads that eventually intertwine on a day in mid-October 1967: a group of soldiers as it makes its way to Vietnam – and for many to their death; President Lyndon B. Johnson and his aides as they deal with increasing public protest over a war not going as planned; and an eclectic group of students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who fall together in protest against the war, a protest that leads to campus violence.
Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post, exercises one of the most important skills a journalist can acquire – the ability to connect the dots and to see a smaller, sharper picture inside a story so large it can overwhelm.
The book is a journalistic work of art, and the part of the masterpiece that grabbed me the most focused on the students at UW-Madison.
Maraniss paints a picture of a place where people from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds go to learn, and not just “book learn.” He describes an environment where tolerance of alternative opinions abounds. Where faculty and administrators encourage students to challenge conventional wisdom, think bigger and stretch farther.
Maraniss writes about the academy, a place to learn and grow without fear for students or faculty about random interference from administrators, other faculty and – maybe most important – from other students.
But at the same time that I devoured “They Marched into Sunlight,” I found myself dealing with threads of my own, threads started at campuses throughout the country and intertwining in a way that makes me wonder what happened to the “academy.”
Those threads come from SPJ PressNotes, a compilation of journalism stories that SPJ provides daily through e-mail and its Web site.
Almost every day, it seems as if at least one PressNotes item deals with a campus media issue. And most do not show in a good light the environment for learning and practicing journalism.
Here are just a few examples from Press Notes during the past five months:
• Editors of a student publication at Roger Williams University in Bristol are fighting for their free press rights. A university committee will require each student publication or radio program to be reviewed by its adviser prior to publication.
• At the University of North Florida, the student government attempted to use its power over student-fee allocations to censor the radio station. Elizabeth Macke, station manager for Osprey Radio, said the Jacksonville university’s student government effectively censored the Internet-based station by slashing its budget and placing guidelines on what music it should play because student senators did not approve of the station’s content.
• A full panel of federal appellate court judges recently heard oral arguments in the case Hosty v. Carter. It involves administrative censorship of the student newspaper at Governors State University in Illinois. In fall 2000, GSU Dean of Student Affairs Patricia Carter ordered Regional Publishing to refrain from printing The Innovator without first obtaining a school official’s approval of its content. The paper had published several articles critical of the administration. The Innovator has not published an issue since.
• Police at the University of California at Santa Barbara investigated the theft of more than 2,300 copies of the Daily Nexus, the campus newspaper. Newspapers were taken from racks Jan. 14 and thrown into garbage cans and recycling bins, said Brendan Buhler, the newspaper’s editor. Members of the newspaper staff found 2,393 papers in 10 trashcans.
• Boston College officials abandoned an attempt to gain more control of the school’s student newspaper by removing requirements in an office lease proposal that would have imposed new advertising and editorial policies on the independent student publication. In September, officials at the private Roman Catholic-founded university proposed a lease for the paper’s 600-square-foot campus office that would have required the paper to, among other things, refuse advertisements for alcohol or tobacco products, adopt a faculty advisory board and give the university and its student groups a 50-percent discount on advertisements.
• Baylor University’s student newspaper, the Baylor Lariat, recently published an editorial supporting the City of San Francisco’s lawsuit against the State of California to declare unconstitutional sections of the California Family Code defining marriage as a union of a man and woman. On the university Web site, university President Robert B. Sloan Jr. wrote:
“The Student Publications Board will be addressing this matter with the Lariat staff as soon as possible. In the meantime, I would like to assure Baylor constituents that, while we respect the right of students to hold and express divergent viewpoints, we do not support the use of publications such as the Lariat, which is published by the University, to advocate positions that undermine foundational Christian principles upon which this institution was founded and currently operates.”
• After attempting to prohibit the student newspaper from running advertisements from certain booksellers, administrators at Cedar Crest College, a private school, have decided to allow students to publish the newspaper without administrative interference. An advertisement for www.half.com, an Internet-based discount bookseller, ran in the Feb. 19 edition of The Crestiad, causing the Allentown school’s administration to worry about whether the advertisement violated the school’s contract with retail bookseller Barnes & Noble.
The list could go on.
And yes, some of the examples involve outcomes that preserved student media independence.
But I suspect that as soon as I ship this column off to Jeff Mohl, Quill editor, another batch of PressNotes will allude to another campus media incident where someone will come to the conclusion that life at the academy would be better served with the equivalent of a state-run news service on campus rather than an independent student media operation.
Among all the examples of ways used to shutter the campus media, perhaps most disheartening are student-backed efforts.
Newspaper theft becomes more common on college campuses each day. And student government associations, universally praised by campus administrators as a way for students to learn and practice the democratic process, now routinely try to use budgeting muscle to blot out opinions – or even music – “senators” do not like. Attacking budgets to avoid using more overt forms of censorship is common practice in the real world. So it seems the faux legislators on college campuses learn quickly from the pros.
Does all this dishearten me?
Is it something new to me?
As a 10-year adviser to the student newspaper at Troy State University, I know firsthand the administrative pressure that comes with advising student publications. And during those 10 years, I dealt with a case of newspaper theft, threats from the Student Government Association and a pressure-filled university committee “review” of the student media.
Am I going to give up the fight to preserve the independence of the student media, a place where students can learn and practice the craft, just like their SGA counterparts get to do?
No I am not. And the Society of Professional Journalists will not.
As I write this, an SPJ Task Force led by Jim Highland, Vice President of Campus Chapter affairs, and Bob Greene, now retired and a Pulitzer-Prize winner while at Newsday, is looking into a recent incident at Long Island University.
As a reporter for The Associated Press wrote, the situation at LIU is a complicated one that has “sparked a debate over journalism ethics, privacy and freedom of the student press.”
As always, the SPJ Task Force work involves, first and foremost, fact finding. It also involves collaborating with – not confronting – university administrators in an effort to help promote an environment where the student media can operate unfettered and where it can, with the help of SPJ and others, produce the best journalism using the SPJ Ethics Code as a compass.
That’s the way it ought to be at the academy.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral, SPJ president, lives in Tampa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.