I love ’em all.
At the core of the best college newspapers are college students who, bless their souls, want to be journalists. Yes, bless their souls. Journalism’s promising but uncertain future needs fearless believers who’ll fight for mundane things like adherence to open-meetings laws, the vital responsibility of being the watchdog of those in power, and protection of the First Amendment. None of that is sexy, yet all of it is critical to transparency in government and our public, taxpayer-funded way of life.
Unfortunately, the college press is under attack — from college presidents, from university police chiefs, from media relations departments. Long is the struggle between college journalists wanting to report the news and college administrators who want the campus paper to be a fluff sheet: puppies, kittens and blooming flowers.
In other words, report the good stuff — awards and scholarships and Greek news, with a little sports and entertainment thrown in — and, in turn, help the university keep any bad news hidden from view.
It may be impossible to say this long-simmering problem is reaching epidemic levels, but it’s clear that today’s college journalists often face significant obstacles in the course of their Fourth Estate duties. A few examples offer proof.
At the University of Kansas, the campus paper has the ignominious chore of covering a woebegone Jayhawk football team. The Kansas squad is coached by Charlie Weis, an imposing man who used to coach at Notre Dame and in the NFL. When Weis’ team prepared to play rival — and Top 10 team — Kansas State earlier this year, the Daily Kansan covered it like pros.
The headline on its preview story: “Road Kill Ahead: Weekend holds bad beating for Kansas or calamity for K-State.” The story’s illustration depicted a menacing K-State Wildcat stalking a weakling Jayhawk perched timidly on the goal post.
Weis didn’t like it.
According to College Media Matters, the Kansas coach went on a Twitter rampage against the campus paper. A media-relations employee then warned a student reporter that he shouldn’t ask questions at Weis’ weekly press conference because there was “lingering ill-will” between the players and the paper, and that “those negative attitudes could be directed toward him.”
Call that what it is: A cowardly attempt to intimidate the student press. (It didn’t work, by the way.) And Kansas State beat Weis’ team, 56-16.
Elsewhere, variations of these recent themes are common: at Ohio State, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, at Florida Atlantic, at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, at Oklahoma, and at Memphis, where the university cut the student paper’s funding by $25,000 in response to unflattering coverage of campus news. (Open disclosure: I sit on the board of the University of Memphis Journalism Alumni Club.) Following a university investigation, the funding was restored.
Dailies such as The Star occasionally face these roadblocks from politicians and the powerful who see the First Amendment as liberal rubbish and want to control what they cannot, and should not. That college administrators too often trash the public’s right to know — and display paper-thin skin — says more about them than the campus media they try to intimidate.
Of all I’ve read about this issue, the strongest words I’ve found come from Mike Vernon, a student at Kansas. He wrote:
“It’s a democracy thing, and it’s too bad a public American university would try to persuade student reporters into compromising those values.”
Fight on, student journos.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/Ptutor_Star.