When the video featuring University of Missouri professor Melissa Click came to my attention, I wrote her an e-mail introducing myself as a Mizzou journalism grad and offering her a “forum” to explain her behavior. She didn’t reply.
So I began to write without her input, and each draft of my conclusion came down harder on her than the draft before. Originally, it was enough to say her conduct—trying to bar a photographer from a gathering point of protesting students, then shouting, “I need some muscle over here!” as she tried to run off a videographer—was inappropriate for a journalism professor. Then I realized that she wasn’t actually a journalism professor, despite a superficial connection with the School of Journalism (and a supervisory role over the student newspaper that she’s since lost). She taught in the department of communications—where the flacks and marketers come from. I doubled down on ethics anyway—arguing that her shrill partisanship was inappropriate for anyone on a university faculty.
I had my say, a lot of other columnists have had their say, and Melissa Click has fared very badly.The movement she was serving has been roughed up, too—no small thanks to her. A supposed expert in communications played a huge role in turning the media conversation away from the protesters’ cause to their behavior.
Something about the scene at Mizzou—where the president and chancellor resigned Monday under fire from students protesting racism on campus and the football team threatening to strike—became “ugly and self-defeating,” wrote the Tribune’s Eric Zorn. He observed photographer Tim Tai stolidly taking pictures and trying to explain the First Amendment to students who “continue to taunt and menace him.” The video with Click in it “reinforced every stereotype of the entitled, arrogant lefty.”
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote that the students “showed leadership in trying to rectify a failure of leadership. But moral voices can also become sanctimonious bullies.” PEN’s Suzanne Nossel, writing in the Times, expressed sympathy for both Tai’s side and the students’, but observed that “some student rights advocates seem convinced that their needs and safety can be assured only by restricting speech.” Nossel wasn’t speaking only of Mizzou but of campuses throughout America that cosset students with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and rules for Halloween costumes.
“What happens,” asked the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg in Wednesday’s Tribune, “when large numbers of these delicate little flowers are set free to navigate their way through life? They feel unsafe and demand ‘safe spaces.’ They feel threatened by uncomfortable ideas and demand ‘trigger warnings.’ They might even want written rules or contracts to help them negotiate sexual relations.”
“In other words, this is the generation the mandarins of political correctness have been waiting for.”
Goldberg was being willfully stupid, but he had his finger on an easy nerve to touch. Conservatives insist—as liberals wonder—that liberal educators are creating a generation of Big Babies. Mizzou’s protesting students had set out into dangerous waters where everything they did wrong would cost them. They needed a navigator who was also an adult.
Look at the video again, the full 12-minute version. Students who three months ago were living at home and eating their mothers’ suppers line up hand in hand, arm in arm. These “delicate little flowers” are all in for a cause that must feel a lot bigger than they are. Some probably aren’t all in. They’re dipping a toe into militancy, perhaps hoping no one snaps a picture that will come back to haunt them. Tai says he has a job to do—to record history—and a male voice says “everybody else” is recording history too, “but they’re being respectful.” It’s a mystery what exactly it is about Tai that has everyone so ticked off. There’s a glimpse of another nearby photographer and nobody seems to be paying attention to him. And, of course, nobody’s paying attention to Mark Schierbecker, the videographer.
That changes when Schierbecker swings his camera away. He runs into Click, who tells him to get out and puts out her now infamous call for “muscle.” Says Schierbecker to her, “This is public property.” And Click replies, “Oh, that’s a really good one. I’m a communications faculty and I really get that argument. But you need to go. You need to go. You need to go.”
Says a male voice trying to sound reasonable, “You really aren’t getting anything out of being here. Come on now.”
But of course Schierbecker is. He’s getting video of the cause as it repels journalists who came to cover it and makes itself look myopic and petty. His video concludes with a long, slow pan of a vast circle students have just formed around a “safe zone” in the center of a quadrangle. Whatever purpose this circle actually serves—it’s magnificent for existing at all—the kids in it must be looking around in amazement at what they’re a part of. Just inside the perimeter, Click saunters blissfully, like a land owner admiring the new fence. “Don’t let those reporters in!” she shouts at one point. And then, “He’s a good one.” A 44-year-old white woman, Click has asserted herself into a leadership role of a protest against racism originated by black students, and she seems impossibly happy. But why wouldn’t she be? She may have dreamed of this moment all her life.
The next day, when she apologized, Click said the day was “full of emotion and confusion” and she regretted the “language and strategies I used.” She also regretting having “shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.” She said she’d “learned about humanity and humility.” She’d apologized personally to “one of the reporters” (this turned out to be Tai), whose “dignity speaks well of the Journalism program at MU.”
She might have also apologized for not acting her age. It’s splendid when kids leaving adolescence stand up for a cause they believe in—especially at my alma mater. But one day Click might also explain why she joined that cause in a role of zealot, a role she was too old for. There’s no giddy rush in being someone older and wiser and on the margins of rebellion; but a point comes in life when you either try to be useful because you actually know more or you try to be someone else and you look silly.