It’s unlikely that either Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, or R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the university’s main campus in Columbia, slept soundly Monday night, each having resigned under fire earlier in the day. But the night might have been worst of all for Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media in the Department of Communications and also an adjunct professor in the School of Journalism.
It was Click who was captured in a video that went viral Monday threatening the young man behind the camera. Mark Schierbecker, a history major and photographer for the student newspaper, had been recording a confrontation between Tim Tai, a student photographer working freelance for ESPN, and demonstrators outside a tent city they insisted was their “safe zone” and therefore off-limits.
At the beginning of the six-and-a-half-minute video, a red-headed woman we briefly glimpse yells, “You need to back up. . . . They have asked you to respect their space, move back. This is their time. . . . You need to go! Eventually Schierbecker, whom nobody had been paying any particular attention to, swings his camera away from the face-off and approaches the same woman, someone several years older than the demonstrators.
“Can I talk to you?” he asks.
“No,” she replies fiercely, pointing an arm in the direction she wants him to go.
“You need to get out! You need to get out!”
“No I don’t,” says Schierbecker, who’d spent the last several minutes listening to Tai argue for his right to occupy public space.
“You need to get out!” the woman replies, her voice tightening.
“I actually don’t,” says Schierbecker.
“All right,” says the woman, who then turns toward a clump of tents and people behind her.
“Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” she cries. “I need some muscle over here.”
The woman was quickly identified on social media as Click, 44. Here’s a version of the video that surfaced Tuesday. It’s twice as long and does Click no favors. We see her hand in hand with other protesters, forming the human wall whose point is to keep out journalists. “You need to make room for this guy to come through,’ she shouts, taking charge as older adults like to do. “He shouldn’t be in here. And don’t let him back in.”
Social media reacted to these videos as you’d expect them to. Tweets collected by the New York Times defended the students’—particularly black students’—need for a space of their own: “We truly appreciate having our story told, but this movement isn’t for you,” said one tweet. “It’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces,” said another.
Tuesday brought an important sign that sensible heads might be prevailing. Someone tweeted that a notice was being passed out that purported to be from #ConcernedStudent1950, the group of black students who launched the protest against racism on campus. The notice proclaimed this a “teachable moment” and declared that “media has a 1st amendment right to occupy campsite” and protesters should welcome and talk to them.
But Click personally didn’t fare so well. Comments following a heavy.com report on her behavior ring with incredulity:
“@melissaclick I’ve seen video of you harassing a photojournalist @ campus, calling for “muscle” to intimidate him. You shud [sic] be fired.”
“#Mizzou journalism professor @melissaclick doesn’t seem to understand something called ‘journalism’ – yikes.”
“Is funny that @melissaclick’s Twitter cover photo is a meme of her that states ‘Media is love. Everyone welcome!'”
Click took her Twitter account private. She didn’t respond to my e-mail asking for comment, or, it appears, anybody else’s either. Calling her got me to a mailbox with no room for messages. Meanwhile, a new Facebook page sprang up called “Hey Hey Ho Ho Melissa Click Needs to Go.”
An online discussion of Click and the Mizzou demonstrations by Journalism School graduates (I’m one myself) was a lot more nuanced. Making no apologies for Click, one grad nevertheless declared himself “not a very big fan of how the journalists reacted.” He believed they’d gone “from being reporters to being counter-protesters.” He asked, “Was the photography, or even this video, worth the cost in community trust and respect for the media?”
It’s the kind of question people practicing a trade ask themselves after taking a series of major blows to their self-importance.
Others raised the question of “context.” What was happening beyond Schierbecker’s lens? How many protesters in the area didn’t confront Tai? Were the “safe zones” these protesters were defending a legitimate need or were they a sign of coddling? Someone wondered whether “academic institutions have become more focused on protecting students from discomfort than on forcing students to face uncomfortable and starkly different views.”
That grad confessed that his “personal kneejerk reaction is to be wary of protests and walkouts” and he congratulated student journalists for resisting the temptation to become “more supporters than reporters. . . It does indeed look like folks have been willing to simply report what’s been happening and even risk some alienation for doing so.”
But Click wasn’t one of those reporters. The journalism school, in fact, has repudiated her. Tuesday afternoon Dean David Kurpius issued a statement praising Tai and making it clear that Click “is not a faculty member in the Missouri School of Journalism.” As a faculty member of the department of communication in the college of arts and science, Click “holds a courtesy appointment with the School of Journalism.” However, the J-school faculty “are taking immediate action to review that appointment.”
Click’s actions are astonishing because of the animus someone who teaches journalism—OK, communications—directs at someone else for practicing journalism. The only way to begin to forgive her is if she insists she is no sort of journalist at all, repudiates journalism ethics as not for her—and if we accept her on those terms.
What’s most fundamentally wrong with her behavior is its partisanship. Journalists can’t be partisan to that degree. She appears giddy, like someone in charge as history is made, someone with a little power to make kids line up, hold hands, or form walls. She shows no comprehension of journalism’s above-the-battle ethic—though arguably that should be the ethic of any university faculty member.
Journalists like to think of communications as journalism minus honor, and some of the comments I read online said, of course she doesn’t comprehend journalism! Her bio says that “her research interests center on popular culture texts and audiences, particularly texts and audiences disdained in mainstream culture.” It goes on to mention 50 Shades of Grey, Lady Gaga, and reality television.
What are the ethical guidelines to that? Yet strictly on the basis of this one video, I’d say she isn’t much of an advertisement even for that kind of scholarship.