Journalism 101

Does an ad showing a line of naked men with penises in Christmas wrap belong in a high school newspaper? Last December the powers that be at Evanston Township High School said no. Was this unastonishing ruling censorship? Was a decision made at a university paper not to print a letter on the matter further censorship?

These questions get down to journalistic first principles, and a debate over them raged last week in a classroom of the Medill School of Journalism. Since one side turned to Hot Type for our views, we should at least admit our prejudices.

In the spring of 1970 the American military invaded Cambodia, and campuses across the United States went up for grabs. At the venerable school of journalism at the University of Missouri, we witnessed a remarkable confrontation–J-school students hungry to join a general student strike versus educators advising them that this would be imprudent and irresponsible.

At first glance the students’ position was baffling. After all, they staffed a citywide daily newspaper and the only TV station in town. Here was a story they understood in their bones like no story they were likely to cover in their professional careers. They wanted to make a statement with pickets, but they could say so much more by being journalists!

But this opportunity did not actually exist. The journalism-school paper, overseen by conservative rural trustees and run by timid faculty, had failed the moment. It was being outreported day in and day out by the other paper in town. The analysis and reflection that could have filled its pages went unassigned.

Several months earlier Chicago journalists had been infuriated by their papers’ cautious coverage of police violence during the ’68 Democratic convention. Too mature to picket, they’d founded the Chicago Journalism Review. In time we would become an editor there.

So here’s our prejudice. The best young journalists don’t go into the business out of a passion to process data or to munch free canapes when restaurants open. Elusive, unfathomable, and perhaps apocryphal as the truth may be, it’s a grail that’s worth the quest. And when young reporters are obsessed with revealing it it’s more important to keep this spirit strong than to rub their noses in the reasons why in the real world their strongest convictions will end up spiked.

The above ad was offered to the Evanston Township Evanstonian by Jimmy John’s, a sandwich shop that began offering a free condom with each sub in 1992, after a friend of the manager died of AIDS. The high school’s superintendent, Allan Alson, considered the ad “inappropriate” and yanked it–though in an unworldly gesture of fair play he gave the paper $90 to make up for the lost revenue and allowed the student staff to run white space with CENSORED branded across it.

Because of the Christmas holiday, NU’s Daily Northwestern, which is distributed throughout Evanston, did not comment on this matter until January. But an editorial soon appeared taking Alson’s side. This editorial invoked the hoary phrase “impressionable teenagers” and argued that “condom use should be taught to students in a tasteful way.” It concluded that Alson’s one mistake was not to have replaced the ad with “a responsible, informative message about condom use.”

One of the lowest of the low, NU freshman Heather Landy, read this editorial and was appalled, What Landy has yet to learn about the hard edges of journalism is enough to fill a lifetime. But as editor of her own high school paper she had concluded that the best policy was to publish and let the chips fall where they may. She tells us, “What taught me the most was getting into a little trouble with readers over letters or editorials and dealing with those upset people. I think if Evanston residents or students had a problem with the ad they should have had a chance to debate that openly with letters to the editor, opinion pieces, or speeches at a school-board meeting.”

Landy wrote a letter to the Daily Northwestern. “Offensiveness . . . is not the issue,” she declared. “The issue is censorship. . . . I cannot fathom why this publication advocates censorship of another publication. Friday’s editorial was, to me, offensive, but it was printed and people like myself have the chance to disagree with it in a public forum. ETHS’s students didn’t even get that much.

“There is something to be said for sensitivity in journalism, but there is something to be said for freedom of press, even the high school press. If we support suspension of that freedom, soon there will be nothing to be said for anything at all.”

There was briefly talk of turning the letter into an op-ed piece, but the Daily’s editor in chief, senior Henri Cauvin, soon decided to print nothing. Landy’s opinion was out of place in the Daily, he believed, because she sat on the development desk, the pool of beginners from which reporters are chosen. She was technically on staff. He’d go along with a column criticizing Alson, as long as it laid off the Daily. In other words, she’d have to change the focus of her attack. Landy argued with Cauvin for almost an hour, but he didn’t budge.

Cauvin tells us, “College students hate their college papers. Most of the letters we print are critical of us. I said, ‘Heather, if 20 people wrote letters saying “How can this paper condone censorship?” we’d probably print every one of them. It’s not a question of us suppressing a viewpoint.'”

It was a question of whether the Daily should give one of its own people space to rip it. “What she was doing was directly taking issue with the paper,” Cauvin says. “That was something we were all uncomfortable with.”

Feeling his way, Cauvin called around to various op-ed editors. “The view among them was not unanimous,” he says, but most felt that a piece such as Landy’s did not belong. Cauvin says the Tribune’s Dianne Donovan told him that “the editorial page is designed and its editorial board members are paid to be the voice of the paper. Reporters are paid to report the news. You can’t get confused as to who’s the voice of the paper and who’s not.”

Cauvin was not the only one calling around. Landy took the issue to her Thursday-night Basic Writing lab, and her instructor set up a confrontation; she invited Cauvin and two other senior editors to come in and state their case last week and told her freshmen to get ready to grill them.

At this point we heard from Landy’s freshman ally Kyle Johnson. He asked if we’d have printed Landy’s letter and why.

First send it to us so we can read it, we said. Send us everything you have. Johnson had called looking for insights, but we smelled a story. Next we called Landy. Blindsided, she didn’t know what she should say. She admired the Daily; she wanted to write for the Daily; she didn’t want to burn any bridges in the Reader.

After the lab we asked instructor Pam Cytrynbaum how it went. A Tribune reporter by day, Cytrynbaum holds the job that in a coarser age was known as Mike Royko’s legman.

“It was amazing. I couldn’t have scripted a better lesson on so many levels,” she said. “Here are these older kids coming in–articulate, big opinions, big ideas, they’ve done their homework. And there are my students. The difference between 18 and 21 is a vast canyon in college. The first half an hour the kids didn’t ask any questions–they just got talked at. And one of the comments a freshman made after the editors left was, ‘Boy, people can really control an interview, can’t they?’ And I said, ‘Yes they can,’ and I talked a little about how politicians can come in and tailor a conversation to their agenda. My students are used to raising their hands. I kept motioning them to get in there. ‘Don’t you watch TV? Haven’t you watched the Washington press corps?’

“But the thing that sparked the second half hour was when [the editors] talked about how you give up your rights. The students were just struck by that. They bristled. They kept calling it censorship. Ravi Nessman [the editorial-page editor] and Henri made a big distinction between censorship and gatekeeping. The students flipped out.” By the end of the exchange the two sides were toe to toe. “Every hand was shooting up,” Cytrynbaum said. “‘Where do we express our opinion?’ ‘How can you say unity is more important than free debate?’

“The editors made the point that corporations don’t air their dirty laundry. Instead they have leaks. Kyle calling you was a great example. Another two things that Kyle and Heather learned were about you. Kyle said he called you because he wanted some advice. He had no idea this was becoming a story. He said he learned something–be very careful if you ever talk to the press. You may think you’re asking for advice, but you become a story.”

Cytrynbaum went on, “Heather called me terrified. She said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a career yet–but it’s over. He seemed nice, but he could write anything he wants. I have no control.’

“I said, ‘Heather, take a deep breath. Remember this feeling. Whenever you call someone for the next 70 years, this is the feeling they’ll have when they get off the phone with you.'”

We’re still not sure how to answer Johnson. As a practical matter, Cauvin is right. When “censorship” is applied to any viewpoint that isn’t published for any reason, the word is gutted. And a paper that became a pulpit where every reporter got to denounce every editorial he or she took exception to would be unreadable. But we’re not going to worry about that absurdity until it happens.

As Landy’s editor we’d have told her that her letter was a little innocent, but that our editorial was awfully innocent too. Think a little harder about what you want to say, we’d have advised her, and then let”s try to get it in the paper.

How the Pros Do It

Channel Seven went the rest of the press corps one better last week. When the story broke about the basketball coach and teaching sub at Near North high school who got his job with a fake ID, Seven announced it “has learned” that former alderman Fred Hubbard did the same thing back in the 80s.

We’re not sure how Seven dug up this scoop, but it might have been by reading news clippings from 1986.