The Collegian has done a great job of reporting on Fresno State’s recent free speech controversies.
The Collegian is now in a good spot to come to grips with its own free speech controversy: The Hitler editorial.
At issue is the concept of checks and balances.
The Collegian is Fresno State’s student-run, full service media platform. I am The Collegian’s editorial faculty adviser. The Collegian is an award-winning operation. The student journalists do all of the hard work. They deserve all of the credit.
What follows is my personal opinion.
Let’s begin with some context. That, of course, means Randa Jarrar.
Jarrar is the Fresno State English professor who recently stirred up a nationwide storm with her Twitter comments on the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. I didn’t see the tweets. I understand from media reports that Jarrar called Mrs. Bush a “witch.” I understand that Jarrar said she’s “happy” that Mrs. Bush is dead.
These and other comments sent the dominos falling in a predictable pattern. Fresno State officials said they would look into the matter. Jarrar supporters said she has a First Amendment right to speak her mind. The media explored every angle.
The Jarrar controversy came in the wake of the Greg Thatcher and Lars Maischak controversies. Thatcher is the Fresno State public health professor who was sued by students last year after he was caught on camera defacing pro-life messages written in chalk on university sidewalks. Maischak is the Fresno State history lecturer who, in early 2017, tweeted that “Trump must hang” in order to save democracy.
The Thatcher and Maischak incidents also generated national heartburn.
Editor-In-Chief Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado and the rest of The Collegian’s editorial board had a good analysis of the situation in the paper’s April 23 edition.
“We’ve been here before, and we will likely come back to the same place in the future,” The Collegian wrote. “We can predict that another professor administrator or even a student will soon face the wrath of online attacks for what they may say or do if it offends political junkies on either side of the spectrum.”
The Collegian had sound advice for a nation besotted with social media: Feel free to give your two cents, but “don’t do it in a place where your thoughts are limited to 280 characters.”
The three faculty members faced little or no official pushback. Maischak was transferred from classroom duties to online instruction. Thatcher settled the lawsuit.
And Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro on Tuesday said Jarrar would face no disciplinary action. She had violated no university or California State University policies.
Let’s stipulate that we all embrace the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;….”
With that said, I suggest that Americans hate more than anything else to be on the receiving end of arbitrary power, whether it comes from a monarch or a mob. I think that’s what most angered people about Jarrar’s comments. She tweeted about her status as a tenured professor. She made a point of piggybacking on the excellent and hard-earned brand name of Fresno State. She smugly ridiculed a gallant and patriotic woman and her family. Then she sat back and dared America to do anything about it.
But the glory of our democracy is that legitimate accountability doesn’t begin and end with official sanction. Informal but perfectly legal checks and balances on personal behavior in the public square are valid.
For example, I wonder if the most effective restraint on outlandish behavior by some Fresno State professors might come from the Fresno State faculty itself. Jarrar, Maischak and Thatcher suggest there’s been a leveling of professionalism among the Fresno State professoriate.
That brings me to the Hitler editorial.
Here, too, I’m talking about the First Amendment and the exercise of arbitrary power. I’m going to propose that the university would be wise to initiate – or, to be more precise, reinvigorate – an official system of checks and balances on the source of that Page 1 opinion piece: The Collegian.
Do you remember the Hitler editorial?
The Collegian of Feb. 22, 2016 hit the campus newsstands in the morning. Page 1 featured a full-page photo of Donald Trump, then in the middle of his campaign to secure the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is wearing a business suit. Behind him are two American flags.
“Sieg Heil!” said the headline. The sub headline said: “Living Nazi Germany in Trump’s America.”
The editorial on Page 2 began: “Trump’s America is the Fourth Reich.”
The fourth paragraph said: “The hardcore racist and fascist people supporting Trump don’t want to kick out Muslims and undocumented Mexicans – they want to murder them.”
The editorial’s 23rd and final paragraph said: “Heil Trump!”
The other paragraphs are of the same vein.
The editorial includes a photo illustration of Trump in a Nazi-like brown suit and giving the Nazi stiff-arm salute with the White House in the background.
The editorial attracted national attention. Freedom of the press was on many lips.
Trump on Jan. 20, 2017 was sworn in as the nation’s 45th president.
Many Fresnans in the wake of the Hitler editorial tried to figure out what had happened in The Collegian office during the hours leading up to the editorial’s publication. What was the process by which such an editorial got in the paper? I was among those Fresnans with questions; I didn’t join The Collegian team until August 2016.
Bee education reporter Mackenzie Mays on Feb. 23, 2016 published an article on controversy.
Mays quoted from a second-day Collegian editorial that elaborated on the staff’s authority to run the Hitler editorial: “It is important to stress that The Collegian, a student-run publication, isn’t subject to prior review. No faculty or staff members read the article before it was published – as it should be.”
Mays quoted from a university press release: “The newspaper is a learning laboratory for students who aspire to media careers. It provides them the opportunity to learn about the role of the free press and practice at writing a wide range of material, including news stories, features and editorials.”
Mays quoted Dr. Katherine Adams (my boss), chair of what was then called the Mass Communications and Journalism Department and is now the Media, Communications and Journalism Department: “Most people don’t understand that The Collegian is not the voice of Fresno State. It’s a classroom where students learn the business. They are not edited to be told what to say and are not obligated to show it to us at all.”
Five sentences from those statements deserve another look.
1.) The Collegian “isn’t subject to prior review.” Not true. Every newspaper worth its salt is subjected to intensive “prior review” before the pages are sent to the pressroom. The review comes from layers of editors – executive editor, managing editor, city editor, assistant city editor, section editors. They are acting as agents for the newspaper’s sovereign authority. At newspapers owned by publicly traded companies, that authority is corporate management at the hands-on level and shareholders at the top level. The reason for this layered system: People wielding power in the public arena need checks and balances because no one is perfect. The system of in-house prior review at The Collegian isn’t as elaborate as the system at The Bee when I worked there. But it exists.
2.) “Most people don’t understand that The Collegian is not the voice of Fresno State.” Not true. Fresno State is a collaborative venture involving 25,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff. All are voices of Fresno State. Everything they do that’s connected to the university is part of the Fresno State voice and reflects on Fresno State. That’s why the Athletic Department works so hard to nurture civic virtue in its student-athletes. The Collegian isn’t the voice of Fresno State. But The Collegian is a voice of the university, and a very powerful one.
3.) “The newspaper is a learning laboratory for students who aspire to media careers.” A newspaper without a system of high standards and public obligations is not a learning laboratory. It’s a rugby ruck.
4.) “They are not edited to be told what to say and are not obligated to show it to us at all.” Unfettered will in any group, including journalists, is a recipe for disaster.
5.) “No faculty or staff members read the article before it was published – as it should be.” This is the big one. As this statement implies, something strange happened at The Collegian office in the late evening of Feb. 21 and the early morning of Feb. 22, 2016.
A newspaper newsroom’s daily operation begins with a news budget. This is a list of stories to be published in the next day’s paper. The budget is flexible – it adjusts to breaking news.
The newsroom system of checks and balances collapses without a budget held in the highest regard by all who are part of that system. Trust is destroyed if someone in the hierarchy (even at the top) decides he can overturn the budget without first going through accepted procedures for making such a change.
The Collegian during my four semesters as editorial faculty adviser has always based its production system on a comprehensive news budget. What this means in practice is that Rich Marshall, The Collegian’s general manager and my colleague at The Bee for many years, and I know what’s on each edition’s news budget. We edit each story for style and content. Collegian staffers aren’t required to accept our edits. On the other hand, Rich Marshall is an accomplished journalist with decades of experience. Journalism is a hard trade with a lifelong learning curve. The Collegian’s young staffers would be wise to take his advice.
I was not in The Collegian office on the production night of Feb. 21-22, 2016. But I’ve talked to some people who were in the office at various times on that night. Their statements and the statement in No. 5 above point to a betrayal of best newsroom practices.
It appears that Marshall and Dr. Bradley Hart, the editorial faculty adviser at the time, were led to believe by someone on The Collegian staff that the next day’s paper would contain only the stories listed on the news budget. It appears that when Marshall and Hart had finished editing those stories and left for the night, someone on The Collegian staff brought out the Hitler editorial (hardly a breaking story) and inserted it on Page 2. It appears that someone then made sure that Page 1 was redesigned.
To repeat: The second-day Collegian editorial of Feb. 23, 2016 said, “No faculty or staff members read the article before it was published – as it should be.”
I suggest that such a statement is an admission that someone on The Collegian sucker-punched the system and expected to face no accountability for the deception. (Let me emphasize that current Editor-in-Chief Rodriguez-Delgado and his team were not part of the events of Feb. 21-22, 2016. I must add that several current Collegian staffers have told me that the paper continues to suffer public fallout from the Hitler editorial.)
Usually, I’d suggest that this betrayal was regrettable but not of long-term consequence. Newspapers and the First Amendment can handle less than professional behavior. And student journalists have considerable protections in state law.
But The Collegian can’t mandate taxation without representation. And that’s where Hitler editorial could have far-reaching consequences.
The Collegian faces a financial crisis. This isn’t the first time in its 96-year history that the paper has been threatened by red ink. But this threat may be the most serious of all. The digital world is destroying the old business model.
What makes The Collegian different from newspapers in the legacy media is taxes. Mainstream newspapers depend largely on advertising for their financial survival. The Collegian depends largely on a mandatory student fee.
The Collegian in the 2017-18 school year is estimated to have income of roughly $360,000. This school year’s estimated expenses are roughly $400,000. The $40,000 gap comes on top of several years of money woes. Labor costs (i.e. minimum wage) are going up. Advertising revenues are flat or declining. The Collegian’s reserve is disappearing.
The Collegian has done a superb job of reporting on these pressures and the possible solutions.
However, The Collegian is blessed to have access to a guaranteed source of money that has nothing to do with advertising. Each Fresno State student pays a fee of $5.50 per semester earmarked specifically for The Collegian. This fee is essentially a mandatory tax. The fee is expected to generate about $270,000 in the current school year.
Bottom line: Roughly 75% of The Collegian’s annual income comes from this mandatory student tax. I know of a lot of mainstream newspapers that would love to have 75% of their expected annual income generated by a tax for which they don’t have to lift a finger.
The Collegian fee was approved by students some years back in a referendum. My point isn’t to review the wisdom of the fee (my salary comes from The Collegian budget, which means student taxes fund about 75% of my gross pay; I am grateful for the fee). My point is to suggest that the existence of the student fee means The Collegian’s constitutional right to a free press belongs to the Fresno State student body paying the vast majority of the newspaper’s operational tab, not to The Collegian’s editorial staff.
The Collegian staff, myself included, is simply the agent for a student body that owns the newspaper. But how does a student body of 25,000 make its will known at the operational level?
I return to The Collegian’s financial crisis and its connection to the Hitler editorial.
Many dedicated and talented professors, administrators and student leaders are working on solutions to The Collegian’s money challenges. Because of this effort, the spotlight has returned to The Collegian’s governing board. To my knowledge, the board has not met in my two years with the paper. Colleagues with longer years of service tell me they can’t remember the last time the board met with a full agenda and serious intentions of fulfilling its duties.
The Collegian governing board has an enabling document describing the board’s authority and limitations. The board consists of university officials and students. The fact that “governing” is part of the board’s name is a clear sign that officials back when The Collegian fee was approved recognized that there had to be some type of democratic mechanism that enables The Collegian’s sovereign authority – Fresno State’s ever-changing student body – to have an effective, consistent and legitimized way of influencing the direction of its investment while also giving The Collegian staff enough breathing room to do its job.
Marshall in his capacity as Collegian general manager has made heroic efforts to reenergize the governing board. Common sense says any dramatic changes to The Collegian’s business model would have to eventually go before the board at a public hearing. But I hear through the grapevine that administrative inertia and dwindling time (the Spring semester ends in a few weeks) have conspired to leave the governing board in deep hibernation.
I am suggesting here that an active Collegian governing board, or a some other panel representative of the tax-paying student body and the university administration, is the best way to ensure that future controversies such as the Hitler editorial (and they will surely come – journalists are as human as angry professors) fit into a framework of constitutional checks and balances.
Such a board would ensure that The Collegian’s owner, the students, has a formal public forum for getting to the bottom of things. Such a board at its monthly meeting might explore whether stories about the baseball team are too often placed below the fold. Such a board might get periodic updates on The Collegian’s finances. And such a board at some point in the distant future might dig into whether a Collegian editor is using his power over this public trust to advance his personal agenda to the detriment of the student body’s greater good.
This would not restrain free speech. This would make power accountable to student taxpayers.
If we at The Collegian don’t like accountability and transparency, we should give the money back.