Northwestern dean to triggered protesters: Our student newspaper shouldn't have apologized for the crime of journalism

A sequel to Ed’s post this morning about the instantly infamous editorial from Northwestern’s college newspaper apologizing to campus activists for “traumatizing” them by covering their protest of a recent Jeff Sessions appearance. If you haven’t read it, pause now and do so. Not just because it’s necessary background to understand this response from the school’s dean of journalism but because it’s rare to see a publication print something so contrary to its ostensible mission that you’re left wondering why they bother to go on.

Seriously. If you regret reporting news in cases where the subject resents being reported on, your paper shouldn’t continue. At a minimum, everyone who signed the editorial should be replaced.

It was so egregious and humiliating to the university, which ironically has (or had) one of the most respected journalism programs in the country, that the dean of journalism felt obliged to publish a polite rebuttal. Polite to the student editors, I mean; he was less polite to the student activists who’ve decided that covering their public activities is so offensive that the paper should express remorse, or at least make sure that those sent to do the reporting are of the same “vulnerable” background as the protesters themselves. The key point in his piece that you don’t get from the student editorial is how much intimidation is being brought to bear on student reporters by woke fascists on campus in the name of controlling the covering about them. (“[W]aging war on our students on social media — threatening them both physically and emotionally — is beyond the pale.”) Reading it brought me back to the episode at the University of Missouri in 2015 when one professor called for “muscle” to remove a student reporter who was covering a protest in a public space.

And of course it reminded me of the western media saga over refusing to publish the Danish Mohammed cartoons. The student paper’s mea culpa here followed the pattern there: Instead of forthrightly admitting that they’re acting out of fear for their own safety, the editors dressed up their decision to back down as a matter of cultural sensitivity. Nothing accelerates the process of becoming woke like the threat of violent death.

I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations. And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.

I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing.

I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit. To be sure, journalism has often bowed to the whim and will of the rich and powerful, so some might argue that it is only fair that those who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised have their turn at calling the journalistic shots. But that is not the solution. We need more diversity among our student journalists (and in journalism writ large). We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage. But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed — and must have the courage — to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.

The logic of the protesters in the Mizzou and Northwestern episodes as to why they have a right not to be covered by the press, or to be covered only on their own terms, remains elusive to me. Presumably it’s a function of identity and privilege. By definition, someone from outside a “vulnerable” group can’t understand the experience of a member of that group and therefore can’t report fairly on it, at least not without willing participation by the subject. To attempt to do so is to “aggress upon” their singular experience. Ideas about consent and “appropriation,” two other conspicuously fraught campus topics, are doubtless in the mix too. Did you ask for a protester’s consent before snapping a picture of them doing something in full public view? No? Then you’ve appropriated their message and used it for your own ends, haven’t you?

Whatever. I’m not interested enough in wokeness at knife-point to devote more thought to it.

Just bear in mind that this isn’t a one-off incident this month in academia. A few days ago the Harvard student government voted to support a boycott of the school paper by an anti-ICE group. What did the paper do wrong? It … requested comment from ICE for a story about an anti-ICE protest on campus. Rule one of journalism: Seek comment from all relevant parties that are involved in the subject of your story, as you never know what important information they might provide that you’d otherwise have missed. The boycotters are offended that the paper isn’t biased, or at least not enough to exclude campus villains from having their say altogether. That’s next for Northwestern’s paper too now that they’ve paid the danegeld, assuming it hasn’t happened already.