Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Adult Supervision Required

There is quite a bit of fallout in today's Daily Evergreen over Martin Boston's column last week in which he accused the Pullman Police department of being racist following the tasering of a UI football player outside Mike's Bar (click here to read the PPD press release on the investigation). Even a staff editorial last Thursday alleged that "there is no doubt that a perception of racism exists in this city."

Today, a letter to the editor from a WSU alum accused the Evergreen editors of bad journalistic practices for allowing Boston, with an obvious conflict of interest as he was personally involved, to write a column on the incident.

Another letter pointed out the observation Scotty made earlier about how one of the officers involved in the tasering is African-American and how it is "asinine to accuse that officer of prejudice when he is also a minority."

Then there is a wonderful rebuttal column (which I'm surprised the Evergreeen allowed, knowing how they feel about "non-student viewpoints" ) from the attorney who successfully defended the Pullman Police Department in the recent Top of China lawsuit. Stewart Estes got right to the heart of the matter:
What Boston failed to disclose is that only days before this incident, he himself was a plaintiff suing Pullman Police officers for race discrimination and excessive force. Boston actually sued the very officer he criticized, and demanded $200,000 from him – for being at the Top of China restaurant when officers used pepper spray to break up a fight. We expect objectivity from journalists, and when they are biased, we expect them to tell us about it. We didn’t get that from Boston’s column.
...

Unfortunately, The Daily Evergreen Editorial Board, in a Feb. 15 staff editorial, compounded this problem by using Boston’s sour-grapes diatribe as a factual basis to assert that racial bias may exist in the Pullman Police Department. This paper chose to ignore the fact that a four-year-long, detailed judicial review of police department practices and actions resulted in the rejection of all claims of racial bias. No department in recent memory has been more highly scrutinized.

Apparently, for this newspaper, the mere fact that a disgruntled litigant makes the same tired allegations means the department is again guilty until proven innocent. Likewise, after admitting that he cannot prove his point, Boston said he “would be interested to hear any proof that their actions were not [racist].” What Boston and The Daily Evergreen are saying is that in our country it is now the accused who has to prove it is not racist. Not only is that legally and morally flawed, but I just spent the last four years of my life disproving just that. The staff editorial asserts that the jury’s verdict “only clears [the officers’] names in the eyes of the justice system.” I would ask: Where else can you go to clear your name? By what logic is a jury verdict – the fundamental basis for our freedoms – to be ignored and the “perception” of an embittered, interested party given greater weight?... Baseless claims of racism, even those based on genuinely held beliefs, are irresponsible and damage the decades of work that we have all put into this issue. While feelings and perceptions are, of course, important, they cannot form the basis for a public allegation of racial prejudice – one of the most damaging claims in modern culture. This requires proof. The proof here is that a court concluded that neither the officers, nor the department, have any racial bias.
Touche', Mr. Estes!

Nick Eaton, Evergreen editor-in-chief, writes on the Evergreen Editorial blog :
We stand by Boston’s column as a valid perception of the indicent that occurred on Feb. 11. He was present at the incident, just as other journalists would be if something happened right in front of them. He wrote his column without deceit. And he wrote it without trying to pass it off as objective repoting (it’s a column, after all). Reporting was what the news article was for.
But the paragraph before, Eaton admits:
...we were unaware Boston was a plaintiff in that complicated case until several days after his Feb. 14 column was printed.
Sure sounds "deceptive" to me, as well as a bit unbelievable. The Top of China suit had been going on for how long? How long has Boston been writing for the Evergreen? You don't think that subject ever came up with any Evergreen staffer?

All this comes at an interesting time. There is a bill making its way through the Washington House of Representatives at the moment (HB 1307) that would give high school and college newspapers complete "freedom of the press" (which is ironic, as the Evergreen editors haven't seen fit to extend that same right to the Pullman community).

Columnist Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times, doesn't think that's a good idea. He wrote on February 7 that:
Who owns the student press? The bill's supporters said the people owned it, the readers owned it or the students owned it, or some minestrone of the above. Eddie Reed, math specialist at the Tukwila School District, set them straight: "The school district owns it."

Then it should serve the school district's purposes: education, an activity that requires adult supervision.
...

The students who spoke for the bill said they were willing to take the responsibility. But when a teenager says, "I'll take the responsibility," what does it mean? Maybe not a lot.
The Evergreen's overreaction to the tasering incident might prove Ramsey correct. The Evergreen editors in their youthful ideological zeal, and apparently without the benefit of any sort of legal review, are heading into dangerous waters with completely irresponsible and unfounded accusations of racism against the Pullman police. God forbid any harm to persons or property comes as a result of it. At the very least, it doesn't help with WSU minority recruiting efforts, supposedly such a big issue on campus.

18 comments:

Nuss said...

As a former Daily Evergreen editor in chief, professional journalist and current high school journalism adviser who is fighting for the passage of HB 1307, I'd like to ask you a question:

What is the purpose of the Daily Evergreen, and other student publications?

The answer is simple: They exist as a learning tool for the student journalists who work there. How much do you think the journalists at the Evergreen are learning through this mess? My guess is lots.

I'm not trying to minimize the collateral damage from what sounds like a bit of irresponsible journalism. I'll freely admit, I'm not familiar with the intimate details of the situation, other than what I've read here. But to me, that's not the point. The point is that this student newspaper can only continue to maximize the learning taking place if it continues to operate in a free press environment.

Student journalists make mistakes. Heck, the professional press makes plenty of its own mistakes. And the funny thing is, those mistakes tend to get forgotten. I was a newbie at the Evergreen when the editorial board decided to run an issue with nothing but ads in it, protesting what it viewed as censorship by the Student Publications general manager. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Then the issue came out, and it sparked a nationwide debate about the responsibility a publication has to its readers. Then there was the piece a few years ago where the sports department tried to look at offensive mascots that included an illconceived illustration with a blackface on a helmet. Statewide outcry.

The funny thing is that all of these incidents, that seem to be such a big deal at the time, pass. In time, readers forget about the incidents. However, the lessons the journalists learn are never forgotten by those that have to learn through them.

It doesn't make their mistakes right, it doesn't undo the temporary pain, and it doesn't mean the students shouldn't be doubly diligent about being responsible. And it also doesn't mean the writer shouldn't be held responsible for his actions, as the officer who seems to have potentially been libeled certainly can sue the writer and the publication.

Incidentally, Bruce Ramsey certainly does not speak for the entire professional community. Check out the publications who have supported HB 1307 with staff editorials:

USA TODAY: http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20070212/edit12.art.htm

SPOKESMAN-REVIEW: http://www.spokesmanreview.com/opinion/story.asp?ID=175122

THE NEWS TRIBUNE:
http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/story/6357182p-5673120c.html

THE EVERETT HERALD:
http://www.heraldnet.com/stories/07/01/18/100edi_editorial001.cfm

SEATTLE P-I associate publisher Ken Bunting: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/301204_bunting26.html

Tom Forbes said...

"A bit of irresponsible journalism?" The officer accused of racism is not a student. This is not a "learning experience" for him. Calling someone a "racist" in today's society is one of the most vitriolic epithets one can use, especially when applied to someone in a position of public trust, such as a peace officer. This officer's name has been made public. Where does he go to get his good name back? Is that a "teachable moment?" These kinds of allegations could endanger his career. Even worse, they could endanger his life. And you blithely dismiss it all as "temporary pain" that will "pass in time."

The power of the press is too powerful to place in the hands of irresponsible children. There are many dangerous things that are minors are restricted from doing without adult supervision (driving, swimming, hunting, etc.). Why should this be any different?

April E. Coggins said...

No one is stopping the students from publishing their own privately owned and published newspaper. The students free speech rights have not been infringed. The question seems to be who should pay for their right to be published? In the real world, reporters answer to editors, owners and advertisers. Student newspapers exist only because of the artificial financial and infrastucture support from the university and is not a reflection of the readers free choice. If the readers support a newspaper, the newspaper will thrive and the writers won't have to answer to anyone. But student newspapers want cart blanche freedom, while accepting no responsibility or suffering any of the repercussions from irresponsible journalism.

Tom Forbes said...

Absolutely April! We as taxpayers subsidize the Evergreen's anti-Pullman, anti-American propaganda. And that's what we are talking about. True journalism has a code and is balanced.

And the Evergreen has a higher standard to live up to than the Riverside High School Record. A high school paper hardly makes it outside the school walls. Tne issues reported on usually don't either.

In our small town, however, more people read the widely distributed (and free) Evergreen than the legitimate papers. And the Evergreen (ostensibly) covers local news stories as well right alongside the regular media.

Tom Forbes said...

One more point Nuss (and thanks for dropping by and joining in the conversation):

I agree with you (and Bruce Ramsey) that the point of a student newspaper is education. And now I ask you a question. What form of education does not have supervision?

Would you submit to a medical student's surgical procedure without a board certified surgeon present? If something went wrong, the student would certainly learn a valuable lesson from the mess, but what would happen to you? What would happen to the hospital?

April E. Coggins said...

Whatever happened to the Edward R. Murrow School of Journalism? Do they not have any classroom time? If the Evergreen is considered a "learning experience", let the students learn the entire lesson. Why do they need to be shielded?

Tom Forbes said...

BTW, Daily Evergreen editors, I do not know who Janet Cooke is. You won't find her name on this blog (try quotation marks on the search string).

And please, just save yourself some time and bookmark this site.

April E. Coggins said...

Oh, is the Evergreen doing a little "target marketing"? Enjoy it Tom, consider it your donation to their classroom time.

Nuss said...

I see where you guys are coming from. Just a few more things for you to chew on:

1. If I remember correctly from my days as Editor in Chief, I believe 95 percent of The Evergreen's funding comes from private advertising -- hardly enough to warrant the assertion that it's a "taxpayer" paper.
2. House Bill 1307 does not give students the authority to run amok without supervision. These publications have advisers who are paid and trained to teach students good journalistic values, and then trust them to make good decisions. This happens in the vast majority of situations, and my high schoolers do it well everyday.
3. Let's remember that this is not life and death, and that the law has provisions for recourse when someone is wronged by a publication. When student journalists do make mistakes, they are legally liable for what they write, and always have been -- House Bill 1307 would do nothing to change that. The law already is very clear how a citizen can seek injunctive relief if his/her good reputation has been impuned by a publication. If this officer indeed was called a racist without merit, it sounds like he has the basis for a pretty good libel suit. That's his recourse. That will never change. Students will not be "shielded."
4. Only so much can be learned inside a classroom. If I were to try and put a percentage on the amount I learned about journalism from my time at the Evergreen and my time in courses, I would put it at about 75/25. Journalism is a skill that must be practiced in an authentic environment under the guidance of adult advisers to be learned -- similar to teachers (student teaching) and, yes, doctors (interning).

You guys should read the text of the bill. It's short, and it doesn't give students the protection to write whatever they want in whatever manner they want. It holds them to professional standards where they also must face consequences for illegal and unprotected speech.

Thanks for considering this important topic. Free speech is important to all of us -- regardless of political affiliation.

Tom, have you ever contacted the Evergreen to write for them? I get the sense they probably already know who you are, but I know when I was editor, we loved having diverse opinions represented on staff. Just a thought.

Tom Forbes said...

Yes. They had better be careful, or they might accidentally read something that contradicts the fount of all knowledge on Wal-Mart, the PARD website.

April E. Coggins said...

95% of the Evergreen funding comes from advertising? Somehow I don't believe that. Does that number include distribution, printing, paper and writers? Does the Evergreen circulation staff enjoy full retirement, a living wage and health care benefits? All paid by the advertisers? I think you picked that number out of your hat, like when you tell your mother that you are 95% sure.

Tom Forbes said...

Nuss, again thanks for the cogent insights.

"...have you ever contacted the Evergreen to write for them?"

*LOL* Oh yes, they know all about me. I made the offer back in October. This was the reponse I received from Editor Jacob Jones:

"BREO is not a student organization and its position is clear, especially in light of the most recent court decision. Our Opinion editor packaged the column with links to both the BREO and PARD Web sites to encourage awareness of both sides. I feel this was an appropriate step. Considering the amount of ink we have already offered to both PARD and BREO on the issue, in both News and Opinion, an additional rebuttal column from BREO seems excessive."

I highlighted "an additional rebuttal column" as neither myself nor the organization I am affiliated with (BREO) have ever been given an opportunity for even one rebuttal column on the Wal-Mart issue, despite many (documented) attempts on my part over the years. The opposite side on the issue has been afforded numerous columns. I was advised to write a letter to the editor, which I have also done on several occasions, only to have it not get published in the paper. Several other members or our organization have had the same experience.

The Evergreen cries free speech but does not practice it outside the confines of its staff, depsite the contention that it wants to the "Pullman paper of record."

Tom Forbes said...

I was also told by Jones that "The Evergreen would have no problem with a column from a student supporting Wal-Mart because that aspect is often left out of news stories dominated by PARD and BREO."

Nuss said...

I did not pull the "95 percent" out of a hat. That was our budget when I was editor. The other five percent was made up of contributions from student fees -- not taxpayer dollars. And when I was there, the circulation people were college students working a part time job, just like us.

Trust me when I tell you the overhead for the Daily Evergreen is *very* low when compared to professional counterparts. The main reason for that is the students make very little money. For example, as editor in chief, I was making $32 an issue for my 50-60 hours of work a week (while taking 12 credits). The rest of the staff made much less than that (I believe reporters made $15 a story.) Even if I conservatively estimated 40 hours a week, that's still only $4 an hour for the highest paid staff member -- and that was in 1997, not the stone ages. We did it because we loved it, and that's what allows it to work and stay relatively independent.

Last thing: I was not suggesting that you write a guest column, Tom. That kind of a one- or two-shot deal on your own terms does not serve anyone except you, and the editors have every right to reject your overtures. Why not go down there and apply to be a *staff member*? That's the opportunity that you have as a student that you wouldn't have if your beef was with the Daily News or the Spokesman -- you can become a regular part of the dialogue by getting hired by the publication. The only requirement is that you're a student.

Sometimes the only way to affect change is to become a part of the process!

(And thanks for the compliments. Just trying to present a balanced look at the issues at hand from a different perspective.)

Tom Forbes said...

Well, that's the rub. I'm not a student and I'm not a faculty member. I'm just one of those "taxpayers."

Therefore, it's not possible for me to affect any change, since as you say, the Evergreen staff had "every right" to reject my overtures to them to provide some balance on the issue. For that reason, the Evergreen will NEVER be taken seriously by us "townies."

Tom Forbes said...

Oh, and by the way Nuss, it wasn't "on my own terms."

This was written by the Evergreen opinion editor at the beginning of last semester:

"As the student newspaper of WSU and the paper of record for Pullman, we see ourselves as being community oriented. The news coverage strives to tell the stories of the people. Our opinion section wants to serve as the students’ and the residents’ megaphone. As a newspaper with a relatively large circulation, this is our public service. This is not only what we want to do, it is what we need to do. Your involvement is essential...."

In Civic Outlook, we are looking to have representatives from influential positions in the area write guest commentaries on topical issues. We will be actively recruiting for the column, and anyone interested can contact us...

We want all people within our reach to know that their voices have a home inside the pages of the Evergreen. There is a length limit on letters, but if you have more to say, you can contact us to write a Guest Commentary..."

Apparently, my involvment is considered "essential" only when they agree with the positions I espouse.

Nuss said...

Gotcha. Thought you were a student. Sorry.

Sounds like you've done all you can do. At that point, I guess you can just shrug your shoulders and keep on keepin' on.

Thanks for the forum.

Tom Forbes said...

Well, as my grandmother used to say, "There's more than one way to skin a cat!" ;)