Teachable Moment on Censoring Objectionable Messages

NKU's student paper was wrong to cancel ads for Resistance Records because the advertiser's racism offends the editor. And Editor Tim Owens was wrong to publish an apology for carrying the ads. If he were going to apologize, it should have been for invok

Nov 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

NKU’s student paper, The Northerner, was wrong to cancel ads for Resistance Records because the advertiser’s racism offends the editor. And Editor Tim Owens was wrong to publish an apology for carrying the ads. If he were going to apologize, it should have been for invoking his beliefs to justify silencing an advertiser.

When student journalists learn to cringe, grovel and apologize, it’s the wrong lesson. Let people complain. That’s their right. If you’re an editor, someone always will fault something you do. You’ll never please everyone with a paper worth reading. That includes the ads.

The small ads weren’t obscene, deceptive or libelous — you can find them on cincinnatibeacon.com. The ads made no mention of race.

Owens alleges no violation of NKU or Northerner policy. He says he acted after learning Resistance Records is a “pro-white” group that offends him and some readers.

The Northerner didn’t have to carry the ad, but it was a teachable moment; Owens could have advanced diversity of belief, but he blew it.

Owens could have explained that Northerner acceptance of any ad does not imply agreement with the advertiser, service or product. Instead he yielded the ethical high ground to a censored advertiser. He turned racists into victims of a state institution. Perfect.

If there were faculty or administration pressure to cancel the Resistance Records ads, that’s another lesson a university should not teach. Owens and The Northerner should have run a story on pressure or orders to censor the ads based on the advertiser’s beliefs.

Fight words with words, not silence. Do a story on Resistance Records. Quote Resistance.com: "The most important part of pro-White activism begins with education. ... It is understood that America's schools and universities censor or omit facts in their textbooks that would undermine their goal for a Jewish-controlled one-world government, otherwise referred to as the 'New World Order.' Their goal is to destroy all races, nations, and cultures, so that the people of the Earth are easier to control." Then trust the readers.

Parenthetically, some Northerner readers probably agree with Resistance Records’ “pro-white” viewpoint. What does Owens do if they're offended by his actions? Dismiss them as beneath his contempt?

In returning its money and refusing further Resistance Records ads, Owens said the text and initial payment were accepted without knowing what the advertisers advocated. He indicated that Northerner staffers learned about Resistance Records from a Channel 12 reporter.

“Resistance Records is a business that promotes white supremacy...,” Owens wrote in his apology. “While it is not illegal to run ads of this nature, we at The Northerner see it as an ethical issue. We do not wish to be in business with groups or organizations that promote any form of racism, sexism, ageism, or any other form of discrimination. While issues of this nature are dependent on who runs The Northerner each semester, it was my decision that the paper, for this semester (emphasis added), will not advertise with this business or other businesses like it.”

That’s not an ethics policy. It’s personal bias. It’s CYA. Owens has one foot on the slippery slope. Where does he draw the line?

Is no discrimination acceptable? Coaches discriminate among players based on ability. NKU editors discriminate among students based on ability and work ethic. Colleges discriminate among applicants for undergraduate and graduate admissions. Veterans’ groups discriminate between those who served in foreign wars and those who did not. Some religious groups discriminate between heterosexuals and homosexuals, Creationists and Darwinists, and those who accept and those who reject the group’s path to salvation. What about gender/ethnicity/race-based student groups? Diversity committees?

Being discriminating can be legal and admirable. A good word has gotten a bad rap.

Owens’ apology continues: “ I don’t want it to seem like I am making excuses. The fact of the matter is we screwed up. We should have researched our client better before getting in to business with them.” Why? The ad text wasn't objectionable and the check was good.

If it accepts ads only from prospective clients who pass Owens’ vague test of beliefs or viewpoints, how deeply will The Northerner probe? Must wannabe advertisers pass a carbon footprint test? Will sweatshop accusations bar a company from advertising NKU-branded gear in the student paper?

Where is Owens drawing the line? Must every potential advertiser guess? If an ROTC ad offends antiwar students or an antiabortion group’s ad offends pro-choice students, will Army or Right to Life ads and payments be rejected?

Owens concludes, saying, “I also want to take this opportunity to personally apologize to our readers for running this ad. ... Please know that we did not intend to offend anyone, and will pay closer attention to the ads we run in the future.”

Avoiding offense, running belief-checks on potential advertisers and embracing an individual editor’s political correctness will distract Northerner journalists from the demands of reporting and presenting the news that NKU readers need. And be sure they’ll offend someone if they do their job as journalists.

Curmudgeon Notes

• The day before The Northerner’s Owens released his apology, cincinnatibeacon.com posted images of the Northerner Resistance Records ads under the headline, “White Supremacy Infiltrates NKU?” Was Cincinnati Beacon the first here to draw attention to the ideology that undergirds Resistance Records? The online Kentucky Enquirer story credits a blog and a TV channel for alerting Owens but doesn’t name either. Curious.

• The latest Streetvibes reports how Metropole Apartments residents took over a meeting called at the Walnut Street building by 3CDC, the new landlord that wants them to make way for luxury accommodations. Metropole is in the heart of what Cincinnati hopes will be an affluent entertainment district. Metropole residents are poor. Streetvibes’ report has lots of detail missing from the Enquirer online story, including the accusation that a 3CDC representative initially denied that he was from 3CDC and the building’s new owners obtained an uncommonly heavy police presence during the meeting. This is a case where advocacy journalism serves readers well; Streetvibes is published by the Homeless Coalition. It was involved in the meeting takeover and is counseling Metropole residents on ways to keep their apartments.

• If you missed Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher’s recapitulation of Randy Ward’s fatal shooting, you missed vivid storytelling. Streicher was on Bill Cunningham’s WLW 700 noon show. Willie let him talk almost without interruption or prompting. Streicher spoke simply of the restraint and courage of the five officers involved in the traffic stop, foot chase and lethal ending. He also spoke respectfully of Ward’s family, who, he said, indicated the confrontation could have been “suicide by cop.” Ward faced prison, not least for possession of a handgun as a convicted felon. It also was the first time I’d heard of officers specifically trained to reconstruct incidents from all available police and private closed circuit videos, witnesses and audio tapes. Streicher credited their skills for the coherent, detailed, second-by-second story he told.

• The human relations group Bridges for a Just Community, said Muslims are isolated in our midst. The Enquirer reacted by interviewing the usual sources, a few Muslims with communal titles. The story, leading page 1, lacked the voices of corner store owners and corporate executives, students and faculty in local schools and universities, physicians and other health care workers in private practice and hospital settings, and other Muslims in our midst.

The story also lacked any sense of diversity among Muslims and how their mosques tend to reflect this. Middle Eastern, North/sub-Saharan African, South Asian, white American and African-American Muslims follow the same faith. However, their American experiences — and degree of isolation or integration — are vastly different. There was little evidence as well of threats or taunting in the story or whether it was different for different groups of Muslims among us. It wasn’t for lack of talent; the reporter was one of the paper’s best. Rather, the Enquirer story cried for more time, enough to do the kind journalism The Enquirer would have done before it shrank its staff, pages and content.

The Enquirer inexplicably buried the recent New York Times story on people who won’t take medicines meant to prevent serious illness. A centerpiece involved men who shun inexpensive pills that can prevent potentially disabling or lethal prostate cancer. Cincinnatians participated in the national study that showed that the little blue pill, finesteride, reduced the onset of prostate cancer by more than 25 per cent. That finding was so stunning that the study was stopped because it no longer was ethical to give half of the participants the placebo.

The Times also described other preventive measures that people ignore and useless and harmful pills that people take on faith. At least one debunking national study also included Cincinnatians: vitamin E and selenium — alone or together — don’t prevent prostate cancer and can increase other health risks.

• Longterm investigative reporting continues even as resources decline. A fine example comes from Enquirer alumna Kristina Goetz, for whom the Memphis Commercial Appeal created an investigative reporter slot after she completed her research for Carl Bernstein’s book on Hillary Clinton. Kristina’s work in Memphis is called “True Crime.” It puts her on the scene repeatedly, but no more so than in her latest, fourth story. She gets convincingly grubby to accompany a longterm undercover officer in the city’s attempt to reduce drug sales; read it at www.commercialappeal.com/news.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that lawyer Astrida Lemkins is suing unnamed individuals who posted defamatory comments about her on Kentucky.com, the paper’s web site, under the name “supercalifraglisitic.” Lemkins was attorney for accused killer and former legislator Steve Nunn, son of a former governor. Lemkins subpoenaed The Herald-Leader for e-mail addresses of anyone using "supercalifragilistic" to make comments about her. Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said the comments have been removed from the site and the user name has been blocked for violating web site terms of service. "We are attempting to contact the commenter to see if he or she wishes to object to the subpoena and assert his or her First Amendment right to anonymous speech," Baniak said.

• Ideally, reporters go to the most authoritative sources they can find in the time available. Recently hacked and posted emails among climate scientists suggest that some of these sources are not as candid with reporters (and readers/listeners/viewers) as has been assumed. As for those whose emails are consistent with their public statements, they’re tarnished, too. The science is unchanged, but the interpretation and presentation revealed in some of these hacked emails can only encourage deniers by making the messengers vulnerable.

• My opposition to a federal taxpayer bailout for struggling dailies was too unimaginative and narrow. Now, possibly for the first time, a state is helping resurrect a bankrupt, defunct local daily paper. New Hampshire is buying into The Claremont Eagle Times with a 75 percent loan guarantee for its buyer. If the new owner defaults, taxpayers are stuck for $187,500.

The paper quit publishing on July 10, putting 66 full-timers and 29 part-timers on the street, according to the nearby Valley News. The Eagle Times is publishing again with 25 full-time employees. Lou Ureneck, chairman of Boston University's journalism department says the state guarantee “raises an obvious red flag even if the goals of the transaction — to help an employer resuscitate a small newspaper important to its community — might be understandable. It certainly creates the appearance and probably the reality of a conflict in the paper's coverage of state government.”

Editorandpublisher.com quotes unnamed industry analysts, saying this is the first but probably not the last such deal by any state government.

• It’s disturbing how fast some reporters and editors abandon a basic rule of journalism: attribution. News media quickly reported that that Kimberly Munley, a petite white female civilian police sergeant, confronted and shot down the accused psychiatrist in the Fort Hood killings. Even better, she already had the nickname “Mighty Mouse.” What began as a story attributed to senior military officers and a Fort Hood spokesman soon became a fact: She did it, and no one needed to attribute that “fact” to anyone.

Then The New York Times reported that Mark Todd, a black male civilian police sergeant, might have been the responder who shot Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. That gave the story an ugly turn for journalists: not sexism or racism but complexity.

• If Fort Hood officials examine both officers’ pistols to see if they were fired, we’ll know whose bullets were taken from the wounded psychiatrist. That’s one way to begin to settle who did what to whom. It’s always a downer when facts ruin a good tale. Meanwhile, don’t look for a correction. It’ll be up to you to figure out that later stories involving the second sergeant really are corrections of earlier, unattributed assertions about the female sergeant’s role. We used to call such stories “row-backs.” Rather than admit error, row-backs were stories that rebutted earlier “facts” with new information.

• Confusion and contradictions in initial Army statements after the Fort Hood shooting don’t strike me as another deliberate chorus of Bush-era Pentagon lies like those told about Jessica Lynch’s capture-and-rescue in Iraq and Pat Tillman’s killing by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. By the way, who named “friendly fire?” If it’s coming at you, no fire is friendly. Talk about euphemism and the news media embracing Pentagon-speak in search of an authoritative voice. Why not say “he was killed by his own side”?

• If you missed the initial broadcasts, go to NPR’s web site and listen to (or read) Daniel Zwerdling’s reports on problems with Maj. Hasan’s training. At various points, supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center wondered aloud if Hasan were psychotic and dangerous, and they documented why he was unfit to practice psychiatry. Unsure, they shipped him to Fort Hood to treat traumatized returning combat vets rather than take the trouble to dump him from the psychiatric residency program.

Now connect the dots. It was at Walter Reed where The Washington Post found such filthy and abusive conditions under which some returned combat veterans were housed and treated. As Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told soldiers, “You go to war with the Army you have.” That included medical/psychiatrist services. Hasan was good enough, even as physicians continue to dishonor combat veterans by calling post-trauma stress a “disorder” and more soldiers commit suicide every year than in the year before.

• The pissing match prompted by Sarah Palin’s book, Going Rogue, began with Associated Press fact-checking. It hasn’t ended, as the book is suffering the close reading of any politician’s recollections and hopes. Among others, AP found Palin’s memory and knowledge of current events equally flawed.

The AP indictment includes Palin’s claim that Alaska is a libertarian heaven where people reject federal “help.” Alaska is one of the most heavily subsidized states, receiving $1.84 for every dollar sent to Washington, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

AP contrasts Palin’s welcome of the Supreme Court’s decision cutting punitive damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill by 80 percent with her joy at the original $2.5 billion judgment for Alaskans.

Despite her claims to virtue as a Wasilla council member, AP lists conflicts of interest in her votes and maneuvers.

And Palin says Reagan faced a worse recession than we do today and his responses were key to “real job growth.” AP says the Reagan recession lasted 16 months and the current recession is far longer and that capital gains and estate taxes are lower now than under Reagan.

• Palin responded on her Facebook page, saying, "Amazingly, but not surprisingly, the AP somehow nabbed a copy of the book before it was released. They're now erroneously reporting on the book's contents and are repeating many of the same things they spewed during the campaign and afterwards. We've heard 11 writers are engaged in this opposition research, er, ‘fact checking’ research!"

• Fox News chose images from a crowded 2008 campaign scene to illustrate a recent Palin book-signing after she drew far fewer people. This misrepresentation followed another misleading choice where Sean Hannity used old, crowded footage to illustrate a “tea party” promoted on Fox. The irony of that earlier misrepresentation is that Jon Stewart, not the traditional news media, outted Hannity and Fox. He realized that green leaves were an unlikely background for a late autumn event.