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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Editorial: Is Disestablishmentarianism Dead in College Newspapers?

Twenty years ago, I served as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper. My co-editors and I stayed up until six or seven in the morning, five nights a week. We drank stale coffee, smoked cheap cigarettes, and banged away on manual typewriters, trying to affect a grizzled, hard-boiled image.

Most of us were privileged kids from the suburbs, not working-class gumshoes. But the tough-guy image we cultivated included a deep skepticism of authority–especially of the authorities who ran our university.

So we made it our job to make them miserable. Every day, our newspaper attacked the university. It wasn’t providing enough financial aid; it wasn’t hiring enough minority professors; it wasn’t assisting the nearby community. Whatever the university did or didn’t do, we denounced it.

Open up many college papers today, and you’ll find a very different sensibility. Today’s editors embrace the cool vibe of popular culture. Their stories focus less on university politics and more on music, film, fashion and sex.

To be fair, some papers continue to criticize university policies. Over the last few years, for example, the Yale Daily News has blasted Yale’s efforts to block graduate students from unionizing. But generally, today’s student journalists give administrators a free pass–or, at the most, a light touch.

That’s why you rarely read a letter or comment from an irate school official condemning the school paper. Twenty years ago, administrators routinely called us to scream–yes, scream–about our attacks on skyrocketing tuition costs, school disciplinary procedures, or poor dormitory security. These folks must celebrate when the college daily turns to more urgent matters, like stress-induced impotence or the politics of lovemaking.

What’s going on here? Some papers might temper their coverage of university politics for fear of reprisals. Last year, officials at Governors State University in Illinois suspended publication of a student newspaper after it attacked the teaching performance of two professors. The editors sued the university, which has claimed the same powers to censor student papers as high school principals possess.

The Governors State case will be heard in January by a federal appeals court in Chicago. Even if the court rules in favor of students’ press freedom, though, the decision won’t do any good if students don’t take advantage of it.

Most of all, universities won’t be called to account without a strong and independent student paper. The only other campus news comes from “public information” offices, which put a cheery gloss on everything the school does. If student journalists don’t present another side of the story, nobody will.

Two decades ago, I’ll admit, we should have gathered more information–and done more thinking–before we embraced the other side. We were too quick to malign the university, too assured of our own moral righteousness. We were kids, after all.

But if kids must err, let them err on the side of excessive criticism rather than of cool detachment. Sure, there’s a place for light entertainment–including sex columns–in the college press. When heavy breathing dominates school newspapers, however, school officials breathe a sigh of relief. And that’s bad news for all of us.

Jonathan Zimmerman ([email protected]) teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth.