/Northwestern’s student journalists cowed to the mob — just like professional ones

Northwestern’s student journalists cowed to the mob — just like professional ones

There’s a dopey old don’t-do-drugs commercial in which a father confronts his weed-smoking son, who exclaims: “I learned it from you, Dad!” That’s American journalism.

The children who run the student newspaper at Northwestern recently disgraced themselves by issuing a groveling apology for . . . covering the news, in this case protests against a campus visit by Jeff Sessions. And that was their offense: taking photos, conducting interviews — you know, journalism. Students who were photographed or contacted for interviews complained that they were “traumatized” by this.

“We contributed to the harm students experienced,” the Northwestern editors wrote, “and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made.” The main mistake they’ve made is mistaking themselves for journalists. These kids are an embarrassment, but the problem did not start with them.

In 2002, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a story about the large number of fugitives who were at the time wanted in Philadelphia on murder warrants. The newspaper illustrated the story by printing every mug shot of every fugitive then wanted on a murder charge. The overwhelming majority of those faces were brown, which provoked an outcry. Not because the paper got it wrong, but because it had got it right — communicating a set of facts that critics did not want to hear. To his eternal discredit, editor Zack Stalberg issued a groveling apology for . . . covering the news.

In 2018, the editor of The New York Review of Books was fired for — see if you can spot the pattern — covering the news. Ian Buruma published a piece in which a high-profile Canadian broadcaster who had been tried and cleared on sexual-assault charges noted that he had been tried and cleared on sexual-assault charges. For the crime of covering the news, the editor was chased out of his job as other journalists, including Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, cheered on the mob.

On and on it goes: NPR fired a movie critic, David Edelstein, for making a joke about an infamous movie scene (that butter in “Last Tango in Paris”). ESPN hired the controversial commentator Rush Limbaugh and then fired the controversial commentator for producing controversial commentary, i.e. that a black quarterback had been overestimated for reasons of racial politics.

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The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University is considered one of the most prestigious programs in the country and the Daily Northwestern one of the best-regarded college papers.

David Banks

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A student walks by Medill School of Journalism.

David Banks

The strange thing is that while doing real journalism will get you fired or produce a groveling apology, inept journalism generally will not: Nobody actually got fired when Rolling Stone published a hard-hitting story in 2014 about a horrifying rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to be an utter fiction; managing editor Will Dana was permitted to make a graceful exit some months later without the stigma of being given the boot. The New York Times published a hit piece during the 2008 presidential campaign suggesting John McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist based on precisely squat (the paper’s own ombudsman confessed as much) and later published an absurd non-retraction retraction — after the election, in the face of litigation. Jim Rutenberg, the lead author on that article, still writes for the Times.

And like the sniveling kids at Northwestern, the Times has shown itself to be too easily bullied by the mob, for instance knuckling under and changing a perfectly accurate headline (“Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism”) under political pressure on Twitter.

Bless the editors of The Harvard Crimson. In October, they faced protests from students who were irked that they had engaged in journalism by interviewing ICE representatives about an “Abolish ICE” protest on campus. Students howled, and the editors just kept doing their jobs without apology.

When I was a student newspaper editor at the University of Texas in the 1990s, we covered campus protests and a couple of genuinely traumatic stories, too: the Branch Davidian siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing among them. We had reporters and editors of many different political persuasions, but there was never any serious talk of not covering the news because somebody might object to it. We assumed (and, indeed, often hoped!) that people would be upset by what they read in our newspaper and that some people would prefer that we not report the things we reported. That’s what made the news news.

But those conversations might go differently today with the bad examples before us of The New York Times, the Philadelphia Daily News, The New York Review of Books and others. “Student Journalists Face Blowback on Campus” was the Times’ much-too-precious headline for the controversy at the Daily Northwestern.

Cowardice? They learned it from you, Dad.