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Gotcha Student Journalism

October 18, 2011

Anyone is entitled to say he is a baseball player, but that doesn’t necessarily put you on par with the Yankees.

That’s how Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, describes an unfolding controversy over a new weekly newspaper at the University of Tennessee's main campus in Knoxville.

Poised to distribute its third edition this week, The Athenaeum News has thus far dedicated its cover stories to investigations of a professor-student relationship that has arguably ended one marriage and inarguably culminated in another this summer.

The hitch? The student editor-in-chief of the paper and author of the investigations is the ex-husband of the female student who married her professor. Mustapha Moussa, a 40-year-old sophomore studying journalism and electronic media at Tennessee, said the paper was not created as an act of revenge; he is merely shedding light on an issue that he said has been swept under the rug by the university and other publications at Tennessee.

“A lot of people have taken the angle that I started it because I was being vindictive,” Moussa said. “I can’t change what happened with my family. I can only effect change in university policy.”

Moussa and his ex-wife, Brandi, divorced in April, after the affair between Brandi and Henri Grissino-Mayer, a university geography professor, came to light last year. A university investigation into the relationship concluded that the professor "exceeded the boundaries of the acceptable student-faculty relationship... However, information indicated that such behavior was consensual and did not rise to the level of unwelcome behavior," according to a report by The Knoxville News Sentinel. Moussa’s ex-wife and Grissino-Mayer met in a class in 2006, when the relationship first became more than merely professor-student, according to Moussa and university records detail a 2006 investigation. Moussa and his then-wife withdrew from the university, but then re-enrolled in 2010, when the relationship apparently continued, leading to the demise of the Moussa’s marriage. They are now embroiled in a custody battle over their three children, Moussa said.

Grissino-Mayer and Danny Garland, Brandi’s attorney, could not be reached for comment.

According to the university’s faculty handbook, “Relationships between students and their teachers, advisors, and others holding positions of authority over them should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest or exploitation. Given the inherent differences in power between faculty and students, all members of the university community should recognize the possibility of intentional or unintentional abuse of that power.”

Karen Simsen, University of Tennessee director of media and internal relations, said she could not comment on the Athenaeum or on the relationship between Grissino-Mayer and Moussa’s ex-wife. She said she could confirm that the sophomore is still enrolled in courses.

“My goal is to be a journalist and journalists are never popular,” Moussa said.

But Goldstein said no matter how you dress it up, this kind of journalism is anything but ethical. Goldstein said there have been plenty of incidents in which angered students have handed out leaflets, publicizing what they feel has been an injustice. But creating a whole newspaper? That’s a new one, he said.

“What’s a little bit different here is that the central reason for the publication’s existence is a journalism ethics conflict, which ordinarily at another publication would result in a reassignment of the reporter,” Goldstein said.

That’s not to say the student isn’t entitled to doing what he’s doing, though, he said. Moussa still has First Amendment protections, even if the ethics are a bit hazy. The Athenaeum would be held to the same standard as any other newspaper, meaning its content has to be truthful and not invade privacy.

Dwight Teeter, a university professor of journalism and electronic media at Tennessee, said some students seem to have been buzzing about the paper. A professor of media law and ethics, Teeter said “the First Amendment doesn’t say the press will be objective, it says it will be free.”

“So I know that this thing must be fueled by personal anguish on the part of the editor, but to my knowledge he has not broken any laws,” he said.

And Moussa said he “can sleep at night” because he included a disclaimer in his articles, notifying readers that he has a personal connection to the investigation.

About 20,000 copies of the first edition of the paper were printed at the end of August, Moussa said, with students handing them out. Moussa said he will probably only have about 15,000 printed for the next edition. The publication relies solely on advertising for the price of printing, which is the only major cost at the moment, he said.

It currently relies on a small staff of volunteer reporters. According to its Facebook page, the paper is an "independent student publication serving the University of Tennessee and Market Square District." Its first two editions, in addition to Moussa’s investigative cover pieces, had stories on changes to Netflix, a deadly shooting in downtown Knoxville, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in Knoxville.

Sally Renaud, president of the College Media Advisers group, said she has no problem with more students creating newspapers, but from what she can tell, this seems to have been done with retribution in mind.

And retribution “is not an ethical reason to start a newspaper, but historically, boy, has it been,” she said. “People with power who can pay for media have used media to their advantage.”

In college towns, Greek system newspapers and bar and entertainment newsletters have been created out of anger over negative coverage in the student press.

But students doing so is another story all together, she said. Most journalism students go through their college media channels, whether it be newspaper, TV or radio stations.

Jane Pope, director of student publications and adviser to The Daily Beacon, Tennessee's daily independent student newspaper, said Moussa has written a couple of stories and photographed a few assignments for the paper in the past. And the Athenaeum, like dozens of other publications around, could be considered competition for the student paper.

“Competition is a part of life and it’s a good experience,” Pope said. “I don’t think anyone should believe they deserve an audience, you should earn it because of the quality of your work.”

Pope said the Beacon’s conflict of interest policies would most likely not prohibit Moussa from continuing to contribute to the paper, but that decision will rest with the student editors. As long as Moussa does not write on the same subjects for the Beacon and the Athenaeum, it should be fine, she said.

Nonetheless, Moussa’s motivation to start his own publication does not seem to be typical of journalism in this age, she said.

Moussa said he brought the story to the Beacon, but editors declined his offer. Pope said the Beacon has not written anything on the issue, but it would be up to the student editors to track down such a story. Now, with his own publication, he is excited about the prospect of branching out and making his paper a franchise. Ideally, he said, in a few years he will be able to tap students at other universities in the Southeast to start their own papers under his umbrella company.

Until then, he said, said he will continue to follow the story involving his ex-wife and Grissino-Mayer.

'“This story is not about my marriage and my personal life,” he said. “It’s about the face the university did not follow procedure. That’s my target, to promote change.”

 

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