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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Youthful Mistakes and the Journalists Who Leap Upon Them

We should criticize student protesters when they make mistakes, but, as always, it's complicated.

November 22, 2015

This is a memory I’ve successfully suppressed for years, but it came flooding back to me last week.

When I was a college junior I submitted one of my short stories to the New Yorker.

I don’t recall the specific story, but I remember it being well-received by my colleagues in our undergraduate workshop, which is about as far as my frame of reference for what was “publishable” extended.

I knew that if you got a story published in the New Yorker, everything else fell into place when it came to forging a career as a successful author. In my youthful delusion, I figured I may as well get started, cleaned up some of the typos in the original, and mailed it off, not expecting an acceptance, but not ruling it out either.

Experience has since taught me that I was fully delusional, my enthusiasm leaping ahead of knowledge and sense. I’m grateful there wasn’t an internet culture to pour down mockery on my young, misguided head.

I was reminded of this past shame when I heard about the ill-conceived demand by Smith College protesters that any media covering their sit-in would have to first “articulate their solidarity” with the movement, a clear violation of the established norms of journalistic access.

Reading this made me cringe for a number of reasons. For one, I tend to be a free speech absolutist. For another, I am sympathetic to the aims of student protest movements across the country because I believe that students should be encouraged to be active participants in their communities. I think a student body less deferential to authority (particularly within the modern corporatized university) is preferable to the alternative. When these mistakes are made, the mistakes dominate the narrative, distracting the discussion from the underlying issues.

The public response was predictable. Those who think the nation’s college students are some bizarre amalgam of whiny entitled babies and ruthless jackbooted thugs plotting the fascistic overthrow of the republic had a good time pointing and saying, “See…see…see…I told you they’re up to no good!”

It also gave rise to the burgeoning genre of the media meta-sneer, where journalists cavil about how dumb college students are to not understand how these things work, as evidenced in this neat little hatchet job from the Washington Post that works in both the entitled and clueless tropes, making sure to highlight the (no doubt) high tuition at Smith so we can make sure to understand the depths of privilege. 

Perhaps spending so many years working with students has made me soft, but when students make mistakes, rather than tugging out my own hair, my first instinct is to ask “why?” It’s the same question as when I work through a stack of essays and see errors and I must consider a new approach for teaching what I think students need to learn.

In the case of student protesters not fully understanding the ins and outs of media relations, I think there may be several things at work.

I hear a lot of “Don’t they understand the First Amendment!?!?!” screeching, and the answer is, probably not if they’re typical Americans. When surveyed, a full one-third cannot name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment. Only 10% can identify “freedom of the press” as one of the specifically enumerated rights. Go ahead and guess all five right now and see how you do[1].

Secondly, if they’re at all typical of average Americans, they also don’t trust the media, period. According to Gallup, we are at a historical low (40%) in the percentage of Americans who say that have either a “fair amount” or a “great deal” of trust in news being reported “fully, accurately, and fairly.” We also have a very successful news network that is predicated on being a counterbalance to the “lamestream” media, and just recently a quorum of candidates and the Chairman of the Republican Party thought the questions at the CNBC-sponsored debate were unfairly biased.

Student protesters may be especially suspicious considering the treatment following previous mistakes at Missouri, which launched a thousand meta-sneers and had former journalist and current television show runner David Simon accuse protestors of engaging in “fascistic” tactics.

It’s not paranoia when someone’s out to get you. In reacting to the Smith story, Politico’s education reporter declared a (clearly metaphoric) wish to “punch all college students in the face all the time.”


So if students are wary or distrustful of media, this makes them nothing more than typical, and if they believe that media covering the protests may be on the lookout for a “gotcha” moment, that seems only sensible.

Let’s get ‘em!

But I think there is something else at work as well, the thing that caused me to be revisited by my own naïveté. When I sent my heart and soul to the New Yorker, I had a sense that when it came to being published, there was a game to be played, but I only knew a fraction of the rules, and because of that, I acted the fool.

Students may be inexperienced, but they aren’t dumb. They are well aware that there is some kind of game being played when it comes to media access and coverage, but they don’t know what it is, and in an attempt to join, they made a hamfisted and counterproductive request.

The trading of restrictions on reporting in exchange for access is utterly routine in journalism. Every use of an anonymous source is an example. Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times has admonished the paper repeatedly for its use of anonymous sources, something contravened by the paper’s own policies, and yet a guideline that is routinely ignored and abused.

And while sophisticated and experienced entities subject to media reporting would never do anything so obvious as demand journalists pledge loyalty prior to agreeing to provide access, one of the reasons they don’t is because they can readily find an already sympathetic journalist ready and waiting, and make sure that the ground rules of discussion are well-understood with a wink and a nudge before access is granted.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion the Bush Administration didn’t need to get Judith Miller to sign a loyalty oath because she was all-in to begin with.

The Pentagon gives 60 Minutes so much exclusive access because they know the newsmagazine will allow them to put out their version of a story while receiving a kind of scripted, rather mild pushback that only enhances Defense Department credibility. [2] If 60 Minutes decides to suddenly bare it’s journalistic teeth, it knows that its future access in jeopardy. It's a courtship that benefits both partners, but the audience should hardly believe we're receiving something like the whole truth in the bargain.

The access game is well-established, and you will find no greater cynical practitioners of it than our most famous correspondents who spew "sources close to the situation" B.S. and speculation hour after hour over our airwaves.

The problem student protesters are running into is that they do not have the kind of institutional power and leverage that allows them to engage in these sorts of trade-offs, and they didn’t know the negotiations are meant to be private, rather than public.

And so, knowing there’s a game, but not the rules, they blunder, and it looks ugly, and because of the nature of the internet and our current political discourse they get hammered for it, rinse and repeat.

This is not to argue that student protesters should be immune from criticism. They are playing in the big leagues, and criticism is vital and necessary, particularly from those who are sympathetic to their aims.

And I don’t really expect those who find the politics of these student movements something between troubling and apocalyptically bad to lay off. They should be encouraged to grouse and grump like a couple of balcony bound Muppets characters to their hearts’ content.

But the caterwauling heard in some corners of the media when these things happen is a very bad look for journalism, and especially bad for the reporters who publicly engage in it[3]. By all means, it should be reported when protesters deny access to reporters and why, but is it so hard for journalists to lay off the snark, which has the not inconsequential effect of tilting the coverage in ways that strike me as incompatible with professional ethics?

I remember when journalists used to take some pride in not being part of the story.

And rest assured, the best part about these controversies is that each one helps students get better at exercising their rights in the most efficacious way. Amherst students who went overboard in their demand that students who had put up anti-activist “free speech” posters be administratively sanctioned have quickly realized their mistake and are adjusting their arguments accordingly.

And if we want an example of how good these students can get, I suggest a close and comprehensive read of the demands put forward by the University of North Carolina student groups, which collectively read as an indictment of the corporate, neoliberal university, and should be forcing all levels of university administration and state governance into an uncomfortable conversation about what their storied institution really stands for.

The UNC students are challenging the powers that be to prove that the university truly serves the public and citizens of the state as opposed to the administrative class.

I hope the media gives it the amount and kind of coverage it deserves.




[1] Speech (identified by 57% in survey), Religion (19%), Assembly (10%), Press (10%), and Petition (2%).

[2] For example, that despite its myriad troubles and cost overruns, that the F-35 fighter will eventually be the bees knees of warplanes.

[3] A CNN reporter was recently suspended for editorializing regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. As of yet, I haven’t heard boo about such editorializing regarding student protests.


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