Last week, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern University as part of an event staged by the school’s College Republicans group. The event was vigorously protested by Northwestern students who were ostensibly not members of the College Republicans, which drew criticism from the university’s president, Morton Schapiro.
A few days later, The Daily Northwestern, the official campus newspaper posted a statement about its decision to redact the name of a protester from its report on the melee, along with a specific apology: during the reporting process, its staffers had photographed protesters’ faces at the protest, and texted students through the campus directory to see if they’d like to be interviewed about it, which those students considered an invasion of privacy. (Their staffers also removed photos of the protesters from their personal Twitter accounts.) “Ultimately, The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions,” the statement read. “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
When he was the attorney general from January 2017 to November 2018, Sessions mercilessly used his authority to demonize undocumented immigrants and people of color; he was invited to Northwestern to talk specifically about his experience in the Trump administration. Some important facts about Northwestern before we go on: The student body at the private university, which has an estimated yearly cost of $78,654, is 54 percent white. College Republicans at any school love to invite controversial — or even distinctly evil, by any common judgment — figures to campuses as a provocation. This is almost a rote occurrence for college students, much like locking yourself out of your dorm or doing a beer bong.
But the event, for some reason, rankled the Very Serious Adult Professionals Who “Do Journalism” (tweet). The problem, as they saw it, was not that the College Republicans invited a verifiably evil person to campus; it was the failure of the students at The Daily Northwestern to Do Journalism and instead prioritize the feelings of some random special snowflake SJWs, the sensitivity of whom is seen as some kind of death knell for the future of American journalism, or something like that.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of adult, salaried journalists who found the incredible courage to concern troll and/or mock The Daily’s statement: a City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune; the political editor for conservative website Town Hall; a staff writer for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger; a criminal justice reporter for The Wall Street Journal; popular feminist writer Jill Filipovic; a senior editor at The Denver Post; an op-ed writer at The Washington Post; Robby Soave, a staff writer at provocative centrist website Reason; an investigative reporter at The Washington Post; a reporter for BuzzFeed; a staff writer for The Ringer; failed sports journalist/right-wing lunatic Clay Travis; the media critic for The Washington Post; another op-ed writer at The Washington Post; and, of course, Bari Weiss. The list goes on. What’s notable is that these journalists span the political spectrum, but they were nonetheless unified by their indignation and horror that, somewhere in the country, college students, led astray by their hormones and undeveloped liberalism, were screwing up. (The New York Times ran with this unbelievably smug headline: “The Daily Northwestern Apologizes to Student Protesters for Reporting.”)
Apologizing for the sin of committing journalism. This is chilling and a sign of more to come: https://t.co/hrIZr1j7GQ— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) November 12, 2019
There were journalists who thought otherwise, thank god, and there were two thoughts I’d like to highlight in particular: freelance writer Karen Ho (a personal friend and a contributor to The Outline) wrote that “a number of journalists are mad about the Northwestern note in a way I have never really seen with several other issues, such the lack of diversity in their newsrooms, declines in public trust, or how reporting can further hurt underrepresented communities.” Mother Jones reporter Kara Vogt wrote: “I can only imagine how scared and embarrassed those Northwestern student journalists feel right now as they're being ridiculed by well-known reporters they almost certainly idolize.”
The first thought I have here, pertaining to Ho’s tweet, is sadly self-evident: There’s nothing more that a certain huffy kind of journalist loves than to lazily extol the vague virtues of Journalism as a life calling over the specific concerns that prevent actual journalism from being done. The second, related to Vogt’s, illustrates something more personal: I’ve never felt more lucky that my campus journalism experience was limited to my campus experience, rather than coming up for national critique from adults I respect with absolutely no investment beyond a chance to feel superior.
I attended Northwestern’s journalism school, graduating in 2010 and working for The Daily for my entire undergrad tenure. Whenever I wrote a bad piece (of course I did, I was 19 and into Chuck Klosterman), the feedback loop was usually constrained to the comments section on the paper’s website and my social world: Other students would e-mail/comment to say why I was wrong, and occasionally I’d have an awkward encounter at a party, like the time I wrote a sarcastic column about why Wilco sucked before they were set to perform on campus, and had a mildly tense IRL confrontation with the student responsible for inviting them.
As a former Daily Northwestern desk editor I can confirm, while I am still very hazy on the details, that overwritten notes from editors taking themselves and the paper way too seriously are a proud DN tradition and everyone is going to be just fine.— Jonathan M. Katz✍🏻 (@KatzOnEarth) November 12, 2019
In 2010, Twitter was still mostly a tool that media nerds and Shaquille O’Neal used to talk about their sandwiches; it was not the global thought dispersal system it is today, where at any moment of the day, you can become suddenly aware that a total stranger expressed an idea that you personally disagree with, begging your desperate entrance into the discourse. Had I graduated even three years later, that column about Wilco would’ve found its way into the hands of my adult peers, who probably would’ve tweeted shitty things about how I was an idiot. Today, it could easily go viral, inviting judgment from thousands of strangers. Any journalist my age or older who doesn’t understand how profoundly fortunate we are that this wasn’t the case for us, and that we should have a corresponding amount of empathy for the students who do have to consider this, should find something to fill up the gap in their soul.
It seems unbearably banal to have to remind anyone that college students are specifically in college to learn how to be adults, growing pains and all, and yet here we are: dozens of semi-respectable writers and editors descending from the mount to issue their finger-wagging correctives about how young people need to do better, a dynamic that’s certainly not unique to journalism. (It’s loosely why the “ok boomer” meme exists.) This isn’t the first time it’s happened with a campus journalism story: two notable incidents were the infamous Oberlin campus food controversy, and more recently, the Harvard Crimson being protested for reaching out to ICE for comment. In all these incidents, a controversy that even ten years ago would’ve been exclusively litigated within the geographic context of a university were instead elevated to the national stage, inviting all sorts of bloviating meandering about What It All Means.
But let’s revisit for a moment: What journalistic crimes did The Daily actually commit? They removed photos of students at the protest, along with the name of one protester. Maybe that’s overly sensitive, but when the FBI is literally surveilling left-leaning student activists, it’s not paranoid to say their identification could lead to further retribution. And that’s just from law enforcement, to say nothing of conservatives on campus and/or the freaks who flood into the comment sections, ready to scream at whoever they can — a current Northwestern student told me that a student they know received multiple death threats after giving a quote to another campus publication about how Sessions shouldn’t come to campus, leading them to deactivate their social media accounts.
Per The Daily’s statement: “Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not. We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University.” What journalistic value does specific identification provide beyond “this person was there,” which could easily be weaponized? None, I’d say.
Think this is all I'll say on Northwestern: Our students are dealing w a complicated situation w critical thinking, reflection & by listening to & learning from one another.— Dr. Steven W. Thrasher (@thrasherxy) November 12, 2019
Meanwhile, Chris Cillizza thinks you should show compassion to George W Bush, but not to them.
Second, they directly contacted protesters via the campus directory to see if they wanted to be interviewed. In some sense this is “doing their job,” but it’s also just sort of annoying — it’s not a trouble to ask people in person, rather than going through the somewhat awkward motions of sending a random text. (Especially given the justifiably paranoid circumstances we’re talking about.) Student journalists often feel righteous in their pursuit of a story, but they also think by different standards than other people. “Why is this stranger/peer texting to get me on the record about how I hate Jeff Sessions?” is a justifiable reaction, for people untrained in the boundaries of journalism… especially, again, since their answers might not provide any necessary information beyond a bland contextual quote. It’s one thing to doggedly pursue a source who can solely provide a necessary piece of information; it’s another to randomly spray questions, in order to fill column space.
“As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the university, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances,” The Daily’s statement read. This line was specifically mocked by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, but it seems uncontroversial to me: Like all campus publications, The Daily Northwestern’s area of concern is the college where it’s based. In many ways, they’re performing journalism with the training wheels on, learning how to serve a small community so they can do it on a larger scale. Considering the needs and concerns of its subjects isn’t overly sensitive; it’s an equal part of maintaining the essential public trust between press and citizens.
And again, even 10 years ago this process would’ve been contained to the people it actually affects. Most professional journalists don’t have to worry about getting a knock on their door from campus police about their activities, or having their political expression used against them; national journalists don’t have to walk around campus, keenly aware of the effect they’re having on others; white journalists especially don’t have to worry about a family member or acquaintance being pursued by ICE, as journalists of color often have, which seems especially relevant given the protest was against the man who empowered ICE. As far as I can tell, The Daily’s only crime was trying to respond to the anxieties and feelings of the people it covers. Whether they got it wrong or right is immaterial; the important part is that they considered it at all, given the role of empathy in creating a useful press. (Crucially relevant is that The Daily’s editor, Troy Closson, is just the third black editor-in-chief in the paper’s 135-year history.)
Then again, I’m a proud SJW lefty who once tweeted “Jeff Sessions retire bitch,” so I’m obviously biased. To shore up my argument, here are two quotes from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, a manual I assume every fatuous journalist loves to imagine humping at night: “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast” and “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” So what’s the problem?