Forgive the excessively long headline, but my feelings about this latest Daily Trojan scandal are almost eight years in the making. Excerpt:
Zach Fox resigned as editor in chief of the Daily Trojan Tuesday evening after administrators made clear he would be prevented from taking the position next semester.
Fox was re-elected as editor for the spring semester by a staff vote of 37 to 21 Nov. 8. His position was contingent on Vice President of Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson, who would have presented Fox to the Media Board for approval today.
Jackson “determined that (Fox’s) nomination cannot be presented to the Media Board for approval,” as “the objectives outlined in his application do not agree with the requirements and primary responsibilities of the EIC role (as defined by the job description),” Mona Cravens, director of student publications, wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Trojan editorial staff Tuesday.
Many staff members, however, are skeptical that Jackson is withholding Fox’s nomination for the reasons Cravens presented.
More on those “reasons” in a moment, but first, let’s pause, take a step back, and consider what’s going on here. According to the article, “an editor in chief-elect has never [before] been denied presentation to the Media Board.” So this is a move that breaks with all precedent. Nor is presentation to the Media Board normally a controversial thing; the Media Board vote is normally a mere formality, a “courtesy” more than anything else.
Of course, the very idea that the university administration — whether through the Vice President of Student Affairs, the Director of Student Publications, or a “Media Board” composed of administrators and faculty — has any role in selecting the Daily Trojan’s editor-in-chief, whether as a “courtesy” or otherwise, completely and utterly flies in the face of the Daily Trojan’s self-described (self-deluded is more like it) “independence” as a “student-run” newspaper.
The incongruity between the Media Board process and the DT’s avowed independence has always been there. They’re just waking up to it now. Cue editorial director Jeremy Beecher: “It’s incredibly condescending that the administration views this staff’s election of its editor as less than the final step. At a university with one of the best journalism schools in the country, the idea that students can’t be trusted to run their own student paper is preposterous and says a great deal about how this administration values its students.” Amen, Preacher Beecher.
Something else that’s worth noting, but which might not jump off the page: if Vice President of Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson is the one refusing to present Fox to the Media Board, why is it Director of Student Publications Mona Cravens who gets quoted in the newspaper, explaining Jackson’s reasoning? Why isn’t Jackson quoted, explaining the decision himself?
That question is answered several paragraphs down: “Jackson declined to comment on the record.” This is sadly typical of the aloof Dr. Jackson, who, to the best of my recollection, never allows himself to be quoted on-the-record. But, while unsurprising, it’s completely outrageous nonetheless. The Vice President of Student Afffairs personally, dictatorially rejects the Daily Trojan staff’s choice for editor-in-chief — and then refuses to comment on why?!? And so it’s left to Mona Cravens, the administration’s everyday meddler-in-chief on USC’s “independent student newspaper,” to explain Dr. Jackson’s actions. To DT alums like myself, there’s nothing surprising about this: Dr. Jackson is an asshole, and Mona carries water for him. The usual.
(A brief lesson in internal Daily Trojan dynamics is in order here. Mona Cravens is a generally inoffensive, almost motherly figure. It’s hard to get angry at her, because she always seems so… helpful… and reasonable… and nice. As such, most DT staffers and editors view her more as a “den mom” than anything else. Plus, she’s been there forever, so she commands respect. She knows more about the DT and its history than any of the current staff, since a staff made up of undergraduate students is, obviously, quite transient. But the thing is — and this is constantly overlooked — Mona is a member of the USC administration, and as such, she should NEVER be allowed to have any sort of editorial control over a “student-run” paper. And she doesn’t have any such control — formally. She “advises” the editors. She makes “suggestions.” She gives “opinions.” But they almost always listen to her because, well, because she’s Mona, and when Mona speaks, you listen. I have nothing against Mona personally; she’s a perfectly nice person. But her role is, and always has been, totally inappropriate for a newspaper that fancies itself “independent” of the administration. Mona is Exhibit A for why that self-description is completely inaccurate. … Caveat: I was there from 1999-2003, which is a while ago. But I doubt things have changed that much. Indeed, if this latest development is any indication, they’ve gotten worse.)
Anyway, back to the article, and those “reasons Cravens presented” for why Fox is being rejected:
Fox proposed the editor in chief no longer oversee daily newspaper production, a responsibility he would have delegated to the managing editor. Redefining senior editor roles would better reflect professional newspapers, he said. …
[Journalism professor and Daily Trojan faculty adviser Larry] Pryor said the board’s main concern with Fox’s application was the severity and swiftness of change.
“He can’t just do something like this overnight. He could make some serious mistakes that could hurt the Daily Trojan,” Pryor said. “I admire his nerve and the changes he’s made this fall. But if he’s got a vision, he needs to bring everyone along. It would take at least six months to work this out, not the next six days.” …
Managing Editor Kristin Mayer, who has assumed the position of editor in chief for the remainder of the semester, said she believes the administration is “leaving something out” about why it will not present Fox for approval.
Under Fox’s leadership, the Daily Trojan presented Jackson this semester with a letter demanding more transparency and control of its budget. In response, Jackson created a task force, composed of administrators, faculty and student representatives, to review and assess the demands.
The task force is now formalizing its proposal, over which Jackson will have discretion, said Sahil Chaudry, vice president of Undergraduate Student Government and a member of the task force.
I gotta interrupt the blockquote to comment on this one. More typical Jackson/USC bulls**t, there. Student leaders make a reasonable demand? Pay lip service to it, form a “task force,” wait it out, and hope that the annual drumbeat of student-leadership turnover will cause it to go away. (The only difference is, in this case, Jackson has taken it upon himself to personally hasten that “turnover” by firing one of the leaders.) Oh yeah, and just in case anyone is still paying attention when the “task force” comes back with its results, don’t worry: “Jackson will have discretion” over whether the proposal is implemented. Heh. I’ve heard that one before. Same song, new lyrics.
Anyway, continuing with the article…
“I think Zach Fox took a look at the Daily Trojan and had ideas of how he could change it - some ideas were better than others. And I don’t think this university was too keen on seeing an institution that’s been run the same way for so long get a face lift,” said Lifestyle Editor Derek Peters, who is the Daily Trojan representative on the task force. …
Mayer said regardless of whom the staff elected, Jackson’s refusal to present Fox for approval was “almost an insult to the staff here.”
“It seems like we always have this person not trying to hold our hand, but hold us back in a way,” said Alex Delanian, sports editor.
Gee, ya think?
As I suggested above, the Daily Trojan’s “independence” as a “student-run” newspaper has long been a charade. While the DT takes great pride in being financially self-sufficient, paying for itself (including its professional advertising staff) entirely from advertising revenue (no student funds), the students aren’t actually allowed to manage the budget, or even see it — a fact that Zach Fox took exception to, hence his quite reasonable demand that the administration “show him the money.”
Moreover, the administration holds various unspoken trump cards that would allow it to “squeeze” the DT if it ever really wanted to. Chief among these is that roughly half the ads in the paper, and thus roughly half the advertising revenue, comes from the university and various university departments; if USC were to suddenly stop running ads in the DT in retaliation for some editorial decision it didn’t like, the paper would probably shrink to 8 pages, and probably wouldn’t be able to pay its staff (even if the students did have control of the budget). Moreover, said staff wouldn’t have offices, and there wouldn’t be anywhere to print those 8 pages, because the university could take away the DT’s office space in the Student Union building!
Imagine if the Bush Administration paid for half of the New York Times’s operating budget, concealed that budget from the editors’ view, and gave them office space in the West Wing. Under such circumstances, would anyone take the NYT seriously as an “independent” paper? And yet the DT’s claims of “independence” go largely unquestioned.
Now, it might sound conspiratorial to suggest that USC would use those “trump cards,” and perhaps it is. But Jackson’s refusal to hand over the budget plainly is not a coincidence: either he has something to hide, or else he fears empowering the students with knowledge that would potentially allow them to cast off the shackles of administrative meddling.
In any event, the university’s role in policing the DT is anything but hypothetical. Cravens and Jackson have long exercised an unspoken veto power over any editorial or staffing decision that the administration deigns to take an interest in. Editor-in-chief after editor-in-chief, many of them good journalists in other respects, have spinelessly refused to stand up to the Jackson/Cravens junta. As a former DT editor (not -in-chief), I’ve been complaining about this for years.
Zach Fox, apparently, bucked the trend — and as a direct result, he’s being shown the door by the very administration that supposedly allows the students to “independently” run the newspaper. Hmm, do you think maybe, just maybe, the (probably unspoken) threat of just such an action might be precisely why the office of the editor-in-chief has long been reserved for journalistic invertebrates? Maybe that whole Media Board process wasn’t such a “courtesy” after all! Sounds like a good strategy to me, from the administration’s perspective: call it a “formality” to avoid offending the staff, but keep doing it as a reminder to each editor-in-chief not to bite the hand that feeds him!
Again: imagine if there was some “formality” whereby the President of the United States had to bless the New York Times’s new choice for editor-in-chief. Even if it was generally a rubber-stamp formality, don’t you think it would affect the editor’s judgment just a little bit when the president calls and asks for a favor?
Anyway… according to the article, “Student Affairs will hold a special election for the spring 2007 editor in chief Friday, after which a new nominee’s application will be reviewed for presentation to the Media Board.” If I remember correctly, the DT editor-in-chief ballot has a blank space where you can cast a write-in vote if you don’t want to vote for any of the candidates listed. If I were still on staff, there’s no doubt who I’d be voting for:
Do the right thing, Daily Trojan staff. You’ve been calling yourself an “independent,” “student-run” newspaper for decades. Start acting like it.
UPDATE: Here’s the editorial board’s response to Fox’s firing.
It’s fine, as far as it goes. But editorial whining and kvetching isn’t enough. It’s time for action. In the immortal words of Jean-Luc Picard: “The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!” Force the administration’s hand. Find out if they’ll actually use those trump cards. Re-re-elect Zach Fox as editor-in-chief; refuse to recognize any other editor-in-chief or candidate for the position. Zach Fox is the editor-in-chief, period. It’s a matter of principle at this point — the vote should be unanimous. Mona will object. Ignore her. And then what? If they make you pack up your computers and find new office space, do it. If they refuse to run ads in the paper, reconfigure the budget and figure out how to keep operating. It’s either that, or stop pretending to be “independent.” Those are your only two options.
UPDATE 2: After the jump, my letter to the editors of the DT.
I sent this to firstname.lastname@example.org:
I read with dismay — but not surprise — the article in this morning’s paper about Dr. Michael Jackson’s unprecedented decision to prevent Zach Fox from taking office as the elected editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan next semester.
I am unsurprised because the administration has for years been treating the ostensibly independent Daily Trojan like just another department under its thumb — and one after another, Daily Trojan editors-in-chief have tolerated such treatment. Zach Fox broke with that unfortunate tradition, and in response, he was shown the door. In the process, we learned that the Media Board approval process, long dismissed as a “courtesy” and a “formality,” has a very real purpose: to remind editors-in-chief not to bite the hand that feeds them. This helps explain why an office so often occupied by excellent journalists has so routinely given in when faced with pressure, both subtle and overt, from the administration.
It is worth emphasizing that Zach Fox was not even rejected by the existing Media Board approval process, insulting to the Daily Trojan’s independence though that process is. His rejection was even more insulting, as he was subjected to a one-man veto. Dr. Michael Jackson’s decision is a tyrannical act that makes a mockery of the democratic process by which the Daily Trojan elects its editor-in-chief. Adding insult to injury, Dr. Jackson refused to comment on his decision, like an absolute monarch unwilling to explain his dictatorial decrees to his subjects.
But let’s be clear. This is not about Dr. Michael Jackson, whatever we might feel about him personally. Nor is it about Mona Cravens or any other university employee. It is not even about Zach Fox anymore. This is now a matter of principle, and the Daily Trojan’s very independence is at stake.
If a single university official can veto the Daily Trojan’s elected editor-in-chief because of a difference of opinion, the Daily Trojan can no longer pretend to be an independent, student-run newspaper. It does not matter what Dr. Jackson’s reasons are — whether he disagreed with Zach’s plans for restructuring the editorial hierarchy, or whether he was upset by Zach’s assertiveness vis a vis the budget, is ultimately of no consequence. What matters is this: if the Daily Trojan staff allows this action by the university administration to stand, it has sacrificed its independence once and for all.
There is only one possible response to this outrage. Write in Zach Fox for editor-in-chief on Friday. Pledge, each and every one of you, to work under no other editor-in-chief. Call the university’s bluff: make them choose between having a student newspaper run by the students’ chosen editor, or no student newspaper at all. I think I know which option they will choose.
Zach is the Daily Trojan’s elected editor-in-chief, period. Some staffers might dislike Zach or disagree with his platform, and they might have voted against him the first time around, but his re-re-election ought to be a unanimous vote, because as I said, this is not about Zach anymore. This is much bigger than that. It’s about standing up to the administration. It’s about making a statement that the Daily Trojan will no longer tolerate faux-independence. It’s about sticking up for the very principles of journalistic independence that USC claims to teach, but is now flagrantly failing to uphold.
Do not fear the consequences of standing up to the administration. In all likelihood, they will quickly compromise with you, once they realize you are not willing to tolerate this treatment. If they do not, you have the power to fight back. You have, first and foremost, the power of the press. They can take that away, at least temporarily, by kicking you out of your offices — but will they, really? That would be a public-relations fiasco for them, and the whole faculty of the journalism school, along with the editorial staff of every newspaper in L.A. and the entire blogosphere, would be on your side in that fight.
Moreover, if push comes to shove, you can reconstitute the paper after being kicked out — first online, then in print. It may not be 20 pages of polished newsprint, but there are many different ways to print a newspaper. The Trojan Horse does it without large, fourth-floor offices in the Student Union building, and so can the Daily Trojan, if necessary. Make contingency plans now; get the necessary website passwords and make copies of the necessary files and programs. But remember, it’s highly unlikely they will be needed. If the recent controversy over student football tickets proves anything, it’s that USC will fold when serious pressure is brought to bear. You have the moral high ground — so use it.
This is, to date, the journalistic fight of your lives. I urge you to fight it.
USC Annenberg School of Journalism Class of ‘03
Daily Trojan News Writer, 1999-2000; Assignment Editor, 2000; City Editor, 2001; Assistant Editorial Director, 2002; Editorial Writer/Columnist, 2002-2003