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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Ending the college paper blame game

    The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student-run newspaper, caused mayhem in the blogosphere this year over an op-ed piece written in 2006 declaring war on Asian-Americans.

    The piece, written by student Jed Levine, was called “”A modest proposal for an immodest proposition,”” a reference to the famous essay by satirist Jonathan Swift calling for the harvesting and consumption of Irish babies. It was attacked as an “”ignorant piece of journalism”” and an emblem of “”the present form of a history of racism in America.”” Jed Levine is no Jonathan Swift, and it showed. The column was not really all that funny and the satire was sophomoric at best – at one point Levine called for UCLA to “”weed out the young Maos and Kim Jongs from potential Mandelas, Lincolns and Estefans.”” What about the Cheneys? The angry coverage of the article and several similar pieces in other college newspapers, however, has been counterproductive, patronizing and misdirected.

    Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of college op-ed editors, attributing the publication of articles like these as a case of the inexperienced leading the racist. The logic is that college op-ed editors are guardians against “”hate speech,”” and in the cases of these op-eds, they failed.

    But the real issue here is that college newspapers are an easy target. It’s easy to rail against perceived rampant racism on college campuses, rather than tackle larger instances of sexism and racism in mainstream media. Even in “”grown-up”” publications where editors and writers are supposed to know better, offensive comments abound – and no one even bothers to claim that they’re satire.

    Take Chris Matthews’ reprehensible coverage of the 2008 presidential race. In the past year, he has referred to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s male supporters as “”castratos in the eunuch chorus,”” asked Chris Dodd if he found it “”difficult to debate a woman”” and pinched the senator’s cheek when she appeared as a guest on his show. Don Imus, after being showily fired by Viacom, MSNBC and others, reappeared on WABC radio in New York after mere months of media exile.

    Racism and sexism aren’t excusable in college media simply because they can be found on national television and radio programs, but neither are college newspapers repositories for hate and ignorance just because they publish a few objectionable articles. Which is worse: A student enamored with his or her own cleverness who writes an unfunny column, or the host of a nationally syndicated political program pinching the cheek of a United States senator?

    The author of “”An immodest proposal”” has to live with that article archived forever as the first Google hit on his name; Chris Matthews is a political authority and media heavyweight, starring in his own political television program and receiving the kind of media exposure most student journalists can only dream about. Quite simply, there are bigger fish to fry.

    College newspapers are smaller and less accountable than their big media counterparts, and in most cases, that’s a good thing. The freedom that writers and editors have at these papers is greater than in more mainstream publications, and student journalists can experiment more with style and content. Can a lack of experience and a sense of intellectual invincibility lead to newspaper features that are in poor taste? Sure. It happened on our own campus last year with the uproar over Joseph Topmiller’s “”No Relation”” cartoon.

    But holding student newspapers responsible for only their objectionable content ignores the great work that is done by college media every day across the country. Defending free speech often means that you have to defend a lot of ignorant jerks, but those are a small, hardly representative sample of college-age writers and editors as a whole.

    Becoming hysterical over a few op-ed pieces is a case of treating symptoms rather than the disease. Instead of forcing individuals to apologize for what really amounts to little more than ill-executed, unfunny jokes, we should take the opportunity to look at the climate in mainstream media that produces the kind of seriously sexist and racist commentary airing nationally every day. We can take the easy way out and keep blaming individuals, a practice which allows us to feel morally superior without really taking the time to have a legitimate dialogue about equality in this country. The other option is to direct our time and energy toward meaningful change, without resorting to cheap calls to curb the free speech of the ignorant.

    There’s no logic in arguing that speech should be less free on college campuses because we don’t know any better. We can change the tone of our national conversation on race, but first we have to stop placing the blame for larger societal ills on individual shoulders. Bashing college newspapers is easy; real social change is much more difficult. If we can stop distracting ourselves with the former, we can finally get to work on the latter.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science.

    She can be reached at

    letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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