Editors find themselves in hot water after publishing... Questionable Content





Controversial editorial page content in several college newspapers early this year resulted in heavy criticism and, in some cases, calls for censorship.

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The cartoons and columns were called racist in some corners and in all cases elicited substantial public outcries and a bevy of emotional letters to the editor. In each instance, the paper issued a formal apology and retained its autonomy.

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The first case developed at Texas A&M University where a Jan. 14 editorial cartoon in the student daily The Battalion ignited a public furor that, at its height, saw some groups calling for stricter administrative control of the paper.

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The cartoon was penned by senior Chad Mallam, who, at the time, was known only by his penname "The Uncartoonist." The drawing featured a black mother and son with large lips and eyes and round bellies. The son was holding a report card marked "F" as the mother admonished, "If you ain't careful, you gonna end up doing airport security."

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The picture sparked immediate protest from Texas A&M's black student group, the African-American Student Coalition, whose spokesman Bereket Bisrat was quoted in a Jan. 29 Battalion article as saying that the university should consider cutting off the paper's funding if certain changes were not implemented. At a subsequent forum to address the cartoon, Charles Rowell, editor of Callaloo, an African-American journal, said, "My sentiment is that we should shut this paper down," according to a Battalion article.

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Texas A&M President Ray Bowen backed the paper in a letter to the editor that condemned the cartoon but defended The Battalion's freedom to publish as it saw fit. And editor Mariano Castillo, who issued a formal apology on Jan. 29, insisted recently that the paper's autonomy was never in serious jeopardy.

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"There were a lot of emotions back then [in January and February]," he said. "And we've talked since and there hasn't been a push for [greater administrative control over the paper]. And if there was, I've basically made it clear with [the student groups] that that is just out of the question."

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Mallam, who said he received death threats as a result of the cartoon, apologized before voluntarily leaving the paper in February.

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"The intention was to be insensitive to ignorance which is all over airport security," he told the Report in January. "The reason the characters were black is that's just what I saw, I wanted to be truthful. I could have done them any other way [but] that's just the way I did them. They did turn out to be very stereotypical and as far as people being offended by that, I have no problem apologizing if they're offended, but I'm not going to issue an apology for running the cartoon, I still stand behind it."

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Previous drawings by Mallam had offended Jewish and Muslim students at Texas A&M.

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Mallam was honored by the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association in April, winning first and third place in the editorial cartoon category, for political cartoons about Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism. He rejoined the paper in early April, but will no longer use the pseudonym.

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The Battalion

hosted a forum in March to discuss the controversial cartoon and race-related issues, and Castillo suggested the next editor could have an expert on diversity speak to the staff. \n

In a separate incident, The Battalion also received angry letters to the editor over an April 4 column titled "Intolerance is a Virtue." The author, Matthew Maddox, argued that homosexuality was a personal shortcoming, comparing it to smoking and drinking, and wrote that tolerance should be superseded by efforts to teach gays that their behavior is wrong.

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"Why should other people listen to my views if I'm not open to listening to theirs?" Castillo asked rhetorically. "So I'm very open with the level of things I let run. I didn't see it as a hate-filled column or anything like that. And we gave people the adequate space to respond."

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At Syracuse University in New York, one month after the publication of Mallam's drawing, a cartoon in The Daily Orange sparked a similar controversy on Feb. 14. The drawing showed a burglar with a black face and white lips climbing through a shattered living room window, while brandishing a crowbar. The artists, freshmen Matthew Cohen and Devin Tanchum, insisted they intended the character to be wearing a ski mask.

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The paper and the cartoonists apologized immediately at a student government meeting that night. At the gathering, several students sponsored a resolution that would have urged the university's chancellor to ban the paper from campus distribution.

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Other students protested the comic by passing out fliers that referred to The Daily Orange as "The Daily Oppressor," a popular nickname the paper has received after a series of similar incidents in recent years. One cartoon in 1999, which depicted the black student government president as white-lipped and bug-eyed, provoked a 200-person protest outside the paper's office.

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Editor Tito Bottitta banned Cohen and Tanchum from contributing to the newspaper for the rest of his tenure through next February.

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"I could easily see the comic artists' claim that the man was wearing a ski mask and was obviously not meant, in their estimation, to recall Sambo imagery," Bottitta said. "But given our history and having been educated about those things, it certainly looked like that to me, intentionally or not."

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"The artists understood why we decided to cut them out because of the problems and stuff that it caused," he added.

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Bottitta has taken steps to strengthen institutional memory among current and future staff members. The publication office is now adorned with a "Don't Do This" board, which displays all of the questionable material from the paper's recent history. In addition, Bottitta is looking into hiring a professional staff member who would be responsible each year for setting up classes in sensitivity and journalism ethics, so that those items would become part of the paper's consistent long-term policy.

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"We haven't figured out what we're calling [the position], because we don't necessarily like the name adviser. We don't like the things that it implies," such as control over content, he said.

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The student government proposal to ban The Daily Orange from campus was never adopted.

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Ironically, the paper had instituted new guidelines for comics the night before the controversial drawing was published. The policy required artists to sign forms promising not to use racist or sexist content, and mandated that all cartoons be reviewed by management before publication. Bottitta, however, did not see the controversial cartoon before it ran; it was a late replacement for another cartoon that had been deemed racist.

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A third incident of controversial editorial page content befell The South End at Wayne State University, where the publication of a column titled "Islam Sucks" ignited an uproar at the Detroit school and in the greater community.

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Joe Fisher's column offered the actions of Muslim terrorists and extremist Islamic governments as evidence of the religion's malevolence, and contained several generalizations about Islam and statements the paper later admitted were inaccurate. Fisher apologized in print two days later. That issue of the paper also contained an apology from editor Jason Clancy, and 50 of an estimated 500 letters to the editor.

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As in the other cases, the controversial content provoked calls for greater administrative control. Charles Brown, vice president of student development and campus life, said he is planning diversity-training activities for the newspaper staff and that he will hire a consultant to review the way the paper operates.

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"And that's not to censor because I am a believer in independent student newspapers," Brown said. "But I think that newspapers that are owned by the university have a responsibility to represent the university in an enlightened manner. And that's not to say that you don't write stories that are controversial. Not at all – that's a part of it. But you don't write stories that are so inflammatory, and that carry a tone of discrimination [at] the core of the article."

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Brown said he would also like to bring in an adviser, if budget funds allow. "This is the only institution that I've worked at where we don't have a full-time director of the student media operations," he said.

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"We'd like the journalism department to be more instrumental in our paper," managing editor Rian Michel said. "But we don't want them to have a say in content because we want to remain independent."

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The South End

receives only a small percentage of its annual budget from student fees, Michel said. Similarly, The Battalion at Texas A&M gets 98 percent of its funds from advertising revenue. The Daily Orange at Syracuse receives no funding from the college. \n

Having survived these controversies and set to implement changes, the editors of these besieged papers can now reflect on the experience of being at the center of a very harsh spotlight.

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"Only positives can come out of [this controversy]," Michel said. "It will help us now and in the future possibly make better decisions regarding stuff that goes in the paper. It's prompted us to make rules, so to speak, because we don't really have guidelines now."

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Castillo, for one, can sympathize with the dilemma.

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"You've got to find that balance between staying true to free speech in journalism and not totally alienating your readers," Castillo said of the editor's dilemma. "It's my job to get everyone's point of views out there as long as they don't cross that line. But I'm not afraid to go right up to it"


reports, Spring 2002