Preaching community, censoring news
Late last year, Gerian Steven Moore was terminated from his position as adviser to Chicago State University’s student newspaper, following what he describes as administrative retaliation for his unwillingness to censor the paper’s content.
While his story is not wholly unlike other censorship cases that perennially arise at colleges across the country, he said, there is another factor at play with CSU and its newspaper, the Tempo. CSU is a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI).
“The idea [at historically black colleges and PBIs] is that you protect the image of the president and the image of the university,” Moore said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed and cause people to question what they’re doing, especially if that may affect their funding.
More so than at other universities, Moore continued, administrators at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and PBIs are bound by a pervasive sense of loyalty and defensiveness ‘ something they expect their student press to share, he said. Content critical of the school is often seen not only as hurtful to the school’s reputation, but hurtful to the black community in general.”
The motif of censorship at black universities, Moore said, is especially hypocritical given the institutions’ and administrators’ claims of allegiance to the civil rights cause.
“They would say they believe in the idea of democratic society, but do they support democratic institutions?” Moore said. “I don’t think they do.
“One of the cornerstones of any democratic society is information,” he continued. “The press is what keeps everybody informed. But the values involved in the freedom of the press and democracy itself are not seen the same way in black institution as they are in mainstream institutions. [Post-segregation], they really had to gauge how they were being seen by state legislatures [to ensure funding]. This has carried over.”
HBCUs were mostly founded by state legislatures or private organizations following the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery and Reconstruction in the American South. According to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 103 HBCUs exist today. Funding support slowly began to trickle in from the government and private donors after the first HBCUs’ inception, but many are still plagued with financial woes, Moore said. Anxious to stave off funding cuts, Moore said, administrators at black colleges are often very protective of the school’s image.
Tempo’s current editor, sophomore George Providence II, said he believes the school administration envisions the student paper more as a public relations tool than an independent news organization.
“What the African American community often talks about is having a situation where you can control the product,” he said. And while he does not see Tempo’s role just as a finger-pointer, Providence continued, he is unwilling to succumb to the university’s calls to stop muddying its reputation.
“All the Chicago State students want is for Chicago State to recover our reputation as a good institution for higher learning,” he said. “I’ve made any number of different efforts … saying that I have no problem where there’s a difficult story we’re working on to give [the administration] a heads up because I want the school to do right, but they have not responded to that invitation. And I won’t leave it unreported.”
This dissonance came to a head when, Moore said, he lost his adviser position for refusing to follow administrative directives to fully review the Tempo before it went to print ‘ what he and Providence believed constituted unlawful prior review. Moore and Providence jointly filed suit against members of the CSU administration, and in February tacked on another grievance when the Tempo’s new adviser pulled an issue from the presses.
While lawsuits may not be the norm, student newspapers at HBCUs across the country have experienced similar tensions with school administrators.
Pearl Stewart, founder and editor of Black College Wire, said censorship issues at HBCUs are “becoming pervasive.” She pointed to several cases to prove the trend, including two stemming directly from a school administration worried about its reputation.
In 2003 at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., the Hampton Script defied the school president’s orders to print a front-page administrative memo, putting it on page three instead. The administration confiscated the entire press run before it could be distributed. The memo, and the initial article that prompted it, dealt with health-code violations in the cafeteria.
More recently, the Collegian at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg faced similar censorship threats when a March issue set to include an advertisement for adult-themed slumber parties prompted a university official to call for a production halt. According to Dervedia Thomas, Collegian editor-in-chief, the administrator’s original complaint against the advertisement was that “it was not in keeping with the image they were trying to present of the university.”
While Hampton Script editors stood by their publication decision, and eventually negotiated new governing policies with the university in regard to the paper, Thomas decided to remove the contentious advertisement with a promise from the administration for further discussion about the school’s relationship with the Collegian.
According to Stewart, the severity and duration of tensions between student editors and administrators can depend on how “persistent” and “bold” students are in pursuing censorship issues.
J.J. McCorvey, former managing editor for Tuskegee University’s Campus Digest, took the “persistent” route and spoke out in his senior year in several venues about ongoing problems between his paper and the school administration. Operating with inadequate resources, McCorvey said, was just the beginning of the paper’s challenges. The Campus Digest’s primary difficulty was invasive administrative oversight and an unspoken pressure not to “bite the hand that feeds you,” he said.
“When a photographer is reprimanded for an honest picture of one of the school’s dilapidated buildings; or a reporter is told that an article might ‘incite protest’; or the editors are told which stories should be on the front page of the newspaper, there is a problem,” McCorvey wrote in an editorial for Black College Wire.
While resource and equipment setbacks have been at least addressed, if not resolved, at the Campus Digest since McCorvey’s critical 2007 editorials, he said he is concerned issues with printing delays and prior review persist.
Janene Tate, adviser to the Campus Digest and also a public affairs specialist at the university, located in Tuskegee, Ala., said the newspaper, since McCorvey graduated, has not been plagued with the administrative oversight problems he bemoaned.
Student editors go to her for advice, Tate said, and she is careful to direct them in producing fair and balanced stories without pressuring their editorial decisions.
“I am a former journalist myself,” Tate said. “I would recognize censorship in a heartbeat.”
Tate also said that, while she concurrently serves the university’s public affairs department and the student newspaper, she perceives those roles as being separated by “a big bold line.”
But others in higher education see a conflict of interest in a double placement like Tate’s. Moore, for example, said departments are set up that way intentionally, and, once established, the structure only works to promote problems of wrongful administrative meddling in the student press.
Even if the administrative oversight is well-intentioned, Providence said, it is not an effective way to teach journalism or improve the school’s reputation.
“The folks I encountered at Chicago State are much more interested in the finer points of spin control than in making substantive changes that would bring about the positive changes they’re looking for.”
For McCorvey, too, the final goal is improvement in both the university and its student newspaper.
“At historically black colleges, a lot of times there’s this hush-hush type of mentality that we want to put out best face forward,” he said. “But the administration doesn’t realize that if you keep these issues from getting out, you keep them from getting worked on.”
Stewart said while a heightened sensitivity to bad press, both from their student newspaper and professional media, is part of the censorship problem ‘ some HBCU administrators believe “they are the target of misrepresentation in the mainstream media more often than white administrators” ‘ there is more to it.
“One of the major issues, it’s not one that is discussed very often, is that … some of the content in the [HBCU] student newspapers at times can be embarrassing not because of any criticism of the administration, but in some cases it can reflect the lack of skill that the students have, the fact that the students have not learned enough journalism to do justice to the story,” Stewart said. “If it looks like the students can’t write or edit, it reflects badly on the university.”
Stewart and Moore agree censorship issues with HBCU student papers can often be traced back to staffing and curricular problems ‘ misguided or poorly led journalism programs.
“I’m not in any way suggesting that those problems are justification for censorship,” Stewart said. “I’m suggesting that those problems need to be addressed as strongly as the problems of censorship. Taking action against advisers and editors is counterproductive. They need the practice in order to learn and improve.”
Of course, Stewart said, the level of journalism education and the severity of student press censorship varies among HBCUs.
Spelman College, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta, does not have a journalism program, for example, and its student publication is “barely operational,” according to Spelman’s Interim Director of Student Activities, Maria Lumpkin. Spelman’s aspiring journalists who choose not to write for the Spotlight, the school publication, often join the staff of nearby Morehouse College’s student paper, the Maroon Tiger.
“They’re both private, both are good schools, but they have opposite approaches to student journalism,” Stewart said.
Other HBCU student newspapers, Stewart continued, have enjoyed relative editorial freedom from their universities. Journalists at the Famuan, student newspaper at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, have experienced the “little scuffles” any student editors would have with their school’s administration, she said, but generally “they have access they need, they can go into meetings, they cover the campus and the administration freely.”
Overall, Stewart stressed, there are several factors affecting the current state of student journalism at HBCUs and PBIs ‘ and a remedy to censorship issues at those schools must be equally multifaceted.
“We need to sit down and figure out a way to improve the quality and skill level of the students, and get the administrators in line with journalistic practices, without infringing on First Amendment rights,” she said.
reports, Spring 2009