Monday, September 24, 2007

Taser c'est la même chose

In my self-absorbed old guy mind, I have enjoyed the minimalist obscene college newspaper editorial dust up.

Nearly 40 years ago, I was involved in a too similar incident...of my own making. It was very much the same and very different from the Colorado State University Collegian one. For a bonus, it orbited around the same word.

In this century, Editor in Chief J. David McSwane stands before the Board of Student Communications in two days to defend his publication of the four word editorial. That wee prod related to the Florida college student electrically stunned for ranting at a John Kerry speech. In its entirety, the Collegian editorial reads "Taser this … F---BUSH" and was in very large type.

Puerile, yes, and it was also age appropriate, emotionally appropriate, politically defensible, and wholly in a solid context of academic freedom.

There's been the predictable hooha about this, including angry alter kaker alums and a short-term loss of $30,000 in ad revenue. This too happened in my case in that last century.

WABAC Machine

Journey back with me to the thrilling days of yesteryear, the late 1960s. I also don't care if you were not born yet. You weren't alive when Socrates rambled on in the agora or the American Revolution raged. History accepts no excuses.

My incident was the same in that:
  • The same single obscenity infuriated the university hierarchy and many students who brought their parents' brains in their baggage.
  • There were lost advertising and outraged alumni.
  • The editors begged, cajoled and threatened to keep their spots.
The background of mine was that:
  • I was in Cambridge, Mass., studying underground newspapers on a Ford Foundation grant.
  • I was enrolled in the University of South Carolina's news-editorial journalism program and wrote for the newspaper, the Gamecock.
  • While down in Columbia for several days to confer with my adviser, I agreed to spend a night with the campus cops for an expected boring feature story -- none of the on-campus writers had any interest in tailing a 55-year-old ex-Army guy for the night.
  • The circumstances made for a good feature and solid generalizations about campus policing.
  • The Gamecock editors failed the courage test and I was forever labeled as fuck-article guy.
There was a misty rain that evening when I got into the small white police car as the second occupant, riding shotgun. In retrospect, the guy was cool enough to not flip over my long hair and earring. He still had his military crew cut.

This USC is only a few blocks from the capitol building. Columbia was a planned city, designed in the late 18th Century. That's only significant because it has broad, rectangular main streets, great for rampaging youth. The old campus of South Carolina College (from 1801) is a picturesque horseshoe of classrooms and the first separate college library in the nation. Gen. W.T. Sherman spared the horseshoe when he burned the city at the end of the civil war. It was where the trouble brewed.

Cruising with the Cop

The short version of the evening was that the cop I was with let a panty raid get out of hand. He pulled up beside a big group of tipsy boys and asked what was up. He let them go ahead and gather others on a parade to the women's dorms. We then ended up across campus after a radio call when the raiders got to Capstone, a high-rise women's dorm.

Seeming to realize that things were out of hand, in no small part because of his passive initial contacts with the raiders, my guy got out of the car by the big group. He told them to go back to their dorms. Some guy from the crowd called out, "Fuck you!" and my cop responded three ways. He spun to face the crowd, he pulled his side arm, and he yelled, "I"ll fuck you if I get my hands on you!"

On the plus side, he didn't point his weapon, much less fire. However, he had clearly lost it.

As additional campus cops showed, the silly drunks began drifting away and everyone went home a little damp and vaguely energized.

Power of a Word

My resulting article recorded the facts and drew several conclusions. First, assuming ex-military and even military-police guys could just plug into the USC police force was naive. Second, a large campus requires specific training and active management of emerging situations. Third, crowds should never result in drawn guns by hot-headed officers.

The article included the two obscenities as well as the analysis.

Back at the ranch, I turned in my article and notified the triumvirate of the embedded words. Then I flew back to Logan for life, love and scholarship. At USC, the editors decided to spell out the loaded word. However, the middle-aged women at the printing company called the newspaper adviser, who called the university president saying what was about to appear.

The prez (honestly, named Tom Jones) called the editors and said if they went ahead with my article, they were in big trouble. For reasons understandable only to undergraduate journalism majors who had studied Zenger, they ran a hole where the article should appear as the front-page lead with only the 128-pt word CENSORED.

Of course, they weren't censored, just threatened. They didn't have the 'nads to take their lumps. If it had been my call, I would have run the article. They later published the offending piece with asterisks in the middle of the word in both instances.

The aftermath included what the Collegian is experiencing. To compound the adviser and advertising ramifications, at USC, everyone in power either graduated from the school or its law school. They read the three-times-a-week publication as though they had never left. State and U.S. lawmakers, CEOs, advertisers and plain old rich folk all read the Gamecock. The outrage was palpable and silly.

In the end, it was positive nationwide. Other colleges picked up the angle of underqualified and undertrained campus cops and many, including USC improved both aspects. That's what journalism should be about, eh?

So here we are back to this century. The same old word is now about free-speech without the trappings of investigative journalism. That's fine.

Yet in another way, it's sort of sad that we have not matured much since. You already know my prejudice, coming out of J school.

I'm pleased that McSwane is willing to stand up for such an inane and unnecessary posture. Distilling the popular and political cultures in four words speaks well of his staff's cleverness and insensibilities.

In case you have never been on the staff of a major college paper, be aware that such editorial decisions are not some caprice of a rogue editor. They almost always are kicked up and down the hall like a discussion at some UU church. The majority of the staff surely was on board with this and felt strongly about the four-word statement. As crackpot as he may be, the Florida student was denied his rant by force.

They can take their punishment. The paper can temporarily lose its $30K (that will come back -- campus-paper advertisers need the college rag exposure). Alumni can play the get-these-students-off-my-lawn game and let it vent.

The more things change...

By the bye, a chum who also knew President Jones saw him two years later crossing the horseshoe. The article in question was not my only anti-establishment article or column during my four years. Tom asked whether I was coming back and hearing that I had finished, Jones just replied with a big grin, "Good!"

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Robin Edgar said...

What's "obsensity"?

massmarrier said...

Let's go for typo on that. I'll change it.