Saturday, February 11, 2012

Student Saturday: Journalism at OBU

Our many new readers won't know that a few weeks ago, we talked about the pathetic state of journalism in the post-Takeover SBC.  Since the fundamentalists turned Baptist Press into a propaganda machine in the 1990s, the state Baptist papers have also lost editorial independence and become little more than the P.R. arm of their fundamentalist state conventions.

I planned to extend the analysis to OBU, where there have been problems with a free press in the past.  Given how rapidly the BGCO's fundamentalist agenda for OBU has accelerated in other areas recently, I expected to write a post eviscerating OBU administrators for censoring The Bison and stifling student journalism on campus.

Today, I'm happy to report that I was wrong.  Student journalism is alive and well at OBU.  There have been a couple of dramatic side stories on this subject, but in general, OBU journalism is performing a vital community service.

Some Unhappy History
Without going to some rather unfortunate details, it is widely known that Mark Brister did not endear himself to student journalism advisors during his tenure.  I suppose it's water under the bridge at this point, though the consequences of Brister's struggles in this area were quite negative.

I seem to recall that an outstanding and very well-loved English professor/journalism advisor somehow ran afoul of President Brister, though I do not know the details of that story.

Sometime in the early/mid-2000s, Brister wanted to set up a review committee, ostensibly to check the student newspaper for errors in grammar, mechanics, and fact.  Unsurprisingly, members of the publications board, a dean, a divisional head, and his own P.R. man convinced him this was a terrible idea.

But when a professional association called College Media Advisors got wind of the situation, it pressed the university for more information.  Dr. Brister chose to ignore that body, and OBU was subsequently censured.  Later, Interim President John Parrish came to understand the significance of this censure, particularly for journalism students' and graduates' professional prospects.  Thus, he successfully sought to have OBU's censure lifted, on the grounds that the administration had changed.

Recent Developments
As I said before,  I fully expected there to be some kind of active censorship regime in place.  But I have been assured that no such thing is currently happening.  So, credit where credit is due: Kudos to OBU administrators for allowing and supporting editorial autonomy on a campus whose state convention and national denomination quashed true journalism many years ago in favor of propaganda.

Rest assured, even many longtime faculty agree that The Bison has printed quite diverse articles and opinion over the past few years.  And, with all due respect to OBU journalism students through the ages, one faculty member even reports that The Bison "is about as healthy as it's ever been, and better edited than in years past."  The paper courageously covered last fall's alumni petition, which undoubtedly brought a great deal of attention to an issue the administration prefers people did not know about.  I was also quite impressed by a story in September about two longtime professors who announced their retirements.  The professors, whose anger about all the recent disastrous changes is typical, were given quite a lot of latitude to express their frustration in the article.  If you follow the student newspaper's Facebook page, you can view many recent issues online.  So don't take my word for it, see for yourself.

This is not to say The Bison couldn't do a better job covering vital campus news.  To my knowledge, there was nothing about last summer's forced faculty dismissal or about the Faculty Council's protests to the administration (or the faculty's unprecedented low morale under the current administration).  I can only speculate about the reasons for these omissions.  Anyone who has been on such an authoritarian and conformist campus for very long knows that self-constraint becomes almost second nature.  Perhaps the student editor(s) and faculty advisor assumed they should leave these issues alone.

The Customers Always Write?
One thing a casual observer will immediately notice about The Bison is how few students and faculty write letters to the editor or guest op-eds about controversial topics.  I assume this is due to the afore-mentioned restraint that typically overwhelms people on campuses like OBU.  But there have been (at least) two fairly distressing happenings related to student opinions.  Neither episode reflects negatively on the very fine work OBU student journalists and their advisor are doing.

In one case, a student submitted a satirical advertisement making fun of the fact that OBU made a self-conscious decision to fire a very fine, moderate Christian philosopher and hire a down-the-line conservative with a specialty in "Christian apologetics."  (The ad can be seen at the bottom of this post.)  Evidently, after the papers were printed and distributed around campus, they were quickly confiscated.  After a social media firestorm ensued, the papers were returned to their distribution points. To be honest, I do not know who ordered the papers to be pulled and my sources give conflicting accounts.  I also don't know if the author of the satirical ad was harassed for expressing his/her opinion.

In another episode, a student penned a thoughtful, passionate op-ed about the recent disastrous changes recently enacted at OBU and asked the student paper to investigate them more fully.  The papers were printed and distributed before Fall Free Days.  The following week, an administrator called the writer into his office and caused quite a scene.  Maybe we'll tell more of that story another time.  But any time an experienced university administrator, after having 3 or 4 days to "sleep on it," loses his composure and abandons his professionalism in trying to intimidate and silence a college student, it begs serious questions about his judgment.

OBU student journalists are doing an admirable job.  There is no formal censorship regime.  A commendable diversity of articles and opinion fill the pages of The Bison.

Many OBU insiders (students, faculty, etc.) agree with this assessment.  But I must call it a tentative conclusion because enough people have expressed doubt that I cannot honestly say that my account represents a unanimous consensus.  I realize that some of you will be disappointed that I have praised the administration for simply not standing in the way of students' rights (under the Green Book and the First Amendment).  If more facts emerge, I will be happy to adjust this conclusion as necessary.

In preparing this commentary on student journalism, I consulted faculty as well as Bison staffers (current and former).  I did not reach out to any Bison editors or advisors, current or former.  I truly do not want to cause trouble for any of you.  I know some of our critics will be surprised to hear this, but I actually do take care to choose my words carefully.  I have tried to be especially careful here.  If I have missed the mark in any way, I invite any of you (friend or foe) to be in touch via email. is group's email account.  My personal email account is visible at the bottom of this page, I believe.

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