Monday, June 3, 2013

An Unfortunate Journalism Lesson

Our recent blog post entitled "The Bison: Legit Journalism or Good News Sheet?" circulated quickly and widely, generating hundreds of page views in the first 24 hours after it appeared.  I complimented the quality of the writing and the paper's organized, attractive appearance.  I also noted the lack of reporting on important campus issues and the complete absence of news-based editorials.  This leads inescapably to the conclusion that The Bison faces a) censorship, b) fear of censorship, or c) blow-back that creates self-censorship.

Given post-Takeover Baptist (male) leadership's disdain for any free and independent Baptist press, it would not be surprising if OBU's new leaders censored the student newspaper.  The highly authoritarian new Baptists prefer not to allow anything they cannot control.  (Note that among his many duties as provost, R. Stanton Norman is listed as editor of the alumni magazine, a publication that more often than not spotlights successful alumni who are not fundamentalists.)

Whether The Bison faces censorship, fear of censorship, or self-censorship, every indication is that OBU's student paper lacks editorial independence.  No other explanation can account for the lack of coverage of important campus issues and the absence of news-based editorials.  In early April, a situation emerged that proved to illustrate the problem.

On April 3, 2013, an "ex gay" evangelist named Christopher Yuan preached in Raley Chapel.  The premise behind Yuan's entire ministry, controversial even among many evangelicals, is that God can save you from unwanted same-sex attraction and that all Christians -- gay and straight -- should strive for holy sexuality.  Of course, for straights this ideally ends in a monogamous marriage filled with lovemaking and joy.  In their disordered state, Yuan urges gays to be content with the fruits of their completely repressed sexual selves: loneliness, isolation, estrangement, and frustration.  Just like he is.  Or something.

In response to Yuan's appearance and the endorsement from OBU that it represents, a group of alumni penned an open letter addressed "to the OBU family."  Their letter offered support to gay OBU students and pointed toward a different way of understanding homosexuality than what Mr. Yuan presented.  It circulated among a few alumni and, within a few days, garnered 50+ signatures.  The signers represent OBU graduates from six different decades.  They are gay and straight, men and women, clergy and laity, youthful and aging.

One of the authors asked me to sign the letter.  I declined.  At the risk of offending my fellow alumni who thought they could count on my support, I deliberately withheld my signature so that there could be no mistake: Save OBU does not take a position on homosexuality.  We have supporters on both sides of the debate and at every point in between.  While Save OBU supporters have a variety of perspectives on human sexuality and the place of gay men and lesbians in the life and ministry of the church, they are in agreement about standing strong for academic freedom and ethical administration at OBU.

The alumni letter was newsworthy by any standard.  Amazingly, the editor(s) of The Bison disagreed.  Or -- perhaps more likely -- they knew they would be harassed by administrators if they ran a news story about the letter.  Either way, not a drop of ink was spilt on the new pages of The Bison about the alumni letter.  (By comparison, the 2011 alumni petition received news and editorial coverage.)  The authors weren't seeking or demanding news coverage.  They simply wanted their work printed as a letter to the editor.  After trimming their piece to fit the word limit on what passes for an editorial page, the authors were assured that their letter would run in The Bison.

It never happened.

Instead, the authors received a note from the student editorial board explaining its decision not to print the letter.  The editorial board erroneously claimed that "the Save OBU blog has endorsed [the alumni] letter."  Further, the board argues that I "publicly challenged The Bison to publish that letter or face an accusation of censorship."

Going back to the days following Christopher Yuan's chapel sermon, you can see Save OBU's tweets that mentioned the issue here, herehere, and here.  The last tweet was also posted on our Facebook page:

The endorsement charge is ridiculous.  People and organizations discuss and share things on Twitter all the time with the constant assumption that retweets or tweeting news and links do not imply endorsement.  I intentionally went out of my way to not endorse the letter.  As for publicly challenging The Bison to print the alumni letter or face an accusation of censorship, I did say that whether or not the paper reports on or editorializes about the letter "will shed light on how much censorship exists."

The student editorial board said I attempted to bully them into printing the letter.  After initially agreeing to publish the letter, the board declined, "Not because the content will spark controversy or engage dialogue, but because we choose not to be bullied into publication by alumni and/or blogs."  The board also told the letter's authors that they had been encouraged to write a story about the issue and engage it journalistically -- "a project that we are in the process of considering."  Evidently, the board "decided" against engaging the issue journalistically.

The effect of the board's decision is that only a small handful of OBU students ever heard about the alumni letter.  By declining to print the alumni letter as an op-ed submission and in deeming the subject unworthy of a news report, the board missed an opportunity to facilitate a campus-wide conversation about a number of issues arising from the "ex gay" evangelist's appearance and the alumni's response.

Save OBU is just a convenient scapegoat.  In the real world of journalism, outside groups are constantly seeking news and opinion coverage of issues important to them.  I have often been mystified that not one word has appeared in The Bison about Save OBU, an effort that has sustained itself over 18 months of thoughtful research and analysis with 250+ blog posts, 5 guest writers, and a growing network of alumni interest and support.  If the 2011 alumni petition merited news and (timid) opinion coverage, it's impossible to argue that Save OBU has never been newsworthy.  The only reasons I have never complained about it is that a) I'm sympathetic to the faculty advisor's vulnerable position and b) it seems a little obnoxious to pick on student journalists who probably have  very little say in the matter.

But since the student board brought Save OBU into the discussion, I'll offer a gentle observation.  Editors have a responsibility to decide if a subject is newsworthy independent of outside groups or inside pressures (corporate ownership in the case of for-profit news; administrators in the case of campus newspapers).  Everyone has a stake, however, small, in the outcome.  The newspaper wants a reputation for fairness and even-handedness in covering important issues.  Readers depend on such a forum.  The alumni letter's authors want a wide audience for their letter.  They want students to believe that homosexuality is not a sin and that support is available if students have been harmed by how religion has typically regarded sexual minorities.  Save OBU merely wants some evidence that OBU students have access to important debates about controversial issues and that such discussions are not actively discouraged.  The people who run OBU do not want to open the door to questioning whether homosexuality is a sin.  They want students to believe that homosexuals should (if they cannot be spiritually or therapeutically cured of their sinful desires) be celibate for life and that there is no need to question the traditional teaching of biblical literalists on the matter (even though a majority of white evangelicals aged 18-34 now support same sex marriage rights).  By not covering the issue, the people who run OBU won and everyone else -- including The Bison -- lost.

I began my previous post about The Bison with praise for the student journalists, and I'll end this one the same way.  The production value is high.  The layout is attractive.  The writing is good.  The point-counterpoint pieces are interesting and thoughtful.  I especially commend the faith section editors and writers.  Even if the faith pages came about because an administrator insisted that The Bison contain more explicitly religious content, the students have done well with the mandate.

My concern is directed to the editorial staff generally, not from any single year.  There have been a lot of very consequential issues over the past four years that you have ignored.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether there should have been 15 stories or 50.  But it's not reasonable to think that an adequate number of news stories and editorials dealing with widespread discontent about administrators' actions and policies since President Whitlock and Provost Norman arrived would be less than one per year.  That's not journalism.

There's a big difference between being censored and being objectively bad.  If your hands are tied, just admit it.  No one will be surprised and everyone will understand.  But if you are trying to justify your lack of coverage of important campus issues on the grounds that academic freedom, faculty morale, institutional norms, and ethical administration do not matter in a university, that's a problem.  In that case, you can continue to publish sanitized news and cute op-eds, but interest in your newspaper will continue to wane.

[Ed. -- Following is a letter I sent to the Student Editorial Board on April 17, 2013, after I learned that it cited Save OBU as the reason it did not publish the alumni letter.  It was never acknowledged and I received no reply.]

I spoke with [name redacted]. I do not know [name redacted] -- in fact, we have never met and had never spoken until this evening.

[S/h]e was disappointed that, after people took great care to craft a compassionate response to the "ex gay" evangelist's sermon, you declined to publish a trimmed-down version in your newspaper.

I was disappointed to learn that you (correct me if I'm wrong) are essentially blaming me for somehow making it untenable for you to publish the letter.

First of all, this letter is completely unrelated to the Save OBU Blog.  I was asked to sign it, and I declined.  I believe that one of the people who has written for my blog signed the letter.  Others did not.  Save OBU supporters, I suspect, have a wide diversity of opinions about human sexuality and the place of homosexuals in the life and ministry of the Church.  I would not risk alienating half our base of support over an issue that is not relevant to academic freedom and ethical administration.  In any event, Save OBU absolutely did not endorse the letter, as you allege.  Frankly, I have no idea how you could possibly come to that conclusion.

I also would like to push back against your characterization that I publicly challenged you to publish the letter or else face an accusation of censorship.  In one of our social media feeds, I said, "So, did The Bison cover the controversy over last week's chapel sermon and/or the alumni letter?" In response to a commenter's question, I said "We are curious to see if the paper printed the alumni letter, or even mentioned it. This will shed light on how much censorship exists at The Bison, because it would be hard to argue that a letter offering a compassionate response to a controversial message, signed by dozens of alumni spanning 4 decades, isn't newsworthy."

It's likely that no one beyond the 3 or 4 people on that threat even saw or noticed the comment.  I would hardly characterize this as "bullying" you into publishing their letter.

Look, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not OBU has a truly free student press.  I would love to speculate publicly and frequently about the issue, because I believe it is so important.  But I have shown restraint on this point.  I have also gone out of my way to be kind and complimentary to the several student journalists who have interacted with me privately over the past 18 months. More than anything, I do not want to say anything on my blog that would make things difficult for your faculty advisor, who, based on her predecessors' experiences, is in a tenuous situation almost by default.

But let's review a few quick facts.  First, a simple look at the problems journalism advisors have had at OBU the past 12 years should tell you something.  Second, as far as I can tell, not one reporter or editor lifted a finger to ask hard questions about the circumstances of Jerry Faught's and John Mullen's departures from OBU.  This is symptomatic of the complete and total absence of even the most elementary investigative reporting in The Bison.  Third, my sources on the matter have made it seem like everyone knows that Stan Norman forced The Bison to include even more explicitly religious content.  Fortunately, Casie and Tim have done outstanding work.  Finally, I suspect it seems curious to many people that, even though The Bison covered the alumni petition in the fall of 2011, not one word has been printed on an editorial or news page about the Save OBU Blog, now nearly 18 months along, with well over 200 blog posts.  The blog has literally reached tens of thousands of people.  You can try to believe such an effort is not newsworthy.  But honestly, I think your lack of coverage of the Save OBU Blog only serves to reinforce peoples' widespread suspicion that OBU does not have a free and open student press.

If you really think you have complete editorial control, there are a few experiments you could try.  Run a story on the BGCO's ever-shrinking OBU subsidy (as a percentage of the university's annual operating budget).  Go ask David Whitlock what he meant when he justified his refusal to allow a female to be interviewed for a New Testament position by saying, "There's no point in bringing her to campus. We're not going to hire her.  I have to keep promises I've made to certain people."  Follow up your recent story on the Chapel CREW with a survey or student interviews asking if they would like to see more balance in the theological and political views endorsed from the Raley Chapel pulpit.

I think if you did these things, you would find out pretty quickly that you don't have as much editorial control as you apparently think you do.

Anyway, out of respect for the very fine and loving work these alumni have done in crafting their response to the Yuan message, I respectfully ask you to reconsider your refusal to publish the letter.  Whatever you decide, don't blame it on me.

I have the highest respect for serious journalists and I trust you will bring honor to our alma mater in your careers.  Based on my conversation with [name redacted], it seems pretty clear that you and I may not see things the same way.  That's fine.  But please know that my extensive effort devoted to the Save OBU project is nothing but an expression of love for OBU ---  a love that has grown stronger with the passage of time.

You have my very best wishes.

Jacob Lupfer '02
Silver Spring, MD

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