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Covering Harvard--A View From Outside

The Style of Journalism The Administration Loves May Thing of the Past

By Parker Donham

(The author served briefly as Executive Editor of the CRIMSON in 1968 before leaving Harvard to become Assistant Press Secretary in the Presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy. Since his return to the College last fall he has served as Harvard correspondent for the Boston Globe:)

TWENTY -FIVE years ago the city editor of a Boston newspaper sidled up to a newly hired cup reporter--a Boston University grad--and advised him, "Just remember, around here, Harvard is thicker than water."

The remark tells the story of decades of Harvard news coverage. Newspapers, and always treated Harvard stories with a degree of respect that borders on incest. The highest echelons of the Hub papers are generally staffed by Harvard men, and University officials have come to expect a certain discreet deference in news writing about Harvard. Perhaps it was inevitable, in a year which saw the dissolution of so many comfortable illusions around Cambridge, that the blissful relationship between Harvard and its daily chroniclers would be shattered as well.

Boston papers have traditionally entrusted their coverage of day to day activities at the University to their regular Cambridge reporters. These men personify the late-late show image of police reporters. They spend their working days traveling between the Cambridge and Somerville police stations and they hold down their jobs primarily because they possess one capability vital to any large city paper: they can talk to cops.

Since these men were in Cambridge most of the time anyway, it was only natural to have them cover any routine Harvard news that came up. One paper, the Globe, always supplemented the Cambridge reporter with a student stringer, who was paid a small monthly retainer to keep the city desk a day ahead of the others papers on Harvard stories. When more sophisticated items arose, a Godkin Lecture perhaps, or an honorary degree, the papers could trot out their sometimes more equity education writers.

This peculiar line-up of personnel was well suited to the kind of story Greater Bostonians liked to read about their cherished institution along the Charles. (Harvard is cherished in Boston, by the Brahmins, who think Massachusetts Hall is the hub of the universe, and by the three-decker-duplex dwellers who evince nothing but scorn for the University, but would pop their buttons if a son was ever admitted.) The papers relished every opportunity to poke good naturedly at Harvard's pomp and grandeur, or at its male chauvinism.

In 1963, during a debate over dormitory visiting hours, the CRIMSON used the word "sex" in a headline, and the next day the nation woke up to news of a sex scandal at Harvard. Two years later, when Faye Levine '66 launched her clever campaign for Harvard Class Marshal, the papers couldn't write enough about this encroachment on the male domain. When Linda G. McVeigh '67 was elected the first female managing editor of the CRIMSON so much publicity attended the event that she stopped answering the telephone. Bored fellow CRIMSON editors invented quoted from her to give to reporters and a desperate Associated Press staffer actually paid me $5 to get her on the phone.

No that all newswriting about Harvard was frivolous, but very little of it could be called penetrating. It was a comfortable enough arrangement for Harvard.

WITH THE opening of school last September all this began to change. For the first time ever the New York Times had stationed a man in Cambridge. Robert Reinhold was ostensibly writing about the academic community in general, but in fact he would up covering Harvard. The Globe upgraded its correspondentship. (More than any other paper, the Globe has close ties to Harvard. Its publisher, Davis Taylor, is a member of the Board of Overseers, and it allots so much space to Harvard news that as correspondent I enjoyed more play than many full-time staffers.> Even the Washington, Post hired a stringer. These were the first indications that news about Harvard, and education in general, was moving away from the realm of the cute story and becoming big news.

The activity early in the year was mild compared to the avalanche of newshounds who flooded Cambridge following the occupation of University Hall in April. Harvard was bigger news than it had ever been before and, for the first time in its 333-year history, it was predominantly bad news.

Harvard got a terrible press. In part, this was because the events themselves bespoke a sorry situation and let the University, its administration, and its students, in for a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. In part the problem lay with University News Office whose staffers repeatedly astonished reporters by their inability to provide the most rudimentary help to newsmen. But much of the blame must be attributed to he University administration which recoiled with a mixture of fear and disgust at this new aggressive breed of reporter.

The abhorrence for inquiring newsmen was first and foremost the province of Harvard's presidential recluse, Nathan M. Pusey.

In the aftermath of the tragic slaying of graduate student Jane Britton, Harvard was the victim of unfortunate timing. Miss Britton was bludgeoned to death in a Harvard-owned building on University Road and the building was in terrible disrepair at the time, virtually without working locks. A week after the murder the Wilson Report on Harvard and the Community was scheduled for release at a news conference. At the news conference I put several questions to Mr. Pusey regarding Harvard's real estate policies in general, and the condition of the building in particular. The President was so outraged by this line of inquiry that he instructed his top aide, William Bentick-Smith, to call the Globe management and lodge a complaint about "rude question."

NOR WAS public relations paranoia strictly the domain of Mr. Pusey. Sometime later in the fall, when several student government organizations proposed withdrawing academic credit from ROTC courses, the Committee on Educational Policy, a sort of faculty executive committee, met to draft a resolution of its own on ROTC. When I called Dean Franklin L. Ford after the meeting to get a text of the resolution, I was told that it would not be released until a news conference two days hence, the morning which was slated to discuss ROTC. Ford had long had an arrangement with the CRIMSON whereby he told them the results of the CEP meetings provided that if he ever wanted to keep certain TEP proceedings secret, the CRIMSON editors would not attempt to get the information from other sources. He was taken aback to learn that the Globe did not consider itself bound by such strictures. When I persisted, Ford inquired heatedly, "Mr. Donham, why does the Globe have to write a story about this tomorrow?"

Why indeed? The CEP resolution on ROTC was vague, many thought purposely so. Some students charged (and a letter from Ford to Pusey purloined from University Hall five months later lends considerable weight to the argument) that the resolution was a subtrefuge for leaving ROTC unchanged. Certainly the timing of the release of the resolution was not geared to a full and open consideration of the proposal.

AFTER A handful of telephone calls I was able to obtain a text of the resolution, which made Page One of the morning Globe. It also marked the last time I was able to get past Dean Ford's secretary with a question. Dean Ford undoubtedly felt that I was ill serving Harvard with my handling of the affair. One must of course question whether serving the University administration or the dean of the faculty is necessarily synonymous with serving Harvard. But there is also the deeper question of whether a reporter should stop to ask how well his is serving Harvard. University officials, steeped in the traditional game of footsie which Harvard has played with the Boston newspapers, obviously believe the answer is that he should. But a reporter must answer no. If he is to think of himself as serving anyone, it must be his paper, or "the public," or worst of all, "the truth," but not Harvard.

DURING THE April crisis, these minor irritations were further inflamed. On the evening of the University Hall takeover, President Pusey released his first statement on the SDS demands. On the expansion demands he said: "There are no plans to tear down any apartments on University Road nor are any homes being torn down to make way for Harvard Medical School expansion." It seems incredible that Pusey could have supposed reporters would not investigate the conflicting claims, but it is hard to account for his statement otherwise.

Both his assertions were "true" only in the narrowest sense. They conveyed impressions which were false, as reporters soon discovered. Harvard had "no plans" for the demolition of the University Road apartments in the sense that no demolition company had been chosen, no destruction date set. But six months earlier, when Harvard officials sought to explain the building's poor condition at the time of Miss Britton's murder, they acknowledged that it had been purchased with a view toward eventual incorporation in the Kennedy Library site and that it would someday be replaced. It was also true that no homes were being torn down to make way for "Harvard Medical School expansion," and to have claimed they were was typical of SDS sloppiness. But 184 Harvard-owned apartments were slated for demolition to make way for a new Harvard Affiliated Hospital Complex, which would serve as a Medical School teaching facility.

Throughout the April crisis it was all but impossible for newsmen to get an audience with any Harvard officials. With the exception of two ness conferences by Dean Ford following Faculty meetings, administrators were simply not available.

Nor was the University News Office much help. The News Office has a nifty file of faculty biographies; it's great at sending your hometown newspaper a release when you are elected Vice President of the Freshman Glee Club, but beyond that the office is mired in ineptitude, and frequently, malice. It is not unusual for a reporter to ask if a release is forthcoming, and be told that none is, only to return thirty minutes later and find a stack of 200 freshly printed releases. Harvard veterans had long since learned that the News Office was good for little more than a phone and a typewriter, but the hordes who arrived during the crisis had to learn for themselves. A reporter for the Washington Post struggled vainly with the News Office personnel for three days and finally remarked to another newsman in desperation, "If this operation is anything like the rest of the Harvard administration, no wonder the kids are rioting."

When reporters arrived at a "news conference" by senior Corporation Fellow William Marbury only to hear news officer William Pinkerton announce that Marbury would read a statement and answer no question, Timesman E. W. Kenworthy had had enough. Kenworthy, a grey-haired reporter who has terrorized many a news conference-holder in his day, demanded that Marbury submit to questioning. "It's been more than a week," he blustered at Pinkerton, "since the building was occupied, and we have yet to ask a single question of a member of the Harvard Administration." It wasn't true, Pinkerton protested, Dean Ford had held two news conferences. But Kenworthy prevailed and Marbury submitted to several minutes of question.

IT MUST be said, in the administration's defense, that Harvard officials had a lot of things to do during April besides catering to the press. But the lack of professionalism which attended Harvard's treatment of reporters during the strike was just a symptom of a deeper and growing alienation and distrust between Harvard officials and reporters.

It must also be noted that the picture I have painted describes Harvard's press relations at their worst. Within the University News Office there are several individuals who are consistently thoughtful and helpful. Most Faculty members and many members of the administration handle reporters with respect and intelligence. But at the highest levels within the Administration, pettiness and sanctimoniousness are too often the rule of the day.

In ancient times, as Eugene McCarthy was fond of recalling, the messenger who brought the bad news was often executed, even if the news he bore was true. Harvard has been receiving a lot of bad news lately and she is likely to receive more bad news in the future. She would do well to reach some accommodation with the messengers.

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