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Trade Ideas, Not Accusations

By David M. Debartolo

Over the last few years, student minority groups and college newspapers haven’t meshed particularly well together. In March 2001, when the Brown Daily Herald decided to print David Horowitz’s advertisement saying reparations for slavery would be racist, students stole 4,000 copies of the paper. At about the same time, The Crimson published an offensive article entitled “The Invasian” that made disparaging, unsupported remarks about Asians; The Crimson apologized five days later. Just last week, the Washington State University Daily Evergreen retracted and apologized for an article that misidentified the boat on which the first Filipinos arrived in California as “The Big Ass Spanish Boat.” (The boat’s name was actually “Our Lady of Good Peace.”)

Now, several groups of students at the University of Michigan are boycotting their student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. The groups, which include the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Minority Affairs Commission, allege that the paper has repeatedly misidentified and misspelled the names of people of color, as well as being generally deficient in its coverage of minority events and issues. The outburst was sparked by a particularly offensive reference in the first paper of the year—the Daily’s Arts section ran the caption “Buckwheat Sings” under a picture of Justin Guarini, the American Idol finalist, who is of mixed race.

These incidents caused very different reactions. The Crimson was the target of a peaceful protest, and as a result, there has been some progress in rebuilding the bridges to the Asian community that were torched a year and a half ago. At the Daily Evergreen, it is too soon to gauge the fallout of the Filipino article, though the newspaper’s admission of “deep regret” for “gross inaccuracies and poor coverage” ought to go a long way towards alleviating long-term damage to the paper’s reputation. On the other hand, the theft of newspapers for publishing a controversial advertisement can never be excused—and it contributed nothing to the debate about reparations, the Brown Daily Herald or Horowitz’s advertisement itself. And of course, groups at Michigan are boycotting the Daily.

The Daily has inexplicably declined to apologize for the “buckwheat” caption, which quite understandably angered students of color on campus; it will be difficult to make any progress until the paper publicly acknowledges that mistake. But even so, the boycott will only hurt the Daily’s coverage of minorities, and by extension the minority communities themselves.

After a meeting with the Daily on Sept. 22, campus minority leaders say the newspaper refused to commit in writing to their demands, resulting in the boycott. Why boycott, as opposed to another form of protest? According to Aundrea Johnson, the speaker of the Black Student Union, “the Daily needs to recognize that without students of color supporting their paper, the paper becomes a worse paper than the way it is now.” And there is no doubt the protesters will succeed in that respect—by refusing to comment for articles and by not submitting viewpoints or letters to the editor, the Daily will be hampered in its coverage of all events, but especially minority ones. Jon Schwartz, the Daily’s editor-in-chief, admits as much. “We’re running a lot of stories without quotes, which makes it hard to press them like we should,” he wrote in an e-mail. “A lot of page three stories should have been on page one. It’s hard to tell if we’re completely not covering some things, because we generally rely on groups to let us know what’s going on—if they’re not telling us, we don’t usually know.”

In this respect, the boycott’s effects are completely contradictory to its goals. The protesters demand, among many other things, “the creation of a comfortable and inclusive work environment for students of color,” “an increase in the accuracy in reporting minority issues” and “the assignment of at least one reporter to each community within the larger minority student community.” These clearly cannot be accomplished while students of color are encouraged to divorce themselves from the Daily.

The boycott may raise awareness of these concerns on campus and within minority communities, but the Daily claims to be well aware of the protesters’ concerns—and has indicated a willingness to address some of the more reasonable goals, such as creating “a comfortable and inclusive work environment for students of color.” In an editorial yesterday, Schwartz said the Daily has been working to address its problems internally and wanted to meet with the protesters, and he reiterated in an e-mail that “if there’s one thing [the boycott] might have done, it has made us realize that we can be a bit more open.” Of course, such a result could have been reached with many other less detrimental forms of protest.

Though Michelle Lin, the chair of the United Asian American Organizations, describes the demands as “attainable,” several are quite unreasonable; at least four of them, ranging from “the production of a yearly report…on student of color affairs and resources” to “the creation of a committee paid by the Michigan Daily that would be responsible for training all [staff] on cultural sensitivity,” would cost the newspaper hard-earned money. That doesn’t automatically make them unreasonable, but it’s not difficult to see why the Daily would be unwilling to be coerced by a boycott into spending money on projects that it cannot necessarily afford to undertake.

Both sides will get together on Friday to attempt to resolve the situation, and hopefully they will succeed in ending the standoff. I should note, for full disclosure’s sake, that the Daily’s editorial page editor is a good friend of mine—but more relevant, I’m a college journalist myself. Over the last three years, I’ve seen firsthand the damage that the absence of diverse viewpoints can have on journalism. In order to help fix the deficiencies they have identified in the Daily, students of color at Michigan must make a renewed effort to integrate themselves in the newspaper—not only by writing articles and suggesting stories, but by simply reading the Daily, giving quotes and writing letters to the editor. Then they may actually be able to improve the Daily’s coverage instead of trading barbs and accusations—or even worse, saying nothing to each other at all.

David M. Debartolo ’03 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. He is the Editorial Chair of The Harvard Crimson.

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