Campus ink tanks

Times Staff Writer

More than a dozen earnest college students gathered in the marshy meadowland of rural North Carolina recently to plot the overthrow of campus liberalism.

Their weapon of choice? The newspaper.

"People complain about the media," said Joshua Mercer, the pink-cheeked director of the seminar held at the Jesse Helms Center in the heart of chicken-growing country. "Our philosophy is, 'Be the media.' "

In an eight-hour session that bore little resemblance to a traditional journalism class, the students were taught how to start their own conservative newspapers and opinion journals. And how to pick fights with lefty bogeymen on the faculty and in student government.

By the end of the day, the student journalists were fired up for battle -- determined not only to change the tenor of notoriously liberal campus dialogues, but also, in the long run, to alter the basic makeup of the nation's professional news outlets.

"What do you want professors to feel when you call them up?" asked Owen Rounds, a former speechwriter for Rudolph Giuliani.

"Threatened," replied Duncan Wilson, a tousle-haired 19-year-old from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the war on Iraq, seminars such as this one are brimming with recruits to the battle for the hearts and minds of America's college students. There are now more than 80 right-leaning newspapers and magazines circulating on campuses from Stanford to Yale. That's the most ever, and 50% more than just two years ago.

"This year alone we've had 35 inquiries for starting new papers," said Brian Auchterlonie, executive director of the Collegiate Network, which trains conservative journalists. "That's double what we usually have."

The reason, the students say, is a mad-as-hell feeling among campus conservatives that they are the only ones in academia who seemed to notice that the world changed after the Sept. 11 attacks on America. They say they have watched aghast as left-leaning professors and student leaders blamed America for the attacks. So now they're starting their own guerrilla publications, often styled as unbridled opinion journals, to drum up support on campus for President Bush and the Iraq war.

"Conservative students have felt shut out on campus," explained Vince Vasquez, 22, college field director for the Leadership Institute, which sponsored the North Carolina seminar. "9/11 motivated them to say, 'If this is the case, we'll start our own newspapers.' "

Though most of these boot-strap affairs cannot compete in the finer points of writing and editing with better-funded campus dailies, they make up for these deficiencies with passion and combativeness. They gleefully ridicule student government antiwar measures and lampoon baby boomer professors and their teach-ins.

"How many sides are your professors teaching?" asked UC Santa Barbara's incendiary Gaucho Free Press, one of six new conservative publications on University of California campuses. "Hint: One."

The Free Press, whose front page features the slogan "We Do Not Apologize," is among the newest members of the fraternity, having begun this year. But its bite-the-ankles approach is typical of the breed. The Free Press prints embarrassing e-mails from faculty members and taunts the administration with surveys showing that most professors are Democrats.

"A lot of my professors don't try to hide the fact they are outright Marxists," said Nicholas Romero, 20, the feisty editor of the Free Press.

Romero, whose father is a doctor, became a convert to the conservative cause when the school asked him if he wanted to live in one of the "minority-interest" floors that concentrate minority students in parts of some residence halls. He said he was appalled at what he viewed as an implication that, as a Latino, he didn't "have the social skills" to interact with other ethnic or racial groups.

Romero and co-editor Gretchen Pfaff, 21, had no interest in writing for the main campus newspaper, the Daily Nexus, which they say too often glamorizes drug use and promiscuity. "It's offensive," Pfaff said.

The confrontational tactics encouraged in the seminars have inspired opposition on campus, ranging from vandalism to death threats. Seth Norman, managing editor of the California Patriot, said the magazine's Berkeley office was broken into and copies stolen. Distributors have been spit on.

When the UC Irvine Review called it "sheer lunacy" to create a Filipino studies department during a budget crisis, Filipino activists threatened advertisers with a boycott, said Editor Nathan Masters. Two companies stopped advertising.

Some conservative editors confess to being nervous about the opposition, but most are defiant. Staffers at the Patriot helped publicize the in-your-face flag-waving march by Republicans in Berkeley late last month. At UC Irvine, Masters said: "Our opponents' bully tactics will not silence the Irvine Review."

The modern swashbuckling style of right-wing publications is often traced to the Dartmouth Review, which began publishing in 1979. Over the years, the Review has sometimes been accused of stumbling over the line of good taste. In one of its more egregious episodes, it inserted a quote from Adolf Hitler into the paper's mission statement on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Today's publications share some characteristics with the conservative tracts that sprang up in the 1980s. The staffs remain all-volunteer and money is always short. The Free Press survives on private donations to pay the $1,400 it costs each month to print its run of 6,000 copies.

But there are important differences. Besides Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, new technology has made it easier than ever to spread ideas on campus.

Computers and publishing software are so sophisticated that, in days, a lone student can become a subversive Citizen Kane, spreading a message to hundreds and, often, thousands of readers. The Gaucho Free Press is full of graphics and cartoons, yet Pfaff does it all in her dorm room, on her laptop.

Another difference: The conservative political organizations that train the right-wing editors are better organized than ever. The Leadership Institute, which sponsored the North Carolina seminar, is one of three organizations that train and fund conservative journalists. Founded by Morton Blackwell, a former Reagan White House operative, the institute offers to pay the costs of printing first issues.

The Collegiate Network sponsors its own competition to honor journalism excellence. And in April, it announced its sixth annual Polly awards, recognizing "the excesses of college administrators and professors."

The organizations boast that their graduates have gone on to some of the most prestigious media outlets in the nation, including Esquire magazine, CNN, Time and Newsweek, as well as major metropolitan papers. Some see such "seeding" of the news media with conservatives as a welcome check on the liberalism of mainstream papers.

"I think it's great if more young conservatives are going into journalism," said Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic. Noting that journalism has traditionally attracted liberal students "who want to change the world," he said, "we can definitely use people who have different political and cultural points of view."

Others see a dangerous attempt to politicize the media.

David Brock, the onetime conservative author who has become a born-again Democrat, said campus conflicts are "phony wars instigated by conservatives. They introduce division and polarity where none exist."

Don't tell that to the students at the North Carolina seminar. Virtually all had stories about some campus outrage perpetrated by student government or gray-bearded professors who regard the Iraq war as Vietnam II.

Duncan Wilson, the UNC Charlotte student, complained that college Republicans got less than $500 in student fees this year. The campus gay club got $2,241, which was used partly to put on a show featuring drag queens, he said.

Wilson, who started college at 16, was particularly incensed at his "Marxist" sociology professor. Would it be all right, he asked, to label the man "Public Enemy No. 1?"

That was probably going too far, seminar teachers warned.

One thing seems clear from the furor surrounding the right-leaning publications: Conservatives no longer feel out-shouted on campus. "I take perverse pleasure in getting hate mail," said Andrew Jones, who edits The Criterion, an online UCLA publication that takes shots at the American Civil Liberties Union and even urges donors to stop giving money until the college changes its liberal policies.

The thought of right-wing students attacking their leftist professors in print is richly rewarding to some observers.

"The left is going to have a rude awakening here," said David Horowitz, a onetime campus radical who became an outspoken conservative. Professors "have politicized the university" and students are right to rebel.

Despite occasional incidents, most students at UC Santa Barbara have been receptive to the new voice on campus, Pfaff said. Even Brendan Buhler, the 22-year-old Nexus editor, said "it's good for them to try to get their viewpoint out there."

But Buhler, who wears T-shirts and flip-flops around the office, thinks it's a mistake to compare a general-interest paper to the Free Press. "When you come out and say you are the conservative voice on campus, you are automatically saying you are not going to cover the news in a fair manner," he said.

The Free Press has a roster of 20 writers, but most of the work falls on Romero and Pfaff. And that can be a problem. Depending on committed individuals leaves a publication vulnerable when the founders graduate. Many of the papers started in the 1980s later folded.

But Pfaff said she and her colleagues are in it for the long haul.

"My boyfriend is bummed," she says, at all the hours she spends putting the paper together, "but he knows I'm passionate about this."

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