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Defending the collegiate press
The following editorial is appearing today in more than a dozen college newspapers, including the USC Daily Trojan.
One week ago, an administrator at the University of Southern California (USC) blocked the re-election of Zach Fox to the post of editor in chief of the Daily Trojan, the campus' student daily newspaper. As college journalists, we are deeply troubled by this decision. Practicing journalism with strings attached isn't really practicing journalism at all, and to that end, we seek to preserve the tradition of a functionally--and whenever possible, formally--independent collegiate press. If campus newspapers are to succeed in informing readers and training reporters, they must be more than public relations arms of universities, and they cannot operate under the yoke of administrators' censorship.
Fox was re-elected by the staff of the Daily Trojan behind a vision which called for more financial transparency and a reorganization of the paper's senior editor positions. Yet, his election required the approval of USC's Media Board, a body of students, faculty members and administrators that oversees the school's student-run media operations. USC Vice President of Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson, a member of this board, decided not even to present Fox to the board, describing Fox's vision as irreconcilable with the Media Board's outline for the role. Fox, who had been serving as the editor this fall, resigned from his post in protest of the decision and threw his support behind the Daily Trojan's editorial director, Jeremy Beecher, who handily won a subsequent vote on Friday and was approved by the Media Board Monday.
Earlier this semester, Fox repeatedly approached the board requesting information about the budget and finances of the paper. Given that access to financial information is a standard operating procedure for nearly all of our nation's college papers--independent or not--this move denies USC's student journalists a holistic view of an industry that is facing major changes. Although the administration has commissioned a task force to investigate Fox's proposals, its reticence toward financial transparency creates an appearance of impropriety and leaves open questions as to whether Fox was denied his post in retaliation for his probing questions.
Although the Daily Trojan is not totally fiscally independent, its daily production has historically been student-run. Regardless of the formal level of independence of the paper, a meddling administration undermines the educational value of student journalism. Interventions like this assault the core values of student newspapers -- objectivity and comprehensive coverage. They compromise journalistic integrity and tarnish the development of the next generation of journalists.
Our society relies on its newspapers to check powerful individuals and institutions. An administration-controlled student paper poses the same threat to an academic community that a state-controlled press would to a nation; oversight limits the press's ability to act as a watchdog and prevent misuse of authority. The USC administration's interference with the student press creates a chilling effect, forcing student journalists to weigh the risk of losing their jobs against the duty of writing a story about or questioning the administration. Such considerations hamper a paper's ability to do its job. If USC intends to imbue any journalistic values in its students, it must allow its students to be journalists without fear of administrative reproach.
USC's action diminishes the role of student journalists across the nation by demonstrating a lack of trust in students to decide the structure and daily operation of their paper. But more importantly, it violates the fundamental value of the press. The university administration does a disservice to the whole of the USC community, not just the Daily Trojan editors whose decisions they rendered inconsequential. The integrity of the collegiate press is important to the greater integrity of the academy, where students and professors as well as journalists question and investigate and learn from the world around them. Those are values that motivate us as journalists, and we hope they are values that the USC administration also chooses to stand behind.