Treat Controversial College Editor Like A Student– Not A Villain

By: Joe Strupp

So is David McSwane the new evil monster of college newspapering abusing his rights in an effort to offend readers? Or is he the deprived First Amendment stalwart expressing his freedom of speech in defiance of censoring powers that be?

Neither, he is a college student. And it would seem he should be treated as such, someone in school to learn, and therefore, be taught that what he did was wrong and why.

Instead, as is often the case in recent years with controversial moves by campus press, he is treated like some horrible fiend misusing his power as an editor and flaunting the traditions of good journalism. When did this student rise to the level of expectations granted to veteran reporters and journalists who have been in the business for years?

For those who don?t know, McSwane is the editor of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, the student newspaper of Colorado State University. Last week, after the outcry over a student being tasered at a University of Florida event featuring John Kerry, McSwane published a four-word editorial, in big bold letters, that proclaimed “Taser This: F— BUSH.”

A powerful message? Yes. An offensive message? Yes. And I would agree an inappropriate message. But to simply fire this editor and treat him like a seasoned reporter who has been around a while, and should know better, is also inappropriate.

Numerous cases in recent years involving campus press, such as the University of Virginia cartoonist bounced for an Ethiopian cartoon considered offensive, seem to get lost in the quick demand to punish rather than teach. Should a senior in college be given the same scrutiny for a lapse in judgment that Dan Rather gets for using questionable documents in a report on the president?

Yes, what McSwane did was wrong. Not because such language is verboten in a college publication or that one should not criticize the president. But because it did not express its message clearly and went so far in offending readers that it overshadowed its apparent point.

Should McSwane be suspended or demoted? Perhaps. But someone should point out that it is not the offensive nature of the words, but how they were used, or misused, that draws punishment. Anyone with any editorial writing experience knows that if the point is unclear, and the message overshadowed by its approach, the editorial has failed.

In this case, McSwane did use the theory that “less is more.” Unfortunately, that less was too little. The profanity, in my view, was a second issue and, because the overall message was unclear, it becomes irrelevant.

What is relevant, however, is how the situation is treated. And to simply kick this student off the newspaper and avoid using the situation to teach him, and other student reporters and editors how to proceed properly in their pages, is to miss a valuable opportunity.

Tonight, the university’s Board of Student Communications is set to decide McSwane’s fate. So far, the campus’ College Republicans have called for his ouster, while McSwane has reportedly retained a lawyer to sue if he is let go.

Is this where we want simple college-level disputes to go? First, a student is fired for making a mistake in an atmosphere that is supposed to teach future journalists. Then, politics creeps in with a campus GOP group calling for a departure, and now another needless lawsuit may result.

In today’s overly-sensationalistic climate of news where cable loudmouths spout off obnoxious comments regularly and tabloids splash every eye-grabbing offensive headline they can think of, is it a surprise a college editor might go that route for attention and to vent anger?

I am sure any of us who worked in a campus newspaper or other student publication can recall mistakes made. In my case, during my time at Brooklyn College, writing for two different newspapers and working at the college radio station, I goofed a few times myself.

Later, as a news and sports director at the radio station, I had at least two occasions when a reporter made a serious mistake and demands called for his or her firing. I resisted, discussed the matter, and allowed them to remain following lesser punishments and warnings. In both cases, they resumed duties problem-free.

I also spent a brief stint as a writing coach at San Francisco State University. After several sessions with a smart student who had good intentions but could not write well, I realized I was expecting too much of him right away. After holding back the initial heavy criticism, I took it slowly and remembered he was there to learn. After a few weeks, he caught on and showed marked improvement.

I know the news world is in a crazy state, with cutbacks aplenty, calls for reporters’ anonymous sources growing and the Internet turning competition into a frenzied 24-hour marathon. But that is no excuse for neglecting the fact that college students, who will have to enter this demanding news world soon, need to be taught how to do their jobs, not punished for trying to learn to do them.

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