By John Christie
A left-wing group at a university insists that the student newspaper bow to their demand to publish, in full, a radical essay.
The essay, “Student as Nigger,” was written by a professor at California State University in Los Angeles. It asserts university students are an oppressed class, just like black “slaves,” forced to eat in separate dining halls from faculty, use separate bathrooms, banned from “lovemaking” with their teachers, which he likens to the anti-miscegenation laws of the South.
The author, Jerry Farber, writes the “good students,” those that study and do well, are “ … like those old grey-headed house niggers you can still find in the South who don’t see what all the fuss is about because Mr. Charlie ‘treats us real good.’ ”
The student newspaper says “No.” It would write about the students’ demands, but it would not publish the essay, citing the offensive title, the frequent use of the “n” word throughout the essay and its editorial prerogative. It will not turn over a large section of its pages to nothing more than an ideological screed that trivializes actual slavery.
That didn’t happen this year or 10 years ago or even 20. The year was 1968, and I was one of the editors who said no.
My memories of that that incident at the University of New Hampshire came back to me recently as I read about similar pressures on the college newspapers at Harvard and Northwestern universities from student activists.
On Sept. 12, Harvard Crimson reporters covered a campus protest calling for the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and – following accepted journalistic standards of fairness – contacted ICE for comment. ICE didn’t respond, and The Crimson included a sentence stating that in its story, according to the Boston Globe.
A student advocacy group and others signed a petition condemning the paper for contacting ICE, declaring the paper guilty of “cultural insensitivity.” Harvard’s student government backed the complaint.
In November, The Daily Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. was pressured by activists to apologize for how it covered a speech by former Trump Administration Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Students objected to the paper using a student directory to get contact information for people it wanted to interview and for posting photos from the protest on social media. The students claimed the coverage was an invasion of their privacy, despite the fact that they voluntarily took part in a public event.
The paper’s top editors signed and published a long apology for their coverage.
Both universities defended the students for practicing good journalism. At Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Dean Charles Whitaker went even further, writing that the student journalists faced “relentless public shaming … for the sin” of doing their jobs.
The public shaming part, I recognized.
Back to 1968 and the Farber essay.
It was published at the height of the student radical movement against the Vietnam War, just weeks after the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention and at a time when the names in the news were Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers. We were all reading Cleaver’s book, “Soul on Ice.”
Just that spring, when I wasn’t an editor on the student paper, I had gone “clean for Gene,” traveling to Indiana to campaign door-to-door for anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
The atmosphere on nearly every campus – certainly one like UNH’s, just an hour north of liberal Boston — was fervently left of center.
But even as student journalists, we knew our role went beyond our politics. Even if it meant shaming by our friends.
The decision not to publish the essay was made by the editor-in-chief of The New Hampshire, Jon Kellogg. He was supported by the rest of the top editors, including myself, the paper’s managing editor.
The day after we refused to publish, I was alone on the newspaper’s office. A couple of agitated students burst into our basement office, demanding to see the editor. I told them he wasn’t there. They asked who I was. I told them, and they demanded I come upstairs right away to a meeting of the Student Political Union. That was UNH’s version of the Students for a Democratic Society, the SDS, the leading national organization of student radicals.
When I walked into the meeting room there must have been 50 or more students waiting for me, raising their fists, shouting that we had to publish the essay. I was subjected to the movement’s usual name-calling and accusations — toady, sell-out; part of the establishment, co-opted.
These were people I knew, people that, for the most part, I agreed with politically. (After my year as managing editor was up, I worked in the SPU’s anti-war campaign.)
They may have been my peers, but they were not open-minded jurors. I was guilty before I showed up.
I wasn’t going to cave or even tell them I would go back to the newsroom and re-think our decision. I knew it was right and that even if I wanted to publish the essay, Kellogg would not.
I was a little scared at first, but my strategy was to stick around, let them take their best shot and hope they would wear themselves out. Eventually they did, and I turned around and went back to my office. There was another newspaper to put out.
I was lucky: This was well before social media. The only way anyone had to organize against us or go after me personally was by putting up posters on campus bulletin boards. Too much trouble for a small fish.
The event provided me with an early lesson in my responsibilities as a journalist, a career I pursue to this day. We have a role in preserving this democracy, and that requires us not to succumb to any of the ism’s of the day – except the one the begins with “j.”
I see the student journalists at Harvard and Northwestern and other college newspapers learning the same lesson, but in a much harsher environment. All I had to worry about was one tense confrontation. Now, angry students – from the left or right – can use their trolling skills to make your life miserable and create a permanently accessible record of your supposed insensitivities or failure to adhere to their political orthodoxy.
My small moment of standing up for journalism is nothing in comparison to the courage shown by today’s college journalists.
John Christie is a veteran journalist living in Gloucester, MA. His memoir, “Prince of Wentworth Street: An American Boyhood in the Shadow of a Genocide,” will be published by Plaidswede Publishing later this year.