At about the same time I started writing for the Daily more than three years ago, a number of student groups launched a boycott of the paper. They criticized our coverage of minorities and said the Daily was not a comfortable place for minority students to work.
More than three years later, members of the campus chapter of the NAACP have made similar charges, specifically chastising me and other editors for allowing a provocative cartoon critical of affirmative action to run on the editorial page.
The editorial page, which runs on page four every day, serves as a forum for campus debate. The columns, cartoons, viewpoints and letters that run on the right side of the page do not represent the views of the Daily’s editors or its editorial board. The staff editorials on the left side of the page, however, represent the views of the editorial board. For years on the left side of the page, that editorial board has consistently supported affirmative action.
But the editorial board’s support of affirmative action does not mean that we force all of our cartoonists and writers to agree with that position. In fact, if the editorial page is to remain credible to our readers and to its mission to serve as a forum for debate, we must allow a variety of viewpoints to appear on the page.
One of the reasons the editorial page supports the use of affirmative action – indeed the argument the University’s legal team used before the U.S. Supreme Court – is that a racially and ethnically diverse campus facilitates an important part of the educational experience students receive on campus. We are more likely to have our own beliefs challenged and to be exposed to a wide variety of views if not everyone looks alike and if not everyone grew up in the same neighborhood. The theory is that we can learn from each other, not just our textbooks.
But for that theory to hold true, it requires constructive interaction between members of a diverse student body. That is why I am so concerned about the harsh reaction to the cartoon.
College campuses should host a free exchange of competing ideas, not gardens of groupthink. As part of an opinion that has become a cornerstone of any interpretation of the First Amendment, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Anyone with an idea cannot maintain the superiority of that idea if he shields it from competing ideas. Censorship does not strengthen arguments. Rather, it damages their credibility.
Instead of saying the cartoon should not have been run and complaining to the paper’s editors with vitriol, the individuals who were angry we ran the cartoon should see the cartoon as an opportunity for dialogue – an opportunity to poke holes in an opposing or disingenuous argument.
I will cut any cartoon that advocates violence or that uses images that perpetuate racist stereotypes. I stand by my decision to run the cartoon in question, however, and I will not cut a cartoon in the future merely because its message offends some students who view it with the most cynical interpretation possible.
My deference to the First Amendment, however, does not mean that the Daily is not partially at fault or that we are not listening to what students are telling us. We need to do a better job explaining the way our paper works. Since the cartoon ran more than a week ago, we have added a disclaimer to the editorial page that clarifies the distinction between staff editorials and personal viewpoints.
We also waited too long to react to the last boycott. Instead of seriously considering what students were telling us, we felt attacked and became defensive.
When I became the editor of the Daily in February, I made the issue of diversity at the paper one of my top priorities. The Daily is not very racially and ethnically diverse, which is not only morally troubling, but also damaging the quality of our paper. Many newspapers across the country have this problem, and despite its efforts, our university, from which we draw our staff, is far from representative of the state of Michigan, let alone Southeast Michigan.
In February, I formed a commission of editors and writers on the Daily’s staff to examine the work environment at the paper and the perceptions members of multicultural communities have of the Daily. After months of work, the commission will release its findings, recommendations and plans to implement those changes in tomorrow’s Daily. The report will also be made public.
Last Thursday, we held a meeting between the Daily’s cartoonists, editorial page editors, myself and my successor, Donn Fresard, to talk about the importance of being sensitive and accurate when portraying minorities. This term we have also begun to think more carefully about how we identify suspects in our crime coverage, and we have become much more selective about when we print a suspect’s race.
The Daily takes criticism seriously. Newspapers serve their communities, which means we cannot become detached and unaccountable. But we will never shrink from our obligation to bring you competing points of view on the key issues facing this campus. If we do our job well, we will help foster a more dynamic and a more just campus.
Pesick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.