Should the Daily’s editor in chief join a once and possibly still scandal-tarred organization? That’s the question the Daily faces now that Editor in Chief Andrew Grossman has told the staff he intends to go forward with the initiation process to join the campus organization Order of the Angell.
Back when it was known as Michigamua, the Order of Angell attracted lots of attention – very little of it good. During part of its history, the secret society was known for excluding women and minorities from its ranks. In 1989, it signed an agreement with Native American groups to no longer use Native American symbols in its rituals. But in 2000, a raid by the Students of Color Coalition found several Indian artifacts, and the organization was booted out of its tower offices in the Michigan Union.
The organization again agreed to clean up its act and dropped its name in 2006. But then-Editor in Chief Donn M. Fresard announced the same year he had joined the organization. This created a schism within the Daily that resulted in the resignation of then-Managing Editor Ashley Dinges. Dinges stepped down in protest because she believed Fresard’s membership was a conflict of interest.
Current Managing Editor Gabe Nelson, who was a news reporter when the controversy erupted, said that back in 2006 the organization was still in disrepute. It had taken some steps at reform, but the group still remained controversial to many.
Nelson he said he believed Fresard’s association with the group didn’t affect news coverage, but it did damage the internal politics of the newspaper.
“It hurt his reputation in the end,” Nelson said.
Karl Stampfl, who succeeded Fresard as editor in chief, said he told staffers that he wouldn’t join the organization when he was selected to lead the Daily in large part because of the controversy that preceded him.
“I thought it would be too much of a distraction for the staff because of what happened before,” Stampfl said.
Nelson said the organization seems to have changed its ways, but hasn’t completely proven itself.
“There’s still a lot of exclusionary elements and secrecy. We would hope they open up,” Nelson said. “Hopefully (Grossman) can help them if he joins.”
The Daily’s bylaws bar staffers from joining the Michigan Student Assembly and prohibit reporters from joining political organizations. They prohibit staffers from taking leadership positions at other organizations such as fraternities and sororities. The Daily has a policy of prohibiting membership in organizations that might result in a conflict of interest. But that policy leaves discretion for editors to decide what constitutes a conflict of interest. The Daily’s Management Desk, comprised of section managing editors and associate editors, could vote with a two-thirds majority to issue an ultimatum to force an editor to surrender his post in the student organization or resign from his job.
“People are going to have to decide whether it is a conflict of interest,” Nelson said. But he said he approved of the way Grossman handled the news by telling the other editors about his intentions.
In the interest of full disclosure, when I was editor in chief of the Cornell Daily Sun, I was a member of the Quill and Dagger society, a semi-secret organization of student leaders. The group didn’t have the same controversial past as the Order of Angell and did publish its membership lists.
Grossman said he started telling editors at the Daily about his intention to join the Order of Angell on Saturday, a day before being officially invited to join. He says he believes joining the organization will help the Daily.
“It’s very important that we as journalists don’t wall ourselves off from the people we cover,” Grossman said. “It’s an organization that is more diverse than the Daily or the University at large.” He said, though, that if he felt joining the Order of the Angell would hurt the Daily, he would not hesitate to “run the other way.”
I think it’s fairly clear the Daily’s Management Desk should vote to decide whether membership in the Order of the Angell constitutes a conflict of interest and settle the issue definitively. The group’s contentious past requires the Daily do this, especially considering how the Daily grappled with this issue in the past. In guiding itself to a decision, the board should consider these questions:
Are the benefits of joining this organization outweighed by the potential downsides? Will it make the Daily look like it’s part of the establishment it’s supposed to be criticizing? Has the Order of the Angell sufficiently distanced itself from its controversial past so that membership in the organization isn’t tantamount to endorsing its past exclusionary policies? Will this help the Daily become more engaged with the community? Will rejecting membership make the Daily seem aloof?
These are the sorts of issues the Daily should grapple with before coming to any sort of vote. And as a newspaper, it should announce its decision so the public knows that the Daily is aware of how its decisions affect its image in the community. The newspaper’s biggest asset is its legitimacy, and by voting the Daily’s Management Desk will acknowledge it takes this asset seriously.
Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.