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Friday, April 13, 2012

Independent Mizzou Paper Staff Resign Over April Fools Edition

The Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of the independent Mizzou paper, The Maneater, have resigned after the publication of their controversial April Fool's edition. Abby Spudich, former managing editor, resigned on Tuesday and Travis Cornejo, former editor-in-chief, resigned Wednesday afternoon. Comments to MEW have indicated this is a paper intended for freshmen and sophomores to practice their journalistic skills on before entering the school's journalism program. That would appear to be accurate if you read pages from the issue in question here, here and here (you have to love the juxtaposition of the ad for The Value Of Culture Lecture next to the editorial on this page).  The writing is, at best, sophomoric. It is crude, lazy, and generally sad examples of what our school system currently develops in some young writers.

Some have compared The Maneater's writing to the popular satirical publication The Onion, but that is like comparing a LeapFrog LeapPad to an iPad.  Here is a writing sample about food from The Onion:
What Kind Of Powdered Chocolate Drink Mix Have We Unleashed Upon The World?
I write this in a state of profound despair, paralyzed with horror at the chocolaty abomination our thoughtless actions have wrought upon an unsuspecting world—a world that never asked for another chocolate drink mix, nor lived in true want of one. While all mankind will suffer in the fudgy genesis we have so callously brought forth, the responsibility for this pestilence is mine alone to bear. We played God with flavored milk, and now all of humanity must pay the price for our hubris—a price I fear may be much higher than the $2.99 markup at most supermarkets. 
 Here is a writing sample about food on campus from The Maneater:
To close the price discrepancy gap, CES will no longer offer Gatorade for the bargain deal of your soul and your first-born child. Instead, it will offer caviar, truffles imported from Italy and centaur meat, all for the low price of your soul and your first born child.

"We saw that students were unhappy going bankrupt buying cheap products and we listened," Cream said.  "Now they can go broke buying fancy food."
This article also created such lofty characters as the Miserable Scrotum Association, Superstar Looney Toobs and journalist Sheep Dickenburger.

One is clever and witty. The other is a train wreck.

Satire, which I assume is what the writers at The Maneater were aiming for, does not need to hit its reader over the head.   People can be entertained, even duped, by good satirical writing as many were by the NPR piece (from April 1st) N.Y. Preschool Starts DNA Testing For Admission that reported on a prestigious New York City preschool which was embarking on a program to collect DNA from future applicants. Their purported goal was to look for, "genetic markers that indicate future excellence — things like intelligence, confidence and other leadership traits."  Though the article (which was entirely fictitious) created quite a stir and boosted NPR's readership for a few days, fooling even some sophisticated readers, it did so without a single slanderous or profane word. At worst, it poked fun at New York's wealthy who are stereotyped as being willing to do anything to get their children into "the right schools."

Bringing a sledgehammer to a diamond cutting is the philosophy of transgressive journalism and appears to be the guiding philosophy of The Maneater, as was noted in the first article in MEW. Starting with the temporary new name Carpeteater (a non-veiled reference to the lesbian community) and continuing with references to Vagina Avenue (which wasn't even related to the article topic) and "Cunter Allwood's" article that mentioned students banding together to "fu*% sh#@ up," the paper was a Joe Frazier-esque assault on the civilized reader.

Initially the University called for disciplinary hearings for the staff at The Maneater. Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said "The First Amendment gives you a civil right to be derogatory and profane. As a public entity, if the university took steps to discipline speech that is protected by the First Amendment, they could open the university up to a lawsuit for civil rights violation." That, and the fact that both Spudich and Cornejo have resigned, may be the reason why the University has now dropped such hearings.

Mr. Goldstein's assertion that the first Amendment gives you the right to be a boor or a crass loudmouth is an interesting interpretation. Those who have taken the time to study history outside of the classroom understand the importance of the first amendment from the founder's perspective. They were begging to have their grievances heard by those with power over them without fear of retribution, not seeking protection for one's right to stand on a street corner and shout, "Zounds good sir. Thou art cukold."One could perhaps forgive a young lawyer, who has been indoctrinated with the fairly modern concept of placing case law and precedent at the center of our legal system, for his butchered understanding of the First Amendment. 

That still leaves the question of the role of journalism, as well as its rights and obligations. The fourth estate has moved far from its original role as the watchdog of the government.  Today much of the mainstream press walks arm and arm with the administration.  Another segment, represented by the likes of The Star and The National Enquirer, continues to exist because of the free market. So long as there are people who are willing to buy them, advertisers will be willing to buy space in them and they will continue to publish their provocative half truths or all out lies, though no one will ever take them seriously as a newspaper. Their staff will have jobs only so long as an acceptable number of the public find their writing an amusing diversion. They will never, however, cross over to real jobs in news reporting. (The staff at The Maneater should take note.)

The role of the press is no longer clear in the minds of the general public so it is not surprising that The Maneater has divided the Mizzou student body as well. They tend to fall into three camps:
  1. The paper went too far and the resignation of the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief is not sufficient. All the writers of that particular edition should apologize as well and face consequences
  2.  The paper went too far, but the appropriate parties have done the right thing and the issue should be dropped.
  3.  All the outcry is an overreaction. The paper was a harmless joke and people should get over it.
A journalism student and writer for MU Global Communications, an online site that covers international news at MU, Nuria Mathog describes the divide perfectly:
A lot of this plays into students' perception of the role of journalists in society. Students who believe that journalists must strive to be inclusive of different viewpoints, especially those of minorities and other marginalized groups, tend to present arguments that fall into the first two categories. In contrast, students who believe that journalists have no obligation other than to the public as a whole are more likely to vouch for the validity of the third point.*
* Ms. Mathog's views do not necessarily reflect those of MU Global Communications.
The first Amendment only prohibits official government action with regards to free speech. It does not prohibit public response or consequences.  Media Matters recognized this when David Brock began three years ago developing a plan to harass and boycott local businesses that advertise on conservative talk radio. In his plan, willing cohorts who may not even be in the business's state, make offensive or threatening calls to local businesses, terrorizing their staff and tying up lines so true customers cannot get through, all in an attempt to push those businesses into withdrawing their advertising from conservative radio. Mr. Goldstein's statement is correct in the court's opinions today.  There is nothing wrong with what these people are doing and their speech is protected.

This, however, is a sword that cuts both ways.  If enough of the students at Mizzou feel that The Maneater is, in the parlance of the press, a useless "rag," then simply ceasing to buy the paper will cause its advertisers to also pull their support and the paper will fold. Even a coordinated effort to make this happen would be covered under free speech. The University can sit back and allow the free market to do what they cannot. They just have to remember that everyone learns at a different pace and some students may take longer than others to learn the lesson of the April Fool's edition.

1 comment:

  1. It's a pity paper resources and time were wasted on such a vile April Fool's publication.


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