Typecast

Posted on 01. Apr, 2007 by in Features

Nine sets of campus editors-including one from this magazine-showed up for the first meeting of the Yale Publications Council in early February, and eight considered themselves journalists. This irked Betty Trachtenberg, the dean of Student Affairs. When she and several Residential College Deans established the group, she said, “We wanted people to understand what was the concept of responsible journalism.” Their mission proved difficult, as the avowed non-journalists were, in fact, the editors of The Yale Record, who consider themselves humor writers. Their mock “Blue Book,” released last September, was one of a handful of publications that had motivated Trachtenberg to solve what she later called “the problems of these kinds of scurrilous articles in various of our journals.” She added, witheringly, “It’s supposed to be passed off as humor, and people weren’t buying it.”

Nearly every editor, however, including the Record’s, left the room optimistic about the Council’s possibilities and willing to attempt a second meeting. From their perspective, it had the potential to become a forum where editors could share tips, make the publishing production process at Yale more open, and engage in dialogue with the rest of the campus community. For Trachtenberg and many of the cultural groups on campus, however, it was an effort to persuade Yale publications to change their habits: not only to stop printing the offending articles, but to actively acknowledge the minority presence at Yale. This change began long before the first meeting of the Publications Council. The student reactions against the inflammatory articles changed, however temporarily, the tone and policies of major publications at Yale, and sharply limited or refocused their discussions of race. The Council had little to do with the transformation, but its potential for relevance is emerging: to determine whether these changes can become long-term parts of the Yale media landscape, for journalists and non-journalists alike.

This landscape was rocked a year ago by the publication of two pieces. One was “Me Love you Long Time: Yale’s Case of Yellow Fever,” in the April issue of Rumpus. It appeared within several days of a cartoon in The Yale Herald depicting a student who suggests he would not vote for a candidate for YCC president because he was Asian. Students and administrators spotted the pair and were outraged.

“Offensive speech is protected at Yale,” President Richard Levin said. “That doesn’t mean that if you say something that is deeply offensive to other people, you should be.” Priya Prasad, president of the Asian American Students Association, alleged that the publications had advanced stereotypes substantially damaging to the perception of Asian students at Yale. Editors from both quickly apologized and underwent scathing criticism at two packed student forums. Students charged the Herald with a long history of perceived racial insensitivity; the Asian American Students Association sponsored a “Day of Silence,” during which students gagged themselves to protest the publications’ “racial insensitivity toward Asian Americans and other minority groups.”

Many students who were incensed by the articles grew frustrated that the protests, staged in the weeks before finals and summer break, inspired nothing but apologies and expressions of hope for a smoother fall term. April Joyner, an editor at Sphere, a publication about minority events and issues at Yale, supported the protests and went to both forums. “I don’t think anything was really accomplished in the end,” she reflected. “Basically, the editors were attacked, and all they could do was apologize.”

In September, these fears were confirmed for many by the publication of the Record’s Blue Book, which offended African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, gays, and others with a smorgasbord of fake courses like “AFAM101: The Difference Between Black People and White People. Black Stand-Up Comics;” “ARBC125: Introductory Terrorist Arabic;” and “SPAN135b: Practical Applications of Spanish for WASPs.” Some groups labeled the publication bigoted. Another forum was held, at which many questioned the efficacy of the previous spring’s demonstrations.

Students, however, had underestimated the success of their protests. Deviating from what the newspaper had long viewed as its editorial role, Rumpus turned off the spigot of aggressive racial humor. Whatever its content, past and present editors of Rumpus have argued that the self-proclaimed tabloid fills a legitimate journalistic niche on campus. Kyle Mathews, a current Editor-in-Chief, refers to the need for “fidelity to the institution,” whose aim, he says, is to portray real discourse and behavior in which students are engaged, from gossip about daily alcohol-induced mishaps to the occasional orgy. Discussing the controversy, Mathews says, “what’s so frustrating about that particular perspective is that it’s a reflection of what students are saying privately. They [the protestors] were attacking a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself.” Sam Heller, an Editor-in-Chief who published the offending piece, admitted to the Herald in an interview that he had edited the article with the intent of maximizing its shock value.

In response to the spring controversy, Heller apologized profusely and claimed that the editors made an error in printing the article in its published form. Mathews, though he told me that he would “weather the storm” and publish another controversial piece “if we thought there was some merit to the article,” admitted that “in choosing which articles to run we’ve really tried to avoid topics of race.” Indeed, no article on race has been published under Mathews’ tenure. Heller, by contrast, published a handful: “Party Lines: Black Parties Differ from White Parties” and “Miscegenation Station: Interracial Dating at Yale.”

The Record, which attempted to remain defiantly unfazed by the protests, made changes of its own. Then-Editor-in-Chief David Litt published a jokey pseudo-apology in the next issue of the Record, mocking his critics. But in an interview, he conceded that he had grown more cautious. “There’s definitely things in the Record we would have printed, and we don’t now,” he said. He stressed that “it’s not the protest that made us do that, but people who sat down and talked to us and said, ‘this made me feel shitty and here’s why.'”

Yale’s two main newspapers reacted with their own policy changes. The Herald began to limit provocative mentions of race. As at Rumpus, this proved a significant challenge to the paper’s longstanding editorial prerogative. In an extended meditation on the responsibilities of journalists printed in a January issue of the Herald, former Editor-in-Chief Sarah Raymond quoted her predecessor, Tamara Micner, defending her decision to print the offending cartoon in much the same terms as Mathews. “I thought it was pointed, and I thought it was smart, and it definitely struck a chord. This was based on stuff I actually heard people saying, and it was mirroring that, as art often does.” Micner’s and Heller’s comments point to their shared sentiment that racist material in publications is not the whole problem, but a symptom of a larger question of racism on campus. Yet her official remarks last April were contrite. “The comic has come across as offensive and racist to a sizable portion of the student body,” she wrote in an Editor’s Note, “and in such a case the Herald recognizes that to some extent authorial intent no longer matters.”

Moreover, Micner mentioned in a later interview that she received another comic last April from the same artist referring to the controversy generated by his earlier piece. “I found that it spoke to the attitudes that people were showing,” she admitted, but, “in the immediate aftermath, we didn’t think it was necessary.” She chose not to print it. Why had she changed her mind? “I think the bar has risen for the quality of the content versus its provocativeness,” she told me. A glance at her successor’s article on the topic confirms how much the Herald was rattled by the protests. Raymond concludes it by prescribing Yale an exceptionally strong medicine. She argues that Yale should adopt a “Blueprint” that all students agree to uphold, a sort of journalistic honor code that pledges not to offend. “Perhaps,” Raymond ruminates, “we could use a little guidance toward ethical life.”

The Yale Daily News, though not a major instigator of the protests, has attempted reforms that are potentially the most far-reaching. The News identifies itself as a leader of campus discourse, not merely a faithful scribbler of it. Yet it is hardly a secret that the publication has historically had a poor relationship with cultural groups on campus. Crystal Paul-Laughinghouse, the editor of the African-American Cultural House’s newsletter, identifies the News’ coverage of cultural events as rare and often inaccurate, and says that black students have often had unpleasant experiences working as reporters there. As at other major campus publications, few minorities have ever sat on the paper’s editorial board.

Dean Trachtenberg and the News said that in the past year, the current Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Mishkin, has made a substantial effort to rebuild the relationship between the paper and cultural groups at Yale. Mishkin confirmed that the recent protests had largely motivated several changes: “It’s definitely something that set the agenda to focus on that.” For the first time, one reporter, Judy Wang, has been assigned to cover primarily religious and cultural events, recently reporting a series on race and attending a host of cultural events. The News is also in the early stages of organizing a forum, co-sponsored by the Coalition for Campus Unity-an organization formed in direct response to the Record controversy-where students will offer opinions and air frustrations about the paper’s coverage of campus groups. Dean Trachtenberg volunteered that “the editor of the Yale Daily News is very sincere in its wish to be more inclusive. And I think if you look at the YDN it’s different this year.” Trachtenberg’s publications council helped drive the change: both Wang’s highly unusual series on race at Yale and the planned forum emerged shortly after the council’s first meeting.

These recent developments at the News are probably the group’s only achievements so far. But they signal what role, if any, the council may play in building on the temporary, reactionary changes of the Record, Rumpus, and Herald. Race may be have been absent from Rumpus for the past year, but turnover on editorial boards will ensure that the controversy shadowing the tabloid will soon be forgotten. The administrators behind the Council’s creation-primarily Berkeley’s Dean Kevin Hicks and Trachtenberg, as well as a handful of other Residential College Deans-see the group as a long-term opportunity. Alexandra Suich, the editor-in-chief of the Yale Globalist, attended the meeting and described a conversation with Hicks immediately afterwards. “Dean Hicks sees it as a much more far-sighted organization,” she said. “He wants the creation of a culture where the publications won’t want to publish this material.”

This solution is more moderate than many of the ideas that percolated at the time of the Council’s creation. Alfred Guy, the director of the Yale Writing Center, witnessed its evolution. Within a few weeks of each other, two separate groups approached him and asked if he would do something about the state of undergraduate journalism at Yale. The first group was blunt. Saveena Dhall, an Assistant Dean and Director of the Asian Cultural Center, came with two students to ask Guy if there was anything he could do to prevent publications from printing articles considered offensive by cultural groups at Yale. Guy politely declined.

The second group was a little more reserved. Three Residential College Deans asked Guy, as well as Mark Oppenheimer, head of the Writing Center’s Journalism Initiative, to participate in a new administrative proposal called the Yale Publications Council. Though yet unformed, the council they and Trachtenberg envisioned would bring together editors from all major campus publications-from the News to Rumpus-to regularly meet and discuss common goals, guidelines, and challenges. The deans asked Guy and Oppenheimer to help set up events for the Council, and the five brainstormed ideas like bringing professional journalists to Yale to meet with the editors. But as the Deans gradually expanded their vision for the council, Guy drew back and once again refused to participate. “They were talking about a journalistic code of ethics,” he said. “I was worried that somehow it would seem that there would be a party line.”

Dhall’s request reflected the attitudes of many cultural groups on campus at the time. In the wake of the Record forum, a group of students sent a packet of offensive articles printed in Yale publications to the national media. Though not part of that intiative, Josh Williams, co-founder of the Coalition for Campus Unity and a co-moderator at the forum, called its work “very professional” and is puzzled by the packet’s failure to generate coverage. The Yale chapter of the NAACP suggested that the administration trash an entire print run of a publication that was deemed offensive.

However much these attitudes may have motivated the Council’s creation, Trachtenberg, who claims to be adamantly against censorship, stressed that the group is an entirely voluntary, editor-run group. This characteristic suggests its potential and the recipe for its undoing. Editors who believe in transforming the temporary racial gag rule in Yale’s major publications into a lasting consciousness, one that stimulates campus dialogue about divisive issues instead of occasionally shocking the campus, may find the Council a receptive setting. Editors have spoken of beginning monthly dialogues with cultural groups and offended students and moving beyond periodic ritual of frustrated campus-wide protests and apologies. The Council could add transparency to the editorial process, and, as Raymond suggested, set up guidelines of ethical conduct for reporters, editors, and writers.

But the Council’s members, as the Record made clear, are not all journalists, and the various responses to the most recent crises suggest how difficult it may be to forge any agreement or informal co-regulation between editors. As the Rumpus’ Kyle Mathews said, it would be useless to try to set standards of journalism for the Council, because the only standards he would consent to would be laughably inadequate for the YDN. And editors are wary, whatever Trachtenberg’s assurances to the contrary, that the Council could begin to exercise a chilling effect on worthwhile yet controversial printed material. It is perhaps for these reasons-coupled with Trachtenberg’s imminent departure and the impossibility of finding a common free hour for a dozen people at Yale-that the likelihood of a second Publications Council meeting is slim.

There is another matter. “To take on serious issues,” Guy told me simply, “you might have to offend people.” Journalism at Yale, in his view, isn’t actually broken. “I wouldn’t vote for any particular offense,” he said; “But,” he added, “I would rather work in a place where the student publications occasionally fuck up.”

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