In last week’s paper, I don’t think I came off as sympathetic as I really am to the people who were upset by our April 11 insert. I needed to stand up for the paper, and I had to do it decisively and convincingly. In truth, I really do understand why people were upset by the sudden appearance of a huge, glossy, one-sided political insert. If members of the Gender Studies Student Organization (GSSO) or anyone else are still upset over the way this situation has been handled, I hope they’ll talk to me here in the office or send in a letter. You are not being ignored.
But you do have to recognize your status as a single voice in a paper whose job it is to let all the voices sound off – not just the ones you happen to agree with.
It’s valuable for the paper to occasionally find itself in the middle of these super polarized debates. It shows how tolerant people in the community really are, and how committed they really are to the First Amendment. It also shows how well our policies work, and how well we’re following them. In the process, people get upset, and make accusations, most of them toward the paper, and some directly toward me as the guy in charge.
Many readers accused The Free Press of a liberal bias last year, mostly over a column we ran by Dan Goldstein, who is an outspoken left-winger. I was accused, personally, of being irresponsibly liberal, at one point by a girl in a bar who said the paper is “run by a bunch of lesbians who love to be liberal and bitch about the government.” Letters poured in, asking us to please shut the annoying columnist up. I got the sense that people just loved the pain that reading the column caused them. Why else would they spend so much time thinking about it and burning brainpower authoring scathing letters, instead of just ignoring the damn thing? At the same time, people were writing outraged letters over Achewood, a comic that has been described as a “homophobic, sexist, misogynist and racist.” Now we’re being accused of being insensitive to liberal beleifs. The guest column brought up Achewood again, demonstrating that people are still annoyed by its edgy content. For a long time, this has been a source of frustration for me. This is a student paper, one of the few remaining forms of media that hasn’t succumbed to the MTV syndrome and become safe and scrubbed. Why, I wondered, are people so thin-skinned?
In truth, the offended readership isn’t really masochistic and people aren’t necessarily thin-skinned. The community has what our adviser, Jess, calls “emotional ownership” over the paper. You, the reader, hold us to high standards, and you expect us to reflect the sentiments of the community. You see the paper as “yours,” in that you recognize it as a vital part of the community’s shared discourse. That’s pretty kickass. If people didn’t care about the paper they’d just put it down and never pick it up again. So we’ve got a pretty good thing going here, and we’ve got people who are passionate and willing to engage each other.
Personally, I think we should print even the most virulent racist, homophobic and violent opinions people want to spout off. It wouldn’t be the end of the world: the rest of the community would step in and shout that stuff down. The community therefore sets its own standards, and that’s how free speech works. In forming arguments, we strengthen the basis for our beliefs, and everyone wins. Unfortunately, I think people are all too willing to reach for censorship when confronted with ideas they disagree with.
If everyone’s going to have fun, it’s important we make the rules very clear. The Free Press as an institution isn’t weighing in on any of these debates. It would be stupid to step in and get torn to pieces by half our readership. And it would destroy our credibility as an objective conduit for the community’s opinions. Our job is to let opinion pass out of community members and into the pages of the paper, unsullied by any opinion that might exist within the paper. If we shrink from printing opinions we see as “too much,” we are second-guessing the speaker and doing a grave disservice to the reader by engaging in censorship.
The accusations made toward the paper itself stem almost universally from people misunderstanding the way print media works: Advertisements are just real-estate, and opinions in the Perspectives section are just that: the opinion of the speaker in question. If we run a politically explosive advertisement, it’s because we have a policy of running all advertisements, not because we’re endorsing that particular ad. If we run guest columns and letters to the editor, it’s because we have a policy of letting people sound off in the Perspectives section, not because we endorse their opinions. And if we run a comic strip featuring an outrageous little squirrel, it’s not because we dig everything he says.
I encourage everyone who has a complaint with something in the paper to write at least a short letter to the editor. In the same way that you reinforce Democracy as an ideal whenever you vote in local government, you reinforce your rights when you exercise your own right to free speech in The Free Press. It’s our explicit responsibility to grant you the opportunity to speak, and it’s your implicit responsibility to avail yourself of it.