Profiles in (Dis)courage: When Student Journalists Needed Support, Rockford Register Star Went AWOL

There was an oft-told story in Florida political circles about the fierce internal electioneering that accompanied the biennial contest for president of the state Senate and speaker of the House. The most craven, unprincipled lobbyists would avoid publicly choosing sides. Then they’d flock to the winner and confide: “I was with you all the time — secretly.”

Student journalists of Illinois, the editors of the Rockford Register Star would like you to know that they were with you all the time — secretly.

For the past several weeks, journalism educators have worked furiously to salvage funding for publications programs in the Rockford school district, Illinois’ third-largest. Journalism was among the course offerings endangered by a districtwide budget shortfall.

The save-journalism campaign prevailed Tuesday night, when the Rockford School Board voted down a series of proposed curriculum cutbacks, including those targeting student media. The victory was unaided by the entity with arguably the greatest stake in its outcome — the local Rockford Register Star newspaper. Its editors decided to cut student journalists adrift, resisting pleas to lend the editorial page’s authoritative voice to explain the salutary civic benefits of teaching and practicing journalism.

In a truly remarkable column published last Sunday, the executive editor of the Register Star, Linda Grist Cunningham, not only rationalized the paper’s AWOL status, but actually attempted to spin it into a noble ethical decision:

The Register Star has a vested interest in championing high school journalism, not only for future employees, but more importantly, for community citizens who understand the civics of good government, critical thinking and leadership. So, why has the Editorial Board been silent as in-school journalism walks toward the chopping block? Because before the final dollar of the $50 million deficit is cut, dozens of equally important programs will also die. Is a journalism class more important than a physical education class? Than an arts or music class? Than an algebra class? Than a French class?

Journalism, of course, is not physical education or algebra. No one at the Rockford Public School District looks to the Register Star as the authority on the value of French classes. But if the people who actually hire journalism graduates — and whose precarious livelihood depends on young readers’ continued enthusiasm for their product — behave indifferently toward the demise of journalism education, how are the neutral decision-makers expected to interpret that signal?

This is a case where silence shouts. What it said was, “Eh, cut journalism or cut French, it’s all the same to us.”

If Rockford schools had put the Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs before the firing squad, and a local agribusiness company was asked to intercede, do you think they’d have said, “Golly, we wouldn’t want to act like agriculture is more important than algebra.” Of course not. They’d have spoken up without hesitation to defend their industry, and everyone would have respected them for it.

In Illinois, the home of Censorship Central (a/k/a Stevenson High School), this should require no spelling out. But in case it does, there’s a war on journalism going on in America’s schools. While there is no indication of a nefarious motive in Rockford, school districts elsewhere have used financial exigency as a pretext to abolish newspaper programs they never liked anyway. And it is because of this lurking retaliatory agenda — and because cuts to journalism, unlike cuts to French classes, can eliminate students’ primary vehicle for vindicating a constitutionally enumerated right — that journalism is different.

If journalists cannot see this, who can?

If journalists do not speak up, who will?

There is just one group left on the face of the earth that still believes newspapers are fun, exciting places where bright tomorrows are possible. And Rockford Register Star, you just shoved them off the plank.

Until the journalism students of Rockford get the apology that they deserve, their families should cancel their subscriptions with the following message to Linda Grist Cunningham: “From now on, we will support the Register Star exactly as you supported us — secretly”