Journalism: Love it or leave it

“There is one matter on which is it permitted, I think, to be an absolutist in the newsroom,” the media critic Jay Rosen has written. That, he explains, is the First Amendment. It is the “article of faith” on which journalism — what New York Times veteran Robert H. Phelps described in his memoir as “the secular substitute for religion” — is founded.

Plenty of journalists are wise, good-hearted people who accept with great seriousness their obligation to safeguard the First Amendment rights entrusted to each generation by the last. One of the all-time finest, longtime Times and McClatchy newsman Reggie Stuart, has just completed a distinguished term as chairman of the Student Press Law Center’s board of directors.

The Society of Professional Journalists threw the full weight of its 9,000-strong nationwide membership behind the sanctity of press freedom in an August 2013 resolution that calls on schools and colleges to forswear reliance on the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood standard to censor student journalism for purposes of image control: “[I]t is well-documented the Hazelwood censorship clause impedes an educator’s ability to adequately instruct and train students in professional journalistic values and practices, including the right to question authority and investigate performances of governance.”

Journalism pros at The Philadelphia Inquirer have given invaluable encouragement to student editors at Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy High School, who are defending their right to refrain from using the offensive word “Redskins” in covering school athletic teams. Reminding Principal Robert McGee that his authority extends only to speech disrupting the educational process, Inquirer editors wrote, “Free engagement in journalism is educational.”

Regrettably, each year a few lost journalistic souls, uninformed about the law and ignorant of history, accelerate the demise of their profession by disrespecting the only group of Americans who still look up to them — the young people whose readership they desperately need and whose free labor they gladly accept.

The current “president” of the Journalists Against the First Amendment Club is Los Angeles Times editorial columnist Michael McGough. Uncritically parroting the legal disinformation dished out by school lobbyists, McGough told the gutsy Neshaminy High editors in his Nov. 19 column that they should be thankful for the valuable “lesson” their “publisher” — the principal — is teaching them about who’s boss.

Let’s put the stake in this one for all time. Nothing about being the principal of a high school is in any way analogous to being the publisher of a newspaper. “Publisher” is a term of legal significance that identifies an individual with complete editorial discretion. A publisher can use the editorial page to launch personal political crusades and to advocate for the election or defeat of his chosen candidates. A principal who used the student newspaper in that way would be both violating the law and subject to termination (particularly in Pennsylvania, where a state code — which McGough’s errant column mischaracterizes — gives student editors the final say in all but the most extreme cases).

If principals are newspaper publishers, they’re the most unethical publishers in America. If the publisher of the Times is quoted in a news story about a dispute in which he is involved, he is ethically bound to refrain from altering the story or ordering that it be shaded to favor his side. Principals adhere to no such boundaries, regularly removing stories they find unflattering. Is ethical blindness part of the “lesson” that McGough and the Times hope their future employees will graduate having learned?

Thousands of newspapers have been published for decades free from prior administrative review, safely and without incident. There is not a single documented case in the nation’s history — not one — in which a school has been forced to pay damages for anything published by student journalists. Nor is there any evidence that principals can be trusted to limit their censorship decisions to material presenting a legal risk; no such risk exists in a disagreement over the name of a team mascot.

McGough’s club is a sad and lonely one, but not as lonely as it should be. In New Jersey, an editor from The Hunterdon Democrat undermined students’ anti-censorship efforts by telling the school board that “editing” in the principal’s office was no different from editing by a professionally trained journalist. In Washington, The Seattle Times has crusaded against student press freedom with such “get-off-my-lawn” vehemence that its editors have almost single-handedly torpedoed legislative efforts at reform.

When professional journalists fail to stand up for the rights of student journalists, it feels to students like a betrayal — like those who themselves suffered censorship have forgotten the disempowering feeling of being distrusted. The word of journalism professionals gives cover to those who censor to deny the public truthful information about their failing schools. When journalists side with censors, that is the side they are taking — the side of lies over truth, the side of less information over more.

The last word on this subject should go to a journalist far more accomplished and respectable than McGough, Paul Steiger of the investigative website ProPublica. Accepting the Burton Benjamin Memorial award from the Committee to Protect Journalists on Nov. 26, Steiger told his colleagues: “We can’t rest. We need to stand up in stout opposition whenever the First Amendment is challenged at home. We need to speak out, even more vigorously than before, when journalists are abused around the world.”

An attack on a student journalist is an attack on all journalists. When your moral compass deserts you so badly that you find yourself sympathizing with censors over journalists, it’s time to set down the pen and walk away.