PENNSYLVANIA — Editors at the Daily Collegian are defending a recent editorial criticizing Barstool Sports President Dave Portnoy for comments he made toward a Penn State dean. The student journalist who authored the editorial received substantial personal attacks and pushback on social media.
How it started
The eventual series of conflicts stem from a Sept. 21 NBC News piece, titled “Barstool Sports and the persistence of traditional masculinity in sports culture.”
Penn State’s Dean of Communications Marie Hardin was quoted multiple times in the NBC News article, where she criticized Barstool and its loyal following. Portnoy responded on Tucker Carlson’s Sept. 23 show on Fox News, bashing the piece and offering to debate Hardin over her comments.
“I will go to your class Marie Hardin, I will let you have the moderator, I will let you put your people in [the classroom] and I’ll put you in a mental pretzel because you have no facts,” he said.
On Sept. 24, the Collegian’s Assistant Sports Editor Jake Aferiat wrote an editorial backing Hardin and condemning Portnoy for his comments on Carlson’s show.
The headline of the Daily Collegian’s Sept. 24 editorial is: “Marie Hardin is right, Barstool has a culture problem and this latest attack proves why.”
I stand by what we wroteJake Aferiat, Collegian Assistant Sports Editor
He also took issue with what Portnoy said on Barstool Radio earlier that day, that he’d give $20,000 to THON at Penn State, a philanthropy group that assists families affected by childhood cancer, if Hardin would debate him.
Aferiat wrote that this offer put Hardin in an awkward position, and “[i]f she were to agree, she’d subject herself to more of the vitriol currently exploding on her latest Instagram post — which had 952 comments at the time this was published. Most of them are hateful.”
Portnoy quote tweeted the editorial, saying that Aferiat excluded the line in the NBC News story Barstool was mad about. The quote reads, “Conservative ideology appears to be a core part of Barstool Sports — especially its portrayal of gender roles, with hypermasculine, sports-loving men and hypersexualized, submissive women.”
Portnoy’s tweet jump-started the wave of criticism and personal insults directed at Aferiat and the Collegian. Aside from a single joking tweet by Barstool PSU, none of the harassment appears to have come from or been encouraged by Barstool, instead it was from fans and followers of the outlet.
Barstool did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Collegian’s Editor-in-Chief Elena Rose and Aferiat argued that while the quote Portnoy took issue with is pulled from the NBC story, it’s unclear if Hardin actually said it.
The quote isn’t directly attributed to Hardin, only the second sentence in that paragraph is.
“We’re getting blowback for omitting what a lot of people think is a crucial detail. We can’t be sure who said it and in what context it was said,” he said. “And so our point is that the only thing directly attributed to her is the second sentence in that paragraph.”
The second sentence in the paragraph reads “[t]he site’s reinforcement of conservative American values is what makes its content stand out from its competitors, Marie Hardin, the dean of Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, said.”
“They’re calling us out for omitting [the first sentence] and not including that, and saying ‘oh we did that conveniently or to force an agenda and push a narrative,’ but we don’t know who said it,” Aferiat said. “We’re not going to, in good faith, include it because that’s more unjournalistic than including it and attributing it to her.”
Hardin in an email said “[a]s I have stated earlier, I stand by the comments attributed to me in the story,” but declined to comment further.
Rose said that by Portnoy tweeting only the first sentence, he was attributing the quote to Hardin.
“People weren’t actually going to go back to the article, so it’s frustrating because the way that he sort of made it look like that was verbatim—something Dean Hardin said,” Rose said. “We don’t know if Dean Hardin actually used the direct phrasing of hypersexualized or submissive.”
Rose said the Collegian, an independent news source, had no obligation to defend Hardin.
“I think some people might think that we felt like we owed it to Dean Hardin to write this because she’s the dean of the college,” she said. “She doesn’t advise us or anything like that. We just really felt like something needed to be said about it.”
Both editors, without question, said they still backed the piece.
“I stand by what we wrote then, I stand by it now,” Aferiat said.
“We published a well-researched, well-thought-out, well-edited editorial and there’s nothing that I would change about it,” Rose said.
Handling the trolls
Soon after Portnoy’s tweet, replies came pouring into Aferiat’s feed. While there was some fair criticism mixed in, many simply insulted Aferiat’s physical features or intelligence.
Aferiat said as a former opinion editor at the Collegian, his staff wrote editorials everyday, which invited all types of criticism via social media; but the attacks over this editorial were more intense than he was used to.
“At first I was kind of able to laugh a lot of it off,” Aferiat said, “but a lot of it was pretty personal and it did start to affect me after a while.”
His Twitter mentions were on fire for about six hours, he said. However, he didn’t try to block any users because he “didn’t want any more fuel or ammo to go after me with.”
Aferiat said it’s easy to advise people to ignore trolls. But even if you tell yourself that these are just strangers online, it can still get to you.
“When you just see the attacks persisting and they’re so personal, you do sort of lose sight of that for a second,” he said.
A lot of it was pretty personal and it did start to affect me after a whileJake Aferiat, Collegian Assistant Sports Editor
Rose said that for student newsrooms facing online backlash, it’s important to remember the objective of journalism and the role student newsrooms play on campus.
“People just don’t like what we have to say sometimes, even if we’re doing our jobs and we’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “But if you are doing your job and you are sparking conversation about important things that maybe other people don’t want to talk about or don’t feel the need to talk about, then you’re doing your journalistic duty.”
As dean of communications, Hardin said she was impressed by how the Collegian handled the situation.
“To its credit, the Collegian got it just right, and showed the kind of maturity, thoughtfulness and independence I would expect from our student journalists,” she wrote. “This scenario underscores the importance of independent student media. While they took heat for their position, these student journalists showed courage and contributed an important perspective. Our students learn and grow from such experiences, and they inform the community. That’s what a strong student media is all about. Their work makes me feel very good about the future of journalism.”
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at email@example.com or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our occasional News Roundup.