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"I think it's been really disheartening," says J. David McSwane about press coverage that's swirled around the Rocky Mountain Collegian, the Colorado State University-based student newspaper he edits, since an opinion banner reading "FUCK BUSH" was printed in its September 21 edition. "As a journalist, I'm extremely frustrated."
He should be. On September 25, for example, Channel 4's late newscast led off with anchor Jim Benemann stating, "The editor at the student newspaper up at CSU says he will sue if he's fired." As McSwane, who recently turned twenty, pointed out in an item he affixed to the Collegian's website, he did no such thing, since he hadn't been interviewed for the piece. Indeed, the person doing the talking was McSwane's attorney David Lane, who enjoys delivering provocative declarations; in this situation, he proclaimed, "If I can make a case that the government is putting a gag in David McSwane's mouth, they're going to federal court."
Nonetheless, Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland isn't troubled that Benemann's intro cited McSwane rather than his counsel, saying, "I'm comfortable with that" — and neither does he think the station blundered by failing to mention in this report and numerous others that McSwane helped the CBS affiliate win a prestigious Peabody Award in April 2006 and worked at the outlet as a paid investigative producer (not just an intern). Full disclosure is typically deemed a journalistic necessity, yet Wieland maintains that staffers initially felt McSwane's previous association with the outlet wasn't "germane" to the Collegian brouhaha, and only decided that it might provide "context" in some instances after skipping over it during three full days of reporting.
Westword has a McSwane connection as well. In September 2005, the paper ran his feature "An Army of Anyone," which built upon the investigation that earned Channel 4 its Peabody: As a student journalist at Arvada West High School, McSwane posed as a pot-smoking dropout interested in joining the Army in order to document the dubious lengths to which recruiters were willing to go to get him into uniform. He was awarded with an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) prize for his high-school efforts and the Westword offering, which ran alongside a companion article written by yours truly that focused on recruiting in the wake of the scandal McSwane stirred. I also guested alongside McSwane on a KHOW talk-show segment hosted by Peter Boyles.
Is any of that germane? Damn right it is — because it gives news consumers the maximum amount of information, rather than treating them like children incapable of putting details into perspective. Then again, McSwane understands why Channel 4 took the tack it did. "Of course they're distancing themselves from me," he says. "If I was them, I'd distance myself from something like this, too."
McSwane and many of his Collegian colleagues set out to cause a commotion, albeit not as large a one as developed: "I didn't think it would go national," he admits. Too bad their concept was so clumsy. They were incensed about a September 17 incident in Florida in which disruptive college student Andrew Meyer was forcibly prevented from quizzing Massachusetts Senator John Kerry; a video of Meyer's "Don't tase me, bro!" plea to security officers quickly became a YouTube sensation. But after penning the ardent defense of free speech that appeared on the September 21 Collegian cover, they felt they should underline their point by exercising this right in the boldest way possible. Hence, the "FUCK BUSH" line, which McSwane says was intended as a "wake-up call" to students who passively accept the status quo instead of voicing their views, as college enrollees have in decades past.
Predictably, the decision to target George W. Bush, who was only peripherally related to the Florida dust-up (Meyer wanted to know if Kerry and the president had been in Yale's Skull and Bones society), transformed the editorial into a culture-war blast of the sort that sucks up far too much of the media's attention these days. "Fuck Bush" bumperstickers have been around for years, and the profane part of the expression is extraordinarily commonplace in settings like college campuses. But that didn't stop CSU student Republicans such as student Chelsey Penoyer from taking advantage of this golden opportunity for attention-getting by organizing protests against McSwane and hitting the media circuit.
Penoyer turned up on Rush Limbaugh's syndicated radio show and local outlets such as Channel 4, where, on September 21, she made a series of statements that ranged from dunderheaded to disingenuous. When she saw the phrase in question, she said, her first thoughts were, "Is it legal to put in the paper? Profanity?" (Answer: Fuck yes.) She followed up that remark by insisting, "It doesn't even matter, the word after that. It could have been 'trees.'" Truth be told, CSU student Republicans would have only protested the line "FUCK TREES" had the president been a Republican named Mr. Trees. Still, Penoyer came off better than McSwane, who looked shell-shocked and tentative on screen. He sat for a slew of interviews on September 21 in the name of "transparency," but he says that after a Channel 4 package took a random remark out of context in a way that twisted its meaning, he changed his mind. "That was the moment I decided I wasn't going to talk to people anymore," he reveals.