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By William Breathes
University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey has never previously suffered from camera shyness. Indeed, back in August 2006, when bogus confessor John Mark Karr was arrested as a suspect in the JonBenét Ramsey murder due largely to comments he made in correspondence with Tracey, the prof practically vaulted into a media horde gathered at the Boulder Justice Center.
But after spotting a flash during a journalism-department faculty meeting about the future of the Campus Press, an online student publication, Tracey went into high-dudgeon mode. "Ask permission before you take a photograph," he snapped at me, like a male diva upset that the paparazzi hadn't given him a chance to pose first.
This response set the tone for the snarky session that followed — the latest fallout from "If It's War the Asians Want...," an attempt at social satire by student provocateur Max Karson that ignited controversy in Boulder and nationwide. After the essay appeared on February 18, CU caught plenty of shrapnel from critics who demanded to know why university officials had allowed it to be disseminated, little realizing that the school's options were limited by the Press's unusual structure. For more than a quarter-century, the publication has functioned independently of CU even though it's part of the j-school's curriculum — a for-credit class.
In subsequent weeks, CU reps tried to come up with a way to prevent future PR meltdowns, with some faculty joining students in a call for unambiguous independence and others advocating stricter control. In a widely circulated e-mail, associate professor Jan Whitt, who declined to comment for this column, argued in favor of turning the Press into "a lab newspaper" — meaning, presumably, that instructors would engage in prior review, determining what would be published and when.
Karson and other student journalists, joined by Press adviser Amy Herdy, arrived at the April 2 School of Journalism and Mass Communications meeting expecting to hear formal presentations of such plans, and no wonder: In a telephone conversation the day before, Paul Voakes, the journalism department's dean, told Press editor Cassie Hewlings they would be unveiled and discussed there. Instead, attendees dished out three documents viewable at blogs.westword.com/latestword — and all of them caused a stir for unlikely reasons.
First up was Voakes's "Report to the SJMC Faculty," which revealed little new beyond details about why the dean came to write it. Although a four-person faculty committee had initially been charged with conducting an investigation into what happened before and after the posting of "If It's War..." and a second ire-stoking piece, "No Habla Ingles," the group broke up after just a week, citing "no cooperation or support from the key figures." Turns out the committee wanted to quiz the subjects separately; professor Meg Moritz said at the meeting that this approach was meant to make everyone feel they could speak freely. The students, for their part, asked to convene together rather than let the committee "interrogate" them, as Hewling put it amid much grumbling from the assembled profs.
The second report, "Campus Publication Data of Accredited Journalism Schools," written by Herdy from data compiled by Tyera Eulberg, should have triggered even less discussion, given that it simply revealed specifics about how many of the 110 accredited U.S. journalism schools operate newspapers. However, professors such as Len Ackland seemed to think Herdy had been ordered to bring a business plan for the Press to the meeting — and even when Voakes said otherwise, faculty types like Tracey kept coming back to the same point.
Finally, associate professor Tom Yulsman, head of the news-editorial sequence, read a statement sculpted at another meeting two days earlier, and on the surface, it should have buoyed the Press crew. The text says the print and broadcast faculty "agreed that [the Press] should remain an independent student media voice because we strongly uphold the principle of freedom of expression." But the students had difficulty focusing on the declaration, perhaps because of the palpable tension between Yulsman and Herdy. After one especially sharp exchange, Press reporter Monica Stone complained about the nasty tone. While apologizing to Stone, Yulsman emphasized that his words "weren't directed at the students in the room" — making it clear that no sorries would be coming Herdy's way.
Yulsman insists that he's always been in favor of Press independence even though he circulated a February 23 draft plan that called for the publication to collaborate more closely with Newsteam, the school's broadcast arm, "with the goal of creating a unified multimedia online news publication for the SJMC." Since Newsteam is a lab, the Press would almost certainly have lost its independence in the configuration, which explains why students felt Yulsman favored such a change. But Yulsman says he simply hadn't registered this prospect — "People pointed it out to me, and I went, 'Duh'" — and now leans toward other ideas. Perhaps, for example, the school could facilitate the Press's independence and then create a new combined publishing-and-broadcast entity that would allow instructors to vet material in advance. While such a setup might seem to make investigations casting the university in a bad light less likely, he feels that strong advisers willing to back students against administrators "when they've got the goods" would mitigate the problem.