"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.
J. David McSwane
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.
He wasn't the only one at CSU keeping mum. On September 26, hours prior to a forum in front of the university's board of student communications that attracted hundreds of McSwane supporters and detractors, I visited the campus to participate in a long-planned panel discussion moderated by Collegian advisor Holly Wolcott and featuring Dr. Brian Ott, a CSU professor and communications-board member. Neither of them would comment on the McSwane contretemps, and when a question about it was raised near the end of the session by student Bobby Carson (editor of the Ram Republic, a conservative newspaper that's slated to launch this month as an alternative to the Collegian), my attempts to engage attendees on the subject were quickly shut down — as was the presentation as a whole. Oh, yeah: The topic of the discussion was radio blabber Don Imus, whose tale also touches upon issues of free speech.
The board meeting that evening was "overwhelmingly positive," in McSwane's view. He was caught off-guard by the level of support he received, and so was his mother, Shelly Hansen — which explains why she found the next day's coverage to be so lacking. She was dismayed that most news outlets said CSU Republicans had gathered over 500 signatures on a petition urging McSwane to step down but neglected to include the fact that student Kris Hite collected more than 700 signatures from those backing him. She also felt that outlets made it seem as if most speakers excoriated McSwane when the breakdown was actually nineteen pros versus just twelve cons.
An exception was an article by the Rocky Mountain News's John Ensslin that appears only on the tabloid's website. But space was found in the physical paper for "Student's Woes Not a Big Surprise," which juxtaposes a few nice remarks about McSwane courtesy of Hansen and Wieland with oodles of biting quotes from an array of former Collegian colleagues, who portrayed him as an arrogant fame-seeker. Take the comments of Collegian vet James Baetke, currently an intern for a branch of E.W. Scripps, the Rocky's owner. He said that McSwane wanted to incorporate information about the news-gathering process that he, Baetke and cohort Vimal Patel went through to complete a first-rate January-February series of reports about unlocked campus buildings as a way of "shining the spotlight on themselves," only to have other students veto the idea.
In reality, omitting at least one part of the backstory was a significant journalistic mistake that had negative repercussions down the road. Specifically, Patel and McSwane were caught by university police inside a campus building during the course of their reportage, and McSwane says the cops threatened to charge them and Baetke, who was found nearby, with burglary and trespassing. In the end, no charges were filed, but Patel, McSwane and Baetke served brief suspensions from the Collegian. This information should have been made public, and it was — but not by the Collegian. It formed the basis of an embarrassing February 2 piece in the Coloradoan, a Fort Collins daily.
Not that the Coloradoan got off scot-free in the mortification department. JP Eichmiller, the author of the Coloradoan article, used to work at the Collegian, and Coloradoan editor Robert Moore says he subsequently learned that "there was some antagonism" between the parties. This bad blood boiled over after Collegian types called the Coloradoan to complain about Eichmiller having been given the assignment. Moore confirms that Eichmiller responded by leaving an angry phone message for then-Collegian editor Brandon Lowrey. The harangue, highlighted by the line, "I guess ruining everyone else's life isn't always what it's cracked up to be, is it?," was later reprinted it its entirety by the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, a Fort Collins weekly that needled the Coloradoan over the perceived conflict.
Moore acknowledges that Eichmiller probably shouldn't have been on the earlier story, and when a Collegian staffer complained about letting Hallie Woods, another onetime staffer on the college paper, report about the present controversy for the Coloradoan, he removed her, too. (Woods says she worked with McSwane only briefly and didn't have a negative history with him.) But Moore, who misspelled McSwane's name in one piece he wrote, doesn't want anyone to see this last move as a concession that the Coloradoan erred. "I think what's happening here is that some folks at the Collegian are trying to create a smokescreen," he argues. "It's a classic diversionary tactic. When you're under attack, divert attention elsewhere."
As for McSwane, he insists that he wants the media to focus on free speech, not him. "This story's turned into 'Here's this kid who used the F-word. He's either the ballsiest kid in the world or the dumbest,'" he says. "But what really happened is, the editorial board felt passionately that we needed to get students thinking — and I agreed with them. So we did what we did, and now my ass is on the line."
Since the editorial's publication, the Collegian has reportedly lost plenty of advertising, although it's unclear how much. Figures ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 have been bandied about, but pinning down the actual sum is complicated by such factors as a dispute over actions related to the CSU Bookstore. A Coloradoan article about the September 26 forum quoted Pam Jackson, described as a technical journalism instructor, complaining about the bookstore yanking its ads over the "FUCK BUSH" ruckus, and McSwane says he, too, understood that the bookstore withdrew support that's rumored to be in the neighborhood of $20,000 per annum, only to return to the fold at a later date. If that happened, the act smacks of stealthy institutional punishment meted out before an official determination of wrongdoing. But in an e-mail, CSU spokeswoman Dell Rae Moellenberg writes that "to the best of our knowledge, no university businesses have made a decision to pull advertising," and stresses that a bookstore ad was part of the October 1 Collegian.
Whatever the case, McSwane says he and some staffers have received pay cuts, and on September 24, bloggers such as Jason Moses were told by the Collegian's web editor, Whitney Faulconer, that their positions had been slashed because of shortfalls. (A September 25 Rocky Mountain News article referenced another blogger who shared an identical account.) But according to McSwane, the bloggers' cuts had been in the works for weeks, and in an e-mail, Moses writes that Faulconer belatedly told him, "McSwane was going to lay us off soon regardless of whether or not the Bush editorial ran."
Right now, it's unclear whether McSwane will follow Moses out the door; the CSU communications board has scheduled an October 4 hearing to determine his future at the Collegian.But Dr. Horace Newcombe, director of the Peabody Awards program, which is attached to the University of Georgia, doesn't see the hullabaloo as a professional death sentence. "Student journalists occasionally take an opportunity to be provocative," he says. "I don't know that this will be any more significant for a long-term career than his earlier work. Certainly the Peabody association is on his resumé, and will always be."
Brant Houston, acting executive director of IRE, concurs. "I think his more significant work will eventually overshadow this particular controversy," he allows, adding, "Younger journalists learn all the time, and I would say David's learned something, too."
That's a fact — but McSwane continues to struggle with the lesson. When he's asked if the highly erratic quality of the coverage he's received has made him more or less likely to pursue the journalistic life, he says, "I don't know. I mean, I love journalism. There are so many opportunities to do so much good for people and to keep the powers-that-be accountable. It's a huge part of democracy. But at the same time, it's disgusting to see how some people have taken it for granted."
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