Journalists are frequently told never to write anything in an email that might prove problematic if it was made public. "I always give people that advice," confirms Kevin Dale, executive editor for Colorado Public Radio.
Nonetheless, a three-year-old email Dale wrote while serving as executive editor and professor of practice for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University has suddenly turned him into a whipping boy for j-school practices that plenty of folks see as antiquated and wrongheaded.
The person leading this particular charge is a former student: Aida Chávez, currently a reporter for The Intercept, who recently shared a note from Dale in which he warned that a tweet about her immigrant father ran afoul of the school's social-media policies. He added that such infractions could "result in a lower grade and, in egregious cases, may lead to removal from the program."
Dale's note was prompted by an August 2016 tweet by Chávez following a speech in Phoenix by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. She countered Trump's usual immigration-related rhetoric by writing, "Fact: I wouldn't be here if my father didn't cross the border. He's an engineer. I'm trying to get two degrees and graduate early."
Dale's chastisement over this seemingly benign observation didn't hinder Chávez's career, but it clearly stuck in her craw. As reported by Phoenix New Times, one of Westword's sister publications, she was reminded of the missive after learning that NPR Music had allegedly severed its relationship with a friend, writer Kim Kelly, over her "activist stance." On her Twitter account, which boasts more than 25,000 followers, Chávez subsequently paired Dale's text with an introduction that reads, "Wait since we’re on the subject, remember the time my journalism school wanted to kick me out of their DC program for tweeting that my parents are immigrants while I was an immigration reporter."
Here's the complete tweet:
wait since we’re on the subject, remember the time my journalism school wanted to kick me out of their DC program for tweeting that my parents are immigrants while I was an immigration reporter pic.twitter.com/qgcXhpUGHX— aída chávez (@aidachavez) July 26, 2019
The response to the item was immediate and overwhelming. At this writing, the post has generated nearly 15,000 likes, just shy of 3,000 shares and more than 500 comments, with the vast majority ripping Dale, the Cronkite School or both.
"Institutions that discipline young writers into this kind of absurd self-erasure are not equipped to deal with our political reality," one person maintained. Another wrote, "By the way, newsrooms: Hire someone who can tell the system and nonsensical rules to go f*** themselves, in a tweet as direct, unadorned and courageous as this one. Those are the reporters who are going to see through a lot of institutional BS and ask uncomfortable questions."
Chávez, for her part, had this to say to New Times via Twitter DM: "The Cronkite School should stop trying to train an entire generation of brilliant young people to be bootlickers. Fuck that, they owe me an apology."
Hope she's not holding her breath. After the online flare-up, the Cronkite School issued the following statement, which doesn't include a single sorry. "Under federal law (FERPA), the Cronkite School is barred from discussing any student's performance in an academic program," the response begins. "However, we believe that journalistic impartiality, especially in today's media climate, continues to be an important journalistic standard. Separating professional and personal lives is a well-established daily practice for working journalists and is an important part of the teaching that takes place at the Cronkite School and at journalism schools across the country."
For his part, Dale attempted to put out the fire by way of eight separate tweets, which we've combined. After confirming that "I'll respond as I can to tweets by @aidachavez and others," he stressed that "First, Federal privacy law prohibits schools or instructors from discussing student issues. But I will say that all of the context has not been told. Here's what did not happen: No one was threatened with expulsion for merely tweeting that they were from immigrant grandparents. @cronkitenews was trying to teach students how to live as journalists on social. The rules written out at that time were very strict in hopes of preparing them for their future newsrooms — most of which would have ethics codes involving social media. Several students would get warned each semester, usually by the social media director. Multiple violations resulted in escalating warnings. Disagree with the policy if you like, but it was set out in the syllabus."
Amid this salvo, Dale pivoted to defend Colorado Public Radio, which had been dragged into the conversation. "To impugn the work of @cprnews is absurd. The coverage is of the highest quality," he asserted. "In addition, the @cprnews team was 10 percent journalists of color when I arrived in Dec 2017. It is 22 percent today and growing in the ranks of reporters, hosts and managers. We are committed to building the most diverse newsroom possible."
His conclusion: "Last, I have watched the career of @aidachavez and many of her classmates take off and I couldn't be happier for her and all of them."
This compliment didn't placate Chávez, who commented on it via a photo of a clown at a computer.
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Reached by telephone a short time ago, Dale, who worked in various editorial roles at the Denver Post from 2000 to 2015 before taking the leap to ASU, warned in advance that he couldn't go much beyond what he'd written on Twitter. But he did address the question of whether he and the Cronkite School deserved the Twitter-bashing they've been getting. "Nobody would be happy to be the focus of a Twitter storm," he pointed out. "But it's not my place to judge whether it's fair or not. It is what it is."
He also resisted the urge to criticize Chávez: "I would have liked for her to put out the full story, but that's fine. She's obviously free to post what she wants."
He then referenced the Cronkite School's statement, which "basically said that teaching journalists to separate their personal and professional life is part of the curriculum. And I was following the school curriculum."
That's not an apology, either.