David McSwane Takes on the Media One More Time

The October 11 Message column details the resolution of CSU v. McSwane, in which the Colorado State University board of student communications chose to formally admonish David McSwane, the student editor of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, the campus newspaper, for authorizing and endorsing a September 21 editorial consisting of the words “FUCK BUSH.” But the story didn’t end there. The media had to report about the wrap-up, which took place on October 4, and much of the resulting coverage was as spotty as the material that preceded it.

The decision was preceded by one small step in the right direction. In the October 4 version of the Message, McSwane criticized a piece on Channel 4, where he worked after helping the station win a prestigious Peabody award, for asserting that he’d threatened to sue CSU if it fired him when that proclamation had actually been made by lawyer David Lane. Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland originally said he had no problem with that language, but in an October 4 item aired the morning of the meeting, anchor Tom Mustin specifically credited McSwane’s attorney with the lawsuit warning.

One day later, however, an October 5 article in the Denver Post declared that the board scolded McSwane for “writing” the offending words, when he has emphasized since the beginning that the statement represented the opinion of the entire Collegian student editorial board. (The Rocky Mountain News got it right in the tabloid’s own October 5 offering.) Even weirder was the way Channel 9 framed the development in its October 5 morning newscast. According to text that also appears on the station’s website, “9News repeatedly asked if McSwane was actually fired, but the board would only say that their statement speaks for itself” — which it did for everyone other than Channel 9’s correspondent.

McSwane doesn’t know what to make of the station’s apparent bewilderment. “I think the people at Channel 9 are a bunch of idiots for not being able to figure it out,” he says. “There’s a clear-cut definition of admonishment. It’s right there in the [board of student communications] handbook. As people have said, it’s pretty much a slap on the wrist. I don’t think there’s anything confusing about it.”

Still, arguably the most bizarre take on the McSwane affair was penned by Post columnist Diane Carman, who’s just announced that she’s leaving the paper. (See this More Messages blog for the skinny.) In “Audacious. Profane. He Won.,” a column that appeared in the October 7 Post, Carman wrote in brief declarative snippets meant to emulate the punchy editorial in question. Here’s an excerpt:

He could have written 250 words. But who would read them?

Why bother with 250 words when one expletive says it all?


He says he's angry. Who isn't?

He said he wouldn't quit.

He didn't.

He won.

He proved that subtlety is dead.

It's history. Who needs it?

Who needs the old journalism anymore anyway?

Reporting is for suckers. Writing is hard. Logical argument is boring.

Nobody has time for it.

Using McSwane as an emblem for everything negative in journalism today, not to mention today’s frustratingly vapid culture-war-driven public discourse, may be convenient, but it makes little sense. For one thing, McSwane’s style isn’t characterized by the use of telegraphed language for knee-jerk effect. His best-known efforts prior to the latest contretemps involved an undercover investigation of Army recruiting practices conducted while he was still a high school student that was more than dogged and aggressive enough to meet Carman’s standards. (The variation on this story that he wrote for Westword can be found here.) And while the “FUCK BUSH” editorial was awkwardly handled, the student journalists’ attempt to focus attention on free speech is the sort of goal that should be championed, not ridiculed.

By the way, McSwane hadn’t read the Carman column when he spoke to Westword – but after looking it over, he e-mailed his take:

What the hell? Future of journalism? Love my hair? I think I know what she's getting at, I guess.

Is it satire? Don't know. Lame. Boring. Pointless. I can't be mad, I guess. What the hell? Read my clips, my work. Shock value? Dumb.

What a laugh.

Fortunately, McSwane’s skin has thickened of late, and no wonder, since even contributors to the Collegian have gone after him. “On the opinion pages, one guy called me a chump, and there have been cartoons that made me look kind of bad, too,” he notes. At this point, though, he doesn’t have time to worry about such insults. He’s too busy trying to win back angry advertisers and doing his best to prove that the Collegian offers first-rate journalism in addition to headline-generating controversy. And there’s the small matter of his education as well. “One of my main concerns is actually getting to class, which has suffered during all this,” he concedes. “For the first time in my college career, I’m beginning to worry about my GPA.” -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts