Presswatch

The Journalist as Apparatchik

By From the September 2013 issue

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YOUR HUMBLE MEDIA critic came in for some media criticism over the summer. Its source: Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism school that owns the Tampa Bay Times. McBride wrote on the institute’s website: “The Wall Street Journal…ran an opinion piece by editorial board member James Taranto, who argued that efforts to stop sexual assault in the military show ‘signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality’ and is [sic] a ‘war on men.’ Taranto’s view was torn asunder by critics here and here.”

The first “here” linked to a post on the feminist website Jezebel.com. The item’s author, Katie Baker, wrote: “I’m not interested in engaging with Taranto, because he’s a cockroach.” The second went to a response to my piece by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, whom I had faulted for placing a “permanent hold” on the promotion of General Susan Helms. The general had reversed the court-martial sexual assault conviction of an officer under her command, and McCaskill aimed to retaliate.

McBride’s titled her piece “Why There’s a Need for More Transparency & Context in Op-Eds.” Perhaps she meant that ironically, for she offered neither context nor transparency—no discussion whatsoever of the facts of the Helms case, about which I had demonstrated McCaskill’s account to be untruthful. McBride claimed the two links illustrated that “it is easy to debunk ideas and theories coming from individuals who claim more authority than they deserve.” In truth, I claimed no authority beyond that of a journalist honestly reporting the facts—which, in McBride’s view, was trumped by an appeal to the authority of a hateful feminist and a politician.

And McBride’s argument was all about authority. She mourned the loss of an earlier era when “journalists as the gatekeepers of information deferred to several formal systems—academia, the publishing industry, government posts—that naturally sifted potential voices on a given topic and bestowed a microphone to the most significant.” Although she acknowledged that this system “was far from perfect and disenfranchised a great many valid opinions,” one suspects that she has clear and rigid ideas as to what constitutes a “valid” opinion.

THE IDEA THAT journalists should defer to authority—and specifically to authority figures who enforce politically correct orthodoxy—is one with which I have a long familiarity. A quarter century ago, a journalism professor, Cynthia Rawitch, suspended me from the Daily Sundial, the student newspaper at California State University, Northridge. Rawitch, who served as the Sundial’s faculty publisher, complained that I failed to consult her before reprinting a cartoon making fun of “affirmative action” that had caused a ruckus at UCLA.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, I sued Rawitch. She eventually agreed to settle, yielding to all my major demands. This past spring, on the occasion of Rawitch’s retirement, I retold the story of the dispute with my anti-mentor in my Wall Street Journal online column. Rawitch’s response, in an email to the blog LAObserved.com, floored me almost as much as the suspension had:

Writing more than 7,000 words about an event that took place in college nearly 25 years ago seems to represent a level of obsession that I can’t understand. James leaves out a number of salient facts because they don’t fit the narrative he recalls. The most important of these is that he was suspended for two weeks because he ignored a direct order from the Editor-in-Chief the night before not to run the cartoon. She then left for the evening, and he ran it anyway. She, of course, had the authority and final word as to what went into the newspaper. It was left to me after the fact to suspend him. He never remembers that part. In any event, I was acting as a representative of the Department of Journalism, which is the publisher of the Daily Sundial. I choose not to further rehash these old, tired and partly misleading allegations.

Not only is her claim that I had defied an order from the editor-in-chief untruthful, but I had never heard it before. What’s more, it was demonstrably a lie, for it contradicted Rawitch’s attestation—made in 1988 under penalty of perjury, in an official document that I still possess—that “plaintiff Taranto was suspended solely for failing to call to the attention of the publisher his intention to publish the cartoon” (emphasis mine).

It gets better still. My legal theory of the case was that the Sundial was a public forum for student expression and that Rawitch, as an agent of the state, had no authority to censor it. That would mean that the right to publish or not to publish rested ultimately with the editor-in-chief, the top-ranking student on the staff. Had I defied the editor, I would have had no case. Somehow it didn’t occur to Rawitch to raise this airtight (had it been true) defense until decades later?

Through LAObserved.com I also learned that Facebook hosted a Daily Sundial alumni page featuring “many Rawitch supporters.” I checked the group out and joined it. What I found was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, only with middle-aged adults of both sexes—a primal display of loyalty and antagonism.

Opening the conversation was one Chris Reed, who wrote: “I was infuriated and I’m sure you will be too after reading this.” He described me as “a grown man still angry that mommy did not let him stay up past bedtime” and added: “There are thousands who would have a differing view of Cynthia.” Stephanie Stassel-Bluestein, one of the few group members I remember from my Northridge years, sniffed: “He may think the pen is mightier than the sword, but our collective memories are mightier than his petty column.” 

Tad Cronn, the no. 2 editor at the time of the censorship incident (I was no. 3), chimed in: “Cynthia, if you read these comments, I’d just like to say that, as the other person who initialed that damned Oped page, I officially here and now apologize for not tossing James off the Sierra Tower when I had the chance.” Evidently it didn’t occur to him that in acknowledging he had approved the page, he undercut Rawitch’s novel allegation that I had been insubordinate.

Several participants, in contrast with me, described Rawitch as their “mentor.” That was damning indeed, since they showed no interest in the facts of the case before I began participating in the discussion, and only a few showed any interest after I joined in. If she was their mentor, she taught them to be apparatchiks, not journalists.

To be sure, Rawitch, like McBride, long ago left journalism for academia. Maybe they’re exemplars of the adage that those who can’t do, teach. Most of Facebook’s Sundial alumni don’t work in journalism either. Reed is a customer relations manager at a telecommunications company. Cronn worked for a time as a copy editor, but the last I heard, he’d switched to real estate. Stassel-Bluestein is—wait for it—a journalism professor at Northridge.

Then again, can anyone who follows the mainstream media deny that today’s pool of working journalists contains a large share of politically correct apparatchiks? Not that I’m complaining. As it was in college, their eagerness to submit to authority is my competitive advantage. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.