Journalism School Dean Rips Into "Traumatized" Jeff Sessions Protesters For Harassing Student Journalists

Update: When the student newspaper apologized for the sin of reporting on an unhinged protest against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Northwestern University last week, many professional journalists expressed disbelief that college journalists would openly renounce basic journalism practices.

They spent less time focused on the actions of the protesters themselves, and after the shitstorm of snowflake outrage that the journalists ignited by daring to take photos and do journalism, Charles Whitaker - the Dean of Northwestern's Journalism School - has made up for the imbalance : (emphasis ours)

"Journalists have a heady responsibility performing our role as the authors of the first rough draft of history, the term that the late Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham is credited with coining to describe our work. Journalists often put themselves at great risk not only to expose malfeasance, misfeasance and injustice, but also to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the maneuverings in our daily lives.

It is important work. Journalism -- when executed fairly, accurately and independently -- allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife. It often is our only chronicle of the people and events that shape and govern our existence. Conversely, when done poorly or unfairly, journalism can most certainly scar individuals and communities. Indeed, there is no shortage of instances in which journalists have parachuted into settings, particularly those occupied by vulnerable or marginalized people, and provided accounts that were devoid of any sense of cultural competency.

But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism. The Daily Northwestern is an independent, student-run publication. As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained, I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the “sin” of doing journalism.

Like those student journalists, I, too, have been approached by several student activists who were angered by the fact that they and their peers were depicted on the various platforms of The Daily engaged in the very public act of protesting the Sessions speech. I have explained to those activists that as Northwestern’s -- and the city of Evanston’s -- principal paper of record, The Daily had an obligation to capture the event, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity. I have also offered that it is naïve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention.

That Daily staffers and other students used social media to track down protestors for comment and to verify facts -- another affront, according to The Daily’s detractors -- is, in my mind and the minds of my colleagues, the kind of industrious reporting and information-gathering that we expect from enterprising reporters. Our young reporters did not root through trash cans, trespass on private property or purloin personal documents. What they tried to do was ask questions and take pictures that they hoped would offer the most accurate account of this wrenching event – one in which the images captured by The Daily’s photographers may provide the only evidence of what actually transpired in the interaction between students and campus police.

Some have also charged that our students are rude and insensitive interrogators. They say our students behave like boorish voyeurs when approaching students from marginalized communities. My colleagues and I are mindful of these accusations and are working with our students on their reporting techniques. We absolutely want them to introduce themselves as journalists before peppering subjects with a battery of questions. We want to make sure that they understand that private individuals have no obligation to speak with reporters. And we want them to treat everyone they approach -- no matter what their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political persuasion -- with dignity and respect.

But I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations. And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.

I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing.

I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit. To be sure, journalism has often bowed to the whim and will of the rich and powerful, so some might argue that it is only fair that those who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised have their turn at calling the journalistic shots. But that is not the solution. We need more diversity among our student journalists (and in journalism writ large). We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage. But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed -- and must have the courage -- to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.

This has been a difficult time for the students studying journalism at Medill. They have been under attack for merely doing what we encourage journalists to do: ask questions and write stories that illuminate the Northwestern/Evanston experience for anyone who might be interested in our community. Have they made mistakes? Most assuredly. They are students learning the craft. But I firmly maintain that our students do not act with malice aforethought. By and large, they want to do the right thing and reflect the community accurately.

So to our student activists, I say let’s have a dialogue about what journalism is and what you might expect when you hold a protest in a public setting. Feel free to critique the coverage. That’s what The Daily’s opinion pages are for. Better yet, join the staff. The Daily is not and should not be the lone provenance of Medill students. I assure you, your input would be welcomed. But waging war on our students on social media -- threatening them both physically and emotionally -- is beyond the pale. Our community deserves a more civil level of discourse.

And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.

Journalism is under assault in a variety of spheres. But my hope is that we at Northwestern can model ways in which a community can promote freedom of the press while also demonstrating how we conduct healthy and respectful debate. I would be happy to do my part to facilitate that dialogue."

How long until he is "boycotted" out of a job?

*  *  *

As The College Fix's Greg Piper detailed earlier, the spirit of Antifa is infecting student protesters. Not necessarily the gleeful violence against anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders, but the visceral aversion to being photographed.

Photography, you may be aware, is kind of important to journalism. But not important enough for The Daily Northwestern, which puts the feelings of public protesters ahead of its fidelity to journalism.

In an editorial drawing bafflement among professional journalists, the student newspaper at Northwestern University apologized for harming – yes, harming – the students who turned out to protest an appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What constitutes that harm? Not just taking their photos, but asking them for comment. (Keep in mind Northwestern has an elite yet unaccredited journalism school, Medill.)

Video from the evening revealed protesters reacting as if they were getting hit by tear gas and rubber bullets in Hong Kong, screaming that Sessions had “violated” them and they were “fighting for their lives right now.” The Daily reported that some were “climbing through open windows and pushing through doors.”

Protesters knew the cameras were documenting their meltdown. One said they were “not being cute for the Medill photographers,” and an administrator reportedly tried to block someone recording the event.

And they apparently let the Daily have it for doing its job.

The editorial board starts its cringeworthy column by saying the Daily “was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.”

By sending a photographer to cover the protest, the newspaper “contributed to the harm students experienced” at the … “traumatic event”:

Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down. On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed. We feel that covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories. While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it. We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.

If making students “feel safe” is really the newspaper’s mission, it should just shut down entirely. News coverage always makes someone feel unsafe. (See the repeated trashing of campus newspapers.)

It didn’t get any better from there. The Daily apologized for using the university directory to contact students for interviews – a core practice of any competent college newsroom going back decades – but one that apparently unnerved some students:

We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories. [No “correct” way is given.]

It’s even giving a mea culpa for identifying sources who agreed to be named. When you talk to a reporter covering a protest, and she asks you your name, and you tell her, you realize you might be named in a story, right?

The paper removed the name of a protester who complained because, alas, it doesn’t want to help The Man:

Any information The Daily provides about the protest [like reporting on it?] can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not. We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University. Some students have also faced threats for being sources in articles published by other outlets.

It operates under these daycare rules because it’s not a “professional publication.” You got that right, editors.

And these twits had the gall to claim their groveling editorial is in line with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” Yeah – it also consists of journalism.

It’s not clear how the Daily can do its job without, you know, taking photos, asking for interviews and naming people it quotes, but like the surgeon who “just got reinstated … well, not officially,” they’ll figure it out:

Going forward, we are working on setting guidelines for source outreach, social media and covering marginalized groups. As students at Northwestern, we are also grappling with the impact of Tuesday’s events, and as a student organization, we are figuring out how we can support each other and our communities through distressing experiences that arise on campus. We will also work to balance the need for information and the potential harm our news coverage may cause.

What the Daily is really saying is that it will do whatever any “marginalized” group tells it to do. Print our demand list in full? Check. Hide our identities when we protest in public? Check. Advocate for our cause as a condition of getting interviews with us? Check.

And most of all, grovel and debase themselves whenever we noble marginalized angels complain about anything you do? Of course. This column has already waved the white flag on the practice of independent journalism.

Instead, the Daily has made plain that it’s the PR mouthpiece for any person or group claiming to be marginalized.

Editor-in-chief Troy Closson tried to walk back the editorial in a tweet thread early Tuesday, citing the pressure he has felt as only the third black EIC in the history of the paper.

But the most he’ll say is that the editors “over-corrected.” The editorial remains unchanged as of now, including its ridiculous insistence that “ethical journalism” requires the abdication of journalism.

I’m not buying his claim that the Daily editors are hobbled by their “gaps in knowledge about what journalism consists of.” Its newspaper office in the Norris building is a four-minute walk from the Medill school on Northwestern’s campus (below).

Even though it doesn’t formally oversee the newspaper, the J-school could provide some helpful tips for the editors on covering protests. But it’s not clear from the editorial that the editors would actually follow the advice of veteran journalists.