Poynter.org | March 9, 2001
IN THE PAST WEEK or so, I have been called a coward, a sell-out, a racist and a Communist. I have been called spineless and gutless. I have been told to "watch" out for myself. I have been called on to resign from both the Left and the Right, to enter politics ("where p.c.-mongers belong"), or to enter the liberal-leaning media because I have proven myself to so easily fit in. In more than 500 emails, letters and calls, from executive editors to retired military officers, from Albuquerque to Arlington, the criticism has pushed the limits of harshness and civility. All this, one would say, thanks to a former Leftie with deep pockets whose ideas managed to get slipped into The Daily Californian, the gloriously fallable institution that I represent.
The Daily Cal never asked to be a part of the publicity stunt of David Horowitz, the self-promoting provocateur. He knew that if he sent his ad arguing against reparations for slavery to enough college newspapers, at least one would print it, on purpose or by accident. And the bigger, more liberal-seeming campus prints it, the better. Berkeley would be perfect - the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and the city where pets have "guardians," not "owners." According to plan, the ad slipped through our cracks (potholes is more like it) and a controversy ensued (three others ran it as well, the Cal Aggie responding similarly to us). Close to 40 students stormed our offices Wednesday afternoon, including one of our own columnists, and demanded an apology from the paper for running the ad. People were screaming, crying, tearing papers and threatening a host of retaliatory attacks on the newspaper and its staff. Papers were pulled from racks.
Feeling both guilt and disgust, our editorial board agreed to run a front page apology and a more in-depth explanation inside the paper from the editor in chief. To suggest that blacks should be grateful that slavery brought them to the "country that gave them freedom" seemed bigoted to a decisive majority of the editorial board. We also agreed to open a free page in the paper for black students to respond to Horowitz, which would cancel out any profits we made from the ad. Perhaps we would have reacted less abjectly and emotionally than we did while convening a meeting in such intense circumstances (the decision was made while protesters were still in our lobby), but we stand by the apology to this day. Having little to do with our campus, the ad set out to push hot buttons on the last day of Black History Month. It didn't want to start a civil debate, it wanted to start a fight.
The media jumped on the story, forcing me get more press than I ever dreamed for my whole career. I gave interviews to most of the major Bay Area and greater California newspapers, and nearly a dozen other media outlets in TV, radio and print. Meanwhile, a coalition of UC minority students who work in the heavily-funded campus recruitment and retention centers announced at a March 1 press conference that they will now actively DISCOURAGE minority high school students from enrolling at Berkeley. Unless the UC regents reverse the ban on affirmative action, these students claim they are left with no choice but to make this drastic strategic decision. This, obviously, is huge news. But when the papers got wind of the ad controversy, most decided to report that instead. I've learned this week that reporters tend to feel more comfortable writing about reporters. There's something naughty and self-reflective about it, like putting a mirror in the face of a sibling to expose bad acne-even when you know you've got plenty of zits of your own.
To my horror (and that is not an exaggeration), the pressure has not let up since then. It has mushroomed to the point of unbelievable. John Yardley gave me a nice workover on the op-ed pages of the March 5 Washington Post. He drew generous attention to split infinitives in my writing, seemingly to suggest that I am immature and incompetent (cheap shots like that seem more immature in my view). As I had anticipated, the Chronicle's Debra Saunders didn't let this "slip through the cracks." In our interview, she gave me sincere sympathies: "You poor baby." But in her column Tuesday, she too took great effort to make me out to seem incompetent and immature. And the calls from the press keep coming: big regionals, Time, college papers, more radio. And the emails keep coming, topping off at 500 today. Like bulletfire, they are relentless and unforgiving.
Of course, this was what Horowitz dreamed would happen. A $1,200 investment in a student newspaper resulted in a brand of publicity that money could never buy. Now people know about his cause. Now people are flooding his Web site. Now people actually know what the Center for the Study of Popular Culture is. Our internal disaster managed to give Horowitz exactly what he wanted. He has sent me a letter blasting the newspaper and has made conspicuous appearances on our own online message boards.
The balance in response is ironically reassuring. Some angry students who are holding a grudge are reportedly initiating a process to get the Daily Cal, an independent non-profit, kicked off the UC campus - again. Our newsroom was on lockdown for several days; I have addressed the staff as whole (rarely done even here) to field concerns and complaints from every staffer who may have one, from writers I've never met to sales reps. I have met with the few black students on our staff to get their perspective. Some reporters have left on grounds of moral objection ("I do not want to be associated with this newspaper."). Others are embarrassed at the paper's apologist response. Did we bow to screaming pressure? Did we give too much or not enough? How could this happen (running the ad)? How could this happen (running an apology)?
I am at once defending the paper's explanation that running the ad was a mistake that it would not have happened under editorial veto, while at the same time defending the paper's stance that the ad was bigoted, inappropriate and inflammatory. All through this mess, I have tried to keep a cool head. Critics are charging that our apology would be read as a victory for leftist free speech squelchers, even if our apology was primarily framed under the admission that the normal process for review was not enacted in this case. No matter. At this point I am not concerned with who reads our decisions in what way. Criticism from polar opposites will do that to someone.
What gets me is that more than 30 newspapers received Horowitz's ad but only four ran it. So why isn't Horowitz and every free speech advocate in the country writing to those papers? Why isn't the libertarian/First Amendment establishment calling those papers socialist, thought-policed rags, or their editors spineless, kowtowing racists? Mistake or not, the Daily Cal ran the damn thing. Debate was sparked just as Horowitz intended, which is perhaps the only good thing to come out of this PR debacle. Now, copies of the ad are being circulated in dorms with notes that say, "I agree with this." I walk into the cafes that surround the campus and I hear the Daily Cal's name being uttered with contempt and fascination. The question of free speech is once again a volatile point of discussion. Whole lectures are being devoted to the debate, curricula interrupted to discuss classical liberalism or the merit of reparations.
Thankfully, journalists writing about this situation have been sympathetic to my position. Caught between the left and right, being called to resign from both camps (the apology was not apologetic enough, some say), at least a few reporters out there have expressed embarrassment at some of their peers' cheap shots. Like all student journalists, I am making decisions that demonstrate - if nothing else - learning. I love journalism. Despite what my critics say, I hope to have a future in this industry. I love this work precisely for the ideals that some critics say I have blasphemed.
Our editorial board made it clear that we would not censor Horowitz's views on our opinion pages. This, after all, is the same college newspaper that endorsed Proposition 209 in 1996, the ballot initiative that did away with affirmative action. This is the same newspaper, in Berkeley of all places, whose history is peppered with strongly conservative columnists and editorial stances. We have vetoed ads from the left and right. We have turned down submissions from radical socialists and white supremacists. Even in our editorial positions this year, we have vehemently defended the notion of free speech by criticizing those who shout down speakers with unpopular ideas.
But we feel this notion is not applicable in the same way to a private company and its immediate interests. Like any newspaper, the Daily Cal holds strong to the belief that it can turn away any ad for any reason, without having to disclose why or why not to anyone. Like all newspapers, the Daily Cal must maintain a strict line between editorial content and ad content. We are not in a position to mediate a marketplace of free ideas through the work of our sales reps. We are, however, committed to balance, fairness and at least a minimal sensitivity to our readership-like any newspaper.
For me, this experience has involved three constants: a) a new found talent in sound bites, b) a headache that has followed me to bed and woken up alongside me since last Wednesday, and c) learning and growth that will remain unfathomable for years to come.