When students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins opened the Sept. 24 issue of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, their student newspaper, an oversized and attention-grabbing headline shouted at them:
“Taser this … F*** BUSH.”
In the space where a 600-word editorial should be, this ambiguous (and asterisk-less) phrase was printed instead. It was recklessly displayed with no accompanying story, no explanation of the editorial board’s intentions and no rationale for the gratuitous display of profanity.
Although this issue of the Collegian did not mention it, the phrase referred to a Florida State University incident, on Sept. 17, when campus police Tasered a student after his 90-second tirade during the question-answer period following Sen. John Kerry’s, D-Mass., speech at their campus.
The Collegian’s “editorial” was meant to be an expression of free speech in support of the Florida State student and in defense of all students’ rights. While the intentions seem noble, their execution turned out a distasteful attempt at a bold statement. Although unrelated to their purpose, the statement was confusingly coupled with an attack on the president— as seemingly sordid attempt at killing two birds with one stone.
This is a case of irresponsible shock journalism. The seven-member editorial board of the Collegian decided on a split vote to run the phrase without any story, explanation or opinion to back it up. Their point about the importance of free speech was lost on readers distracted by their profanity and their attack on President Bush. The way they used President Bush in the phrase caused many readers to assume the paper was somehow blaming his administration for the Taser incident.
If the editors had explained themselves in a serious, full-length editorial or column, perhaps more of the collegiate journalism community would have supported their statement — even despite its vulgarity. It is not wrong to jolt people into thinking about and debating an issue; However, the ambiguous phrase they printed said nothing about the editors’ opinions or the issue at hand — an example of sensationalism at its worst.
Student journalists at the Graphic appreciate freedom of speech as much as anyone. But they appreciate the immense and serious responsibilities that come with this First Amendment — a fact apparently lost on the editorial board at the Collegian.
The staff editorial in the opinion pages of a college newspaper is a highly privileged forum in which student journalists have about 600 words every week to take a stand on the issues they think are relevant. The editorial board of the Collegian used only four words — printing oversized profanity under their irresponsible guise of fearless free-speech defenders. But truly brave acts are well thought out, their consequences painstakingly considered. Under a façade of fearlessness, the Collegian acted irresponsibly.
There are better ways to champion free speech without putting the university’s reputation, fellow staff members’ jobs and the newspaper’s integrity on the line.
The Collegian editorial board’s apparent disregard for the consequences of their actions is symbolic of their fundamental carelessness. Since the issue’s publication, advertisers have pulled $30,000 worth of ads, student pay has been cut and the paper’s reputation has suffered irreparable damage.
Even though the editors decide on the staff editorial topic and opinion, the piece is an overall reflection of the entire newspaper staff — of its integrity and purpose. The Collegian board’s decision, with its dire consequences for the entire Collegian staff, seems to have been made recklessly and irresponsibly.
The Graphic editorial board, which is comprised of the editor in chief and the section editors, takes pride in its principled and careful editorial policy and practices. Unlike the Collegian, the staff does not simply vote on the staff editorial.
Topics are discussed in great detail during our weekly staff meeting until editors unanimously agree on a stance they’re willing to take to represent the entire newspaper. The consequences of the words we choose to print and the potential reactions from students, alumni, administrators and faculty are seriously considered.
The editorial board of the Rocky Mountain Collegian garnered the attention they were looking for, but at a price not worth paying. The Collegian stole national media attention and while the Graphic’s staff editorial won’t make national news, this publication would much rather maintain its integrity and the respect of fellow staff members and the university community.