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The Daily Northwestern’s unfortunate apology

Badgered by classmates, NU’s student newspaper staff apologizes for reporting a news story as Medill dean defends journalistic integrity.

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Jeff Sessions was invited to speak at Northwestern University on Nov. 5 by a student Republican group. The Daily Northwestern newspaper covered the riotous protests, then apologized for doing so in a statement that appalled journalists across the spectrum.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WARNING! THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS GRAPHIC EXPRESSIONS OF RIDICULE, PLUS IMAGES OF NAKED DISGUST REGARDING BELOVED UNDERGRADUATE PIETIES, AND SO MIGHT NOT BE APPROPRIATE FOR MORALLY CERTAIN YET EMOTIONALLY FRAGILE INHABITANTS OF WILDLY OVERPRICED UNIVERSITIES WITH HABITUALLY DEFEATED FOOTBALL TEAMS.

Dear Northwestern:

Hi? How ya been? Thriving, I know. That new music center? Fan-tastic.

I’m good, thank you for asking. Old now. But hanging on. Still cranking out a column, just like I did for The Daily Northwestern in the early ’80s.

Sorry I haven’t written in, gee, 37 years. But I’ve been busy, working, in the real world. At a newspaper. Which isn’t easy. Readers don’t always like what I write. Barack Obama once called and yelled at me. Trump fans fill the spam filter with brutalities. Last week my son’s old kindergarten teacher wrote a nasty letter. You need a hard shell, and to focus on your goal: telling a good story.

You know what was a good story? Former Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions coming to Northwestern’s Evanston campus Nov. 5 to speak, or try to. It was difficult, with protesters pounding on doors and breaking windows, tussling with campus cops. More evidence the Left can have the same authoritarian tendencies as the Right.

The Daily covered the event, which is what newspapers do. They cover events.

Protesters caught in the act didn’t like the idea of being documented. They might get in trouble, so harried The Daily staff until it clawed back their names. Unsatisfied, they pushed for a jaw-dropping apology that instantly became notorious for its crushed capitulation.

The Daily admits covering the protests, then concedes: “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced.”

What harm? The harm of having your public misbehavior reported?? That’s called living in a democracy.

“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the mea culpa continues. “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.”

Isn’t that what Counseling and Psychological Services is for?

Worse follows:

“Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy.”

That isn’t an invasion of privacy any more than knocking on a door and canvasing for a candidate. It’s a cornerstone of democracy. The Daily operates independently of the school, and Medill Dean Charles Whitaker issued a strong statement supporting the paper, deftly shifting blame from The Daily to the NU activists.

“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,” Whitaker wrote.

You and me both, buddy. I can’t remember an administrator’s statement being as important as Whitaker’s. Before reading it, I felt like running my Northwestern diploma through the shredder and mailing the confetti to the president’s office. His statement made sense of the disaster: The same folks who shouted down Sessions leapt to muzzle The Daily. Which is why stifling speech is always wrong, whatever that speech happens to be. Because it becomes a habit.

At first I blamed The Daily staffers; now I feel sorry for them. They didn’t join the paper to face what Whitaker called a “brutal onslaught of venom and hostility,” nor to be forced to kneel and recant in one of the most jarring blots on American journalism since last night’s Fox News. Here’s an irony. The protesters whose names The Daily dutifully erased are spared the buzzsaw of social media. While The Daily staffers who signed the confession are now open to ridicule, which Whitaker also decried.

“Give the young people a break,” he wrote.

Point taken.

The good news is that most shame fades — trust me on that — and this will certainly be part of the education.

College is a challenging time. But it’s supposed to be the challenge of toughening yourself to face the world as it is, in all its unfairness. Not the challenge of shouting down anyone you don’t like, or sealing yourself off in your own little crib of self-regard, wrapped in a soft blankie of privilege, demanding that life fluff your pillows while you practice the yowls of grievance you’ll emit whenever your delicate skin is brushed by the gnarled hand of reality.

Space dwindles. Donald Trump hates the media because it documents his criminality and lies. He labels it “fake news.” The NU protesters wanted to both squelch Sessions and avoid any risk of getting in trouble due to real reporting. The media gets flak from both sides. Which perhaps is the lesson The Daily’s staff should take away from this fiasco, assuming they still want to be reporters at all. As Abe Peck, my revered magazine writing professor at NU once taught me long ago, quoting the last line of a great Marge Piercy poem, “You have to like it better than being loved.”

That doesn’t change. Thanks for listening. Go Cats!

Neil Steinberg

Medill School of Journalism

Class of 1982