On Feb. 10, in a windowless hotel basement in Rosslyn, Va., I gave a speech to a couple of dozen college-newspaper editors at a conference on (ahem) "The Role of the Press in a Free Society." Always put strict accuracy first, I intoned in my sagest voice, even when other values, such as social justice, seem to point toward other priorities. Around the room, heads nodded, though whether in agreement or slumber, I couldn't quite tell.
Then, however, I cautioned that these decisions are rarely easy to make in practice--and if you think they are easy, you're not doing your job as a journalist. Newspapers, I said, are part of communities, and have obligations to those communities. We journalists should tell the truth, yes, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the consequences of our decisions, or report everything we know.
To drive the point home, I asked the editors to join me in a thought experiment: Imagine your paper discovers that the university is secretly using racial preferences in its admissions process, while denying doing any such thing. If you publish a story, you can count on igniting a bitter furor on campus. Worse, you may stigmatize and humiliate many minority students. Do you go with the story?
I did my best to make the choice a hard one, but I failed. After talking it over for a while, all of the editors said they would run the story. Isn't there anyone, I asked, who would argue for holding or killing the story? Not a single hand went up.
One of the hands that did not go up that morning belonged to Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez is a 20-year-old junior at the University of California (Berkeley) and is editor in chief and president of The Daily Californian, Berkeley's independent student newspaper. When we chatted in the lunch line that day, neither of us knew that he was about to be pilloried by commentators across the country as a symbol of political correctness. On March 15, the conservative American Spectator's Web site declared Hernandez--I'm not making this up--Enemy of the Week.
What happened? In February, a conservative activist named David Horowitz sent more than 30 college newspapers a full-page advertisement denouncing the idea of reparations for African-Americans. Among the ad's arguments: Some blacks were slave owners ("Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?"); modern blacks, no less than modern whites, benefit from the wealth created by slavery; middle-class blacks' prosperity suggests that "economic adversity is the result of failures of individual character" rather than a lingering aftereffect of discrimination and slavery; welfare and affirmative action are already reparations of a sort; and "What about the debt that blacks owe to America?"
Conservatives said the ad was exactly the sort of rational argumentation that Americans, including Americans of color, should be exposed to. They were right. Liberals said the ad was deliberately pugnacious, timed to coincide with the end of Black History Month, and intended to provoke rows. They, too, were right.
Many newspapers routinely reject ads that they regard as offensive, inaccurate, or inflammatory. This happens all the time and violates no one's First Amendment rights (private newspapers can run any ads they please, or none at all). All but a handful of college papers rejected the Horowitz ad. One paper that did not was The Daily Cal--which accepted the ad by mistake. In an interview last week, Hernandez told me that the paper rarely accepts political ads that are unrelated to current campaigns or campus events, especially if the ads are deemed to be inflammatory. So the editors probably would have rejected the Horowitz ad--but, owing to a mix-up, they never saw it. And so, on the morning of Feb. 28, the editors woke up, opened the paper, and confronted a crisis.
The protests began immediately--and they came not just from outside the paper but also from within. "Members of our own staff went out with [angry students] to remove papers and bring them back to the office," Hernandez says. Meanwhile, 40 to 50 angry students--including a Daily Cal columnist--swarmed The Cal's lobby. The editors called a hasty meeting. "A majority felt that we should run an apology," Hernandez told me. The paper did so the next day--abjectly, and on page one. "We realize," said the apology, "that the ad allowed the Daily Cal to become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry."
Did the apology help? Of course not. "The response from the black community and from angry students was that the apology was not enough," says Hernandez. Racial activists produced the usual lists of demands and grievances, and staged a campus protest on March 13. Meanwhile, when the apology hit the national media, e-mails and calls poured in, denouncing the paper for caving in. "Hundreds of people demanded that I resign," Hernandez says. "Spineless, gutless, pussy, baby, Commie, Nazi, brownshirt" were among the terms of endearment, he says.
Among the national commentariat, the standard view was that The Daily Cal had sold out to political correctness. Typical was this comment by Jason L. Steorts, writing in The Harvard Crimson: "This uproar is one more example of how America's fanatical obsession with sensitivity has slowly eroded the right of individuals to express controversial ideas. The First Amendment is being held hostage by political correctness."
Meanwhile, at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), The Badger Herald--a student paper that ran the Horowitz ad--won national kudos for its refusal to cave in despite noisy protests. "We will not apologize," proclaimed the paper in an editorial. "The editors of The Daily Californian allowed themselves to give in to pressure in a manner that unfortunately violated their professional integrity and journalistic duty to protect speech with which they may disagree."
Now, I bow to no one in my opposition to political correctness. I wrote a fiercely anti-PC book called Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. And I certainly admire The Badger Herald's outspoken defiance. But The Herald's community is not the same as The Daily Cal's community. At Wisconsin, an energetic free-speech faction has emerged in the past few years. In 1999, the Wisconsin faculty rose up to abolish their own speech code, an apparently unprecedented event in American academe. When The Badger Herald came under fire this month, an aggressive free-speech group, called the Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, immediately offered the paper its full support. Hernandez and The Daily Cal, by contrast, dangled in the wind.
"There really has to be an element of reader sensitivity in any publication," Hernandez says. "The question is: Did we overstep? Did we overcompensate?" "Well," I asked him, "did you?" "It was a hasty and emotional decision, but having made it, we're standing by it," Hernandez told me. "The majority of us still feel an apology was in order, but some of us feel it was a mistake to label the ad bigoted." Some also now regret the front-page placement.
Me, I don't think The Cal should have apologized at all. Explained, maybe, but not apologized. But it is important to see that The Cal's error was one of ordinary journalism, not political correctness run amok. In 1986, The Washington Post faced a protest from activists who charged that the new Sunday magazine negatively stereotyped blacks. The mighty Post crumpled. "For the first time in his newspaper career," reported The Post, "Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee wrote an apology `for the offense that two [magazine] articles .. if inadvertently--gave to certain segments of our audience.' "