[Marxism] Racism at U. of Michigan
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 28 07:09:40 MDT 2006
From the issue dated July 28, 2006
The Editor and the Nameless Society
'Michigan Daily' chief's membership prompts a debate over journalistic
independence; paper's second in command quits
By SAMANTHA HENIG
If you had been at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor during April
about a century ago and had followed the drum beats, you might have caught
a glimpse of them: two dozen white men wearing loincloths, headdresses, and
red body paint, calling each other by fake American Indian names such as
"Great Scalper" or "Thirsty for Blood" and passing a peace pipe to solidify
their bond as newly inducted members of the Tribe of Michigamua, a secret
society that started there in 1902.
These days the society is barely recognizable as the same group. Meetings
no longer involve pseudo-American Indian rituals; membership has been co-ed
since 1999 and publicly disclosed since this spring; and the name the
last vestige of a fictional-tribe theme has been discarded, according to
a written statement issued by the group in April.
But even in an age of reform, the group formerly known as Michigamua finds
itself still tethered to a racially charged past, and membership brings
more than just the honor it is said to confer.
When the editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, Donn M. Fresard, decided
this summer to accept membership in the now nameless society, students and
alumni raised well-worn concerns about the group's troublesome past, as
well as a new question: How would an editor's membership in a club with
prominent student leaders affect his paper's ability to cover that group
and its members fairly?
Ashley A. Dinges, who was the second in command at the Daily, believed so
strongly that Mr. Fresard's membership in the society would harm the paper
that she resigned in protest from her position as managing editor this month.
Ms. Dinges is less concerned with the old Michigamua's past than with its
present, as a prominent campus group that is frequently the subject of news
items and editorials. She said having the editor in chief as a member might
affect the Daily's ability to cover news concerning the group or its members.
Independence vs. Isolation
The paper has reported on student protests against the group, including the
37-day occupation of a room in the student-union tower a room that had
been designed to look like a wigwam, and was home to Michigamua for about
70 years by members of the Students of Color Coalition in 2000.
Since then, the paper has revisited, in its editorials, the issues raised
during the occupation, as well as reported on the group's reforms, most
recently the decision to drop its name and make its membership public.
Mr. Fresard says that he will recuse himself from editing any stories about
the society. For Ms. Dinges, though, that is not good enough. "As a student
paper, I think we should be striving for independence rather than attaching
ourselves to groups that would affect our voice on campus," she says.
But what Ms. Dinges calls independence, Mr. Fresard calls isolation.
"At the Daily, there's sort of a paranoid attitude that being an impartial
journalist means cloistering yourself in the student-publications building
and trying to figure out what's going on in the outside world without
actually being exposed to it," Mr. Fresard says. Joining the group will
help him stay in touch with what is happening on the campus, he says, which
will allow him to better tailor the newspaper to the interests of its readers.
Many previous editors have been members of fraternities, sororities, or
religious groups campus institutions that the newspaper often writes
about without that causing a problem, Mr. Fresard adds.
Although Ms. Dinges understands Mr. Fresard's argument that the Daily
should be more connected to the campus, she does not think joining the
nameless society is the way to do it.
She says that Mr. Fresard's membership will give him exposure only to "a
handful of student leaders."
The newspaper's staff is split on the issue, according to Ms. Dinges. When
Mr. Fresard first announced in April that he was considering joining the
society, editors for the Daily held a vote to decide whether his
involvement in the society would constitute a conflict of interest. More
than half of the group voted that it would, but not enough to reach the
two-thirds majority required by the Daily's bylaws.
Mr. Fresard declined to be inducted in the spring. But this summer he
decided he was ready to accept the society's invitation. Mr. Fresard is not
yet an official member of the society, says Andrew J. Yahkind, a spokesman
for the society's Class of 2007.
According to Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism
Review, it is common for newspaper editors to be involved in local groups,
such as parent-teacher associations, school advisory boards, or country clubs.
"Journalists need to have lives, and they do benefit in a lot of ways from
being connected to their community," he says, adding that a conflict of
interest arises only if editors join groups that promote certain political
agendas or candidates, or if editors do not recuse themselves from all
journalistic decisions relating to groups of which they are members.
A Difficult Decision
At several other universities, editors of the student newspapers are known
and even expected to join senior honor societies. At Yale University,
for example, many editors of the Yale Daily News have been inducted into
Skull and Bones or other senior honor societies, according to a former
editor who asked to remain anonymous.
Editors for student newspapers at Harvard University and Cornell University
describe similar situations.
Membership documents that were uncovered when students occupied
Michigamua's offices show that editors and business managers at the Daily
had often been members of the group. But the last time an editor of the
newspaper joined Michigamua was 13 years ago, when the society tapped the
editor in chief at the time, Matthew D. Rennie.
Mr. Rennie, now the college-sports editor at The Washington Post, says his
induction into Michigamua followed a long lull in which no Daily editors
had been asked to join.
He accepted because he saw the invitation "as an acknowledgment of the
school paper as a legitimate campus entity," he says.
When Mr. Fresard sought Mr. Rennie's advice on whether he should join the
society, the alumnus recognized the student's difficult decision.
When he was editor in chief, Mr. Rennie says, Michigamua "was not the
subject of public discourse or debate." He did not worry about a conflict
of interest, he says, because Michigamua "was never in the pages of the
paper." Since the 2000 occupation, though, that has changed.
Given that the society is still a hot topic, Jeremy R. Davidson, the summer
editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, is surprised the group would want
Mr. Fresard to be privy to its inner workings.
"I guess it's good for us," he says, "because if they don't reform, Donn
would be the first to know."
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