Rights, Responsibilities and a Lesson Learned

There’s a certain journalistic episode that reflexively comes to mind when yet another story about “censorship” and high school newspapers hits the mainstream news.

First, start with the premise that if you choose journalism as a career, it will probably happen to you. Most likely sooner than later, but still at a point when you’re somewhat accomplished. You’re going to get something spiked. A story you labored over never sees the light of any day’s press run.

Mine was a piece on former President Ronald Reagan and “The Great Communicator’s” increasingly infrequent press conferences. It was a White House strategy designed to protect the president from his own misstatements. But it was a practice that too often resulted in Reagan being shouted at — seemingly always by Sam Donaldson — when en route somewhere. Such drive-by queries inevitably resulted in the president cupping his good ear, looking avuncularly perplexed and ultimately responding: “What?” It was wincing to watch.

I didn’t think the lines of public communication or the dignity of the office of the presidency were well served by such sideshows. I also gave voice to the people’s right to know, the role of an informed citizenry in a democracy, etc., etc.

I thought it was pretty good, even edgy, stuff.

But my editor, who thought I was a little rough on the president, had qualms. My publisher, however, had a fit.

My column was anchored as the lead editorial on the Opinion Page of a business weekly. Very conservative, very Republican, very brazen of me.

The column was returned to me, not with the usual pro-forma publisher notations about some factoid or a comma splice, but the word: “Inappropriate.” It carried the connotation of “See me” inscribed on a term paper by your high school English teacher.

The editor confirmed that “inappropriate” was short for: “It’s OK to criticize the president but this seemed more derisive than critical. Remember who he is, who we are, who our readership is and, yes, who the publisher voted for. So start over, research another topic, order out and work as late as necessary to make a compressed, unforgiving deadline. Thank you and don’t let it happen again.”

I was steamed, plunged headlong into a foreign trade zone piece and locked up after the cleaning crew that night.

Two days later the editor, the publisher and I reconciled over lunch. The publisher explained that the spiked piece was, indeed, well crafted but incompatible with the institutional voice of a business publication, especially one that he published. He underscored that ultimately he was responsible for everything — our editorial positions, our image, our market niche, our advertising mix, our profitability. We were free press pillars, but were also free to fail in a market economy. He had to balance it all. Writing columns, I inferred, must be so much easier.

Sure, he couldn’t be hands-on everywhere, he acknowledged, but he did want to preview each week’s lead editorial. Deal with it. But, hey, it was the first time he actually bounced one back, which wasn’t tantamount to a trampled First Amendment right.

I defended the barely defensible, owned up to an incipient case of writer’s ego and acknowledged a greater authority — and responsibility.

Now back to Hillsborough County. Recently we’ve seen Plant High administrators delay distribution of its student paper over a column on condom availability at the prom. We’ve also seen the principal of Leto High pull a column that criticized a teacher who sold flag decals for extra credit. The first Amendment will survive both. Some perspective.Principals are, in effect, publishers. They are ultimately accountable. To school boards, to taxpayers, to parents, to students. In fact, it’s an accountability sanctioned in 1988 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior review of student newspapers is well within the legal purview of principals. It can be a dicey, sometimes lose-lose proposition, for principals take the heat for what might upset teachers, segments of the student body, parents, politicians, the community at large and junior journalists. Moreover, they really aren’t real world “publishers;” school newspaper faculty sponsors typically aren’t real journalists; and teenaged, amateur reporters in pre-training are just that.But those who work on high school newspapers deserve as meaningful an experience as possible. Journalism in a free society is that important. Mastering layout, doing interviews, getting your facts straight and separating fact from opinion can’t be emphasized enough. Principals, however, need to save their trump cards for the tough calls, not overreacting, say, to an opinion piece on a valid, real-world issue for those in their prom years.

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