Why newspapers publish objectionable ideas

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Some students and faculty on campus were angry our college newspaper published a letter to the editor that promoted a white supremacist stance, so I spoke at a public forum explaining the importance of free speech. You can read the letter at our website.

More than 300 people showed up for a forum intended to address challenges of racism on campus. You can read the story published in the Daily Eastern News.

What’s the role of a newspaper and why do newspapers publish objectionable ideas? That’s rooted in the First Amendment, but I will not give you a lesson tonight on the 45-sacred words that give us so many of the freedoms we hold dear today.

Instead, I would like to focus on another role newspapers serve, the one playwright Arthur Miller wrote about: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.”

We as a society must have a dialogue on who we are, what we want to be, and where we want to go. We must discuss the important issues of the day publicly. These conversations are usually found in the press – in print, radio, TV and online. We should discuss issues that are important to us and that we want to talk about. Even more importantly, we need to discuss issues and topics that make us feel uncomfortable because these are the issues that are not so easily solved, and these are the insidious issues that continue to eat away at our society. Most of the time, we do not even realize it. That means we need to speak out about abortion and sexual abuse and drug abuse and racism – especially if that makes people uncomfortable. (There’s another old saying about journalism: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” That’s apparently what this letter did.) We need to allow all people to speak, even those whose views are filled with vitriol, spite and malice. Let these ideas be vetted in the public eye. Let these ideas (I hope and pray) be the touchstone of change, compelling folks like yourself to get together and address problems that have remained unspoken for way too long.

That’s our job, to get the conversation rolling. A newspaper is a public forum where all are invited to speak. Many people did speak this week, saying mostly that the ideas promoted by this letter writer were repulsive and uninformed. You can read those letters yourself in the Daily Eastern News. You yourself can do the same, writing a letter and speaking out against ideas that you believe foster prejudice and hatred. You can even get involved with the newspaper, learning the craft and theories of our business so you can go out and report on such issues. News rooms need to be diverse as well. That’s where you can step in and do something. But, perhaps, that’s another topic for another day.

Tonight you are speaking out about racism in and around campus. You all are here to discuss ways to address this problem. Having a forum and speaking out publicly is a good first step. But one meeting will not solve anything. You need to continue to speak out and discuss this issue. We all need to continue to speak out and discuss relevant issues like this. And that’s where we come in. We report on such issues and allow you all to keep the conversation going. Write a guest column, send in a letter to the editor, speak to one another through this great forum of democracy. Let’s get a conversation going on campus where we can speak to one another. Foster free speech, don’t smother it – even when you find the ideas reprehensible. That’s where the conversation should begin, not end, with discomfiting ideas. I invite you all to join in this discussion. As adviser to the Daily Eastern News, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the rest of the campus community.

FIRST AMENDMENT
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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One Response to “Why newspapers publish objectionable ideas”

  1. Chris Says:

    Joe–I agree with and support every point you make here. In my parallel work as an adviser to a student newspaper in the Denver area, I have had similar situations arise on multiple occasions. It’s delicate work to both advise the paper and make clear explanation to the community just how we are all served by publishing ideas that are obnoxious. As you point out, this action is key to bringing such ideas into the light so they can be discussed, countered, and put in their place–the fringe. It’s a little like when you get sick; if you don’t treat it openly, it’s possible for the problem to grow and overcome you. So a society that’s healthy faces its illness and treats it. Student newspapers have often taken these risks, sometimes with more courage than commercial media, because they are the voice of students who are themselves grappling with the big questions, facing the toughest issues as they step into their adult lives. Kudos to you for leading them in this.

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