Friday, October 10, 2008

And Justice for all?

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The Gazette did a curious story prominently splashed above the fold on the break page about a controversy created by a column published in the Umass Daily Collegian calling into question the facts in the assault case of former Umass student Jason Vassell a violent incident with, gasp, racial overtones.

Now I say curious because one newspaper—especially a bricks and mortar traditional one--does not usually cover another newspaper creating a controversy via a column. Most news editor’s rate columnist just barely above bloggers.

The Collegian columnist relied on public documents for primary source material (probably more so than a typical reporter would) so I also find it curious the Gazette did not use and quote from the same material.

Thus far the response has included a Letter to the editor by Vassell’s two attorney’s lambasting the column and paper. Usually when contacted by a newspaper about a client in a highly public case most attorneys respond with: “I don’t try my case in the media.”

The President of the Student Government Association, who is Asian, also (over) responds to the column with an overly personal counterattack, and when the Collegian insists on editorial oversight an anonymous donor comes up with the cash to buy ad space so the vitriolic Letter would run without editorial filter.

Curiously the Collegian spiked the follow up effort by the columnist defending her original work by citing her reliable sources. Thus, they abandoned her.

A journalist’s (reporter, columnist or blogger) only weapon is their word. And a source needs to know that they will be protected. Reporters have gone to jail to protect a source that divulged information “off the record” and wanted it to stay that way.

If a newspaper will not stand behind a columnist, then maybe they should rethink their mission.

Original Collegian Column

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Anonymous said...

The Collegian has actually shredded its ethics on this far more than it first appears.

First, they sold the SGA advertising space to attack her but refused to sell her space with which to clear her name. Ethical?

Second, they should never have printed a letter from Vassal's lawyers in which they presented what a third party had to say without asking him also to sign the letter. Think about this for a minute -- I write a letter stating what Larry saw & did at some event where I was not present and a paper prints it without asking Larry to confirm the accuracy of what is attributed to him?

(And perhaps Mr. Morse would explain the hearsay rule and how *not* having Jason's friend sign the letter serves to let him tell truly outragious tales here without having them introduced to impeach his testimony at trial.)

Third, the worst aspect of all of this is when the Collegian spiked her following week's column because she told people that she really was quoting from publicly availble files and if they didn't believe her, they could go down to the courthouse and read them themselves. She even gave the docket numbers like any honest academic would.

And then when I posted the documents on the internet, Jason's lawyers intimidated UMass into taking them down in violation of my First Amendment rights.

This, boys 'n' girls, is the short version of all of this.

And the Collegian - as badly as they have treated her - is also in a difficult spot. Should they not cave in to the radical horde, they will face building takeovers and mob violence. Such is UMass.

LarryK4 said...

So the SGA bails out The Collegian a few years back with a zero interest $150-K loan and now they take money from the SGA for an attack ad but refuse to allow the attacked person to respond? Hmmm…yeah, I would call that unethical—if not downright illegal.

Back in 2004 Gazette editor Jim Foudy told Bulletin editor Nick Grabbe “now that Larry has become the center of the storm he can longer write about Vagina Monologues”.

My first column had stimulated national exposure (something you would think an editor would love) and Foudy found out I was planning to respond to School Superintendent Jere Hochman’s column defending the travesty.

But the Gazette/Bulletin are private entities and they can do as they damn well please with employees or the general public (and we’ve seen it many times). The Collegian, however, could--because of the SGA loan--be a different story.

If Alana wants to send me the spiked column, I would be happy to publish as written.

Ed Cutting said...

The problem actually is worse.

The Collegian is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) which means that it operates under the authority of the Center for Student Development (CSD) which is part of the UMass Student Affairs, headed by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (Byron Bullock). It is housed (rent free) in a state-owned building and uses UM-funded heat and electricity even though it prints off campus (Turley).

It does, however, become even more complex. RSOs exist with the permission of the Student Government Association (SGA) whose permission is required for a RSO to be officially "recognized" by the university in the first place. The SGA has the authority to tell RSOs who may and may not belong to the RSO and in what capacity (a past SGA told the Collegian that graduate students may not be writers out of fears that I might go write for them).

The relationship between the SGA and the Collegian is thus quite similar to that between the Commonwealth and the Town of Amherst, which exists under a charter issued by the Commonwealth and subject to its regulations (such as the size of flag on veterans graves).

So thus, notwithstanding the loan (and the implicit/explicit threat of calling it in), what the SGA did here essentially is similar to Deval Patrick demanding that Amherst paint "UMass Students are Nice People" on the side of every town-owned vehicle. Even if he paid for the paint, it raises lots of questions...

Then take it one step further - all of this is intended to influence the outcome of two criminal trials, to bully the DA into dropping charges against one man (Vassal) and to bully a judge into not excluding a statement made by another defendant and to convict both him and another not-charged individual.

The AntiKlan act of 1877 comes to mind here. It was intended to prevent exactly this sort of thing, including the use of public resources and official positions to facilitate lynch mobs intended to fustrate the judicial process.

So what you have is *the* officially recognized newspaper, using university resources as part of the school's student activities efforts, essentially existing at the pleasure of the SGA...

It would be like the Town Manager having the authority to tell the Bulletin to stop printing stuff he didn't like (such as Larry's columns) or he would shut it down.

The SCOTUS _Southworth_ decision notwithstanding, there are some very interesting issues raised by what happened to Alana...

Tommy said...

What a freakin outrage!