In the wake of the fiasco culminating in Robert Zoellick ’75’s decision to refuse both the College’s honorary degree and the opportunity to speak at this year’s commencement ceremony, it is past time to call attention to the role of our student media. Increasingly, Swarthmore’s student press has served to not simply report on controversy, but to manufacture it. While I do not speak on behalf of The Phoenix‘s editorial board, as a Phoenix editor I wish to offer students my personal apology for the newspaper’s role in sensationalizing disagreement and legitimizing the views of an extreme minority.
Simply put, there should never have been any controversy over Zoellick’s honorary degree. While some may have disagreed with his policies or his role at the World Bank, these are cause for discussion, not protest. And the arguments involving his role in the Iraq War were willfully misleading, at best.
Yet, this so-called “controversy” received coverage in The Phoenix. The reasons for this, as explained to me, were that students had posted a Facebook event to further discuss Zoellick’s position at commencement. By the time of the article’s publishing; however, a previous Op-Ed in The Daily Gazette had already made it clear that Zoellick’s reputation was not something worth protesting.
What good did The Phoenix‘s article do, then? Rather than discuss a vocal, but small and extreme movement of student dissenters, it discussed the group of as one balanced side of a debate. By attempting to report on the situation evenhandedly, it instead stirred the pot. Reporting on this controversy as if it were a real debate legitimated the views of that extreme student minority. Instead of reporting on a controversy, then, The Phoenix helped create and perpetuate it. The goal of avoiding bias actually perpetuated group bias.
This, of course, is not something new. National media sets the example: the mainstream media is notorious for reporting both sides of a debate as legitimate, no matter what those two sides may be. Unfortunately, The Phoenix has followed this model well. Just consider articles this past semester on Greek Life, the referendum, commencement speakers, etc. Controversy sells, and even a free student newspaper resorts to it.
But as the past few weeks have shown, this approach has done nothing but tear this campus apart. I won’t be arrogant enough to claim that The Phoenix deserves full credit for this, but we certainly contributed. And so, any call from the paper for school unity and openness that did not acknowledge our role in the problem would ring hollow. In the aftermath of these events, the sentiment would be nice, but where was it when several editors were pushing their own cause celebré? Or when we published article after article on one controversy after another?
I’m graduating in a few weeks, so I can’t personally change how our student media discusses controversial subjects. But I hope we can learn from this recent embarrassment. News isn’t simply reporting what happens on campus. Contextualizing is also important. The Phoenix‘s efforts to remain evenhanded create and encourage controversy. Going forward, writers need to realize that sometimes objectivity involves taking a stand on issues.
Op-Ed submitted by Daniel Duncan ’13, sports editor of The Phoenix