Fishy at DePauw
What’s a journo-fish?
Years ago, I read a bizarre New York Times science article called Sex Change in Fish Found Common. It began…
When a school of reef fish loses its single male, the largest female begins acting like a male within a few hours and will produce sperm within 10 days.
But that doesn’t just happen in schools of fish. Something similar happens in schools of journalism.
Sadly, some journalists who become professors begin acting like administrators within days. Instead of sperm, they produce spin. I wrote about it last month, when several journos-turned-profs illegally closed a meeting of a Journalism Task Force.
Now it’s happened at DePauw University, an hour outside Indianapolis – and the birthplace of SPJ more than a century ago. A brand-new professor, who was previously an excellent journalist, helped depose a student editor for what she calls a “breach of ethics.”
Except it wasn’t. Even SPJ’s ethics chairman says so.
She’s a whale of a reporter.
The newspaper at DePauw is called, uncleverly, The DePauw. It’s 164 years old, but a new adviser started just this school year.
I met Meg Kissinger during her first week on the job, when I visited DePauw to lead a four-day training seminar for the newspaper staff. She was quite nice. Which, of course, makes what happened next quite awful.
Kissinger has spent 38 years on the job, many of them as an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist who specializes in covering mental health. (Check this out, it’s very cool.)
Kissinger graduated from DePauw in 1979, so it only made sense she’d return to train a new generation of kick-ass journalists.
Yet last semester, she – along with a group of school officials – removed The DePauw’s editor-in-chief for what they call “a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest.”
What did this editor do? She gave a preacher a sandwich.
She’s a pain in the bass.
In September, Nicole DeCriscio covered a familiar story: Crazy preachers who tour college campuses to verbally assault sinning students.
At DePauw, The Campus Ministry USA sent five members to harangue passing students as “baby killers, masturbators, porno freaks, feminists” and other interesting insults.
At most campuses, students mock the preachers, while campus cops roust anyone getting too agitated. When the drama ebbs, the traveling show moves on.
Not at DePauw.
DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ first visit, which so angered one woman, she threw hot coffee at them. Police officers even tackled a student and an administrator — both black men. Suddenly, the cops were the story, and the campus outcry was enough for DePauw’s president to call an “open forum” to talk about both the preachers and the police.
DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ follow-up visit the next week, which was anti-climactic. Prepared this time, students and faculty laughed at the preachers, and police sighed with relief.
Undaunted, the preachers tried one last time before migrating to another campus. Figuring the story was over, DeCriscio decided to do something different and dig a little deeper. So she wrote a first-person column called Why I Brought Brother Jed A Sandwich…
I think that if they turned in their signs reading “You promote rape” and “Yoga pants are a sin” for something like “Ask me about Jesus Christ,” they would be far more effective. Each of them have a remarkable testimony that has the power to change the hearts and minds of others. It has the ability to bring others to Christ…I’m sad that my brothers and sisters in Christ at DePauw, which even include some members of the faculty and staff, failed to demonstrate Christ’s love.
That was too much for Kissinger. DeCriscio was fired 12 days later.
Carping on this letter.
DeCriscio was fired the old-fashioned way: She was handed a letter on stationery. (Click the image above to read it.) Her offense was explained like this…
You had already established yourself as a reporter covering the news of the events surrounding Campus Ministries’ visit to campus. By inserting yourself as an interested actor within the ongoing news story, you created a conflict of interest that was both avoidable and ultimately damaging to the reputation of The DePauw.
When I called Kissinger to ask if the editor was really fired for writing an opinion column, the conversation went like this…
Kissinger: The problem was, how could she impartially oversee coverage of the story for the rest of the semester?
Me: But Nicole says the story was over. She told me, “When I wrote the column about the sandwich, the preachers had no intention of coming back to DePauw that semester.”
Kissinger: There’s no way of knowing that.
Me: Fair enough, but she says if they did come back, she’d just assign the story to someone else – which she can do, because, I mean, she’s the editor. Is this really a firing offense?
Kissinger: She wasn’t fired.
Kissinger: She wasn’t fired. She was suspended for the remainder of her term.
Me: What’s the difference?
Kissinger: Well, it’s not like she’s banned from the paper.
Me: She’s not?
Kissinger: She’s welcome to write any other stories for the paper. She knows that. She’s welcome to write a review for the paper, and she can cover another story.
Me: But if she wrote something so terrible that it got her fired, why is it OK for her to write something else now?
Kissinger: She wasn’t fired, Michael. She was suspended because it was a conflict of interest for her to express her opinion. Really, that’s in the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Except it’s really not.
He’s saying, “Holy mackerel!”
As SPJ’s ethics chair, Andrew Seaman‘s job is usually one of nuance and restraint. Many ethical conundrums require sublime parsing.
Not this one.
“I take issue with the adviser’s draconian approach,” he told me after reading the letter and Kissinger’s explanation. “I don’t think giving protesters sandwiches and drinks really interferes with Nicole’s ability to do a good story.”
Even if it did, “I still say the offense didn’t fit the punishment – especially for a student publication.”
As Seaman explains…
Student newspapers are laboratories for journalists in training. Unless an offense is on par with plagiarism, fabrication, and the ilk, professors and advisers should use perceived errors as educational moments.
But he doesn’t perceive any errors…
The SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.” Didn’t Nicole live up to that by explaining her actions? Really, Nicole could argue she addressed nearly all of the principles under the Code’s tenet to “be accountable and transparent.”
Seaman is stunned – and galled – that SPJ’s Code of Ethics was twisted into a reason to fire a student editor…
As someone who helped write the revised Code of Ethics and served as its guardian since its adoption, I can say DePauw’s actions are not keeping with the spirit of the document. In my opinion, everyone there overreacted, took Draconian action, and now are stuck defending those decisions.
Seaman’s conclusion: “In the grand scheme of things, the editor of a student publication took some protesters food and drinks. Is that really worth all this trouble? I don’t think so.”
The sole reason for all this.
If DeCriscio was fired – er, suspended – for violating SPJ’s Code of Ethics when SPJ’s ethics chair says she didn’t, something fishy is going on here.
DeCriscio thinks it was this…
The campus had decided to hate Brother Jed. Because I saw him as a whole person, I think it was the content why I got fired. Meg said the same thing would have happened if I wrote about kittens, but I don’t believe that.
My theory is slightly different: DeCriscio was also fired to protect an adviser who she says drank with her students in the newsroom.
When I visited DePauw last summer, I asked the newspaper’s editors what they did for fun when they weren’t doing journalism. The answer: “We drink.” How much? “A lot.”
The students told me drinking is a huge problem at DePauw, and they credit the administration with valiantly trying to keep it sane. But they also say it doesn’t make a dent.
“There’s nothing else to do around here,” the (under-aged) art director told me, waving a hand to indicate the entire town of Greencastle, Indiana.
The week I visited, I hung out with the editors on deadline – and watched many of them rush through production so they could go drink. The art director joked, “We should just start drinking in the newsroom.”
A few weeks after I left, DeCriscio said that’s exactly what happened – and Meg Kissinger drank with the staff.
“My staff first drank on deadline the Thursday before Brother Jed’s visit,” she says. “They started around 7. They also mostly hid it from me by putting it in closed water bottles. That was the night that Meg drank with them.”
Stunned, I asked DeCriscio for details.
“I saw her drinking out of a paper coffee cup,” she told me. “I overheard my staff say, ‘I hope Meg didn’t drink all our wine.’ It was wine. She also later admitted to me that she drank with them.”
(I’ve asked Kissinger about this twice via email, but her only reply has been, “Drinking did not factor in the decision.”)
The following week, now assuming they had the adviser’s blessing, the editors didn’t bother with water bottles. DeCriscio says…
“They went to pull out the wine around 7 or 7:30. I asked them to wait until closer to the end of deadline night. They waited an hour. I was pissed that my asking them to wait wasn’t enough. I was pissed that the advisers hadn’t helped me put an end to it after the first incident. I don’t know how much wine they had coming into that night, but they left four large empty bottles in the trash.
DeCriscio isn’t straight-edge or a teetotaler. What infuriated her about the drinking was the shoddy journalism that resulted from it. But at DePauw, the editor-in-chief can’t fire staffers who were hired before her term – and the drinkers were staffers she inherited. So she complained to Kissinger and the publication board. She didn’t feel like her complaint was embraced.
“They called this kumbaya meeting with the editorial board and said, ‘This must stop’ because it’s against university policy,” DeCriscio says. But there was no investigation, punishment, or monitoring. It was never mentioned again.
Interestingly, The DePauw also never mentioned its editor being fired (I mean suspended). DeCriscio finds that amusing.
“I did something so bad that I was fired over it, but what’s worse was that they didn’t follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and report on my firing,” she says. “It was swept under the rug.”
Maybe because under that rug were a lot of empty wine bottles.
In cod we trust.
SMACK likes to win weird. We’re not powerful enough to get a fired editor reinstated at a private university. We can, however, use the school’s own rules to pay for her to go to Manhattan.
Like many schools, DePauw offers grants to its students if they do something above and beyond. So SMACK asked the College Media Association if SPJ could present a session next month at its annual spring convention, just a few blocks from Times Square. We then asked DeCriscio to speak about what happened to her as editor.
That’s enough for airfare, cab, hotel, and convention registration. So basically, DePauw is paying for DeCriscio to go to New York City to talk about how she got fired. I mean, suspended.
While she’s there, DeCriscio will interview student journalists about drinking in their own newsrooms – because I doubt The DePauw invented that. Her report will appear on the College Media Watchdog.
We also asked DeCriscio to join the SMACK staff, where she’ll help choose winners of our own cash grants, called The Bayonet Awards. She’s said yes. Why? Just for the halibut.