The outlaw editor

Who doesn’t like Pye?

Apparently, Florida Atlantic University doesn’t.

In April, senior Joe Pye was elected editor of FAU’s student newspaper, cleverly called the University Press. He was supposed to start his new job this week. But FAU won’t let him. Why? An administrator says he’s “not tact.”

FAU’s reasons are as weak as its grammar, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, you need to know three amusing things…

  • Right now, Pye is acting editor. As in, he’s acting as editor. As in, he’s pretending. Pye is listed as editor on the University Press website. He’s running the newsroom, and the staff considers him the boss even if FAU doesn’t.
  • Two lawyers think this is really weird. SPJ has hired one of them to sue FAU.
  • Meanwhile, we’re selling T-shirts. Lawsuits are boring and take time. Shirts are fun and on sale now. Proceeds go to SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund.

Get a piece of Pye.

What journalist can pass up a pun? Buy a shirt here. It won’t solve Pye’s problem, but you’ll look sharp while supporting him.

Pye himself sees the humor in his banishment.


He was unanimously elected by FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board and unanimously won a staff vote. But FAU weirdly gives its Student Government the power to approve the editor who covers Student Government.

News flash! SG leaders torpedoed Pye when they asked him about his goals as editor, and he replied, “Keep watch over all you guys.” An administrator defended SG by saying Joe was “not tact in his responses.” (Check out the sordid details and silly grammar here.)


Administrators reassured Pye he could appeal – to Student Government. Says Pye: “I felt like the only sane person in the room, asking why would I file an appeal to the same people who shot me down.”


Being sane, Pye appealed. It took more than a month to finally (and inevitably) be denied. The wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly absurd.


The newspaper’s faculty adviser suggested Pye “have a little more patience” before talking to a lawyer because, “There remains the risk that a legal battle could spur SG to cut all of its funding to the student paper.”

Of course, it’s against the law for a public university to retaliate like that. So FAU is basically urging Pye not to fight for his rights because it might violate even more rights.

Speaking of attorneys…

FAU is the Wild West of conflict of interest.

Frank LoMonte has been a national media attorney for a decade, and he can’t recall another public university that lets Student Government decide who’s the editor.

“Just about every college in America delegates the task of hiring editors to a publications board of knowledgeable stakeholders with independence from the political process,” says LoMonte, who’s executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC.

“What’s happening with Joe Pye is the object lesson in why we don’t let government officials decide who can and can’t be in charge of covering them – because they’ll vote against the people who present a threat of covering them aggressively,” LoMonte says. “Student governments should have zero involvement in selecting editors of newspapers, period, end of conversation.”

Alas, it’s not the end of the conversation. But it might be the beginning of a lawsuit.

Frontier justice?

Justin Hemlepp looks too young to be an attorney – he turns 37 on Monday – but he has lots of experience suing Florida universities. And lots of success.

Hemlepp has sued the University of Central Florida three times on behalf of its student newspaper. He’s won each time. Last year, a judge ordered UCF pay his legal fees. UCF appealed, he won again, and he was awarded legal fees again.

SPJ has hired Hemlepp to represent Pye. He’ll submit an official letter to FAU on his birthday, and FAU’s response will determine what happens next. But Hemlepp thinks there’s a solid case.

“I know of no other university where the Student Government gets to choose the journalists that cover it,” Hemlepp says. “The foxes truly are guarding the hen house, and I’m certain Lenin and Kim Jong Un would be proud.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

If Pye isn’t the editor, who is? FAU says it’s Kerri-Marie Covington, the current managing editor.

Except she says it ain’t.

The 20-year-old Covington learned she was the new editor in a group email to the newspaper’s senior staff. FAU originally said its student media rules dictate the managing editor “serves as the Interim EIC until such time as the Student Media Advisory Board shall, by a majority vote, appoint a replacement for the remainder of the term.”

Except if you click the link, it doesn’t say that at all.

Instead, that edict is buried in a separate set of rules FAU never posted online. I had to request those rules, and I’ve posted them here.

Weirdly, these “Student Media Statutes” seem to date back to 2013, although none of the current newspaper staff has ever seen them, and there’s no record of who approved them. There are also many red lines and underlines, indicating changes that aren’t dated.

Making it even more confusing, Covington says, “No one from administration has reached out to me.” She doesn’t know how long she’s interim editor for, because the Student Media Advisory Board has no meetings scheduled.

So she has an announcement of her own…

“As of today, I’m refusing to be the interim editor-in-chief of the FAU University Press.”

Covington adds, “I’m not doing this out of spite. I’m not doing this out of disrespect. But if nothing changes now, it never will.”

At least one member of FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board agrees with her.

This board member is on board.

Dan Sweeney is a state politics reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. From 2011-14, he was the full-time adviser for the University Press.

So when he proclaims “concerns,” he’s speaking as someone who’s worked in both pro and college journalism.

“The prevention of Joe Pye from getting his job as editor in chief violates not just his own constitutional rights, but potentially violates the rights of everyone around him,” says Sweeney, who was appointed to FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board just a few months ago.

Besides the “chilling effect on the free speech of students,” Sweeney says there’s an “educational issue.” It’s worth quoting him at length…

When a governmental entity prevents the editor-in-chief from assuming his duties, it strikes a near-fatal blow to the ability of the newspaper to train professional journalists. In the real world, journalists are by necessity forced into conflict with the subjects they cover – this is especially true in government coverage.

By demonstrating to students that government has such control over journalists, the university is providing budding journalists with exactly the wrong lesson – that they should be cowed before government, avoid conflict, and seek to mollify their critics in the power structure. That is literally the 180-degree opposite lesson these students should be taught.

Get Joe’s back by putting this on yours.

So if you’re amused, confused, and/or outraged by this twisted situation, maybe you’ll buy a shirt. It costs $15, and we’ll donate $3 of that to SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund, which pays attorneys to assist journalists.

(In case you’re wondering, the other $12 goes to the online company making the shirts. In other words, we’re not drinking it.)

If you order a T-shirt today, expect delivery before the end of July. It’s an open question which will arrive first: Your shirt, SPJ’s lawsuit, or FAU’s reinstatement of Joe Pye.

Full disclosure: I’ve advised the FAU student newspaper as a part-timer and volunteer since 1998. Over the years, this isn’t nearly the dumbest thing I’ve seen there. Or the funniest. This might be. Or this.

Tough shirt

The back of our T-shirt is back.

When Fox News plagiarized a student newspaper last month, we wanted to do more than just complain about it. We tried selling T-shirts.

We hooked up with a fundraising screenprinter called Bonfire. But last week, Bonfire got nervous: We were violating copyright law to mock plagiarism. Our shirts were shut down.

Maybe Bonfire is more sensitive to bad PR than Fox News, because one of our alternate designs was finally accepted.

You can now BUY YOUR SHIRT HERE and support The Duke, the student newspaper at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

They make great gifts.

I bought a small shirt for plagiarizing Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt and had it shipped to Fox HQ in New York City.

(Did you know Earhardt recently wrote a book? Wouldn’t it be funny if we plagiarized it right here in this blog?)

I also sent an extra-large shirt to Duquesne president Ken Gormley, since he literally looks like a big man on campus.

Finally, I bought two larges for Zachary Landau. He’s the Duquesne student journalist whose story Earnhardt plagiarized. When he wrote it, he was a volunteer at the newspaper. So quite literally, he’s being paid in T-shirts for all his trouble.


Oh, the irony…

So much for the shirts.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Fox & Friends plagiarizing the student newspaper at Duquesne, a small Catholic university in Pittsburgh. Irked and confused, the students tried to contact Fox News – which, of course, ignored them.

I wanted to turn their frowns upside down, so I designed this T-shirt to sell via a fundraising company called Bonfire…

…and I purposefully used the Fox News logo – because I wanted Fox’s flesh-eating lawyers to force me to stop.

I thought it’d be funny and ironic if they sent me a cease-and-desist letter that essentially said, “You can’t steal our logo to make a point about our plagiarism!”

Instead, Bonfire itself emailed me Tuesday…

We’ve detected a potential problem with your shirt design. Specifically, your artwork incorporates the following elements that may be protected under a trademark: Fox News. To proceed with your current shirt design, we require a signed letter of permission from the trademark holder.

But Bonfire said I could create an “alternate design,” which I did…

…and which was also rejected because Fox has apparently created its own custom font – which looks strangely like Arial to me. But what do I know?

So then I designed this – using Arial…

…but fed up or scared or whatever, Bonfire closed my account. All that’s left is this odd page that implies the T-shirt campaign closed all by itself, and four people got their shirts.

In reality, no one got nothing. That means 37 people are shirtless today, and the staff at The Duquesne Duke is out $81 in its cut of the sales. Bonfire emailed me this morning, “We refund all orders for canceled campaigns and we did so for your orders.”

This leads me to conclude…

A T-shirt company is more ethical than Fox News, and Fox News is less communicative than a T-shirt company.

To skirt trademark law, I’m going to print the original shirts myself. But I won’t sell them. I’ll give them to The Dusquesne Duke staff, who can give them away to whoever they please. That’ll make it editorial comment, just on cloth instead of paper.

Or The Duke staff can actually sell the shirts – because that might be the only way they’ll ever hear back from Fox News. Up to them.

Dammit, nothing is simple in journalism these days.

See no evil

Fox News plagiarizes college students. And all they get is a funny T-shirt.

Here’s how the journalism food chain works these days – with cable news as sharks and college journalists as plankton…


The student newspaper at Duquesne University, a small private Catholic school in Pittsburgh, writes a story about LGBT students who don’t want a Chick-fil-A opening on campus.

The newspaper, called The Duke, quotes one Student Government leader with the groovy name of Niko Martini: “Chick-fil-A has a questionable history on civil rights and human rights.”

The Duke also quotes a woman named Rachel Coury, the president of Duquesne’s LGBT student group…

I’ve tried very hard within the last semester and a half to promote this safe environment for the LGBTQ+ community. So I fear that with the Chick-fil-A being in Options that maybe people will feel that safe place is at risk.


A website called Campus Reform, a conservative “watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” picks up The Duke’s story.

Written by an “investigative reporter,” the headline is…

Students ‘fear’ Chick-fil-A will jeopardize ‘safe place’

…yet the entire story is a rewrite of The Duke’s reporting. At least that’s acknowledged – sort of…

“Chick-fil-A has a questionable history on civil rights and human rights,” Martini remarked in a statement to The Duquesne Duke.

So the headline is based on one student’s comment, and the story contains not one quote – or even fact – that The Duke didn’t write. In other words, this “investigative reporter” did zero investigating. Or even reporting.


The story goes national on The Daily Caller, a conservative website co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Under the headline University’s LGBT Students ‘Fear’ Arrival Of Chick-fil-A, here’s the lede…

Some students at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University live in “fear” of the arrival of a Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant to their college’s food fair, Campus Reform reports.

The Duke only gets mentioned once, in the middle of the story…

“Chick-fil-A has a questionable history on civil rights and human rights,” Martini told The Duquesne Duke.


The story inevitably makes Fox News.

Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt interviews Sean Parnell, a former Army Ranger and Duquesne alum who’s an occasional Fox commentator.

Under a graphic that reads, “RUFFLING FEATHERS,” Earhardt sums up the story without mentioning any sources, which implies Fox did the reporting.

Parnell jumps in with comments like, “They’re a bunch of babies” and “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

(He also says some things I personally agree with, like, “Nobody is forcing them to eat at Chick-fil-A.” But this isn’t about me.)

Then Earhardt says this about Duquesne’s “gay straight alliance”…

We reached out to the president, and she sent this message to us: “I fear with the Chick-fil-A maybe people will feel that safe place is at risk.”

Except that’s a lie. Fox News never reached out to anyone.


The Duke reclaims its story by asking that president, Rachel Coury, if she really did tell Fox News the exact same thing she told them.

Coury replied…

Fox News stated that they reached out to me for comment, and that I gave them the statement they read on-air, but this is false. I never communicated with Fox News. I never gave them the statement they read on-air.

Unlike the “professionals” who didn’t follow up on this story, The Duke tried…

The Duke reached out to Fox News Wednesday night, and did not receive a response by press time.

They still haven’t. And that really pisses off these two women.


“What Fox News did – or more specifically, what it didn’t do – violates a core part of SPJ’s Code of Ethics,” says SPJ president Lynn Walsh, whose day job is investigative executive producer at the NBC affiliate in San Diego.

“The timing couldn’t be more ironic – this is Ethics Week at SPJ,” Walsh says. “One major tenet of our code is: Never plagiarize. Always attribute. By not contacting the student and then using a quote from another publication without attribution, Fox News didn’t practice ethical journalism standards. To do this to college students seem even more wrong.”

That’s precisely what galls The Duke’s staff.

“It’s absurd that as 20-somethings working for a school newspaper, we at The Duke have a better grasp of media ethics than Fox News,” says editor-in-chief Kaye Burnet. “If one of my writers was caught plagiarizing another journalist’s work like this, they would be removed from The Duke’s staff immediately.”

What really enrages Burnet is that her reporter, Zachary Landau, got shafted.

“Zach is a volunteer,” she says. “To see Ainsley pass off Zach’s work as her own was disgusting. Obviously, Fox has so much more power and influence than The Duke. They can steal other people’s work without consequence, and there’s very little we can do about it.”

That’s the the most powerful journalism lesson Burnet and her staff will learn this month. Maybe ever.


Sadly, SPJ doesn’t have a lot of power, either. But we do have T-shirts.

So to raise money (for poor Zach) and awareness (for Burnet and her staff), SPJ SMACK is selling shirts that say, “The Duquesne Duke” on the front and “We’re so good, Fox News steals our s#!t” on the back.

Want one? It’s yours for only $15. ORDER NOW!

I bought two – one for me and one for Ainsley Earhardt. Wonder if she’ll wear it.

Finger in the Pye

Can pointing a finger cost you a job?

It did for Joe Pye, a senior at Florida Atlantic University. And now he’s fightin’… amused?

Pye recently ran for editor of FAU’s student newspaper. The staff voted for him 12-0 over his opponent, and the school’s Student Media Advisory Board – consisting of professionals, professors, and students – unanimously chose him.

That was two weeks ago. But he still didn’t have the job.

FAU lets its Student Government “confirm” the editor. Yes, the same Student Government the newspaper investigates.

In the decade since FAU created this silly – and you’ll soon see, illegal – rule, no editor has ever not been confirmed. Until Pye.

What did he do to piss off SG? He “was not tact in his responses to the questions posed by the senate,” says Andrea Oliver, a Student Affairs associate vice president.

Here’s how he was not tact…

It wasn’t even a middle finger.

Tuesday evening, a student senator began the “confirmation hearing” by asking Pye about his plans as editor.

“What do I plan to do?” Pye replied, pointing at them. “Keep watch over all you guys.”

They really didn’t like that.

They also didn’t like his attitude, especially about their suggestion to add a newspaper rack on a satellite campus 25 miles away, which teaches less than 150 of FAU’s 30,000 students.

“Do you want me to put a bin there?” Pye asked. “We don’t have money for that.” He suggested they give him the money, but that went nowhere.

Student senators persisted with questions about this small campus — which one admitted to never visiting. Here’s my favorite question, lifted verbatim from a recording the student newspaper made:

How do you plan on, like, broadening … are there going to be interviews on other campuses … what do you plan on doing to create a better connection between the campuses … you guys are the press.

Joe simply replied, “We have the website. I don’t have any other bins.”

All told, his hearing took less than five minutes. Since none of the questions were about what the newspaper actually reports, Pye’s last words before the vote were, “You should read us sometime.”

He lost 5-2. Now the fun begins.

This man laughed when he heard what happened.

Frank LoMonte is a noted media attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC. He called FAU’s confirmation process “a horrible, horrible mechanism.”

Then he laughed dismissively.

“If this isn’t the only place in America that does this, I’ve never heard of it,” LoMonte says. And he’s been studying college media for nearly a decade.

LoMonte calls FAU’s rule “an invitation to break the law.” Why? Because at a public university, the newspaper can’t be punished for anything to do with its content – that’s the very definition of the First Amendment.

Yet LoMonte says, “When you interview for a job like this, there’s no way to keep content out of the interview.”

What makes LoMonte really laugh is this question: “Where does FAU think it goes from here?”

This is where FAU thinks it goes, according to associate VP Oliver…

The first step is for Joe to file a petition to the student court and request a hearing. He will then have an opportunity to discuss the senate meeting. The student court can uphold or overturn the court’s decision. If the student court upholds the senate’s decision, the student can then file an appeal with the Vice President of Student Affairs. The Vice President of Student Affairs would review the senate hearing meeting minutes, the student court meeting minutes, and the appeal submitted by the student. The Vic President for Student Affairs can uphold or overturn the decision. The decision of the Vice President is final.

…and if you read that without your corneas glazing over, you get a cookie.

Pointing back at FAU.

This afternoon, Pye will discuss his next steps with his staff. Among his amusing options…

  • Meekly go through the laborious appeals process and hope someone recognizes the law when it smacks them in the face.
  • Fiercely go through the appeals process and use every chance to decry and mock it.
  • Call himself the editor, run the paper, and force FAU to do something about it. If FAU holds up his paycheck, sue the school.

What will Pye do? He’s mulling it over. But he doesn’t seem to be leaning toward “meekly.”

“I personally find it ridiculous that Student Government needs to have a say over who is editor of the newspaper,” he says. “If my ‘conduct’ wasn’t to their liking, I hate to see how they’ll react as real politicians getting grilled by real journalists.”

Or how they’ll react to a real lawsuit in front of a real judge.

Full disclosure: I’ve advised the FAU student newspaper as a part-timer and volunteer since 1998. Over the years, this isn’t nearly the dumbest thing I’ve seen. Or the funniest. This might be. Or this.

Swimming with sharks


This story has legs.

Exactly a year and a day ago, Nicole DeCriscio was editor of the student newspaper at DePauw University in Indiana.

Exactly one year ago, she was fired.

The circumstances were both suspicious and audacious, but the whisper-quiet senior’s first reaction was the most common one I’ve seen in 18 years of working with college journalists. She did nothing.

Eventually, she did something brave and rare. She defended herself. SMACK wrote about her twisted tale in a long post called Fishy at DePauw.

That story ended with SMACK using DePauw’s own rules to pay DeCriscio to speak at a college media convention in New York City – about how DePauw wrongfully fired her. It was a weird and wonderful weekend.

So what happened after? Well, despite DePauw officials dropping huge hints that she was jeopardizing her journalism career by, you know, sticking up for journalism, DeCriscio landed a job as a reporter for a small Indiana daily. Interestingly, DePauw boasted about this in a news release that mentions she was editor – but not that she was fired.

So all’s well that started stupidly, right? Sure, but at a cost.

SMACK exists to defend college journalists willing to defend themselves. Alas, few do. Even if it all works out in the end, there’s much to fear in the beginning and fret about in the middle. So DeCriscio asked us to post her story below. She wants college journalists to know the emotional toll  that being right can take – and that it’s still worth it…


A year ago today, I was fired as Editor-in-Chief from my campus newspaper, The DePauw, for alleged ethical violations that SPJ’s own ethics chair couldn’t fathom.

And with the exception of accepting interviews about what happened and speaking at CMA’s NYC16, I’ve remained quiet on the issue. That silence ends today.

The Background:

If you would’ve told me in August 2015 at the start of my term that a few months later I would be wrongfully fired, I would’ve called you crazy.

DePauw had and still has a long, rich history in producing strong, successful journalists despite the lack of a journalism school. I would have told you that the newspaper was completely independent of the university, and there wasn’t a story that we weren’t allowed to do. I was wrong on both counts.

While the newspaper had a standing contract with the university to rent the space for the newsroom and paid for production through advertisement sales and a fund set up in Barney Kilgore’s name, the university absorbed all of the tax liability for the newspaper, paid for a faculty adviser and had faculty members sit on a Publication’s Board that acted as a publisher for the newspaper.

That Publication’s Board selected the Editorial Board, and they were the ones to vote for my removal as Editor. And to sum up what happened, I was fired for writing a story with an unpopular opinion. (You can read about what happened here.)

The Experience:

I cried, a lot.

Like most college journalists, I spent more of my waking hours in the newsroom than anywhere else on campus. I did homework in the newsroom. I slaved over the campus newspaper twice-a-week from the start of my freshman year until I was fired. I was a staff member of The DePauw first and foremost, and then I was a student at DePauw University. My identity was not rooted in the university – it was rooted in that publication, so being fired meant that I lost not just my job, but my identity and my home. The newsroom was my safe space.

People thought I was still editor.

Because the campus newspaper never wrote a piece about my firing and the SPJ piece didn’t come out until well after my term would have been over, much of the campus thought that I was still Editor. And the Editor that replaced me made some judgment calls that I was continually questioned about because nobody knew I was fired. In fact, I had professors and peers who asked me the last week of school, seven months later, how things were going at the paper.

I was scared of backlash.

When I finally decided that I wanted to go on the record with SPJ’s SMACK on what happened. I was afraid of what the university or the key players would do to me. I prepared myself for things like a journalism professor intentionally failing me or the university withholding my diploma. And I prepared myself to fight those things.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional warfare that ensued.

The university didn’t have to do anything to me to make my life miserable. I had members of the DePauw community send me mean emails questioning me for speaking to a reporter. I was called a liar, among other things. Rather than looking to those who made the decision to fire me for answers, people blamed me for the spotlight that was cast on the university. Somehow, even though SPJ had determined that I should not have been fired, I was still “in the wrong.”

I was slandered, and the reasoning for my firing changed with every interview.

In the letter that they gave me, the reason for my firing was that I had “created a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest,” which they concluded was an ethical breach. After SPJ’s SMACK article on my firing, the reason was that they saw a pattern of uneven coverage from the onset and questioned my objectivity in the first two articles. The same coverage won a SPJ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Award. And finally, it was because I wrote the piece for another publication, which directly contradicted the letter I received when I was fired.

 I felt alone.

I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of support from other journalists that I know that were outside of the DePauw bubble. For a while. I had frequent phone calls and emails with Michael Koretzky and [SPJ FOI chairman] Gideon Grudo. Don’t get me wrong. There were people at DePauw who provided support throughout the ordeal, and a lot of recent alumni offered to do whatever I needed. But there wasn’t any concrete things others could do for me because nobody did anything to me. The only thing anyone could do was try to understand what I was feeling and offer moral support.

With the exception of a friend who worked at a newspaper two hours away, the only support I had from journalists were hundreds of miles away, and that felt isolating. Koretzky and Grudo knew how to help me cope with what was happening because they had experienced similar assaults on college media at Florida Atlantic University, but as they pointed out numerous times, it was so common at FAU that there was this built-in support network that I lacked at DePauw.

The experience tarnished my senior year.

Being Indiana’s Oldest College Newspaper, The DePauw has a lot of traditions, some of which are secret. That being said, there is one particular tradition in which the entire staff gets together, shares memories, talks about those who have come and gone and honors the seniors. The staff recalls first memories of the graduating seniors and says nice things about them. And in return, the seniors pass along advice and encouragement, saying things like, “It may not feel like it, but what you do matters” and, “Keep on fighting the good fight.” The seniors also talk about how, contrary to popular belief, there are jobs in journalism.

Because of my firing, I was never able to experience that tradition as a senior.

One Year Later:

The same people who made the decision to fire me told me that I had ruined my job prospects by the SPJ article coming out. While I knew it at the time because Koretzky told me, I now know they were trying to cover themselves. In fact, in the first 12 job applications that I sent out, I had in-person or phone interviews for four positions. From those interviews, I had one official job offer and one tentative one. I chose to keep looking for a position that I felt would be a better fit for me.

At every job interview, I was asked why I was fired and if I would do it again. And my answers were always the same: I wrote a column with an unfavorable opinion and yes. I was able to say, “Don’t take my word on the situation. SPJ wrote a piece about it. Want me to send you the link?” And at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would because the wounds hadn’t healed yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone who disagreed with SPJ’s thoughts on my firing.

The 13th application was lucky. Not only was I offered a position, but I accepted a job at a small paper in Indiana where I am the education beat reporter and a designer. Though, at a small paper, beats are really more suggestions, and I pick up a lot of stories outside of my beat too.

And the irony of it all is when talking to the editors who hired me, I found out that the article I wrote a year and 12 days ago, the article that resulted in my firing and led to all of the pain and turmoil, was the same article that was at least partially responsible for their decision to offer me the job. They said that the deeper level of thought and clear writing on a complex issue impressed them enough to hire me.

Now, when people ask if I would give some street preachers a couple sandwiches and write about it, I give them a yes, without a doubt. Because even in the limited retrospective view I have with a year’s distance, I can say that everything worked out, which is why, even after the hell I was put through, tonight when I get off work, I’ll raise a glass and toast to Old DePauw.

Nailed it


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.

Wild, right?

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.

Me: Uh…what?

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.

Based on that, she applied for, and won, a $600 Student Research & Artistic Grant, plus $500 from The Hubbard Center for Student Engagement.

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.


A faint Echo


This guy might be advising a student newspaper.

Or he might not.

Michael Hillman is publisher of the Emmitsburg News-Journal, a local newspaper near Mount St. Mary’s University in northern Maryland. The small Catholic school made big headlines last month when its president called freshmen “cuddly bunnies” who need “a Glock to their heads.”

Mount St. Mary’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, broke that story. Media from as far away as England’s Daily Mail ran with it. When I wrote about The Echo three weeks ago, I thought everything would blow over and calm down.

Man, was I wrong. Last Monday, the president fired Echo adviser Ed Egan and a tenured philosophy professor for “disloyalty.” By Friday, the president offered both of them “forgiveness” and reinstatement.

That same day, Michael Hillman met with a half-dozen Echo editors for his first meeting as the new adviser. It was a surprise to both him and the students.

“The school had asked me earlier in the week if I’d be willing to help The Echo,” Hillman says. “But the first time I even knew I was appointed adviser was in an email to the student body. I wasn’t even cc’ed on it.”

One of his own editors, a Mount St. Mary’s student, showed him the email. Hillman eventually spoke with the school’s media relations director, Christian Kendzierski.

“He was very specific: We do not want you to gag – or give the impression of gagging – the students,” Hillman says. “Other than that, they didn’t give me any guidance.”

Hillman briefly met Dr. Pratibha Kumar, who will share duties with him as the faculty adviser.

“Dr. Kumar talked for two minutes about journalism ethics, and the next two hours were me,” Hillman says. “We talked about advertising, about getting paid, about reaching out to the community.”

But they didn’t talk about the fired adviser, Ed Egan.


This guy might not be advising anymore.

While Ed Egan has been offered reinstatement, he told Inside Higher Ed he’s not sure he’ll accept it. If he does? Hillman isn’t sure who’s the adviser.

“No one’s told me anything,” Hillman says. “I don’t know what would happen.”

Neither does Kendzierski, the school’s media relations director: “Moving forward, I am not sure of Ed Egan’s role in the paper.”

My opinion: Maybe Ed Egan shouldn’t come back.

That’s a weird thing for me to say, since my SPJ job is to defend journalists. But I’m not sure how journalistic Egan is.

(He’s a lawyer who’s never been a journalist, but that matters the least to me – plenty of journalists lack journalism ethics, and plenty of non-journalists are very ethical.)

Egan told CBS News he’s “being punished for accurate but embarrassing reporting by the students.” But he refuses to answer my questions:

  • Did you advise the students not to talk to the university president for the “bunnies” story? Almost as disturbing as the president’s scary comments was this: He offered to speak to The Mountain Echo a month before the story published, but the paper refused to interview him.
  • Did you advise the students to run a one-sided story with only anonymous sources? Shortly before the “bunnies” story, The Mountain Echo ran a story called, Administration Announces Cuts to Employee Health Care, Retirement Benefits. It quotes only anonymous sources critical of the administration, and it doesn’t quote anyone in the administration.
  • Did you advise students to sent their completed stories to sources before publication? That happened at least once, according to one of the editors. It almost never happens anywhere else in the journalism world.

Since Mount St. Mary’s has no journalism school, the newspaper adviser has an even heavier burden of training the student staff in ethical reporting.

Indeed, in my conversations with The Echo’s managing editor – who’s really the editor, apparently, which is just another confusing part of this twisted situation – I learned most of the editors don’t want to be journalists at all. Ironically, managing editor Ryan Golden wants to become a media relations director at a school like Mount St. Mary’s.

Golden admitted to me that he doesn’t feel completely comfortable reporting big stories, and he initially seemed eager to accept SPJ’s offer to send free trainers to his campus. When I made the same offer to Egan, he never replied.

In talking to my own anonymous sources at Mount St. Mary’s, it seems possible Egan was deeply involved in the faculty faction that hates the new president for slashing professor benefits. If so, perhaps that colored his advising.

Of course, those sources have their own greedy reasons for talking to me, so I’ve tried to run them by Egan. I fully expected to be persuaded by his side. I usually find oppressed advisers to be quite credible.

Alas, I’ve only spoken to Egan once – a call he interrupted, then said he’d get back to me. That was almost month ago, and he’s ignored my emails since. But until he answers these questions, it’s tough to defend him.


This guy is definitely the problem.

Mount St. Mary’s president Simon Newman has his defenders, who say the school needs to both trim its budget and boost its graduation rate. Maybe so, but he’s got a deranged way of explaining himself, and a horrible way of handing the ensuing controversy.

For his part, Michael Hillman is on the president’s side. “If for some reason this president leaves, all bets are off” he says of his new part-time role.

That makes Hillman’s advising just as suspect as Egan’s. Except for a few things…

First, Hillman has told me in two separate phone calls he’s eager to accept SPJ’s offer of free training from professional journalists – in ethics, balanced reporting, and anything else The Echo wants.

Second, newsroom leader Golden told me yesterday, “We still have freedom of the press. Our new advisors are willing to work closely with us, and they’ll allow us to continue our operations as normal. We’re ready to publish on Wednesday with a very full issue.”

So what happens now at this small Catholic school? Who the hell knows.


Rack ’em!


You just can’t top this…

Yesterday, Florida Atlantic University miraculously found a new place for South Florida Gay News to distribute. All it took was the threat of topless women strolling around campus, handing out copies of a gay newspaper.

See yesterday’s post )

FAU had insisted it would take 16 months – until May 2017 – to “renovate” the single metal rack where SFGN offered free copies of its weekly issues. FAU has built parking garages quicker than that.

Now SFGN will have two campus locations: one outside the library, the other outside the student union. After a month of ignoring his efforts at compromise, SFGN editor Jason Parsley says FAU promised him those racks would be installed within the next 2-3 weeks.

“I’m happy we were able to resolve this issue so quickly,” Parsley says. “But in the future, I would advise FAU to respond to people in a timely fashion, in order to avoid a situation like this spiraling out of control.”

Yesterday, FAU’s student newspaper offered to help. Editor Emily Bloch says SFGN can borrow some University Press racks until SFGN’s racks are ready.

Parsley is pleased, and he has no regrets…

This was just one distribution point out of hundreds that we have here at SFGN. I could have just as easily said it wasn’t worth my time. While I’m sure FAU sees this differently, I saw it as First Amendment issue. And it’s important to remember the First Amendment is non-negotiable. Our freedom of speech and the press are two civil rights that nobody can take away.

So all’s well that started stupidly. Alas, tomorrow’s topless distribution protest has been called off.

Too bad, because I was really looking forward to FAU frat boys eagerly accepting newspapers from topless women, only to read them and realize, “Hey, this is gay!”

Michael Koretzky was FAU’s part-time newspaper adviser from 1998 until 2010, when he was fired. The staff asked him to volunteer, which he still does to this day.



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