Holy crap!

mary3

Journalists who refuse to comment? Administrators who want to?


When the newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University made national headlines this week, I wanted to congratulate the editors. Instead, I’m concerned about them.

I’m not worried the school will retaliate, even though the Mountain Echo‘s reporting resulted in this bizarre Washington Post headline

wphed

…because administrators at the small Catholic school in northern Maryland (2,200 students) seem have turned the other cheek. Meanwhile, the editors and their adviser have totally turned me off.

I started out totally on their side, too.

When I first heard about how they uncovered secret email exchanges between the school’s new president and administrators, I was prepared to be amazed. Those emails reveal the president was scheming to dismiss 20-25 freshmen he didn’t think were impressive enough.

“Put a Glock to their heads,” he allegedly told an administrator.

Mount St. Mary’s has no journalism school, and it’s private – meaning the student editors have little training and a lot to lose. Unlike public universities, they lack many Constitutional protections their public peers possess. They could easily get expelled.

With those scary facts in mind, I wanted to offer SPJ’s support. But then it got weird.

mary1

No comment, no confidence.


The Mountain Echo’s website lists no staff, no email addresses, and no phone number. The only way  to reach them is through this form. When I didn’t hear back, I contacted the school’s Media Relations office.

Given the hard-hitting story I was calling about, I didn’t expect good relations with media relations director Christian A. Kendzierski. I plainly told him that I defend student journalists who ethically investigate uncomfortable topics.

“Awesome,” he said. “That’s what student newspapers do.”

Then gave me contact info for managing editor Ryan Golden and newspaper adviser Ed Egan. Last night, they conference-called me, along with news editor Rebecca Schisler.

My first innocent question: Howdy, where’s the editor?

Uncomfortable silence.

“We don’t have a very conventional hierarchy.” Golden said. He gave a long explanation I couldn’t follow, but basically, he’s the editor. 

Odd, but whatever. I really just wanted to ask some questions so I could pre-empt any administrator who tried to undercut the story. Student journalists are bound to make mistakes, so if we can explain how those mistakes happened – that they came from inexperience and not malevolence – SPJ can still defend them.

I definitely had some questions…

  • Why wasn’t the university president interviewed? On Dec. 4, he agreed to talk, and the story didn’t run till this week. Yet in an “editorial statement,” you write, “The Mountain Echo denied this request,” partly based on “the professional advice of a third-party journalist.” Who was that?
  • Did anyone else hear the “glock” comment? You report in the story that the president said this “to a small group of faculty and administrators.” Only one administrator confirmed it and the  president denies it. Did you ask the others?
  • Who suggested sending the story to your sources? In yet another “editorial statement,” you write, “The Echo’s editorial board decided…the article should be sent to the Office of the President and the Board of Trustees for comment.” Journalists almost never do that. Why did you?

I didn’t get far before before Egan interrupted, “Where are you going with these questions?”

I don’t recall exactly what I said, because I was a tad discombobulated – I’ve only ever heard that from politicians, coaches, business executives, and administrators. Never journalists.

I offered to send Egan links to this blog and the SMACK homepage, and he promised they’d all call me back “in a few minutes.”

mary2

A half-hour later…


Golden called and said, “We have to postpone any comments for the time being.”

Really? Why?

“We’re just inundated with calls right now. But we appreciate your concern.”

You were just talking to me. Now you’re too busy to comment?

“We’ll make sure we’ll get back to you when we’re comfortable.”

Wait, now you’re not busy but you’re uncomfortable? Ryan, if you were reporting a story and you heard this, what would you think?

“I perfectly understand. But we will get back to you, I promise you that.”

When?

“Next week, maybe.”

Maybe?

“Thank you.”

Damn, I thought – I just got a slick brush-off from a college student. I was actually impressed. But of course, I was also confused.

mary7

What’s really going on?


Maybe the editors and adviser are simply freaked out by all the coverage. The president has called their story “innuendo” and “not accurate at all,” while the Board of Trustees has dismissed it as “a grossly inaccurate impression on the subject.”

Of course, the president and his allies have yet to explain away the “bunnies and glocks” comments – which likely means they can’t. But still, for young reporters, this is a lot of heat.

Then again, Golden didn’t sound at all freaked out when I spoke with him. And while the president and his allies have grumbled, they haven’t retaliated.

Obviously, Golden and Egan don’t want SPJ prying further, and Golden even said he’d read my post calling out student newspapers for doing dumb things.

I asked Kendzierski, the media relations director, what he thought was going on here. Obviously, he’s not what you’d call an objective observer. But what the hell…

His theory: “I fear the students are being misled.” Mount St Mary’s is in the middle of a nasty faculty fight over employee benefits. The school is cutting healthcare and retirement contributions.

The Mountain Echo covered the story in November – using only anonymous sources and not interviewing the president or any senior administrator who made the decision. The story is full of accusations that the other side never gets to address. Was that a rookie mistake or was it intentional?

Kendzierski thinks the students are being manipulated by faculty who want to embarrass the school so they can weaken the president who’s cutting their benefits.

I don’t know what to believe, because I usually figure that out by talking to both sides. Most times, the journalists open up and the administrators clam up. This is the first time in my six years on the SPJ national board where that’s been flipped upside down.

mary4

Mountain or molehill?


Here’s what I have decided: If Egan or Golden call me back, I’ll offer to send veteran SPJers to their northern Maryland campus. I’ll pay for pro journalists to train their staff – everything from investigative techniques to balanced reporting.

The Mountain Echo obviously has some brave and hard-working students, so this would be money well spent. And it’s theirs for a phone call.

Sure hope I hear from them.

 


Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


20 Responses to “Holy crap!”

  1. Unaffilated Says:

    Seems like the reason for their reticence was clear. By the time you had called to them, the school’s lawyers may have been bearing down hard on the newspaper adviser and other faculty members thought to have helped the reporters: The adviser has just been fired, along with one other tenured faculty member:

    http://www.fredericknewspost.com/news/education/schools/higher_ed/mount_saint_marys/mount-st-mary-s-fires-two-employees-third-demoted/article_eac0ddea-d53d-5405-9b09-f715659e84d3.html

    You say that the Echo does not list names and emails of staff members. That may have recently changed as all staff members are now listed with their emails. In light of the current events, it seems like you laid down way too much innuendo, just because the media relations person — whose job it is is to deflect attention, sometimes by being genial — took your calls…keep in mind that it’s easy to take questions from the media as a professional, rather than a student facing legal threats. This flack may have caused you to make an error in your own reporting. You characterize the attribution of the remarks as: “only one administrator confirmed it and the president denies it”. If I read the Echo’s original story correctly, and the WashPost’s recap, there is a second on-the-record confirmation: “Economics professor Dr. John Larrivee was also present and confirmed Murry’s account of the conversation with Newman.”

    I think it would have been good for you to have noted that the Echo was already in talks with the SPLC. The way this piece was written, it sounds like the students and their adviser were up to so much trouble that they turned down a request for help from a professional journalism group, which paints them in a very different light than them already working with SPLC for 5 weeks.

    I believe the subhead to this article is misleading (“Journalists who refuse to comment? Administrators who want to?”). Did the administrators actually talk to you? It sounds like you only talked to the flack, and because he was nice to you, you make it sound like the administration was being very open about this. Did the president offer to talk to you?

  2. rgoulter Says:

    Thanks for skewing my YouTube “Recommended for You” videos. 🙂

    “Blows everything else I’ve seen out of the water easily in actually journalizing” for the “Games for Learning Summit” is accurate.
    My impression is the other four can’t resist some level of editorializing nearer the ends of their videos. Which makes for nice opinions, but maybe not a nice report.

    I found “Blood is Compulsory”‘s remarks very interesting; highlighting a glaring disparity between the way everyone thinks about Call of Duty (“who cares about the single player?”), and the acceptance of the review system for this (“single player is alright”).

    Sterling’s “Editing vs Censorship” had some interesting remarks (and sound like an interesting thing to discuss), but his contempt bleeds through more evidently than just reporting on “these cases weren’t instances of censorship”.

  3. Larry Felton Johnson Says:

    To any judge who happens to be reading these comments: My excitable friend seems to be correct that the word “con” wasn’t used in the video. Of course “Ponzi scheme” in the video and “fraud” in the title sound SO much better 🙂

  4. Aidey Says:

    Keeping the insults up I see. Very classy. Not sure why you didn’t just reply to my comment though.

    Still pushing the whole Ponzi scheme and fraud thing? One is hyperbole not an accusation and the other is a single image that says “seems a little like” so again not an accusation.

    The narration is all fact based and well sourced, not opinion which you did claim (wrongly like most of your claims) which is why its up for this award.

    I will admit I do get a bit excitable being right so often. You should try it some time.

  5. Sulla Felix Says:

    Keep doing good work to highlight quality writing. That is what every reader deserves.

  6. itsnotmyfault Says:

    I love the Adrian Chmielarz piece. I was so disappointed when it wasn’t a finalist for a feature story (because I nominated as a feature), but now there’s some recognition for his cautious, well-researched, thoughtful, and thought provoking writing. I hope he wins!

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ