A faint Echo

hillman2

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.

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.

newman

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.

 


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2 Responses to “A faint Echo”

  1. Mount alumnus Says:

    While the overall story is equally unfortunate, the newspaper situation is yet another disappointment. It seems in both cases, mistakes abounded on all sides. I believe the president will have to resign to clear up matters quickly, but I do not know if the newspaper will get back on track any time soon. Hopefully the staff will embrace the offer of free training from the SPJ.

  2. The Nooseflex Says:

    Frustrating isn’t it?

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