Archive for the ‘Mount St. Mary’s’ Category


A faint Echo

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Holy crap!

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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

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…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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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