Last week I made a donation to support the Wesleyan Argus. Here’s why:
The Argus is a student-run newspaper that has been in existence since 1868. From the beginning it has been an entertaining, informative, at times offensive, but always illuminating slice of student life at Wesleyan. The newspaper has and continues to uphold the journalistic ideals of fairness and objectivity, providing a platform for free exchange and discussion. This is as essential in a liberal arts community as in any democratic society. A free press gives voice to issues, concerns and problems that are uncomfortable to those in power or in the majority, and forces a discussion of those issues.
Much has been written about Bryan Stascavage’s editorial in the September 14, 2015 edition of the Argus, on the Black Lives Matter movement. I found it to be a thoughtful and considered piece of writing. It was controversial, but in a way to elicit and not shut down discussion of some very difficult issues. It certainly elicited discussion—not always comfortable or respectful discussion. But in grappling with issues of race, respect and discrimination in America, an honest discussion is not always a comfortable or respectful one. Civility is an important virtue, but cannot always be maintained when discussing issues that touch on people’s safety, much less of being valued and heard.
Then began another, meta-discussion of the ideals of free speech and free expression. Are these ideals merely used to support the promulgation of the views of those in power? Newspapers and other journalistic media proclaim themselves objective platforms for all points of view, but is this always the case in practice? Is it ever the case entirely? This too is an important discussion to have. An unexamined ideal is ripe for abuse and misunderstanding. It is essential to regularly examine, both internally within ourselves, and externally in our communities, how we are realizing our ideals and what those ideals should be.
But … the decision by the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) to significantly reduce the funding of the Argus was ill-timed and ill-considered. To be sure, there are many other outlets for discussion among Wesleyan students, and many other organizations and initiatives that the WSA is asked to fund. Determining which items to fund is not easy or uncontroversial for any organization. But the timing certainly suggests that the WSA was responding to the controversy over Stascavage’s editorial, and that suggestion, however erroneous, has been damaging to Wesleyan’s reputation for openness and fairness. It also leaves the impression that free expression, in the Argus or other campus outlets, may be subject to repression. This can lead to self-censorship—people tempering or just not expressing views that might lead to retaliatory action by those who control the purse strings. And such an atmosphere is antithetical to the spirit of a liberal arts or a democratic community.
Given competing budget demands on the WSA, they might have explored with Argus staff the funding models of other college and university newspapers, with recommendations for increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Or, with the popularity of Wesleying and other campus outlets for news and other information, it may be time for an examination of how students get their news, and the best ways to provide this as technology and social media evolve. This would be a good year to do these analyses, looking toward the FY2017-18 budget. But it should be done with a commitment to maintaining and enhancing the democratic and liberal arts values of a free press and free expression.
This is a teaching moment, and perhaps one of the most important such moments in the lives of many Wesleyan students. These kind of difficult, uncomfortable conversations are a regular feature of life, and how we—students, faculty, administration, staff, and Middletown community members—respond to this conversation will serve as a model for others to follow. Let’s make sure our actions are in keeping with our ideals.
Please join me in supporting the Argus.