After over a century of publication, the University of North Carolina's student newspaper, the Daily Tarheel, faces a crisis -- one it is not clear they can survive. Recent events suggest that there may soon be no one left to write for them.
The crisis started with the publication of an opinion column by Jillian Bandes, a new daily columnist writing her third column for the paper. Her first two columns had been generally well received; both were humorous pieces on innocuous topics -- female body image and the campus "Greek" experience, notably sorority "rush" week. There were, to be sure, a few letters to the editor from insulted sorority sisters, but the young Turks of campus journalism have no time for the Greeks and there was no real controversy. As for the body image piece, fat chicks on campus apparently had another slice of pizza and decided to get over it. Jullian's first two columns were fine. Her third column was trouble.
Jillian's third column was a clear example of why a newspaper should have an editor. She decided to write a humorous piece on racial profiling of Arabs in airports. In it she took the perfectly defensible position that even Arabs should support such racial profiling. She has a point there. While it is inconvenient to be singled out to be searched, it is even more inconvenient to watch an airplane disintegrate around you as you begin the six-mile fall to the sea. Where Jillian went astray is in her rather ill-advised humorous take on the subject. I'm sure you could write an article that suggests that body-cavity searches can be fun, but it's probably best not to do so in a piece about Arab-American relations and racial profiling. In a happier world an editor would take the writer aside and tell her that her piece was, sadly, slightly too long, and indicate to her the parts that she could cut to save a column-inch or two... and her reputation.
But that would be censorship so nothing of the sort was done. Her piece ran as written and she was not immediately fired. She was, to be sure, fired -- and before her next column ran -- but, says editor Chris Coletta, it wasn't because of the content of her piece. Ms. Bandes was let go because of "Journalistic Malpractice," and her firing had nothing to do with her expressing an opinion that is anathema to the almost-exclusively liberal UNC community. "I fired her," said Coletta, "because she strung together quotes out of context. ... Bandes didn’t inaccurately quote anyone. (I have her notes as proof.) But you don’t necessarily have to make things up to get them wrong or to mislead the reader. ... Bandes told the three people quoted in her column ... that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world. ... Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn’t their entire conversation."
So there you have it. Bandes wasn't fired because of the content of her piece. The Daily Tarheel was reluctantly forced to let her go because she had violated their journalistic standards. Clumsy, ill-advised attempts at humor; interviewing people at length and quoting them selectively; telling your sources your general topic but not your particular focus; leaving your sources feeling a bit used -- these are all offences that get a student journalist fired on the first offence at The Daily Tarheel. They have no place at a student newspaper. So far only Bandes has been fired. No announcement has been made about when the rest of the writing staff will be let go or what use will be made of the space in the Carolina Union currently occupied by the Tarheel.