Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Friday, March 17, 2006

The ePink-Slip of Courage

The ePink-Slip of Courage
© 2006 Ross Williams

As you may be aware, Acton Gorton got canned by the University of Illinois' independent newspaper, The Daily Illini – hereinafter referred to only in snotty, unflattering euphemisms. Prior to that he was on some form of administrative leave. Gorton was the paper's editor in chief. The paper uses [mainly] journalism students from the UofI to fill its ranks of reporters, editorialists and editors in, from what I can gather, a sort of revolving org-chart of responsibility. In the process, everyone gets experience in a newspaper in several capacities, and they're that much more qualified to work in a newspaper once graduating – for as long as newspapers still exist.

Some may recall that the Daily Planet was one of – at the time – three newspapers which published the infamous Danish Dozen, twelve cartoons that dared to satirize muslims as violent, and which used Mohammed to make the point. That is the reason that Gorton was suspended in February, and that is the reason Gorton was fired in March: he authorized their publication in the Daily Antagonizer.

The sequence of events is still somewhat debatable[1], but not by a lot. The main points of contention here seem to deal with attitude and motivation; specifically, Gorton's attitude and motivation while he was busy making a chief editorial decision.

Everyone seems fairly clear that on the evening in question, Gorton and another junior editor approached the night editor with a change to the contents of the next day's publication. This change included six of the Danish Dozen along with a sniveling – in my opinion – commentary on how these monumentally tame editorial cartoons were some huge offense, but they needed to be published anyway.

Both Gorton and the remnants of the Daily Bugle are pretty much in agreement on at least that.

Where they differ is this: Gorton claims that he merely made the alteration; certain junior editors and the publisher, Mary Cory, aver that Gorton – figuratively speaking, naturally – swooped down upon a defenseless night editor, bound and gagged him and, with the help of his evil minion, Opinions Editor Chuck Prochaska, pulled off a journalistic hijacking. Gorton quite possibly grew a handlebar mustache in the weeks before to twirl while doing it all.

I'm sure, as is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Imagine the staff ‘s surprise when, the next day, they opened the Daily Drip expecting to see the usual gripes on campus housing and whines on the war in Iraq and the pro and con badgering upon Chief Illiniwek, only to find that[2] someone had shoved that all aside to commit islamic heresy. That would be ...

I don't know. I've worked in the real world for over two decades now, and I've undergone a fair number of expect-one-thing-get-anothers, often after having been given explicit, even written, assurances that I'd be getting what I expected. Even in the hours or minutes beforehand.

Getting the rug pulled out from under your feet is a yearly – in some places, monthly or weekly – occurrence. The content of the Daily Wheezer changed after the various editors submitted their finals? That is met, in most of the publishing world, not to mention other parts of reality, with grousing over the morning coffee and grumbling questions about when the delayed works will see ink.

What we saw at the Daily Tattler was a mass uprising among the editors who were not involved in the decision to publish excerpts from the Danish Dozen. Some objected to them being published at all, other objected saying that the sniveling side piece wasn't "context", or that the sniveling side piece was tantamount to inviting sectarian warfare.

Those who objected to publishing them at all were quick to cite the rationalization used by the mainstream media – hereinafter referred to as Ledbelly the Dinosaur – who unanimously[3] refused to publish the Danish Dozen saying that a description was sufficient to give the reader the message the cartoons conveyed.

In other words, we can describe the pictures, and the description works just as well as seeing the real thing. Not one to pass up an easy chance to prove idiot rationalists wrong, but: Eugene Armstrong had his head cut off by militant islamists, and there was much spurting blood and gurgling and gasping for that one last blood-filled breath before his head was finally sawed from his shoulders and was placed on his own back, mouth agape. Sickening description, idnit? Now here is the link to the video of it:
http://www.ogrish.com/movies/ogrish-dot-com-eugene-armstrong-beheading-video.wmv [search for ‘armstrong’]
Watch the video and come back and tell me that even my nauseating description was an adequate substitute for the real thing.

"Oh but that's different!"...? The only thing that's different about it is that it's not so easily trivialized. Editors of the national Ledbelly are whistling past the graveyard, and from the unscientific polls I've seen, not many of Ledbelly's readers are buying it.

Next, there's the dodge that anyone who wants to can look up the cartoons on the web. And, yes you can. But only half of all Americans own computers[4] and not all of them are webbed. Then, there are people who own computers, are connected to the internet, who send emails, who click on web links, and everything... but when you tell them "google for ... " they reply, "What are you talking about?" Even if you can get them to follow your instructions by rote so that they get a page of hits, they look at it and ask, "Alright, now what does this mean...?"

I'm thinking of, for example, my mother, who required two months of instructions over IM and one tutoring session in person before she could save a website to her "favorites". People like this are not going to voluntarily undertake the technological frustration just to satisfy the news curiosity that Ledbelly won't provide.

And then there are people like, well, me. I'm perfectly capable of googling for what I want, but goddammit, why the hell should I? I’m reading the paper now. The paper is supposed to cover the news, somewhat completely. At least make the attempt. If I want the complete story, I shouldn’t need to put down the newspaper, walk upstairs, turn on the computer, start a web browser, get to a google search pane, type in a few keywords, hit ‘enter’, wait for the pages of hits to come back and then sift through the thousands upon thousands of ‘Mohammed cartoon’ web hits to find which ones actually show the damned things and which ones – like Ledbelly – merely talk about it.

“You can look that up on the web” isn’t safe advice for Ledbelly to be giving its subscribers; enough of that, and pretty soon the web will be the only source tech-literates will use for news, and the newspapers will be out of business.

I shouldn’t need to do the research that should have gone into the story in the first place. That’s the job of the newspaper. In February of 2006, the Danish Dozen was news; it was the cartoons themselves that were causing riots. It was the context.

"There were three firebombings in Damascus today, and two people were killed by riot police in Kandahar, but we're not going to tell you why..."

Oh, gee, thanks for the information. Let me know if reporting the news is too difficult for an organization which is paid to, like, report the news.

This is where Acton Gorton comes in. With Ledbelly turning it's massive tail toward Yucatan[5], a brave little amphibian stuck its nose out of the water and declared that he was willing to evolve. Or, well, that’s what Gorton’s self-image says. Trying to do the job of Super Journalist; striking the blow for free press, information, news coverage, etc.

Gorton was aware of two things that many “real” journalists were too afraid to admit:
1] the cartoons, by this time, were themselves the news and could no longer be easily ignored; and
2] ignoring the cartoons at a time when their mere existence was causing riots and death in many parts of the world would be subverting western freedoms to the demands of thugs… thugs who didn’t even live here.

Self-respect, not to mention self-defense, required something more tangible than citing “sensitivity” to others’ religious dogma. Many of Gorton’s supporters called his decision to publish the Danish Dozen “principled”. I agree, although his side-piece[6] fence-straddles, and is perilously close to the same mincing and mealy-mouthed self-loathing so common today among those who refused to publish them.

Many of Gorton’s critics have called his actions various things, and much of it boils down in essence to “high-handed”. Honestly, I also agree with them. There’s very little that is as frustrating to any employee anywhere than to come to work in the morning and find that the entire office structure is changed. Work you did is gone, wholesale modifications are in its place, and the boss says, benignly, “…we’ve made some alterations...”

No shit. How about a little warning next time?

While I understand, and frankly sympathize with, the staff who knew nothing about the surprise content of the Daily Gargle, it is never too soon for them to learn a cold reality of the rest of their working life: that’ll happen, and in any other environment than a student newspaper, there’s nothing you can do about it but grimace and bear it, or seek employment elsewhere.

This staff, though, would have nothing of reality. They revolted.

…it might do well to inject a little background on the players in question at this point. Acton Gorton is a mid-twenties Iraq War veteran, a medic, if I recall correctly, and is now getting his bachelor’s degree. He’s tasted the real world, albeit from the bizarre and confining viewpoint of the military[7], and he has perspectives that have been molded by his experiences. Most veterans tend to be more conservative than others; they are at least more understanding of the “conservative” viewpoint.

The rest of the Daily Quibbler’s staff are mainline college students, fresh and sparkling from their cloistered high schools, and living in the cloistered environment of a university. Neither high schools nor colleges are known for being steeped in practicum, and the notion that college babies are pampered, naïve and simplistic is a near-universal belief held by those who have been out of college for at least two years. You show me someone who is more than two years removed from his graduation who feels differently, and I’ll show you an Adjunct Professor.

College students tend to be Liberal. But not merely “Liberal”; they tend to be the worst form of Liberal: naïve and simplistic. They are the ones who flesh the ranks of all the popular, one-size-fits-all Liberal -isms. Environmentalism, pacifism, anti-globalism... Believe it or not, Liberals are the ones who coined the term “global village” to describe their utopian ideal of world-wide group-hug harmony, but they believe that it’s bad, wrong and evil for that village to act like a single entity preferring, apparently, a global Balkan village. I can’t make sense out of it[8], and it’s doubtful any of them can articulate any sense upon it, particularly since they invariably support “global government”. It’s just another cause to march and throw stones for while believing they are making a difference.

So the staff editors rebelled against the editor in chief. Show of hands: who is surprised? They outlined their rebellion, in petulant nanny-booing, in an editorial two editions after the cartoons.[9] Needless to say, it’s fairly ironic that persons claiming pride at being in the “professional journalistic community” would make so many UNprofessional charges against Gorton, culminating in: “the callous bravado of a renegade editor in chief”. This writer is someone that any organization would want to hire…

Also ironic is that this editorial claims publishing the cartoons hadn’t opened any dialogue “because no one's mind is open to discussion”[10], yet they would likely have printed the cartoons themselves.

The last of the ironies I shall point out concerns criticism of the method by which the cartoons were published. The editorial declares that there was a tactful way to do it, and Gorton didn’t use it. There’s also tactful ways of criticizing your superior for his business decisions, and public finger-pointing and tantrum-having isn’t it. There’s also tactful ways of declaring, in print, that a decision made earlier in the organization wasn’t the best, and name-calling and sneer-filled mud-slinging isn’t it, either.

In the grand scheme of professionalism, no one’s star shines brightly, here, and the staff’s “professionalism” actually sucks light out of the day. But never fear, just when you think it can’t get any cheesier and petulantly self-righteous, it does. The next day, the staff of the Daily Grudge voted Gorton and his evil sidekick out of a job. That’s the fantasy of every cube-farmer in the nation, but it cannot happen anyplace but the reality-free environment of a college newspaper.

It’s around this time that the publisher of the Daily Strumpet arrives. Mary Cory, publisher of the university-independent[11] Illini Media, and who, to my knowledge, has never consented to an interview with anyone seeking clarification of the situation, issued a long email to a wide distribution that served in the place of a press release.[12]

Cory makes any number of disingenuous statements, and I could write long, boring parses of her double-talk[13]. But given the events, one paragraph now stands out in glowing, neon irony:

We are confident that the Illini Media board members do not question the right of the editor in chief to have full editorial control of the paper; neither do they have any intention of arbitrating on matters involving competing personalities or viewpoints among students in the newsroom.

For a board that had no intention of denying the authority of the editor in chief to control the paper, or to intercede in personality conflicts, they sure have a funny way of going about it. Firing the editor in chief for not getting permission from underlings before making an editorial decision – albeit, high-handed – and choosing sides in a tweedle beetle battle pretty much contradicts everything the Illini Media board set out to do.

Not only was Gorton fired, but he was fired by email.

This is 2006, and as we would expect, Gorton has a lawyer. He’s mentioned “wrongful termination”. It might work; at the very least, he was given conflicting work rules to comply with, and the stated reasons for termination were:

The Illini Media Co. board of directors - following a thorough review, a report by a student task force of senior members of the staff, and a hearing with Gorton - found that Gorton violated Daily Illini policies about thoughtful discussion of and preparation for the publication of inflammatory material.

Yet, amazingly[14], no one can find these policies of the Daily Drivel. I guess it will have to come out in court. The case of the high-handed dictator versus the cowardly accommodators. Great theater.

Gorton’s future is assured. America loves a guy who stands on his principles and takes the slings and arrows of outrage from the masses of orthodoxical dweebs. America loves the champion of principle even if he acted out of self-promotion in taking his stand – which, frankly, is most likely true. Even Gorton’s shadow, Chuck Prochaska, has a rosy future awaiting him. Mr Shadow was offered his job back and he turned it down. This was the predictable third act of any Hollywood script that would be written about it.

The Daily Cowpie, however, is tarnished. What was viewed, nearly unanimously on February 8th, as a courageous David in a nation of pusillanimous Goliaths, is now being viewed as a craven capitulator with a staff of self-important revolutionaries. You take a journalism degree from UofI to any media outlet in the US, the interviewer is going to recall recent events and think, “gosh, do I want someone working for me who, when he doesn’t like the decisions I make or the philosophies I espouse, will undermine my authority and create conflict in the office…?” Needless to say, the UofI “journalists” who staged their cute little coup d’Fourth Estate are going to be eyed suspiciously as they leave their comfy coven and try to make their way in the real world of adults … and responsibilities … and, well, everything, where such mass-petulances are viewed dimly.

Mary Cory, frankly, needs to hang it up. She’s as visionary as any of the moles in my barnyard. Gorton put her and her “independent” student newspaper on the journalistic map, and rather than accept the spotlight for the courage and principle thrust upon her by her self-seeking student editor, she bolted from view. The shrinking, shirking violet might have levied this publicity into a larger empire, or greater ad revenue, or something in her benefit. Instead, Feckless Leader capitulated to a group of whimpering pissants. That is neither an appropriate management model for a business nor an adequate teaching model for an academic activity. No matter which side of the fence she tries to climb down in explaining or justifying her actions, she failed.

As with so many other human conflicts, everyone’s right about something and everyone’s wrong about something else. Add to it the plausible accusations of Gorton’s self-promotion and high-handedness, the raging immaturity of the staff under him, the poltroonish publisher and her Board of backbiters … we’re left with a mess. An amusing, eye-rolling mess.

[1] http://thesquire.blogspot.com/2006/03/setting-record-straight.html
Squire Trelawney is a whiny and peevish ankle-biter, who is capable of fantastic contortions in order to construct each new criticism of Gorton, but he did an admirable job of tabulating, with linkage, the Essential Timeline
[2] gasp!!
[3] save two, the Austin Statesman, and the Philadelphia Inquirer
[4] the rich half, big surprise
[5] the current scientific explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs avers that an asteroid hit Earth in what we now call the Yucatan peninsula, creating a dust cloud that eliminated the vegetation for long enough that the high-carb veggie-sauruses died, and the high-protein meat-osaurs who ate them died right after. Only the few who were willing to evolve into birds survived, along with one or two Philadelphia Inquirers and Austin Statesmen who inhabit the cold, dark depths of Loch Ness
[6] http://www.dailyillini.com/media/paper736/news/2006/02/09/Opinions/Editors.Note-1622265.shtml?norewrite&sourcedomain=www.dailyillini.com
[7] the real world doesn’t operate that way either; trust me
[8] unless it’s based solely upon the capacity for corporate greed to use this Global Village to make the obscene and rapacious profits that keep the free world free and basking in the materialistic modernity that affords western Liberals the luxury of backbiting the system that provides them this luxury.
[9] http://www.dailyillini.com/media/paper736/news/2006/02/13/Opinions/Editorial.Staff.Breaks.Ranks-1610154.shtml?norewrite200603161013&sourcedomain=www.dailyillini.com
[10] especially, it would seem, their own
[11] ha ha, right; we’ll see about that
[12] I can only find a reprint of the email’s contents: http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2006/02/an_open_letter_.html
[13] not that I do that sort of thing…
[14] or not; you know how these things sometimes go, especially when the “policies” were invented after the fact…


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a cute commentary on the subject, but I hate when people get the facts wrong.

The night we published the cartoons, there was no sneaky 11th hour injection on to the Opinions page. In fact, my page was the first one to complete the normal edit process; it was done and ready for tranmission by 7PM. All the editorial board editors saw the page or knew of its unique content by that time as well. Most of them leave the newsroom around 11PM - I was gone by 8.

So much for the conspiracy theory. Now, the common assertion that the group of "whimpering pissants" exploded in their "coup d'Fourth Estate" only after the reaction was clear and not on principle of the publishing gains more credibility. I respect my former colleagues but your description of their actions is dead on.

Chuck Prochaska
"The Shadow"

March 25, 2006 4:59 PM  
Blogger rwilymz said...

...and, well, the Shadow knows.

March 26, 2006 6:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home