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'Unlearning Liberty' Again, This Time by Self-Censorship at ‘The Daily Targum’

The Soviet Union was said to operate on a system of “telephone justice”: a judge would hold a trial and then call the local Communist Party boss to find out if the defendant should be found guilty or not. It appears that The Daily Targum, Rutgers University’s student paper, operates on a similar system of “telephone editorial policy.” According to former opinions editor Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, writing in The Huffington Post, student editors defer to the paper’s Board of Trustees for instructions on how to cover controversial issues, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

FIRE has no way of gauging whether Al-Khatahtbeh’s charges of bias against the Board are justified. But Skylar Frederick, who just finished her term as the Targum’s managing editor, unwittingly confirmed Al-Khatahtbeh’s charges of censorship in what was supposed to be a rebuttal interview on College Media Matters. Frederick revealed that the Targum’s editors had handed over their editorial discretion on certain topics to the paper’s Board of Trustees: a group of students, alumni, and university officials:

In the daily production of the paper, as of late, we’ve been sending them anything that’s pro-Israel, pro-Palestine or [involving] Hillel. The Board has asked us to send anything even mentioning the word ‘Israel’ to them for their approval, just to make sure we as students aren’t going to have to deal with a bunch of backlash. So no, they don’t have a hand in daily production of the paper. They really only step in when there’s a problem and when we ask them to or when they see there’s a problem that might hurt the company and make us in turn lose our funding.

In yet another display of “unlearning liberty,” Frederick not only freely admitted that the students abdicated their responsibilities as independent journalists but also argues that they were doing the right thing. As she put it: “The Board has the power, the right [to make editorial decisions]. It’s not censorship. It’s the Board’s purpose.”

Al-Khatahtbeh describes the Board of Trustees as “a complete enigma to the editorial staff and public” and, accurately as far as I can tell, states that there is no description of the Board on the paper’s website. In a letter to Rutgers’ Hillel apologizing for publishing a letter to the editor expressing what it deemed to be anti-Semitic views, the Board asserted that The Daily Targum is “an independent, student-run publication” and further stated:

The board is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the paper, but serves as an advisory group the students can turn to when they need assistance. In addition to the managing editor, editor-in-chief, business manager and marketing manager, the board consists of four alumni members, our comptroller and a Rutgers faculty member, staff member and student representatives.

The paper’s 2012 Concept Plan describes the composition of the Board on page 4:

Targum Publishing Company’s Board of Trustees consists of the four student managers; the Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, Business Manager, and Marketing Director. Selected students who are not involved in the direct publication of The Daily Targum fill the remaining student positions. These student trustees are nominated based on their involvement in the Rutgers community and their ability to offer a varied perspective on the paper’s reputation amongst the student body. Non-student positions include a University faculty member, Rutgers alumni, and a non-voting representative from the University administration.

So, according to The Daily Targum’s own documentation, the Board has non-student members, members with potentially no background in journalism, and members whose responsibilities only concern the paper’s finances.

As for the Board’s authority, the 2012 Concept Plan says this:

Board members are meant to serve as the final authority on matters which come to their attention. Examples of this may include special personnel issues, final budget approval, advice on various matters of day to day business operations. Board members provide personal, professional experience as a means of suggesting a given course of action.

Although the first sentence is broad (Board members are “the final authority on matters which come to their attention”), the list of examples does not include editorial content but, appropriately, is limited to “business operations.”

According to Frederick, “without the Board of Trustees our paper can’t be independent. It’s required by the bylaws of the university that for us to be an independent paper we must have a Board of Trustees.” I was unable to verify this statement since there do not seem to be any “university bylaws.” The Board of Governors and Board of Trustees have bylaws, as does the the School of Public Affairs, and the University Libraries Faculty, to name a few examples. Even if such university bylaws exist, it seems paradoxical to say that the Rutgers could dictate ongoing terms to the paper in order for it to be independent.

Like the Soviet judges, the Targum’s editors take comfort in having a higher authority tell them what to do so they don’t get in trouble. I thought the whole point of an independent press was to stir up debate by providing an outlet for differing viewpoints and that avoiding public discourse was contrary to journalism’s basic purpose. At any rate, to quote University of Alabama Student Claire Chretien: “We don’t have the First Amendment so that we can talk about the weather”—or, in the case of The Daily Targum, write an editorial about it.

Rutgers University is a public institution and thus is bound by the First Amendment. The University cannot constitutionally mandate the creation of a board that has the “power” and “right” to decide what gets published—to use Frederick’s terminology. Just because the Board thinks that its “purpose” is to control controversial content does not make it so. But there is something more insidious than poor editorial decision-making going on here. Targum readers think they are getting news on controversial topics from independent student editors, but instead they seem to be getting the perspective of unknown members of a Board of Trustees working behind the scenes. If Al-Khatahtbeh’s essay exposes this arrangement and returns full control to the elected editors, she will have performed a tremendous service to student journalism.

Image: "Locked Newspaper" - Shutterstock

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