Sanctions prompted by The Hoya’s 2009 April Fools issue have halted the paper’s two decade-long independence movement for at least another year, e-mails obtained from a former Hoya staffer confirm.
The Media Board determined that the paper’s “bid to become independent should be delayed by one year to accommodate a probationary period,” according to documents obtained by the Voice.
After reviewing the content of the April Fools issue, which prompted widespread outrage in the student body, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action filed a complaint with the Media Board, which convened on April 17. The Media Board—a group of students, faculty members, and administrators that controls funding and access for student media—issued five sanctions against The Hoya. Four of these sanctions were accepted, but the fifth, delaying independence for a year, was appealed by The Hoya.
An Appeals Board composed of President of the Faculty Senate Wayne Davis, GUSA President Calen Angert (MSB `11), and Father Christopher Steck, S.J. upheld the Media Board’s ruling. Steck sat on the Appeals Board in place of Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson, who cited a conflict of interest. Olson had been engaged in longstanding independence discussions with The Hoya.
“[The negotiations] are temporarily on hold,” Olson said. “We discussed coming back to them in the future when we feel it’s appropriate.”
Staff members of The Hoya feel that their plans for independence have been consistently thwarted, and believe that the Media Board did not deal with them in a transparent manner during the April Fools issue controversy. Despite that fact that Media Board bylaws mandate a response within three days after reaching a decision, Hoya staff members were not informed of the ruling until five days later, according to Hoya Chair of the Board of Directors Margaret McLaughlin (SFS `10).
“We were all thinking for thirty-six hours that they weren’t going to hand us a decision,” McLaughlin said.
Hoya Editor-in-Chief Kevin Barber (COL `11) and McLaughlin allege that faculty members were the most upset in Media Board meetings, which influenced the severity of the sanctions. The Media Board also requested that the authors of articles in the April Fools issue identify themselves, a demand that was subsequently dropped.
In a document obtained by the Voice explaining the Media Board’s decision, the Chair of the Media Board and Director of Student Programs Erika Cohen-Derr wrote, “the Media Board believes that the ability to become an independent organization … should only be granted to an organization that meets the standards as stated in The Hoya’s action steps, as opposed to one that merely intends to meet those standards. A one-year probationary period will ensure that The Hoya has a level of accountability.”
The first four Media Board sanctions mandated that The Hoya submit to the Media Board criteria for choosing a staff Development Director and a new Ombudsperson, pay for a third-party reviewer with a background in professional journalism who would be selected by the Media Board, require all staff members participate in “diversity training,” and direct all revenue from the April Fools issue toward community-building events.
“All of the [sanctions] that were involved would make The Hoya a better paper,” Steck said. “In fact The Hoya was already doing all of this internally.”
The Hoya, with a finalized, unsigned independence document, was shocked by the final sanction and moved quickly to file an appeal with the Media Board’s decision. In a contested vote, the Appeals Board sided with the Media Board and ruled that all of the sanctions would remain in effect.
Summing up the feeling of the Appeals Board members, Angert said that the Appeals Board was primarily interested in whether the Media Board had acted within the bounds of its authority. Steck echoed his views.
“We thought that this action was within the purview of Media Board and that there was a rational reasoning that permitted the [fifth] sanction,” Steck said. “Therefore, it was not appropriate to overturn this University-appropriated body.”
Additionally, Angert stressed that action needed to be taken, and that the sanctions were designed to ensure that The Hoya was held accountable.
The issue of accountability and administrative oversight has taken on a sharply different meaning for The Hoya and its critics on the Media Board and in the Georgetown community.
“A disturbing trend I noticed in The Hoya’s stance when dealing with the Media Board was that this was somehow a violation of the freedom of the press,” former Media Board member Al Haddad (COL `09) wrote in an e-mail. “The Media Board isn’t trying to control or even influence the material being published in The Hoya … The sanctions are intended to emphasize that a media outlet which likes to brand itself as Georgetown’s ‘Paper of Record’ has certain responsibilities.”
In contrast, Barber believes that allowing The Hoya to make decisions for itself is more effective than putting a newspaper “on probation” or mandating that an organization change “with a gun to its head.”
“It is ideally much better and much more meaningful to have a group of student in an organization like The Hoya decide for themselves, we’re going to make a concerted effort to change ourselves and our organization,” Barber said.
Former Hoya Editor-in-Chief Max Sarinsky (COL `09) argued that the most important issue surrounding The Hoya’s independence movement is the quality of journalism at Georgetown.
“In the end … the most important thing in this situation is the state of journalism on Georgetown’s campus,” Sarinsky said. “I think that it is in everyone’s interests for The Hoya to go independent—even for its detractors, since a successful independent Hoya would promote other independent papers and would increase the diversity of journalism on Georgetown’s campus.
“But The Hoya can certainly improve without independence,” Sarinsky added. “And for now it will have to.”