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News is Not a Popularity Contest: A Response to The Observer

Editor's note: This article was submitted to The Observer for publication. We were told it would be "considered" for their next issue. We believe that this article is too important and too topical to wait a month for publication. 

Hannah Dreyfus’s latest editorial featured a rather misguided central claim that the “main agenda” of student newspapers is “advancing the interests of their respective universities.”  Negative press is bad press, she asserts, and bad press, in turn, does not advance our university. Yet a few hours after publishing her piece, Dreyfus removed the quote without citing any change to her article. Perhaps her thoughts on the matter changed. I would like to respond to the other handful of assertions she makes in her article about The Commentator specifically and student newspapers in general. Perhaps I can change her mind about those points as well.

The editorial questioned the job of The Commentator, arguing that the newspaper had “gone too far.” Dreyfus wants us to “generate a different tone,” by bailing on our job as student journalists: to report what has actually happened and continues to happen at Yeshiva University. The editorial wants us to generate a different tone by ignoring sexual abuse that continues to ensnare YU, to ignore the financial crisis that threatens the academic health of the university, to simply turn a blind eye to the errors made by the President and Board of the university. The journalistic agenda promoted in this article is positively Soviet.

Dreyfus has acknowledged selecting an editorial policy of “reporting on progress instead of scandal.” This is false. She has chosen a news policy of selective reporting, depriving the students of SCW of a critical news source. But news should never be a popularity contest, and a newspaper can’t claim legitimacy if it selectively decides that certain content would depress students. It’s not only patronizing and propagandist, it’s dangerous, and it’s intellectually dishonest.

The real job of journalists is not to shape how the study body feels, but to report on stories that happen at the university, to shine a mirror on what’s happening, no matter how ugly the reflection and no matter how unpopular that reporting will make you.

The editorial questions our publishing of the RIETS student and YC alumnus Evan Zauder pedophilia case. The editorial erroneously claims that the article had nothing to do with YU, despite the case involving a current RIETS student and the article condemning high level YU employees for writing letters in Zauder’s defense. Our reporting, which later made headlines in major Jewish newspapers, apparently caused the university’s name to “once again associated with ‘abuse’ and ‘scandal.’” Implying that The Commentator was the problem—and not the shortsighted actions of rabbis and a professor during a very public sexual abuse scandal—the editorial asks, “Is it really helping the university to continue spreading negative headlines that reach far beyond the student body to an audience much less discerning, much less sensitive, and much less caring?” I would argue that a student newspaper has no business censoring news to “help” a university. Here, the editorial supports a dangerous “brush-it-under-the-rug” mentality.

Publishing this article was important. It’s important for victims of sexual abuse to know that their perpetrator was punished, whether or not this information will “help YU.” It’s important for child-victims’ advocates to know that a major Jewish university stays honest with its policy of zero-tolerance for sexual predators. It’s vital that alumni and potential feel their university’s name isn’t used inappropriately.

"The Commentator claims that their critical articles have been written only in the interest of helping the university,” the editorial states. This, again, false. We don’t claim that we are writing our articles to help our university; we claim we are writing our articles to inform students and faculty. Our mandate is to report what’s going on in our university, not ignore the bad news because it makes people upset nor ignore the good news because it’s not “sensationalist” material. The fact that news hasn’t been terrible flattering as of late is a reflection of what’s happening in the university, not a reflection of the newspaper’s reporting. Though Dreyfus condemns us for “unrelenting accusations,” against the university, we haven’t accused anyone of anything. We published facts that were later reported by The Jewish Week, Moody’s Credit Agency, Bloomberg and The New York Times, just to mention a few.

“If the stream of negative press against YU has grown exhausting, the news source from within should at least attempt to generate a different tone,” Dreyfus writes. That’s why Yeshiva University’s Office of Communications, the “news source from within” publishes YU Today. But for the editor in chief of SCW’s newspaper to call on our papers to selectively counter negative press as a general policy represents a serious misunderstanding of the job of student journalists.

That being said, Dreyfus paints a pretty grim picture of The Commentator, as if the newspaper was dripping in acerbic content. This is false. I encourage her to find three positive stories about Yeshiva University that we haven’t published. Our news team published ground-breaking studies coming from Einstein, important work from the CJF, news from various academic departments, and updates from our sports teams. We wrote about (starting with “S”) Sarachek, Security reports, Rabbi Sacks, Justice Scalia, and will soon report on the astounding success of the Seforim Sale this year (a 170 percent increase in profits!). Counted page-for-page, our “non-depressing” news, as Dreyfus would characterize it, far outweighs our “negative” reporting.

Finally, Dreyfus claims to have a pulse on the very diverse student body at Yeshiva University. “A newspaper that is supposed to represent the student body should take into account what the student body wants,” she writes. This is true from a marketing perspective. The problem is, we really don’t know what the student body wants. No one does. It’s what makes YU so exceedingly frustrating and remarkably liberating. The left says YU is moving right. The right says YU is moving left. The Democrats complain that the campus is too Republican, the Republicans complain the campus is full of Democrats. At one town hall meeting last year, President Joel asked the student body if they disagreed with the work of The Commentator. Half the room clapped. He then asked how many agreed with the work of The Commentator. Half the room clapped. “I guess they are doing a good job,” he said.

What I do know about the student body is that it deserves a newspaper dedicated to publishing news, positive or negative. I know that it deserves better than a news policy based on a pre-conceived self-professed agenda of avoiding bad press. That is bad press.