A Defense of Critical Journalism
With this current newspaper issue hitting shelves, The Commentator has officially covered eighty-four fall semesters of Yeshiva University news. Commonplace for editorials in such issues is to analyze the quantity and quality of the articles that were published, as well as to reflect upon notable themes that surfaced among Commentator readership. This editorial, which will attempt to respond to one particular critique, shall prove to be no exception.
This Fall 2018 semester saw the success, for the first time in over a decade, of seven print issues. The issues included over 180 articles written by over 80 unique student writers. There have been close to a dozen data-driven pieces, many important news updates and interesting investigations that have garnered thousands of readers on campus and online, and serious student opinions that have provoked thoughts, discussions and written responses.
A small but significant subset of this semester’s Commentator coverage has been articles that showcase, either directly or indirectly, unflattering aspects of Yeshiva University. These articles include pieces about shakeups in Institutional Advancement, the Office of Admissions’ rejection of a Model UN topic paper dealing with sexual minorities and a leaked survey that indicated a dissatisfied YU faculty, as well as a comprehensive investigation into cheating incidents in the colleges and an editorial criticizing the inadequate state of YU’s pre-law advising.
The aforementioned (and perhaps one or two other) critical articles have engendered a not insignificant amount of criticism in varying capacities and from varied segments of Commentator readership. The critiques typically present themselves in the form of questions, such as: What is to be gained by airing YU’s “dirty laundry?”; Why does The Commentator deliberately seek to make YU look bad?; What is the virtue of printing “negative” stories rather than “positive” stories?; and so on. The common denominator of the questions is that they always assume a certain malicious intent on the part of The Commentator’s editorial board.
Such critiques come from sincere, often valid places of concern. However, they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of journalism.
Before addressing the relevant critiques head-on, though, it seems prudent to briefly state The Commentator’s editorial ethos. This ethos has been expressed as recently as last semester, as well as countless times over the decades of this newspaper’s history, but it is important enough that it bears repeating.
The Commentator aims to serve three main functions. As a student newspaper, editors and writers seek out and investigate interesting and important news stories that relate, in some broad sense, to Yeshiva University. Student writers report on these stories with articles that are dispassionate, truthful and as objective as possible. The Commentator also offers a platform to the undergraduate student body to voice their opinions. Finally, the newspaper serves, when necessary, as a check on the university.
A list of functions is inevitably rather abstract, but concrete instances follow almost immediately from these particular propositions. This semester’s data-driven pieces, this semester’s serious student opinions and so on, as well as the specific five critical articles that were mentioned at the beginning of this editorial, all fall under at least one of The Commentator’s stated functions.
Of course, the value of a newspaper’s fitting to a certain set of rules is directly commensurate with the goodness of those very rules. And this brings this editorial back to the argument at hand, which is to address the following question: Why does The Commentator engage in critical journalism?
Critical articles are a proven means that can be an effective check on those in power. This is true for all serious journalism, from international newspapers down to local weeklies. Student journalism is no exception.
Famously, The Commentator in 1992 publicized the fact that YU board members were considering closing the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. The publication led to student riots, and the graduate school stands to this day.
Though most cases do not play out as linearly as did the Revel case, the goal with all critical articles is the same. These articles expose a certain unglamorous state of affairs, which leads to a reaction from the public, which leads to those in power feeling pressure to change certain things, which leads to real change. Such articles inevitably cause bad publicity for the university in the short run, but, when a real change eventually occurs, the articles ultimately wind up as net positives.
The importance of a serious student newspaper that delivers a check on power cannot be overemphasized. Even in the age of the internet and Facebook, there is hardly any other venue aside from an independent student newspaper that can effectively ensure that the broader world may learn about the goings-on in the institution. The fact that student writers are unpaid, motivated purely by ideology, only strengthens the case.
A tour through Commentator archives indicates that there have been countless instances of YU — whether by offices or by individual administrators, and whether with intent or without intent — disserving its community unnecessarily. These instances include minor misdoings, like inflating cafeteria prices and raising activity fees without stated reasons, but also more serious malfeasance, such as imposing curfews on dorming students and removing student publications from shelves. It is scary to imagine what YU would look like had there never been independent student journalism to call out these cases of negligence and misconduct.
Critical coverage from this semester has been no different. The Commentator publicized cheating scandals that have taken place for the purpose of sparking a public reaction that might push those with the power to improve YU’s academic integrity to actually do so. The Commentator publicized the inadequate state of YU’s pre-law advising so that an adequate advisor might be hired. And so on for all critical articles that have been published.
Being criticized does not always feel good. The Commentator does not expect subjects of criticism to thank its editors for writing critical articles. Moreover, criticism is very much welcome regarding the manner in which critical articles were handled.
Criticizing the act of criticism itself, though, is categorically unwarranted.