I found myself in an awkward position last week after meeting with the dean of students, at his request, regarding a section of the anonymous “Common Sense” pamphlet about an alleged conflict of interest involving board of trustees member and director of the fashion merchandising program, Cherie Serota. At Michael Berthel’s request, the Pioneer held the part of our Nov. 14 story, “New Anonymous Pamphlet Found on Campus,” which discussed Serota, until he could provide an administrative response.
We agreed to hold that part despite the fact that Serota is a faculty member, and we have never had to go through the university’s PR, or the dean of students for that matter, to speak with a faculty member. But to be fair, we did not publish that part.
I set up a meeting with Berthel before the Thanksgiving break to obtain the requested information about Professor Serota, who would not speak with us. Josh Tolentino, the staff writer who has been covering the series of anonymous pamphlets, accompanied me to the meeting.
We assumed the meeting would include Serota, Dean Berthel (since he organized it) and Gordon Tepper, the university director of public relations. Berthel and Tepper were present, but Serota was not; instead, via phone call, was Michael Best, the university counsel. To have the university’s lawyer present was unusual, considering the topic. My adviser was not invited, nor was the chairperson of my department or any other faculty member from my department.
What we wanted to know was: Is there a conflict of interest in Serota being a member of the university’s board of trustees and a faculty member and director of a program? Is she paid as a faculty member (even though she is a board member)? What are her qualifications for the faculty position? Was she hired through a search and interviewing process as all other faculty are?
We didn’t get answers to our questions that day. Instead, the first 20 or so minutes of the meeting were spent with both Best and Tepper berating us for The Pioneer’s coverage of the “Common Sense” pamphlets. They never told us not to publish anything, rather they speculated about our reasoning behind covering these pamphlets. They asked that their questions and comments be kept off the record continuously. But, in essence, they believed we were wrong for covering what they called falsehoods and details they said were exaggerated. They even asked me whether, if there had been an anonymous pamphlet spread around campus saying that I was a child molester, I publish it.
The simple answer: yes.
My job as a journalist is to report on the news. Dozens of anonymous pamphlets dispersed on campus, written by students, being read by students – that is considered newsworthy. The difference between PR and journalism is this: in PR, only the good news should be shared, they want to control the narrative in their favor; in journalism, we don’t care if the news is positive or negative, news is news. So if a pamphlet saying I was a child molester was spread, would I want it published? No, I wouldn’t like it, but my opinion on the matter is irrelevant to the newsworthiness. I have a duty to report on it, and to debunk it if I know it not to be true.
With the “Common Sense” pamphlets, the Pioneer has done just that, covering the reaction from students, faculty and administrators, and fact-checking the bold claims the authors made. The Pioneer has been applauded for our news coverage and fair reporting, even from readers outside of the university, which is why the topic and tone of this meeting came as both a surprise and an insult.
I began writing for The Pioneer even before my first semester as a freshman at Post during the summer honors institute in journalism. Since then, I’ve worked hard to cover news on the campus as a staff writer, assistant news editor, news editor and now editor-in-chief. I always aim to write balanced and fair stories under the guidance of my advisor, Professor Carolyn Schurr Levin. I’ve interviewed students, faculty members, administrators and even President Kimberly Cline twice. I strive to get every side of a story to best inform my readers when presenting them with the news of the week. To be told that if I want to run the student newspaper and have a career in journalism, that I should “do it right,” is beyond insulting.
I’ll continue to use journalistic integrity and good news judgment in all of my own work, and I will ensure that the entire Pioneer staff does the same.
The Pioneer Co-Editor-in-Chief WCWP News Director Journalism Major