It is not news when a dog bites a man. It is news when a man bites a dog.
That’s why it was no big deal when student reporters and photographers last week wrote about and published pictures of a protest at Northwestern University during a campus appearance of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Protests on college campuses — or anywhere else — aren’t usually big news. But they are news, pretty much run-of-the-mill events that end up in the paper. Students are, after all, pretty much always protesting one thing or another.
That was dog bites man.
Man bites dog came into play when The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper, published what one Chicago media columnist described as a “sniveling, abject and totally unnecessary apology” to the protesters.
For what did they apologize? Incredibly, it was for writing about and publishing pictures of the events surrounding the public protest of the Sessions speech.
Chicago and national news media outlets have been filled with stories of the newspaper’s apology. Numerous quotes — some thoughtful, some caustic — from professional journalists have been run that lambasted the newspaper’s editors for apologizing for doing what newspapers should do — cover the news.
One of the more thoughtful critiques was offered by veteran Washington Post reporter and University of Illinois graduate Dan Balz.
“Rather than jumping on the Northwestern student journalists, we all need to explain to other students the basic practices and values of good journalism and why it matters,” he said.
Note Balz’s words “explain to other students.”
What was left out of the reporting about the apology was the subtext — any mention of why an explanation, not an apology, might be useful.
There’s an increasingly common campus cultural reality of infantilized students, the self-absorbed who complain they are injured — either physically or mentally — by being exposed to ideas or events they do not like. It’s usually accompanied by calls to silence another individual’s speech.
This phenomenon is pretty much summed up by calls for “safe spaces” for students to hide or recover from something they find disagreeable. It raises the prospect of students being emotionally “triggered.” It gives rise to campus “bias response teams” whose job is to police campus speech and punish those identified as having said something disagreeable that injured a fellow student.
The problem is exacerbated by administrators and faculty members who encourage this kind of childish emotionalism with a therapeutic response.
Consider the language of the Daily Northwestern’s editorial about its news coverage.
— “We recognize we contributed to the harm students experienced ...”
— “We know we hurt students that night ...”
— “... nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe.”
— “... we are figuring out how we can support each other and our communities through distressing experiences that arise on campus.”
— “... we are ready to undertake the reform and reflection necessary to become a better paper.”
All of this over-the-top hand-wringing because of a routine campus protest news story? Absolutely!
It shouldn’t be any great surprise that this kind of self-involved self-pity among a small segment of the student body has infected the students who work at the campus newspaper. Why would they be immune when they have not been inoculated with the kind of insights Balz suggests could be helpful?
How many times have these injured souls been offered an explanation of the importance of being exposed to different attitudes and viewpoints rather than sympathetic, but condescending, hand-holding from adults who should know better?
Or, in the specific case involving Northwestern, how many of injured and apologetic students were told that participating in a public protest makes their activities public and potentially newsworthy? It doesn’t have to be complicated.
The good news is most university students today are pretty much like those of yesterday. They go about their business on campus, and they graduate in decent enough shape to embrace an adulthood that can be either cold and hard or warm and welcoming, sometimes both depending on the cycle of life.
But pity those relatively few sensitive souls unprepared for life’s challenges, wherever they may be. Safe spaces are relatively few and far between outside the university bubble.