As a nonliberal University student in my fourth year of working for The Minnesota Daily, nothing has irked me more over the years than listening to people complain about liberal bias at the Daily. After defending the paper and its ethical practices for my entire college career, perhaps that’s why I’m particularly miffed to find out that, this year at least, it’s partly true.
In a conversation with Editorials & Opinions Editor Tim Burnett earlier this year, I found out that since fall 2003, the Daily editorial board has given preference to left-of-center board members to create “continuity” in opinions. Conservative applicants were still considered and interviewed, but they were not given priority. Because the majority who apply are liberal, that kind of preference makes it incredibly difficult for conservative candidates to get hired.
Some might think I’m naive for believing the Daily editorial board ever had diverse opinions, but I had good reason. On the 2001-02 editorial board ñ of which I was a member ñ the members came from a variety of ideological backgrounds (including conservative). It made the debates, editorial ideas and writing much stronger and more thorough than they could have been without dissent among the board members.
While Kay Semion, president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, said that hiring board members of a certain ideological bent is “pretty standard practice” at professional papers, the situation is different for college papers, which have high turnover, poor institutional memory and less experience. Because of this, Semion said, if all the members agree, they might not seek other sides of the issues.
Burnett said that if members had divergent ideological stances, it would be more difficult to negotiate what to write about and what stances to take. But Pioneer Press opinions Editor Art Coulson, said he seeks board members with different views and that this is not the case.
“From my perspective, it enriches the discussion of issues,” Coulson said.
R. Thomas Berner, a retired Penn State journalism professor who sat on the board of directors for that university’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, also said that seeking only those of a certain ideological stance is bad practice.
“There’s no discussion about, ‘Is that really the smartest thing to do,’ ” Berner said.
Burnett also said that because “most University students are liberal,” the Daily should reflect that. But Berner said this actually disserves even liberal students.
“From my perspective, a college newspaper should challenge readers,” Berner said. “It’s too early to lock in theology.”
In my experience at the University, Berner’s thoughts are on target. Simply because one group is the majority is no reason to give Jake preference on the Daily editorial board. That is true of ethnic and economic diversity, and it’s also true of political and ideological diversity.
As the editor in chief who was chosen by the Board of Directors and given responsibility for the Daily’s editorial content, Jake Weyer is the only person who should be able to decide if the editorial board leans in any political direction.
When I asked him about this policy, he told me he doubted its merit and was never comfortable with the idea of a fully liberal board. Burnett, who said he was given the policy by a past editor in chief, even said the concept needs tweaking.
Now, the board has decided to actively recruit members from diverse ideological backgrounds and use a 3-2 vote system to decide what to write about and what positions to take. Burnett said one qualified right-leaning candidate is already planning to apply. The Daily should seriously consider this candidate.
The former system was tantamount to viewpoint discrimination, making it tougher for nonliberal students’ (whose fees also help finance the Daily) views to be represented; this change will reverse that, making editorials accessible to more students. In fairness, the current editorial board meetings are still full of debate, and not all the members are liberal. But the debates could be better and more dynamic with more dissent among the members.
While this change is positive, the Daily should also adopt a permanent policy on how and why board members are hired. This way, in the future, Daily employees will not be following a hiring formula with which no one agrees.
I think Berner sums up the problems with the former practice the most concisely: “A good newspaper rises above ideology. People of many ideologies are comfortable reading it and are excited and are challenged by the content.”
Because it will now seek out editorial board members with diverse viewpoints, the Daily will have a better shot at reaching that goal.
Libby George is the readers’ representative. She welcomes comments at [email protected]