Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Spectator Cover Stirs Controversy

    At the end of winter quarter, the last issue of The Spectator was on the stands for less than 24 hours.

    Although the cover tells the beginning of the story, the discussion surrounding it has yet to reach a conclusion.

    The cover pertained to an article regarding a recent incident that had occurred at Sullivan Hall—an intruder, who was unaffiliated with the university, entered a classroom and was eventually escorted off campus by Public Safety.
    However, at first glance, the cover does not seem related to the article.

    The cover features a caricature of Internet sensation Antoine Dodson, standing in front of Sullivan Hall.

    The headline next to Dodson reads, “Hide Yo’ Kids, Hide Yo’ Wife: P-Safe Faces Intruders.”

    Although the cover graphic can be seen as a lighthearted pop culture reference used to visually address a tense situation, many members of the Seattle U community took offense to the image, believing it to be racist and classist.
    Some were so infuriated they cut the cover image of Dodson out of the cover or ripped the cover off the issue entirely.

    After several conversations and emails between The Spectator staff and members of Student Development, the paper was pulled mid-Thursday in order to prevent further upset within the community. On Friday afternoon, the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) held a forum that addressed the incident and encouraged community members to share their experiences with issues of diversity at Seattle U.

    Editor-in-Chief Kelton Sears, who was not present at the layout for the issue, did not know of the problem until a fellow editor brought it to his attention through email.

    “The staff was feeling concerned and hearing negative feedback [about the cover], so I called around to see what had happened,” said Sears, who was in Austin, Texas at the time.

    Once Sears received further information and understood the situation, he was not happy.

    “I was troubled by [the cover] like everyone else,” Sears said.

    He explained that the image was intended to be a pop culture reference. It was not meant to be malicious or cause racial issues on campus.

    “It’s unfortunate that it did bother people, and I understand why, but I regret that it bothered so many people,” Sears said. “The [Spectator] staff tries really hard to explore the issues a lot of people voice concern over that we’re not covering.”

    While Sears was away, Managing Editors Adrian Munger and MacKenzie Blake took charge. Both said they were skeptical about the cover before it was sent to the printer, but they were also surprised by the gravity of the backlash that followed.

    “I would say that none of us wanted to offend anyone; the race issue was definitely not central to our message,” said Munger, who was unaware of the negative response until he received a call from Blake on Thursday morning.

    Blake said the editorial board talked about the cover, as well as any concerns they had with it, before the issue was sent to the printer on Tuesday night. She was not aware of the backlash until Sears contacted her late Wednesday evening.

    On Thursday, Blake, Munger and Faculty Advisor Sonora Jha met with Associate Vice President of Student Development Michele Murray to determine what steps should be taken next.

    “Administration, as of Thursday, wanted us to pull the issue, but they actually don’t have the authority to request that—the choice to pull had to come from The Spectator,” said Blake. “I felt like I was being pushed in a lot of different directions, and people tried to push our First Amendment rights, but no one actually forced us to pull the papers, that ended up being my decision.”

    Munger also felt that the Division of Student Development put a great deal of pressure on The Spectator staff to pull the paper.

    “I knew that Kelton should be the only person to be able to tell us to pull the paper, but when the administration asks you to pull the paper, it’s not really something you say no to,” he said. “There were a lot of important people around campus who publicly said that The Spectator should not have pulled the paper, and that the administration should have in no way pressured us into pulling the paper.”

    Jha, who has been the faculty advisor for The Spectator for eight years, said college media advisors across the country do not review student newspapers before they are sent to the printer and distributed, and thus she did not see the cover until the papers were on the stands.

    “There seemed to be a conversation going on about how the cover may end up hurting people’s feelings, while other students were arguing that they saw a different context in the image,” said Jha. “My advice as faculty advisor was that, given the First Amendment implications, it’s very rare that a paper is pulled from the stands, but that The Spectator ought to draft an apology letter, since feelings were likely to be hurt.”

    Murray, who has met with The Spectator’s editor-in-chief once a week for the past eight years, explained that the Division of Student Development provides the seed money for The Spectator. Murray first saw the cover on Thursday morning.

    “I received an email from MacKenzie Thursday, among many others expressing concern over the cover,” said Murray. “I responded with my concerns, and we, along with Adrian and Sonora, met later that day, when Kelton had decided to pull the paper and was deciding whether to issue a campus-wide apology.”

    Although many Spectator staff members and members of the Seattle U Communications Department were under the impression that the staff was intimidated by Student Development, Murray explains that the final decision came from Sears, who stayed in touch with his advisors throughout these discussions.

    “I know that there are differences of opinion about [Sears’s decision to pull]; in part, Kelton didn’t want that image to be left on the stands for three weeks,” she explained. “I certainly understand that there are plenty of people who feel very strongly that something that controversial should remain out in the public sphere.”

    Murray went on to explain that, while people may be complaining about a violation of First Amendment rights, it’s important to remember First Amendment rights are not absolute—sometimes social responsibility should take precedence over freedom of the press.

    “I would say the choice to run the cover was pretty irresponsible to the community,” Murray said.

    Associate Professor of Communication Tomás Guillén, a former journalist who worked at various publications including The Seattle Times for 20 years, believes that the pressure Student Development and OMA put on The Spectator was unfair.

    “Student Development should have [their] hands off the campus paper, and should not be intimidating, should not be sending emails to people on staff and asking them to do things,” said Guillén. “Student Development provides the financial support to The Spectator, but that doesn’t mean they should be meddling with the First Amendment.”

    Guillén was the faculty advisor for the paper for 10 years, but left when he felt that Student Development was “censoring the paper.” Guillén believes that The Spectator is an independent news organization and should be treated as such.

    “It was a questionable front page that was probably poorly conceived and a poor choice, but I don’t think that the individuals who designed it or made the decision to run the cover are racist,” he said. “The Spectator isn’t a hired hand for anyone in the administration. They’re trying to learn about journalism and free speech, and here we have offices bullying, intimidating and stifling free speech—that shouldn’t happen. Shame on them.”

    Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate representative of the non-profit organization the Student Press Law Center, which has been working to protect the freedom of the press for student journalists, agreed with Guillén. Goldstein said that, in his 13 years with the SPLC, the university’s reaction to the cover is one of the least thought-out responses he has seen from a school.

    “People over intellectualize the simple, and can analyze things from many different standpoints. If you want to talk about something, you shouldn’t take the paper off the stands,” said Goldstein.

    Monica Nixon, the director of OMA, said that she picks up a copy of The Spectator every Thursday morning on the way to her weekly meeting with the directors of the Division of Student Development, but March 14 was a bit different.

    “Several of us had the issue and we were having informal conversations of our alarm over it,” she said. “I think that we were asking how the cover actually related to the coverage of the incident at the law school, and I believe the general feeling was that the two weren’t related.”

    Once Nixon returned to her office, many students expressed their frustration with the cover to her and discussed students’ distress with Murray.

    The students in the OMA Lounge then decided to organize a forum about the topic for the following afternoon and created marketing materials for the event that incorporated The Spectator cover in the design.

    “The cover, I find, is incredibly appalling, but I think that it is a part of some challenges related to campus climate that [the students] face on a more regular basis,” Nixon said. “I don’t think at any point [the forum] was just about The Spectator. I think…it was symptomatic of some of the ways students felt on campus.”

    The two-hour forum was held on Friday, March 15, in Cherry Street Market, and allowed about 34 members of the Seattle U community to voice their experiences with issues of diversity. According to Nixon, about 90 percent of the people who spoke stated that they felt disappointed about Seattle U’s campus climate.

    “Many of the speakers said they wanted to be in love with the university, but felt that hasn’t always been reciprocated,” Nixon said. “To be disappointed in something means you have high expectations of it, and, to me, that seems like a very good place to start.”

    Junior Manuel Carrillo seemed to lead the charge in challenging the cover. He posted a photo of it on Facebook, along with his commentary, on Wednesday night. As someone who classifies himself as a minority, he believes that, after three years’ worth of disheartening feelings and experiences had on campus, seeing the image of Dodson felt like hitting a roadblock.

    “The Spectator is supposed to be a newspaper that’s supposed to inform, and I saw that cover as helping to expose these false ideas of people of color,” he said. “I believed this was one symptom of a larger problem, and that’s why we decided to organize a forum.”

    Carrillo wrote an email to Seattle U President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., to express his shock and disgust with the cover. However, neither he nor Nixon contacted The Spectator staff directly.

    “One letter I saw that stood out was attacking the paper and its journalistic integrity based on the cover—I feel as though that would have been my letter,” Carrillo said. “I would have tried to articulate why I felt the cover was problematic in a large societal context and how, regardless of whether you’re trying to use humor, a lot of these ideas are often regurgitated, which often legitimizes these ideas in people’s minds, whether it’s consciously or not.”

    Yet, Carrillo never sent that message. According to Sears, Blake and Munger, The Spectator itself received few complaints; many staff members found out about the negative response through informal conversations with peers or through Facebook.

    “If people have complaints, go to the source,” Guillén said. “To suddenly call a meeting and publicly chastise…the process was all wrong.”

    Nixon, who encourages her staff and students to read the paper, believes that the event led The Spectator to fall to the “single story” ideal.

    “It takes so much longer to build up credibility than to lose it,” she said. “I hope that an outcome of this is that people don’t choose not to read The Spectator, but in fact choose to read it more closely.”

    While the issue came about in an unfortunate way, Jha believes that the cover and controversy have given the campus an opportunity to have critical conversations about how different groups are represented in the media and on the Seattle U campus.

    “Everyone should be heard,” Jha said.

    Sears explained that this incident is a good reminder of The Spectator’s mission and role.

    “When we started out this year, one of the goals I told the staff was we need to really reflect on the community we’re writing about. In light of all of this happening, it reminds us that we need to keep doing that and doing it better and doing it more aggressively because, clearly, there are a lot of issues on campus that we haven’t touched on,” he said. “I would like to write more stories that get people talking, but for the right reasons.”

    Munger said that The Spectator and OMA are now on good terms and both organizations are looking to move forward and learn from this.

    “Clearly, this has been an unfortunate and sad event,” he said. “But I believe this will lead to good things.”

    Murray hopes the conversation sparked by the cover will encourage the university to take real steps toward mending and improving the campus climate.

    “A lot of times our intentions don’t match the actual impact of what our actions are, but that doesn’t make us any less responsible,” Murray said.

    Maybe that impact will affect change.

    “If that is the true outcome of the ordeal, dare I say it will be worth it?”

    Grace may be reached at [email protected]

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