Regardless of the facts, the claims of racism (systemic or individual) and the secondary claims of “pain” of being subject to feeling unvalued, betrayed and vulnerable, the anger turned from the grown-ups who didn’t do as desired to the media who did as expected.
In an article that’s striking for having found its way into the Washington Post, an actual newspaper, Terrell Jermaine Starr tries to explain:
These student protesters were not a government entity stonewalling access to public information or a public official hiding from media questions. They were young people trying to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media. In the outsized conversation that erupted about First-Amendment rights, journalists drowned out the very message of the students Tai was covering.
Establishing a “safe space” was about much more than denying the media access; it was about securing a rare space where their blackness could not be violated. Yes, the hunger strike, the safe space and other student demonstrations were protests, and protests should be covered. But what was fueling those protests was black pain. In most circumstances, when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy. But that didn’t happen in this case; these young people weren’t treated as hurting victims.
This is both factually false and intellectually dishonest. No doubt, it’s the best Starr could some up with, given the inherent irrationality of his position, and it’s certainly less inflammatory than his twits. But it’s sheer nonsense. Something newsworthy happened. It happened in public. The students decided that there was yet another entitlement, this time their right to a public venue as their own safe space to the preclusion of media. And they used “muscle” to forcibly prevent the media from coming in.
But Starr wasn’t done chastising the media for doing what we expect, demand, of it.
Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated.
This is Starr’s strawman fantasy, as no one forced anyone to speak with them. They couldn’t even if they wanted to, as they couldn’t get “in” to the safe space. Even if they had, if someone refused to speak to a reporter, that’s their right. But does Starr seriously suggest that the First Amendment ends where the media’s “presence is not appreciated”? That’s batshit crazy.
Is Starr either a moron or a liar? Maybe, but more likely caught in an irreconcilable conflict of emotion versus reason. There is no explaining the feelz in rational terms, and so he instead spills his “pain” as if it trumps everything. In the process, he abandoned principle and intellect, and firmly established himself on the side of the fragile teacups.
The issue raised was interesting enough to give rise to a New York Times Room For Debate, which framed the question as “why has trust in the news media declined?” The debaters ignored the question, and discussed instead why young blacks mistrust media. University of Minnesota prof Catherine R. Squires, also the director of the Race, Indigeneity (is this a word?), Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative, offers a list:
It is hard to trust an institution that ignores you unless you are perceived as causing a problem for “the rest of us.”
It is hard to trust an institution that ignores your history save for one month out of the year.
It is hard to trust an institution that seems to give you two choices: thug or saint?
It is hard to trust an institution that rushes to find culprits when white children are kidnapped, killed, abused, but shrugs when scores more youth of color are kidnapped, killed, abused.
It is hard to trust an institution that ignores a hunger strike and the protests and voices of hundreds of students until a lucrative contract for a football game is in jeopardy.
It is hard to trust an institution that overlooks the strengths of your community and its culture, and instead reduces it to statistics.
It is hard to trust an institution that glorifies and makes money off the fashion, hairstyles and music produced by your culture, but joins in discrediting a person like you for wearing those same styles when she or he was shot or abused by authorities.
It is hard to trust an institution that makes front-page news of lowered life expectancy for one group, when your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents’ lives were cut short by racial disparities in health care, income, education and social mobility but never merited a whisper.
This generation grew up seeing double standards. They saw a young black boy’s photo captioned with “looting” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when a white couple photographed in a similar circumstance wading in the water with bags of supplies described as searching for food. They see Amber Alerts go national with pictures and narratives about white children in peril, but rarely the same attention to deaths of black and Latina/o children. They see journalists asking, with a straight face, if #BlackLivesMatter is a hate group.
She makes a very good point, that the media has a sordid history of being unkind to blacks, and backs it up with undeniable examples. Yet, it fails to apply well to what happened in Missouri, where the contention was entitlement to “safe spaces” overrides all else.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Suzanne Nossel, director of the PEN America Center, an NGO whose mission is to “to fight for freedom of expression,” takes a stab at justifying Mizzou. After Gertruding her way through the value of free speech, she goes for broke:
Both sides are wrong. The dispute is too often framed as a binary match between an emphasis on individual rights — to speech, opinions and Halloween costumes — and the communitarian drive to create campuses bound by shared values and girded against outside intrusion. But these are hardly mutually exclusive.
Use of the word “hardly” isn’t an argument. When the “communitarian drive” clashes with free speech, then it becomes mutually exclusive. That’s why this is an issue.
Student protesters needn’t give up their drive to nurture and protect diverse communities in order to accommodate free speech. In fact, free speech is an essential dimension of vibrant campus communities.
This makes no sense at all, which is troubling coming from someone who directs an organization of writers, not to mention defenders of free speech. It’s not that non-sequiturs aren’t fun, but there has to be more than empty rhetoric.
Likewise, free speech defenders will not win by dismissing students as insolent whiners. These students are smart and enterprising. While some ringleaders may fall within the distinguished American tradition of overzealousness in campus protest, the Missouri football team can’t be written off as a bunch of cosseted wusses.
Why not? Free speech defenders aren’t contending that the students’ cause is unjust (though whether it’s as just as they feel remains a question), but that their very special feelz don’t trump everything else.
Instead of deriding trigger warnings, safe spaces and censored Halloween costumes, free speech proponents need to advance alternatives that resonate with the students they want to reach. Instead of insisting that individual rights not be subordinated to the ethic of the community, advocates need to explain how free speech can fortify that ethic. They need to tackle ways that racism and discrimination can themselves chill speech.
Boom. Nossell finally reveals her hand. Free speech is great, so long as it becomes the servant of the political cause. The media should “advance alternatives that resonate with the students.” The media shouldn’t report, shouldn’t tell the truth, shouldn’t be free, but “fortify that ethic.”
To his credit, Starr picked his team and tried, if in the lamest, most absurdly irrational way, to support it. Nossel, on the other hand, gets a paycheck to be the defender of free expression, and yet sold out her team in a similarly absurdly irrational way. When speech and feelz clashed, Nossel abandoned ship.
And in doing so Nossel foreshadows the real issue that’s playing out in Missouri, Yale, Ithaca College and elsewhere; Are reason, logic and principles to become the servants of emotion? Have the deeply sensitive feelz reached that exalted place where they mean more than anything else?
The problem is that if this is so, there is no argument that will matter. Emotions are antithetical to reason, so there is nothing to be said that dissuade the special snowflakes from believing that it’s all about their hurt, offended and outraged feelings. And even the director of PEN America says so.