Following tradition, The Cavalier Daily published their annual April Fools Day edition on Wednesday, expecting to shed some light-hearted humor on an otherwise gloomy semester. Instead, their managing board was greeted with a “Trail of Schmears” as controversy erupted over some not-so politically correct articles that left students with mouths agape and muttering, “too soon.”
Rather than starting a discussion about themed fraternity parties or the ABC arrest of Martese Johnson, The Cavalier Daily inadvertently ignited a debate about free speech and self-censorship when their managing board promptly retracted the content that its readers had deemed to be offensive speech. To put it bluntly, both the half-baked “April Fools” articles and the bewildering retraction that followed were asinine and irresponsible. Recklessly insensitive satire may have been the problem, but self-censorship was certainly not the solution.
To be sure, self-censorship does have its place. On the individual level, good self-censorship comes in the form of “tact, discretion, reticence, modesty, or prudence,” to quote Martha Bayles in the Winter 2015 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Most of us agree that despite what seems to be a license from the First Amendment to say whatever we want, we still choose to be sensitive and empathetic in our conversations with other people or when voicing our opinions. As journalists, we have to be particularly conscious about what we say, especially with the tense atmosphere that currently surrounds UVa.
Even on the level of the community, there is always going to be a basic framework of “morality, custom, propriety, or taboo” that seeps into our social consciousness. Disney could, for example, make a children’s movie with one scene containing graphic violence, but the studio would never actually do so partially because of our cultural norms. Right or wrong, the University of Virginia itself sometimes practices self-censorship in the form of “trigger warnings” that notify students of classroom material that may be disturbing.
Self-censorship, however, is a terrible response to coercion–or worse, an ill-conceived post-hoc solution to offensive speech that was already said and done. It is hard to imagine that The Cavalier Daily staff did not spend countless hours in their glass box beneath Newcomb planning, writing, and editing the offensive material over the span of several weeks and with the collusion of dozens of students. A retraction within hours of publishing cannot cover up the extensive prior production and assembly, nor the backfired responses.
Moreover, instead of viewing it as something to cover-up and censor, we should instead treat offensive speech as an opportunity. One principle behind the notion of free speech is that rational discussion will eventually triumph in the “marketplace of ideas.” We should respect each other as rational, autonomous human beings and give intelligent debate a chance to prosper in the wake of offensive speech.
After all, how is it that we are ever going to come together as a community and figure out what exactly was offensive and why we should stop saying foolish and hateful things if censorship prematurely ends the discussion? The Cavalier Daily should have learned from their journalistic peers at Rolling Stone that retractions are not the answer, or else we would be standing here four months later asking, “Jackie who?”
But perhaps the most shocking part of The Cavalier Daily’s retraction is the insight we have gained from how the publication sees itself. To quote at length:
“We have been and remain dedicated to providing unbiased coverage of racial issues on Grounds. We hope to regain our readers’ trust through that continued coverage. We will, as always, work tirelessly to provide you with all student perspectives–especially those who feel underrepresented” [emphasis added].
The Cavalier Daily’s bold claim of being “unbiased” simply ignores their long track record of taking partisan, subjective slants on student news. The powerful, opinionated publication is often called out in their comments section for attempting to push an agenda of their own, outright failing to give a voice to “all student perspectives.”
Substantively, the April Fools issue neither produced any great humor nor did it “start a commentary” on “important social issues.” Instead, the general consensus yesterday among UVa students was one of hurt, disgust, and outrage at the articles from Wednesday’s “April Fools” issue.
“ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo’s Bagels” was a sore attempt to satirize the ABC arrest of Martese Johnson on St. Patrick’s Day, and left many readers wondering what exactly was the underlying social commentary of the article. “Everybody move to the back of the bus: Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks’ party” tried to poke fun at a controversial “Bombs over Baghdad” themed fraternity party. Instead, its author only ended up perpetuating the stereotypes of racism against blacks and social elitism in UVa’s Greek community.
Perhaps the use of racial slurs was most shocking. Jokes directed at Native Americans like a photo credit to “Strong Buffalo,” a reference to a fictitious student named “Dances with Wolves,” and wordplays like “Sioux you” and “Sitting Bull-shit” were downright insensitive and repulsive. Phrases like the “Parks pledge” and “Rosa Parks’ party,” in addition to the slurs used again the band Outkast, were of particular poor taste and addled judgment.
Given The Cavalier Daily’s immense presence on Grounds as a sort of “fair and balanced” source of student news, their attempt at comedy only came across as a massive faux pas. The publication failed to account for the fact that Native Americans have struggled throughout history to gain representation, respect, and a voice. They were reckless and careless in their approach to the very recent arrest of Martese Johnson and disrespectful to the black community.
Worst of all, however, is the fact that the “April Fools” edition clearly demonstrates The Cavalier Daily’s own biases, and the grossly distorted way that their staff perceives the people and organizations at which their satire was directed. The article about Zeta Psi’s “Bombs over Baghdad” party, for example, indicates a reprehensible bias against UVa’s Greek community. Instead of raising the problems of racism and social elitism, the author only came across as a bigot. Taking the unoriginal stance that fraternities only care about money, partying, and women, and that sorority girls like “Xoxo, Gossip Girl” are superficial and dim-witted, was unfunny and offensive. The fake quotes attributed to actual fraternity brothers, like one about having a “solid ratio going–you know, one girl per brother,” and the clever photo credit, “Courtesy of University of Privilege,” were more like preaches to The Cavalier Daily’s ideological choir than substantive critiques about UVa’s social issues.
Most students would find it hard to deny that there is a clear underlying bias in The Cavalier Daily newsroom. While their managing board claims that their “intention was not to perpetuate stereotypes” but instead “to start a conversation and provide satirical commentary on important issues,” their April Fools issue proves the distorted way that the publication perceives the people and organizations at which their satire was directed. According to these articles and to The Cavalier Daily, Greeks are dehumanized, hedonistic, and elitist brutes, and ABC officers are racists straight out of the 1860s. Retract all you want and revel in the self-censorship, but the damage has been done, and the real conversation about bias in UVa’s student media will continue nonetheless.
By the Managing Board of The Virginia Advocate