The other day, I happened upon a recent Miscellany News editorial entitled “Why We Publish: Ed Board reflects on student journalism.” The piece, which takes a remarkably anodyne, even self-congratulatory look at the Miscellany News’ role at Vassar, reads, “a key reason we publish is our commitment to creating and maintaining a forum for Vassar students to share their thoughts and opinions and exercise their right to be heard.” It goes on to state that the editors, “firmly believe that the Miscellany News is first and foremost a newspaper by the students, for the students.” As a former columnist for the Miscellany News, I must respectfully disagree with this assessment.
While I would like to celebrate the tremendous and shocking success that the VPR has seen over the last year, including getting a feature in Inside Higher Ed and being picked up by The Hill, the Washington Examiner and other news outlets, there are bigger fish to fry. In my last piece for the VPR before I depart Vassar for a year abroad, I wish to reveal to our readers my experiences at the Miscellany News, and how they led me to co-found the Vassar Political Review. The VPR wasn’t founded to compete with or even exist in the same journalistic space as the Miscellany News, at least for the most part. We simply wanted to provide well-informed, fact-based and pluralistic political commentary to improve discourse at Vassar. Lately, however, we’ve been drifting more and more towards news and analysis. We have come to believe that our classmates would be better served with a VPR that fights for their hearts and their minds, rather than one that occupies its own unique space in the realm of political commentary. We feel that there is a black hole at Vassar where quality reporting—ethical, professional and informed—should be. That is not to say there isn’t good journalism at Vassar. I have encountered many dedicated, high quality and ethical journalists at the Miscellany News and elsewhere at Vassar, and much good work has been featured in the pages of the Miscellany News. However, there are deficits that are simply too large to ignore, and because of those deficits, we have a journalism scene fraught with misinformation, one-sided commentary and lazy dedication to ethical practices.
In speaking on my experiences, I wish to diagnose serious issues and abuses within the publication that I was witness or subject to in an effort to encourage the editors to be more self-critical and reform-minded. The ideal outcome of this would be for no writer to experience there what I did. I hope that together, the VPR and the Miscellany News can both play positive roles in informing our classmates as they deserve to be informed, and give aspiring young journalists opportunities that will foster—not inhibit—their drives to become better writers and reporters. This article is not in retaliation to the Miscellany News for my grievances, nor is it a response to any particular event by the Miscellany News. Instead, it is a deliberate call for reform which I’d planned to write months in advance in some form.
I wrote for the Miscellany News’ opinions section between November 2016 and October 2017, first as a guest columnist for several months and then, starting in February 2017, as a staff columnist. I wrote about electoral politics, campus affairs and foreign and domestic policy. My tenure was controversial, but I nonetheless contributed substantive writing to the opinions section. I held myself to a high standard; I researched every topic on which I wrote, produced high-quality political commentary and worked rigorously to inform my fellow students. I was also willing to say things that many people didn’t want to hear, and I didn’t cower from the hard truths that needed to be said. Even as a liberal, I found things about Vassar’s status quo that needed to be called out. These important issues would be left untouched by the rest of the Miscellany News staff. That’s not journalism. My willingness to put forth contentious opinions put me in bad standing with the Miscellany News’ editors and the political activist class of students, and ultimately put a target on my back throughout my tenure.
Even during my interview for the staff columnist position, my interviewees, all leading editors now, made me uneasy when they expressed concern that my white maleness would clash with their efforts to diversify their paper (to which I wish I had responded, “show me the POC candidates fighting for this position and I’ll gladly step aside.” There weren’t any). In the end, I was given the job. However, I believe this was simply because I was the only person applying, regardless of the quality of my work.
I was deeply dissatisfied with the editorial leadership of the Miscellany News. As a writer, my work was unappreciated and devalued, in large part because of its frequently centrist or conservative perspectives. At times during the editing process, critical sentences were removed, and others were added that completely changed my arguments or made statements unrepresentative of my views. Editors hedged my words on my behalf to avoid even mild controversy or offense from the readers. This process was not at all transparent and these crucial changes were made entirely without my consent. I would only find out about the changes when I got my hands on a freshly printed copy like everyone else.
In one piece I argued against intolerance towards those with conservative views, writing, “I believe that a balance can be drawn between accommodating those who think differently politically.” My editor added this hedge: “(while, of course, ensuring that prejudiced ideas are properly confronted).” I felt that this statement warped my argument, changing the focus from palatable conservatives to fervent racists, and shut down my previous argument by encouraging “confrontation,” which I believe to be a call for ideologically-driven harassment of right-of-center students. Whether or not my interpretation is correct, I was not consulted on these changes which ultimately warped my argument. And no, this is not a popular stance to take and taking it won’t win me any support. However, it is not write to change a writer’s core arguments without any oversight or discussion. That is something we do our best to avoid at the VPR.
One article was outright rejected because it was allegedly “dismissive of anti-oppressive political activism” and “beyond insensitive,” according to the opinions editor at the time. This was simply not the case. The piece argued against violence in politics, drawing comparisons between the modern Antifa and the #punchanazi movement to the Russian communist revolution of 1917 (while you may or may not agree with this connection, I’ve met Vassar students who have said in no uncertain terms that they should like to see me die in a communist revolution, so this isn’t much of a rhetorical leap). The article made the point—from the perspective of myself as a liberal—that left-wing violence undermines one’s position by giving neo-nazi apologists the moral and legal high ground. The column was later published on a different, high-quality student publication at another university with no issue. The editor of the non-partisan publication, The Contemporary Group, never once posited the idea that what I wrote was in any way offensive, or that I should reconsider publishing it.
When I wrote a particularly controversial piece, urging caution when casting ballots for unflinchingly progressive VSA candidates—who, in my experience, engendered completely non-committal attitudes towards the rights of students who wish to speak their minds and still be protected from harassment—and arguing against a resurgence of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, the Miscellany News’ editorial board penned a rebuttal of my piece, without my knowledge, which misrepresenting my claims. The rebuttal was mostly based off a topic—not politicizing the VSA—that wasn’t even what the piece was about. Instead, it seized upon a title that the editors themselves wrote and expanded that title to be, essentially, my entire argument. I was told that rebutting a staff columnist was extremely rare and without precedent in the Miscellany News’ recent history. The rebuttal alienated me from the editorial board and vice versa. Afterward, I was denied even an interview for an editorial position, despite my dedicated work, without being given so much as an explanation. My apparent blacklisting from an editorial was, incidentally, a move explicitly prohibited by the board’s own bylaws.
Finally, towards the end of my tenure, I was railroaded through a brash “impeachment” attempt for reasons that both the VSA and the administration acknowledged were dubious at best. My infraction? I missed a single deadline, I scheduled an interview on my own (which is not against any rules) and finally and perhaps most drastically, I was accused of failing to adhere to one of the VSA’s guiding principles. The specific principle I allegedly violated was “to value and work towards anti-racism and intersectional feminism.” Despite writing almost exclusively about electoral politics, policy and strategy and not gender or racial issues, I was purported to be a racist and sexist. In other words, despite being a Hillary-supporting liberal Democrat, I wasn’t a progressive enough writer for the editors’ ideological tastes. When confronted with the absurdity of their case, the editors relented and agreed not to go forth with impeachment, but still insisted on “censuring” me despite backing down from at least two of their claims. If journalistic malpractice was a crime (and oh do I wish it was), I would have a serious case.
In October 2017, the left-wing activist pre-org Healing 2 Action made unverified claims—amplified by support from the VSA—about William A. Jacobson, a Jewish conservative law professor from Cornell University who came to speak at Vassar about hate speech in relation to the First Amendment. They called him a white supremacist, asserted his speech was being publicized on white supremacist websites and said that white supremacists from the outside community were planning to storm our campus to attend the talk. There was just one hitch; it was all made up. Of the four websites listed, all were boilerplate conservative sites—including Jacobson’s own blog, Legal Insurrection. There was no evidence provided for the claim that white supremacists were coming to campus.
I put my foot down and penned a piece exposing the claims for what they were: misleading performativity. I was the only person at the Miscellany News to refute these claims despite the fact that they were simultaneously misleading and at the center of the most significant political event at Vassar in my time here. My only regret is that I hedged.
Faced with the fear of being pushed into another impeachment process in retaliation to my willingness to speak out, just days after resolving the first, I wrote an addendum on the article that asserted the misrepresentative view of Jacobson as a white supremacist and then resigned. It took months, and the threat of a potential libel suit by Jacobson, for the editors to take the addendum down in full despite my repeated pleas for them to do so and the fact that the information contained was entirely fabricated. They were unswayed by these pleas for journalistic integrity until I threatened to go public with their willingness to keep misinformation on their site.
The week after I resigned, the Miscellany News gave H2A, the group that had just blatantly misled their hundreds of followers, some of my former column space to pat themselves on the back for their efforts in organizing students in protest against the benign Jacobson the previous week. Nobody at the Miscellany News besides me ever brought up their mistruths. That willingness to report the truth is essentially what lost me my position.
While the Miscellany News does much laudable work, my experience was soiled by abuse of power, a demand for ideological purity and inefficiency in doing important journalistic work— including exposing blatant and high profile mistruths by student groups on campus—when that work would put them in an awkward position with progressive campus activists. There was a pathological willingness to obliterate a writer’s arguments and ignore the most basic tenets of journalistic integrity simply to avoid controversy. This is exactly the kind of behavior one might find at Fox News, a source that most at Vassar can agree is not generally reliable. Why don’t we demand more from our student newspaper?
After departing the Miscellany News, Alexander and I founded the Vassar Political Review which launched in January. As previously mentioned, it has been met with tremendous success over the semester which we believe was facilitated by our transparency and progressive power structure. When writing the constitution of this publication, we specifically designed power structures that wouldn’t see the same abuses that I witnessed and experienced at the Miscellany News. There is a robust system of checks and balances keeping VPR writers and editors from being forced out of their positions or having to fear not being published on account of their ideological stances. Our editing process is a suggestion-based one, in which we work with writers incrementally so that they feel comfortable with all our changes, which are almost always stylistic. We do not, as a publication, have a political lean, and only articles and writers that are truly offensive—objectively racist, homophobic, sexist etc.—will be turned away. It suffices to say we haven’t received any articles of this sort from the Vassar community. Indeed, we will gladly publish content we personally disagree with. A person once asked if they could publish an article about how the VPR is bad for Vassar. We said yes. This is the kind of rigorous dedication to a free and equitable discussion of ideas that we wish to see out of the Miscellany News as well. Only with that level of commitment to truly balanced commentary will the Miscellany News achieve what I believe to be journalistic success.
To reiterate, my purpose in writing this piece is not simply to villainize and attack the Miscellany News. On the contrary, I wish to push the Miscellany News to reform. But the fact is, I was maligned at and pushed out of the Miscellany News for speaking truth to power and refusing to back down from making my deeply held political beliefs heard. This will never happen at the Vassar Political Review. That’s why I can confidently say that we are truly a paper by the students, for the students.
Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major, the co-Editor-in-Chief of the VPR, a former columnist for the Miscellany News, a writer for Chronogram Magazine and a contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today.