Saturday, August 18, 2012

Of Fink and the R&B Mess

I swore I wouldn't write any more about the recent Red & Black mess, but having attended Friday's "open" meeting and hearing the Board's statement, I found myself this morning thinking again of Conrad Fink.

If Fink had still been with us, he would've stopped this with a "See Me" to members of the Board. 

He's the only person who could have done it.

I've written a a few words in favor of the students.  I may have tweeted once or twice, given an interview or two, maybe talked to a couple of national journalism organizations.  Standard stuff, none of likely to influence the Board itself, and one of it really exceptional.

Let me be clear.  I'm no Fink.

No one is.

I'm a guy who teaches 3410 and tries single-handily to keep Jittery Joe's coffee in business.  What I might manage in a thousand words, Fink could do with a single look.  For 20 years I had lunch with Fink a couple of times a week.  When we talked about The Red & Black students and stories they were working on, after I gave my opinion, I could see that inside his head he was thinking: "Okay, maybe I can repair any damage Hollander does in Ethics class."

So I can't speak for Fink.  No one should.  My hunch, though, is he would've summoned everyone to his office, told the Board to back off, and then told the students to get out and find some news for the next day's paper.

Assuming editorial control now rests with the students, there remains some unresolved issues.  For example, will the board jerk around the students in terms of filling the top editor positions?  There's a certain logic to saying the positions are technically unfilled so you have to re-apply, but there is only one decision here and that's to put people back where they were before the Board created the problem in the first place.

And then there's the Board itself.  It's time to revisit the bylaws and reconstitute the Board.  Existing members should slowly rotate off, maybe a third at a time to provide some institutional memory.  A former editor-in-chief should be an automatic member.  I am not comfortable, however, with a member of the Department of Journalism serving on the Board.  Yes, my boss Kent Middleton, chair of the department, serves.  He's done so since before he was chair.  This placed him in an awkward position, but he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to resolve the issue (and I'm not saying that because he's my boss -- the joy of tenure and being a full professor is I can say whatever the hell I like).  Members of the journalism department made it clear to him our support for the students.  The Board could include a retired faculty member, for instance, rather than one presently employed by UGA.  There are a few in Athens or nearby and any one of them would  be fine, or at least do no serious harm.

Some good came out of this.  The UGA community responded with support for the students, who learned some important lessons.  It took courage to do what they did.  As they met Friday morning, I whispered to them that I was 65 percent confident a solution would be reached by that afternoon.  I actually thought it was more like 90 percent, but I didn't want to slow them down.  They were already plotting out stories, thinking about how to create a print publication, working out space and equipment needs.  You don't get that kind of training in a classroom, you get it in, well, the real world.  And that's what they got this week, a dose of the real world ... in all its ugliness, in all the joy that came from the support of their peers, their professors, and most of all the alumni of the paper who rushed to their defense.

Okay, gotta leave this on a high note, even when talking about Fink.  I'm convinced that when he isn't taking a red pen to God's copy, he's playing lead guitar for the Athens band Widespread Panic.  Video below, give it a minute or two before the guitarist gets featured. 


Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

I can't speak for Fink either, nor would I ever try to, but I don't think it's any coincidence that the board only began executing this power play once Fink was gone. I remember Fink as someone who could be a strong ally for any student journalist stuck in a difficult ethical bind, and had any R&B writer/editor gone to him with news of what's been going on the last few months, he would've raised holy hell.

Phillip said...

And is that you behind the drum kit, Dr. Hollander? I had no idea you were a fellow percussionist!? Makes me like you more.. ;)

Hollander said...

Heh, no, that's not me, though we've known Sunny, the WP percussionist (not drummer)for years through our kids being in school together.

Kimberly Davis said...

After reading the statement released earlier Monay by the reinstated editors and board members, I am still in shock. The statement essentially reaffirms support for publisher Harry Montevideo -- by all accounts a "good" guy. But he is the publisher who actually laid his hands on a journalist, a person, a student attempting to cover an important story. That the student had been asked to leave is one thing, to attempt to take or turn off a camera and "assist" him to the ground is entirely different an should not be tolerated. People are fired for much less and I'm appalled that he still has this job.

SER said...

Dr. Hollander: Seeing the University take a publicity hit as a result of the R&B board's actions (the NY Times linked to that awful memo), I wondered if the University has a compelling interest in the R&B not becoming a "sorority newsletter," as you put it. If I was choosing a journalism school, I'd also consider the reputation of the student newspaper, which is where I'd be getting a great deal of training. And the R&B presents itself as a training ground for UGA students. Should someone at the University hold the board accountable for that? As it is now, they're running focus groups.

I agree that Fink was able to do that but it was unofficial.

But perhaps the best method is, as you state, ensuring a steady rotation of board members to get the membership fresh.

I still shake my head that board members had to ask for printed out copies of tweets and Red and Dead web site content. They are the board members of a newspaper that went digital and they aren't users of social media? The twitter page and R&D web page was reported in most news accounts of this incident. Why weren't they all reading all of this as events unfolded?

Mike: Yes, I'm sure Fink would have been appalled by the direction the paper was taking -- forget "prior review." If the student editors had willingly gone along with "good" or "bad" journalism, he would not have been pleased.

Kimberly: Harry's apology stated that he should have waited for the police to arrive, which I thought was tone deaf from a management perspective. Having a police officer escort a student journalist from the premises of a student paper would have been a PR nightmare and unwarranted. Letting him take the pictures -- even if he'd been asked not to do so -- was the most logical course of action. In my experience, managers are fired for continuing to make decisions that put the company in a bad light. This is not about whether Harry is a "good" or "bad" guy. It's about effectiveness.