July 10, 2012

The Kitchener Rangers are suing the pants off of a student paper

Here's a Kitchener Ranger taking on someone his own size. (Photo courtesy of Tabercil/Flickr Creative Commons)
Deadspin reports on a Canadian minor league hockey team suing the Michigan Daily, a campus paper at the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor, for libel for reporting that the team offered a player $200,000 cash to stick with the team.

Trouba, who was taken by the Winnipeg Jets last month, was selected in the 2010 OHL Draft by the Kitchener Rangers. Just out of high school, Trouba now has a choice ahead of him: play college hockey for the Michigan Wolverines, or go to the OHL and make some money, but forfeit his NCAA eligibility. What an OHL team would normally do in this case is offer something called an education package: reimbursement of tuition, book, and room and board at any university once the player's OHL career is over. The problem with such packages is that they expire just 18 months after leaving the OHL team, and few players take advantage of them, because they're too busy playing hockey in the NHL or elsewhere, or just have no interest in attending college if they're not able to play.  
Last week, The Michigan Daily reported, via two OHL sources, that Kitchener had offered Trouba $200,000—in cash, not as an education package—to pull out of his Michigan commitment and come play for the Rangers. Kitchener strongly denied the story, and demanded that the Daily retract the story and issue a formal apology. Their Monday deadline passed, and today Kitchener filed a defamation lawsuit in Ontario court against the Daily, seeking $1 million in damages.

Deadspin continues:

What follows from here should be interesting. I hope an international paper, even a student paper, isn't compelled to reveal its sources. At the same time, a student paper (rightly or wrongly) doesn't get the same benefit of the doubt as a professional outlet. (For what it's worth, Trouba has affirmed his intentions to attend Michigan.) While I'm not up on Canadian libel law, presumably the burden is still on the plaintiff here. So, thorny issues. It's not a good look to sue a student newspaper, but if the story is actually false, and you're not using court as a scare tactic, a lawsuit is the last and best recourse.

Unfortunately for the Daily, the suit was filed in Canada, where protections for journalists are considerably weaker than the States. The presumption of innocence doesn't apply in libel cases here — you're guilty until proven innocent.

Regardless, it certainly doesn't look good to sue a student newspaper. In fact, it makes you look kind of like an asshole.

July 02, 2012

Why Stephen Toope is the new Jimmy Hoffa

Irving K. Barber Library at UBC. (Photo Courtesy of Dennis Tsang/Flickr Creative Commons)

If you're a student journalist, or a student, or a journalist, or in any way a participant in society, you need to read this article in the latest edition of n+1, which outlines how the university has overtaken the union as the second most important institution (after the corporation) in American, and I'd argue Canadian, life.

The piece is broad in it's scope, but here's the key message:

Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

The editors of n+1 frame holders of university degrees as members of an enormous cartel.

For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that ... income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

It examines why creditors are so happy to lend to students (you can't bankrupt out of student loans) and why the Tea Party is, at least partially, right about the Ivy League "elites."

It makes a hero out of Clarence Thomas and casts the New Yorker as a den of fools.

It even argues that a proto-university ranking system, a personal boogeyman of mine, forced the creation of the modern medical degree (with the mandatory four-year degree before you even start with any actual medicine) while simultaneously shutting women and black Americans out of the medical profession for decades.

If not earlier: the AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools — but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools — schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women — closed.

And here's the kill-shot:

Introductory economics courses paint “rent-seekers” as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly privileges; credential-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell.

This essay has struck me in a way that few ever have. I'm going to collect my thoughts and report back on them, especially on how this applies to journalism education, a subject I've been thinking a lot about.

The white world of literary journalism

According to The Rumpus, 88 per cent of all books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review are written by white authors. Amanda Hess from Poynter compares the discussion on racial representation in literary journalism with the recent focus on the gender disparities in the genre.
Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse. The 50-50 gender ratio is easy to quantify, but the racial breakdown of the U.S. population is complex. It took Gay, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, 14 weeks to complete her research, employing a student for 16 hours a week to mine authors’ ethnic backgrounds. They couldn’t confirm the race of six authors. Gay plans to execute a similar count for the bylines of The Times’ book reviewers, when she gets the time. And that’s just one publication.
And here's the really key point:
The whiteness of The New York Times Book Review represents the structural inequality of elite journalism stacked on the structural inequality of elite publishing stacked on the structural inequality of income and education in this country. But for women, the system is breaking down at an advanced stage of the game. When female graduates don’t end up in newsrooms, female MFA program stars don’t get book deals, or female editors are not promoted up the chain, publications can be held accountable for that problem. When writers of color are disenfranchised at every stage of the process, everyone is to blame, so no one is.
You only have to look so far as the racial composition of student newsrooms, even at very diverse universities, to realize that the problem of representation for people-of-colour in journalism starts right at the beginning.

At the paper that I came from, our staff of volunteer writers were fairly representative, but the editorial staff rarely was. In conversations with many other people, we were never able to pin down any concrete answers as to why that was the case, but we tossed around a lot of possibilities.

A lot of the time, people immediately assumed that it had to with language ability and that a disproportionate number of people-of-colour on our campus spoke English as a second language. And yet we still had a strong cadre of non-white writers who had no trouble distinguishing between en- and em-dashes.

Was it because white people were more drawn to "softer" subject areas such as English and political science, the primordial ooze from where student journalists are created, with people of colour disproportionately represented in the sciences and engineering? That was certainly true to an extent amongst the faculties, but then why were non-white writers who were already interested in journalism less likely to stick around the paper long-term?

Another possible cultural explanation would be that even for those non-white writers who wanted to get into media, journalism school was seen as a better route, especially for people who come from a number of East and South Asian backgrounds that place enormous value on possessing credentials.

Or perhaps the time commitment involved with being an editor at the paper meant that people who still lived at home in the suburbs (which in Metro Vancouver tend to be less white than the cities) and had to commute long distances were less likely to take that sort of opportunity.

The final, and most disturbing idea, was that there was something inherit in the culture of the paper that either turned people of colour off from working there or else we actively and unconsciously created a hostile atmosphere. This could range from a collective love of booze that people from certain background might not share, or else a system where the people in charge would mentor people like them to take over their roles.

The likely answer is, as with all things, going to be more complicated than a single factor. But it does demonstrate that the problems with journalism starts at the beginning. And this of course isn't even getting into the many issues that writers of colour will face when they attempt to enter the workforce or try and move up the ladder.