Look, Becky

Conservative college columnist who called for strip-searching of any Arab or American of Arab heritage who dared get near an airport now plays the Ann Coulter defense:

I can admit I’m wrong: I was. I’ve apologized for offending people who didn’t deserve to be disrespected. I’ll do it again and again. But I stand my ground in that there was a severe lack of judgment in my removal from the paper.

My choice of words for the column may not have been appropriate. They may constitute a poor use of satire. But they weren’t unethical.

I’m a big advocate of student newspapers, and it’s for this exact reason. Not just for her, but for her editor.

You know what these kids just learned, from the furor over the original column and the resulting back and forth going on at Romenesko?

1. Words have power. People will read them and believe them, people will read them and fight over them, people will read them and be stirred and changed and angered and affected. You’re not just writing for yourself in your room with your looseleaf notebook anymore. It’s a lesson a lot of “professional” columnists and yes, bloggers, need to learn.

2. Words, once published, are out of your control. Yes, copyright, and yes, fair use, and yes, permissions. But people can still seize on your point and use it to bolster their own, people can still accuse you of things you didn’t say, people can misconstrue and twist and characterize, until at the end of the day you’re no longer sure what you said, or why. Ms. Bandes claims to have Arab friends. I wonder how they feel about her words being trumpeted to great acclaim by the hateful whack jobs over at LGF. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s not as vile as some of her supporters over there. But because of what she wrote, she’s presumed to be on their side. That’s something you have to consider every time you put pen to paper. You don’t have to be intimidated by it. But you do have to consider it.

3. Words are forever. Why do you think so many bloggers start out as anonymous voices? And that some choose to remain so? Ms. Bandes had better hope she has a career waiting at Townhall.com or Fox News, because she’s gonna be the girl who wrote that column, for the rest of her life. It’s the blessing and curse of print, what I loved and hated about it: It’s a permanent record.

4. Words, if you believe in them, must be defended. Don’t get me wrong. I think Ms. Bandes’ views should be opposed at the top of the lungs by every sensible person on earth, but if she really believes in the things she wrote, she is going to have to say so, and repeatedly, and say why. That’s what happens when you put your own opinions out there.

5. The most important position at a newspaper is not the star reporter or the “provocative” columnist. It’s his or her editor. This column came in and was going to be inflammatory. The editors should have known this and checked it more carefully. People write offensive shit every day of the week, that’s not what’s remarkable here. What’s remarkable is that it actually made it into print with what sounds like a serious minimum of oversight. It should have been reviewed, discussed, and if it was printed anyway, the editor should have felt comfortable defending it as a legitimate expression of views, with the quotes he later objected to either clarified or excised.

It’s easy to kick these kids around, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. We talk a lot on blogs about what sucks about journalism and what’s great. What’s great in journalism is learned by doing, and by doing in an environment where you make mistakes, sometimes huge ones, and you face the consequences and you get it over with. Say what you like about Ivy League training programs, there’s no pure journalism theory I know of that’ll teach you to call up the athletic director in the middle of the night and ask him if his star football player just got arrested for crack possession, and keep him on the phone until he tells you what you already know. You learn that the first time you do it, and you either learn that you’re the kind of person who cracks under that kind of pressure, or you get off the phone feeling like you just conquered the world.

These are important lessons Ms. Bandes and her editors are learning. I look forward to seeing from their future careers whether any of them took.

A.