Why It Matters What You Did In College

So Box Turtle Ben was a serial plagiarist when he worked at his college paper. Why does it matter? He was only 17, or 19, or 21, right? You gonna trash people over what happened in grade school, now, too? All the devil’s advocacy in the world is going to be brought to bear to defend this guy, so it’s important to explain why arguments like this are bullshit.

Let me explain something about college newspapers, more specifically, the one I worked for. It wasn’t a fake, toy, pretend thing we did on the side. We worked as hard, if not harder, than most professional reporters I know. And I say that with love and respect for most of the professional reporters I know, but I’m telling you, on my toughest day as a pro I didn’t work a fraction as hard as I did on my laziest day at my college paper. We had no faculty advisors, not really; no grown-up in charge. We were 19, 20, 21, and we had editors, we had subordinates and deadlines and computers that crashed and stories that died on the table and we made mistakes that made you want to kill yourself the next day. We got death threats. Lawsuits. Letters to the editor. Phone calls from irate advertisers, ethical decisions that crushed us and made us hate each other. It was the toughest job I ever had.

We busted our asses and in my lifetime, I’m telling you, I’ve never had an experience that high-flying fucking pure, never been so in love with the job or the people who did it beside me. My attempts to stay in the newsroom my entire professional career, which failed, were in no small part attempts to continue the work that had come to mean so much to me. My first and best education was at my college paper. The people who would change my life, I met there. We took it seriously, and the one time we found somebody plagiarizing, gluing his name on top of his friend’s on stories and sending them out to prospective employers, we kicked his ass out the door.

You know how you get a job in newspapers, if you’re a kid from state school who doesn’t have a Republican daddy who knows Jack Abramoff or an uncle who CEOs NBC? You get clips. You get them from internships you take for no pay at big papers where they work you like a dog and if you’re very lucky teach you, and you get them from your college paper. Those clips I got at my paper got me a job at a small minority-owned weekly, and an internship at a big daily, which led to a writing gig at another weekly, which led to a daily, which led to another. You earn your way up the ladder with your work at a previous job, and your byline is all you own.

We hack on shit journalism a lot around here, and the reason why is because, well, journalism is important. I’m not a girl with an easy relationship to religion, most of you know that. I am, however, confident in the scripture of the First Amendment and words put down on paper are my cathedrals. The right of people to write what they see and think, to share their stories, to point out problems and ferret out corruption and bring the light and the open air to problems, that is sacred to me, and a betrayal of that, by some hack who had chances that young people I know would kill for, offends me tremendously.

The people I know who worked at the college paper with me … we count that experience important in our lives. It matters. It wasn’t youthful folly, it wasn’t long-ago idealism now dismissed with a condescending laugh. For me, it was the birthplace of principles I lived throughout my later career, and I’m not so much older than Ben. It mattered to me. I took it seriously, and it gave me so much joy and such a good foundation for my life that I almost feel sorry for him, that he had an opportunity, and used it for this.