Playing with live ammo

(I sat out last week so that I didn’t push the Riot story lower on the blog. I feel for A and Mr. A. I hope the Chicken Rat is able to run and jump and have fun now. – Doc)

During my first few years of advising, I often heard debates regarding which stories or photos we should or shouldn’t run in the college paper. The students often held the print edition to a higher standard, meaning that we had to make sure the stories or the photos were stronger, better or less controversial.

The line that always got me was, “Oh God! That (photo, story, graphic) is way too (bloody, scary, sexy, controversial) to put it in the paper! Just stick it online.”

In short, the argument was, “Man, this is too ugly for about 10,000 people to see for one day on our campus, so let’s put it somewhere that everyone on Earth can see it and share it in perpetuity.” When I finally started framing the argument that way, we started doing less stupid crap on the website.

I honestly feel bad for the students I teach these days because they’ve grown up in a completely digital world. I was carrying around my Eudora email settings on a floppy disk the year they were born. Thus, they often see the Web as nothing more than a lunchroom conversation, a student newspaper or a place to let loose.

The unfortunate truth is that working on the web is like playing with live ammo: You fuck up, you get seriously hurt.

A columnist for the Binghamton University student newspaper, The Pipe Dream, found this out when she wrote a column that noted black face “isn’t always offensive.” When she compared painting your face orange to be like an “Oompa-Loompa” to wearing blackface as part of a “Crazy Eyes” costume, the protests came fast and furious. The editors at the paper called this experience a “turning point” in the organization’s history, in which they would really try to be more inclusive. I suppose it was victory for the “Oompa-Loompas” as well…

A student paper at my alma mater found itself failing to understand what I call my “First Rule of Holes.” (The rule is simple. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.)David Hookstead wrote a letter to the Badger Herald arguing that “rape culture does not exist.”In his letter he noted a giant conspiracy among feminists to make men the bad guys, that they aren’t above lying about rape or creating a double standard for men and women in terms of sex.

As anyone with a half a brain could have predicted, this caused the Internet to implode, as his “devastatingly stupid” rant went viral. It wasn’t just the usual suspects, like the Daily Cardinal or the Isthmus, calling a Herald contributor on the carpet over this. City Page out of Minnesota, Jezebel Groupthink and New York Magazine all paid this a bit of attention. For his part, Hookstead took to Twitter to rant about all of this, thus attempting to extinguish the fire with gasoline.

In both of these cases, I see not just the wince-worthy topics that create problems, but also the underlying assumptions brought to bear by too many budding columnists. They write for themselves, thus picking a topic out of the air based on the whims of the day. They figure opinions are fine on their own and that merely posting or publishing them will lead to agreement. They fail to do proper research on the topics before beginning to yammer on and on about something, often substituting rhetorical questions for solid reporting and quality journalism. In short, it’s nothing more than a bar argument on a screen.

However, it’s not just pieces like these that lead me to discussions with students about the permanency of the web.I read a story earlier this week about a college kid who got busted in his dorm with weed.The kid also had pot plants and ecstasy, so this got serious in a hurry, but his biggest problem was that the U confiscated the cat he was illegally keeping in his dorm. When reporters dealt with this guy, he was fine with them using his name because he really wanted to let people know how upset he was about the loss of “Simba.”

In about three years, that kid is going to graduate and come back to those people and demand they remove the story from the website because he is worried he won’t get a job if employers think of him as a cat-loving drug lord. The same kind of thing is likely to haunt the kid who might end up across the table from an employer who says, “So, black people… Just like Oompa-Loompas, eh?”

As for Hookstead, he’ll probably be getting his call to be a correspondent for FOX News any day now…

The point is that things like this never go away on the Internet. Once they’re out there, you can never get them back. Still, things now are so much easier to share, the online environment is so comfortable and people stay connected via social media and web-based platforms now. It’s so easy to forget how quickly things like this can go south on people.

Years ago, I used to tell the newspaper kids that when they screwed up, they should apologize but then let it go. After all, by tomorrow, I’d say, this disaster will be lining a bird cage.

Today, they should be so lucky.

One thought on “Playing with live ammo

  1. maplestreet says:

    I feel for the kids. Used to be that college provided some in-between years where a kid could do something stupid and pick themselves back up. It gave them experience in living within the rules and where the lines lay.
    Now with the higher drinking age, kids can’t learn how to handle alcohol in a semi-safe environment (where it is likely that a friend will let them sleep it off in place or a safe person would give them a ride home).
    However, I would note that many kids aren’t waiting on the campus paper web page to erect a permanent memorial to their misdeeds. They are doing it to themselves on the social media.

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