By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Newspapers don’t often become news. But when they do, their editors may be led to question the old adage that says there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Ohio University’s student newspaper, The Post, has been at the center of a highly publicized controversy since the first week of the school year. A variety of students and faculty members have accused the paper’s staff of racism. Most prominent in the campaign against The Post is a group that hasn’t made many headlines prior to this year, OU’s Latino Student Union.
The Latino Student Union was founded in the spring of 2005, after two decades during which the only Latino-oriented organizations on Ohio University’s main campus were a coed fraternity and a sorority. According to LSU co-founder Velma Lopez, a Chicana senior microbiology major from the Dayton area, she and other founding members of the LSU envisioned an organization that would be more activist-oriented and include more people outside of the Greek Life scene.
While the early activities of the LSU were mainly social events that focused on building community and appreciating Latino cultures, the group gradually began undertaking more public educational programs on social justice issues. Among such activities, the LSU has hosted a forum on immigration, brought in a speaker to discuss the US-backed genocide in Guatemala and begun working to create an endowed scholarship for Latino students at OU.
This academic year began with the 15 to 20 active members of the LSU gearing up for several projects co-sponsored by OU’s Multicultural Center, including a screening of the film Walkout, about a landmark protest organized by Chicano high school students in East Los Angeles in 1968, followed by a presentation from the historic walkout’s organizer, Paula Crisostomo. Preparations were also underway for a winter quarter presentation on the conflict in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
However, by the end of the first week of classes, the LSU found itself embroiled in an ongoing confrontation with The Post, after the paper’s editors decided to publish a piece in which one of their weekly staff columnists downplayed the genocide of Native Americans and referred to Latino and Caribbean immigrants as “scum.”
On Monday, October 1, I had the opportunity to engage three members of the LSU in an in-depth conversation about the controversy. In addition to Lopez I was joined by LSU President Ashley Diaz, a Puerto Rican senior English major from inner-city Cleveland, and new LSU member Brittany Benton, a Black junior video production and Spanish major, also from Cleveland.
So what is this conflict with The Post all about? How did it begin?
Ashley Diaz: On a whim I picked up The Post that Friday, September 7. I began reading Chris Yonker’s column, in which he compares the colonization of America and the genocide of Native Americans to a house party that has had “a noise violation every once in while.” He then goes on to call Latino immigrants “scum” and “Mariachi-playing maestros” who “tunnel under our walls” to steal jobs from “loyal, hardworking Americans” – and I couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe I’m reading this wrong, or I’m taking it the wrong way. At first I fell into the trap of thinking maybe I was just being too sensitive. So I called everyone I knew and had them read the column, and when everyone came to the LSU meeting that Sunday and was just as pissed off as I was, I realized I had been right on track. We had a vote and decided to do something about it.
Velma Lopez: As the only non-Greek Life, Latino student organization on campus – and Yonker’s column definitely targeted Latinos – our first step was to write an official response to The Post. Then we began finding professors and other students who were offended by the column and interested in helping us, and we all started working together. This is where Brittany comes in. It was Brittany’s idea to start a petition to have Yonker fired because his racist remarks are a violation of the student code of conduct, in addition to his lack of journalist credibility and integrity.
In defense of Yonker, people have argued that his column is supposed to be satire. But that begs the question: what exactly is Yonker supposed to be satirizing?
(For further discussion of this angle, see “Post ediitor says paper will back up staffer accused of racist column,” Athens News, 9/17/07)
VL: Today’s Athens News (10 /1/07) quotes The Post’s editor-in-chief, Matt Zapotosky,
saying that Yonker was satirizing racism. I think maybe journalism majors need to look up the definition of satire. Seeing as I’m a science major and I know what a satire is, maybe they should figure that out.
Brittany Benton: Last time I checked a satire is a parody that’s supposed to critique and poke fun at the vices and whatnot that exist in the mainstream. But the mainstream has always been, to a certain degree, racist and discriminatory toward one alienated group of people or another – whether the Jews, the Blacks – and it seems right now especially in all of the media, that it’s the Latinos’ turn. So Yonker’s not criticizing anything about the mainstream. He isn’t providing any breath of fresh air. He’s just stepping right in line and further degrading an alienated group of people.
So when The Post’s Zapotosky says Yonker was not “trying to shroud racism in humor” but instead “trying to satirize racism with humor” you don’t buy that?
VL: Chris actually came up and talked to us one day when we were tabling and said “I’m not calling you scum, I’m just calling ‘illegal immigrants’ scum” – which is half of my family. So he’s still calling a specific group of people “scum,” based on their race, and that’s how you define racism.
(Editor’s note, 2/20/13 — At the time of this interview, the Athens News had reported Yonker turned down two of the newspaper’s requests for interviews regarding the controversy. Indeed, while Yonker continued his weekly column at The Post, he never publicly responded to his critics.)
BB: And as for the idea that being undocumented should make someone “scum,” pardon us for questioning why humanity is second to citizenship. “Oh, you’re not scum –- but God forbid anybody who’s looking for a better life tries to come get it.” America’s bragging about how it has the most, it does the most, and it has the most to offer. I mean, can you blame somebody else for coming over here to take advantage of an opportunity, which you preach to your children as part of our ideology?
Your critics have accused you of being “hypersensitive minorities” and “drama queens.” In a column that attempted to misconstrue the First Amendment as protecting The Post from public criticism, weekly columnist Jesse Hathaway condemned what he called “the arm-waving and mud-slinging that two Post columnists have received from easily offended minority organizations, fuzzy-bearded professors and other assorted nuts” – whom Hathaway dubbed as “anti-free speech” and also managed to call “stupid people” operating in “indignant outrage berserker mode” who have “no idea how silly they look” (The Post, 9/24/07)
This is a pretty strong reaction from someone who wonders why you “easily offended minorities” can’t just take a joke.
BB: That kind of stuff comes from such a place of white privilege. I mean, how can you explain the history of America as a house party? Who’s really been enjoying this party? lt couldn’t be the blacks forced to work for free; it couldn’t be the Latinos constantly disenfranchised, moved off their land, called “illegals” and abused; it couldn’t be the first Chinese who came over here, who worked for the railroads. The history of America is based on genocide, occupation, colonization, exploitation and discrimination – and what kind of party is that? If this is supposed to be a joke, yeah, we get it. But pardon us for not laughing.
Some people say we’re blowing this out of proportion because no one has been hurt. But it’s a fine line between verbal acts of hate and physical acts of hate, because it always seems like one leads to the next. First come the words, and then comes the action. Back in the days when they’d lynch people, they’d chase them, calling them “nigger”-this, “nigger”-that, “coon”-this, before they could catch them and do whatever they could to them – kill them, beat them, rape them, cut them, whatever. You don’t do that to a fellow human being. So you have to start devaluing a group of people first, calling them whatever you can to make them seem less than human. Then, with that normalized sense of hate, people can be like, “Yeah, this scum – let’s lock them away or send them back across the border. They’re just scum, not people like us.”
VL: The word “scum” has traditionally been used to describe Blacks and Jews, and it’s completely unacceptable now if you’re talking about Blacks or Jews. Just like when Yonker says “Mariachi-playing maestros,”‘ it would not be acceptable for him to say “fried chicken-eating …” or “water melon-eating …” or…
BB: “Big afro-havin’”… “hip hop blastin’”…
When someone says “Maiachi-playing maestros” and they talk about the “scum” “tunneling under our walls” and “traveling in makeshift rafts,” you know exactly who they’re talking about. They’re not talking about lily white Canada. They’re not talking about the tons of Russians, Italians – all types of Europeans and Asian immigrants who really aren’t demonized like Latinos and people from the Caribbean.
AD: But I want to point out that it’s not only minorities who are so upset about this. Just by coming out to last Friday’s rally and seeing the diverse makeup of white, black and brown people there — it’s obviously not just Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and Chicanas. This is about everyone who’s against racism and discrimination in general.
That rally on Friday, September 26, was organized by Nancy Robinson, a Black senior education major. As for the rally being opposed to “racism and discrimination in general,” I noticed that there were several people of different races at the rally with signs responding, not to Chris Yonker’s column, but to a separate column written by another Post columnist, Joe Vance.
Less than a week after Yonker called Latinos “scum” Joe Vance called Iraqis “a primitive people with no genuine desire for liberty” who were not “worth” the US government’s supposed “attempt to civilize them.” Vance went on to call upon the US military to “level Baghdad” – a city of seven million men, women and children – as well as much of the rest of the Middle East. (The Post, 9/13/07)
So here is a second staff columnist for The Post, not only being racist, but openly advocating genocide, and I haven’t heard anyone attempt to make the claim that Joe Vance is just a failed satirist, or just another bad writer at The Post.
Has there been much interaction between people upset by Yonker’s column and people upset by Vance’s?
(Editor’s note — See my response, published in The Post, to Joe Vance’s column.)
VL: Definitely. It’s not just Yonker. It’s the whole climate at The Post, which I feel is reflective of the larger climate at the university. The only difference between Yonker’s column and Vance’s column is that Vance actually has military backing, where at this point in time Yonker just has words. But it’s the same ideology.
AD: The rally on Friday wasn’t just an anti-Yonker rally or an anti-Vance rally, it was an anti-Post rally. Once we started taking a closer look and doing some research, we realized it wasn’t just that Yonker published one badly-written, racist piece — it’s the whole culture of The Post.
VL: It’s the fact that these are columns that get approved by a larger board of people; that get approved by faculty members; that get approved by an editor-in-chief; and which should be completely unacceptable to publish — material that is in violation of the student code of conduct and that’s flat out wrong.
AD: It says something sad about the state of the university that no one raised a red flag over these columns and said, “Hey, you can’t publish this. Something’s wrong with this.”
BB: Especially at a university that tries to present itself as promoting such a multicultural and diverse atmosphere.
VL: It also says something sad that when we spoke with one upper level administrator about this, he told us that this isn’t racism, it’s just white privilege, and we can’t really blame Chris Yonker for being ignorant.
You mean this administrator was basically saying “boys will be boys?”
BB: Specifically, white boys will be boys. Not all boys. Just white boys.
VL: My response to this administrator was that Yonker is a senior: he has been at OU for as long as I have; he’s been going through the same curriculum as other students — so how is it that only students of color should be expected to be tolerant?
BB: It’s such bullshit, the idea that ignorance yields innocence for one group, but meanwhile students of color are expected to be held to the letter of every code, because we’re supposed to know better.
Yonker’s white privilege keeps him from knowing that he can’t call people of color “scum,” so therefore he can’t be held accountable? But he’s a journalism major on the staff of the student newspaper…
AD: And not just any journalism maior, but one from Scripps, which is supposed to be one of the top journalism schools in the country — and this is what they’re producing?
BB: Is that what Scripps is really worth? They make racists who can write?
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but it occurs to me that unlike The InterActivist, which is organized as a democratic cooperative, decision-making at The Post happens through the hierarchical chain of command typical of business corporations and the world of commercial journalism. So recognizing that most Post staffers don’t have any power over staffing and editorial decisions, I don’t assume that everybody at The Post shares Yonker, Vance and Hathaway’s racism. I don’t assume that everybody at The Post supports Matt Zapotosky’s decision to feature racist columnists three out of five weekdays that the newspaper is published.
On the other hand, I don’t hear anyone at The Post speaking out against any of this. So what has been your experience? Have you talked to people at The Post who say they’re sympathetic to any of your efforts? Or do you find Post staffers feel loyal to their paper above all else, to the point of defending bad decisions they themselves had no part in making?
AD: My experience has been half and half. People at The Post have told me they’re sympathetic, but they can’t really go on the record against The Post because they need their jobs; they need this on their resumes, and they need those clips for their portfolios.
So not so much loyalty to their newspaper as loyalty to their own narrow senses of self-interest?
VL: For the most part, and for whatever reasons, the people I’ve encountered are prioritizing their loyalties to The Post. One of my roommates isn’t talking to me anymore because she works for The Post. So there’s definitely that tension. They had a Post meeting at my apartment [laughs]. I walked into it and got a bunch of nasty looks.
Beyond that, I have experienced various forms of harassment from different members of The Post: different staff members, different editors, and even one of the faculty members on The Post’s publishing board, Patrick Washburn, a journalism professor in Scripps. I had e-mailed him to ask about which faculty members are on The Post’s publishing board, which is public information. And because I didn’t tell him that I’m a member of the Latino Student Union, he accused me of hiding information and being afraid to come clean over the course of a couple very rude e-mails.
BB: God forbid you do research out of class in what we’re constantly told is an academic environment…
AI: Where you’re supposed to be inquisitive!
VL: Yeah. [laughs] No curiosity in an institution of higher learning!
(For information on Professor Washburn’s problematic history concerning race and gender, see “OU issues findings against J-school professor, Washburn calls report an ‘outrageous witch hunt'” Athens News, 10/21/02)
Let’s talk more about your background research on The Post. Have you discovered anything surprising?
VL: After the LSU decided to issue an official response to Yonker’s column, we began asking a lot of questions and trying to figure out how The Post is run, because we knew the organization of The Post would affect the demands we could and couldn’t make of the paper. So we just started fishing around for information.
Ashlely and I spent an entire day walking all over campus from office to office, and nobody could seem to give us solid answers. They just kept sending us to different offices. One thing that we were told, over and over and over again, is the rhetoric that The Post is an independently run student newspaper with no support from the university. But finally we were able to find out that the university pays $38,000 per year from the students’ general fee toward the salary of The Post’s business manager. The business manager is in charge of marketing and advertising, so The Post can’t run without its business manager. Therefore, the paper is very much dependent on the university.
AD: There are also The Post’s offices in Baker Center. And they have a URL that says “ohio.edu.”
The Post pays no rent on its offices?
VL: They pay no rent, no utilities, and I believe that their telephones and computers are supplied by the university, but I wasn’t able to get a definite answer on that. And OU has its janitors clean their offices.
The university also supports The Post by requiring that student organizations use university funding to advertise their events in The Post rather than other local papers.
BB: How’s that for independence?
Sounds like a sweet deal. OU gives The InterActivist money for printing through our student group publishers, but it’s awarded quarterly, it’s a lot less than $38,000 per year, and we’re not allowed to spend a penny of it on rent, utilities, equipment or my salary as project coordinator of the magazine at People Might. We had to create a separate nonprofit organization in order to seek private grant money to cover those expenses, which means we’re competing with hundreds of other nonprofits from all over the country for just a handful of grants that pertain to our work. In the meantime, we manage to barely scrape by — week to week, month to month — on the basis of individual donations, fundraising events and a very few paying advertisers. It sure must be nice for The Post to have OU as its sugar daddy.
[Editor’s note (1/6/13): While perhaps a coincidence, shortly after publication of this interview the OU Student Activities Commission slashed The InterActivist’s funding. Whereas SAC had awarded The InterActivist $10,800 for fall quarter 2007, the magazine was awarded just $2,000 for the following quarter.
The InterActivist was co-sponsored by more organizations and reached a larger audience than any other student project at Ohio University. This meant that according to SAC’s guidelines the magazine should have received more funding than any other project. However, the quarter this article was published, SAC created a new policy that exempted student publications from the criteria SAC applied to all other student projects. SAC’s new policy for publications was that each group requesting funding for a publication could receive no more than $1,000 per quarter, and no more than one group could put its funding toward the printing of a single issue. In other words, funding for each issue of The InterActivist was capped at $1,000, and since we then published The InterActivist monthly, quarterly funding was effectively capped at $3,000. The reason we received just $2,000 the first quarter this policy went into practice was because SAC had not notified us of its new policy but still penalized us for not arranging our funding requests to fit the policy.
Afterwards, I asked SAC members for additionanl clarification but received conflicting responses. When I pointed out these contradictions and asked for an explanation, SAC simply stopped responding to my emails.
In response to SAC’s assault on The InterActivist, I advocated launching a confrontational and very public campaign to attempt to force SAC to reinstate our previous level of funding. Unfortunately, a majority of The InterActivist staff favored a more concilliatory approach — effectively, of doing nothing. Although SAC funding for The InterActivist increased slightly in subsequent years, to date funding has never returned to its 2007 levels.]
VL: And the university’s involvement in The Post doesn’t end there. OU’s faculty senate issues recommendations as to who should serve on The Post’s publishing board, and based on those recommendations [OU] President [Roderick] McDavis appoints members to that board.
What role does this publishing board have in how The Post is run? Is it just advisory, or does it have some formal power in governance?
VL: We haven’t figured that out yet for sure. We’ve received some conflicting reports, so we’re now seeking to arrange a meeting with Dr. [Sergio] Lopez, the president of Faculty Senate, to, determine just how all of this works, and what our options are for trying to affect The Post through Faculty Senate.
Does the LSU have one or more official demands at this point?
AD: Our official response calls for The Post to fire Chris Yonker, and we’ve been circulating petitions calling on The Post to do so. But now we’re really looking beyond Yonker to some of the larger issues at The Post and deciding where we want to go from
Well, if the LSU hasn’t yet decided on an official course of action beyond the group’s original statement and petitions, do any of you have your own ideas for what you’d like to see happen?
AD: I’d like to see a mature, professional statement from The Post. They haven’t come out and officially said anything. We get snippets from the editor-in-chief when he’s quoted in The Athens News, and jabs at us in The Post through their comic and columns, being called “hypersensitive minorities,” “drama queens,” assorted nuts,” etc. I would just like to be addressed formally and maturely about this.
VL: I would like the university to take a stand against racism in The Post, and I would like to see all hidden funding removed from The Post.
Kick them out of Baker or make them pay rent. Make them pay custodial staff. Make them pay utilities. Make them pay for their phones and computers if they don’t already. Make them support a business manager of their own.
Restructure the publishing board so you have People who are sensitive to Vision Ohio, the university’s central dogma of multiculturalism and tolerance. Also, there are currently two faculty members on the publishing board, and I would like to see an odd number so that when there is a disagreement you have a majority and a minority opinion.
I’d also like to see restructuring of the paper’s editorial board and how many people are on it. I would like to see a wider representation of opinions among columnists — I think it’s ridiculous that you have three columnists that are trying to do political humor, all with the same ideology.
And personally, I would like all of my money to stop going to The Post.
But are you saying a university that is supported by Ohioans’ tax dollars should use political criteria to decide which student groups receive funding? What about the College Republicans, which represents views on history, race, immigration and militarism very similar to those of Yonker, Vance and Hathaway? Should OU fund its programs? What about a lef-twing student activist group –- or say, a progressive magazine that publishes articles critical of the university administration? As an educational institution, doesn’t OU have a responsibility to support a forum for ideologically diverse ideas on campus by funding ideologically diverse student organizations?
BB: The difference between The Post and other student groups is the extra financial support The Post receives. The College Republicans, College Democrats, the LSU, Student African American Brotherhood, whoever –- none of those groups are getting anywhere near the amount of preferential treatment The Post gets.
VL: Also, other student organizations have to compete for funding, whereas The Post doesn’t.
AD: My impression of The Post is that it is Ohio University’s student newspaper and is therefore expected to represent the student body as a whole, whereas the College Republicans doesn’t have to do that.
Well, thank you all for taking the time to talk about this. How can InterActivist readers who’d like to get involved in your effort do so? Also, does one need to be Latino to join the LSU?
AD: We meet every Sunday at 7p.m. in Baker Center. You can reach us by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. And no, you don’t need to be Latino to join the LSU.
Editor’s notes, 1/6/13 – The following annotated list of links provides additional reporting and commentary on this story; other notable incidents in race relations at Ohio University between 2006 and 2008; and finally, a closer look at The Post from fall 2005 through spring 2008 — a three-year period during which the newspaper was characterized by especially bad politics and especially poor journalism.
“Column in OU’s student paper insensitive to Latinos, Native Americans,” Athens News, 9/17/07 – The Latino Student Union’s official response to Chris Yonker’s September 7 column.
“Post editor says paper will back up staffer accused of racist column,” Athens News, 9/17/07 — The closest The Post ever came to an official response to the controversy was when editor Matt Zapatosky discussed the controversy with the Athens News.
“Why does college paper insist on printing racist propaganda?” Athens News, 9/20/07 – Brittany Benton, before joining the LSU and its campaign, responds to Yonker’s September 7 column. In her response, she refers to an altercation in Alden library earlier that year for which another OU student, Edward P. Mahony, was charged with ethnic menacing for a racist outburst directed at Benton and her friend MaDonna Hill. Links to the news coverage of the incident and its aftermath are included below.
“First Amendment doesn’t protect idiots and racists from criticism” (Athens News, 9/27/07) – Editor Terry Smith provides a response to Jesse Hathaway’s column “Can’t touch this: US constitution includes freedom of speech to arouse discomfort,” The Post, 9/24/07.
“The Post, racism and genocide,” Athens News, 9/17/07 — In this guest column, English professor George Hartley (who doesn’t have a beard, fuzzy or otherwise), was the only person from OU’s faculty or administrator to make a public statement on The Post’s racial controversy and the only person to comment specifically on Post columnist Joe Vance’s advocacy of genocide other than me in my “Ohio University Post goes from laughing off genocide to openly advocating it,” 9/18/07. Save for a few noteworthy exceptions (e.g. Jaylynne Hutchinson, Bob Sheak, Eugene Amarrel, Najee Muhammad), the silence of OU professors and administrators on matters of public concern is usually deafening. Particularly glaring in this situation was the absence of any public statement from the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism — people whom it seemed had not only failed to prepare Yonker, Vance, Zapotosky, Hathaway and other Post staffers for operating within an increasingly multicultural profession and society, but had also failed to impart to their students even the most rudimentary understanding of the First Amendment. As noted above, it was up to Athens News editor Terry Smith to attempt to clarify publicly the nature of the First Amendment after the Scripps students had done a great deal to confuse the issue.
“Offensive newspaper columns, student outburst in library fuel forum on race” (Athens News, 2/11/08) – Six months after my interview with LSU members this article in the Athens News reported The Post’s rejection of all LSU demands and failure to undertake racial sensitivity training.
Coverage of the incident in Alden Library:
“Potesters show up at hearing of student accused in racial assault,” Athens News, 6/11/07
“OU police to charge student who allegedly hurled racial abuse, threats in Alden Library,” Athens News, 6/14/07
“Judge says no to venue change in alleged racism at OU library,” Athens News, 9/17/07
“Ex-student charged with racial altercation in library heads to trial,” Athens News, 11/8/07
“Holdout juror sends ethnic intimidation case into mistrial,” Athens News, 11/12/07
“Former OU student takes plea in racial abuse case,” Athens News, 12/13/07
“OU prof says he won’t let social justice issues be swept under the rug,” Athens News, 10/18/07
“UCM board names recipients of social justice awards,” Athens News, 3/27/08
“Why should minority students support white student power?” Athens News, 11/2/06
Finally, regarding disturbing longterm trends at The Post and OU’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism from 2005 through 2008, see my blog entry “Ohio University Post, J-school take turn for worse, stay course for three years or more,” 2/24/2013