In March 2020, conservative columnist and author Heather Mac Donald’s visit to Emory provoked widespread protests. During my first week as an editor at the Wheel, we published seven opinion articles responding to her invective, which included incendiary assertions that most “campus rape[s] [are] voluntary hookups” and that “anti-bias effort is unnecessary.”
Many of those protests and some of the Wheel’s articles, however, questioned administrators’ choice to let her speak in the first place. This was not an unprecedented debate — neither in higher education nor at Emory — and it by no means reached a satisfying conclusion. Now more than ever before, public-facing institutions twist themselves in knots while trying to find the correct balance between honoring freedom of speech and doing no harm. Opinion journalism experiences this problem especially acutely, and the Wheel’s opinion section is no exception.
If we do not learn to navigate the fine line between featuring uncomfortable perspectives and protecting our readers from hate, we risk failing the community we exist to serve. To that end, the Wheel and news organizations like it should not shy from publishing discomforting or even provocative content, as long as it is exhaustively fact-checked and meets a strict standard of physical, mental and emotional harmlessness. The Wheel has failed on both counts in the past; we have alternately published harmful content and pushed away uncomfortable yet beneficial perspectives. We need to do better.
Op-eds, letters to the editor and editorials are not simple opportunities for their authors to rant at readers. They are a public service, meant to present the public with the opinions that shape our society and help an ideologically diverse readership understand itself in the aggregate. As the U.S. and other liberal democracies have become more polarized and forgotten the merits of civil discourse, the capacity of opinion journalism to connect disparate worldviews makes it more socially beneficial than ever. Yet, as partisanship widens those gaps, the very opinion journalism that could close them seems to incite ever more virulent controversy.
Such controversy can arise for a litany of reasons, the most ludicrous being some news organizations’ willingness to allow writers’ opinions to supersede facts. The Wheel has not seriously failed on this count in recent years, but other newspapers’ struggles indicate the problem’s severity. Former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal entitled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” As we all know, there indeed was a coronavirus second wave. That article and the many others like it are deliberately misleading. They violate a tenet of journalism ethics so basic that a fourth grader could explain it: if something isn’t true, don’t print it.
For the most part, fact-checking and editorial independence are cut-and-dry issues, and the Wheel has treated them as such for years. If we can’t back something up, we don’t run it, and our opinion section is independent from the newsroom. That’s why the Wheel’s Editorial Board can credibly express its own opinions and even criticize the Wheel itself.
However, the last source of controversy — the potential of opinion journalism to cause real-world harm — is both the most serious and complex issue with which the Wheel, and outlets nationwide, continue to struggle mightily.
Last summer, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) gave the world a perfect example of a harmful opinion article. On June 3, 2020, Cotton wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops” that called for the military to intervene in the protests following George Floyd’s killing. After it was published, the firestorm of criticism led to the Times’ editors publicly apologizing. Critics’ concerns that Cotton’s op-ed was not sufficiently fact-checked and could encourage physical violence against protestors and the Times’ own reporters were justified. No amount of public edification proceeding from an op-ed could ever compensate for violence occurring on its account.
Cotton’s op-ed was a clear case of harmful journalism. Other instances aren’t so easy to identify. What if an op-ed harms readers’ mental or emotional health? What if it causes fear? Anxiety? Sadness? How about if it causes just a few people momentary fear but encourages a massively beneficial policy change? This is the impossible dilemma the Wheel and other papers like it continually face: we must minimize the extent to which our content hurts anyone while publishing perspectives that challenge and inform the public.
Making that happen should begin with using respectful language to describe any group, not just those considered marginalized. Being precisely as specific as necessary, as Opinion Editor Brammhi Balarajan (23C) did in a recent Wheel column by differentiating Cuban Americans and Vietnamese Americans from Hispanics and Asian Americans, is one important example. Avoiding dog whistles and evaluative terms, such as using “Black Americans” instead of “low class” or “urban criminals,” is another. Terminology choices should be unbiased and accurate, and, most importantly, they should incorporate input from the populations they describe.
The Wheel’s digitized archives at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library reveal the disturbing extent to which the paper has used harmful language. In 1963, the same year that the University admitted its first Black undergraduate, one letter to the editor described a Black activist as a “Negro of Heruclean proportions who wore a shark tooth about his neck.” The Wheel published articles containing the N-word outside of quotation marks as recently as the 1990s, when James “Dave” Sloan (93C) published a column using both the N-word and several flagrantly homophobic slurs. As recently as 2005, former Editor-in-Chief Robbie Brown (07C) described an overweight woman as possessing a “husky 160-pound body,” and former writer Victor Lee (05B) called female students “fine young Emory ladies” and “hot chicks” just one year prior. For much of its 101-year existence, the Wheel openly disparaged members of its own community.
To be fair, the Wheel has made limited improvements in its language choices in recent months; as of last summer, we use “Black,” not “black.” But if it took Floyd’s death for us to capitalize a letter here and there, something must be terribly, horribly wrong with our culture. Until the Wheel builds a genuine rapport with the communities it has wronged and includes them within its power structure, it cannot expect to correctly describe their identities with any consistency. If the Wheel were on good terms with and welcoming to members of those groups it has wronged, editors and writers would know the correct language used to describe such groups instead of having to guess.
Unfortunately, the Wheel has for many years also failed to forestall the worst kind of coverage-related harm: featuring expressions of hatred. The Wheel has certainly published articles in the past that qualify as hateful — Sloan’s column is one shocking example — but it has published many more in recent years that are less obviously so. In 2012, Jonathan Warkentine (17C) came very close in one Wheel op-ed to defending Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s attacks on same-sex marriage, and he compared the latter to incest in another piece two years later.
Warkentine’s pieces and others like them, from my point of view and that of the United Nations, verge on hatred. Yet any definition of hate speech is inevitably inconsistent and open to misinterpretation. Out of an overabundance of caution, editors may inadvertently deprive the public of edifying journalism by refusing to publish difficult pieces. Consequently, freedom of speech suffers, ideological uniformity increases and polarization worsens.
The Wheel is no exception. Recently, it has largely failed to feature pieces challenging the progressive mainstream. Just last year, several conservative students, many of whom had written for the Wheel before, formed their own conservative publication, the Emory Whig, because they felt that their beliefs had no place at the Wheel. In fact, much of that choice owed to our — in some cases, my — hesitance to publish genuinely hateful ideas. One rejected draft by a current Whig writer, for instance, depicted prominent Black Americans as foolish and argued that systemic racism was an insignificant issue. American conservatism has also become more prejudiced in recent years, meaning that many more conservative views have shifted out of the ethical mainstream. Even so, the Wheel deserves some of the blame. We owe it to the Emory community to build a better rapport with conservative and libertarian students. That should begin by actively drawing coverage, members and information from those groups, and it should end by working more diligently with them to ensure that their pieces meet a strict standard of harmlessness without alienating them.
So, yes, the Wheel should work harder to ethically feature conservative voices within its pages. But that can’t be the priority.
The Wheel’s century-long history of hateful coverage and harmful language more than eclipses the recent smattering of conservative discontent in the gravity of its injustice. Because of it, the Wheel has remained a hostile environment to Black, Indigenous and people of color, low-income students and others.
As former Managing Editor Isaiah Sirois (19C) explained, the paper is already extremely classist. The high time commitment of being an editor often alienates low-income students by preventing them from working extra jobs to support themselves. Former Managing Editor Shreya Pabbaraju’s (21C) 2020 letter to the editor, moreover, outlines several reprehensible instances of racism, both structural and episodic. As their insights and the Wheel’s archives suggest, the Wheel is rife with classism and systemic racism.
Within the opinion section, then, addressing both should begin with publishing diverse opinions, even if they are provocative and outside the mainstream, given unflinching standards of truthfulness and harmlessness. Publishing fearlessly and fairly makes news organizations more ideologically diverse and more beneficial to the public. More importantly, it also communicates to groups that the paper has marginalized that they do not have to conform to the paper’s ideology to feel safe there. As Balarajan highlights, minorities are not uniformly progressive, nor should they need to be to work for the Wheel or any other paper.
Additionally, operating under stricter, more comprehensive fact-checking and harmlessness standards would establish the Wheel as more hospitable to members of marginalized communities and result in more diverse, equitable and respectful coverage.
Rather than impose internal ideological uniformity or platform hate, the Wheel and organizations like it must find and commit to the line between beneficial public discourse and hate. Instead of legitimizing hate, as do many conservative publications, the Wheel should strive to publish the opinions that matter in the world as long as they are factual and do no harm.
Many on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed a reticence to “platform” problematic views. I agree, to the extent that platforming hateful, violent and derogatory views is reprehensible. That said, marginalized communities have to deal with harmful and wrongheaded opinions in their daily lives. Most news organizations, white and privileged as they are, don’t. Uplifting those communities should mean publishing those views and exposing them to the world for the ludicrous ideas they are. As did Patrick Czabala’s (23C) 2020 op-ed arguing against abortion, such pieces often provoke responses from the community that completely discredit their arguments.
So to current and future members of The Emory Wheel, I say this: never compromise on fact-checking. Don’t espouse or condone hate. Publish pieces that will benefit the community, even if you disagree vehemently with them, as long as they aren’t harmful. You have a duty to help, not hurt, your readers.
You also have a duty to your writers: whether they’re struggling to use the right language, write persuasively or eliminate inadvertently harmful elements of their arguments, don’t give up on them. And if they try to give up on you, don’t let them do it.
I’m not giving up on the Wheel. Whether you’re a reader, writer or editor, neither should you.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.