The time has come for me to break silence, at least for the moment, to address a few issues that have surfaced concerning The Famuan. The time has come to correct erroneous reports and tell our story without the possibility of being filtered. I purchased this space.
The back story
Since Dec. 6, 2012, Dean Ann Wead Kimbrough has worked feverishly to perform the corrective measures that the Hollis family attorney requested in an effort to stave off the libel lawsuit against The Famuan. Those corrective measures included removing the story from all servers at FAMU and showing a good faith effort that The Famuan editors do receive training. But the family decided to sue anyway.
Then Kimbrough, during a review of all student media, got wind that the editorial selection for spring 2013 of The Famuan had some irregularities. This month’s selection process for the editors was the same one used during spring 2012 for the fall’s editors. I witnessed both processes. For the fall 2012 editorial leadership, the initial decision was to name co-editors. However, one editor chose to pursue broadcasting, leaving one at the helm.
The game changer
How did this relationship become adversarial? Editors-in-chief of The Famuan have always had access to me and even have my cell phone number, all of them dating back to when I arrived at the University in 2000. Not once have I been contacted by the former EIC with questions or concerns regarding this present situation. Instead this flawed saga of untruths has played out on the national stage.
Student press freedoms
Yes, I am a champion of student media and student first amendment rights. As chairwoman of the Black College Communication Association, I have gone to the aid of student newspaper advisers and editors who receive pressure from their administrators. But none of these newspaper staffs were staring down the barrel of a libel suit.
At the same time I admonished administrators to allow students to practice their craft, I also challenged the students to be good journalists-to use good grammar, to spell names correctly, to report accurate and balanced stories.
Student press freedoms have not been stifled. The School of Journalism & Graphic Communication has at least three other websites where students can publish, if getting published was really the motive.
The Famuan situation had to be handled differently because of the libel suit. Wisdom dictated silence.
Connecting the dots
Kimbrough arrived on campus as dean in August 2012. I became journalism division director in October 2012. The story, which is the subject of the libel suit, was published in December 2011.
In a Faculty Note dated Jan. 16, 2013, I wrote, “The University has been served with the libel lawsuit naming The Famuan and the Board of Trustees as defendants. Some members of the SJGC family might be deposed. Please refer any request for comments to the Office of Communications or the University General Counsel.”
In that same Faculty Note, Kanya Simon Stewart was announced as adviser, and was introduced to students at the Jan. 18 training. She serves as co-adviser with Leonard Horton, a visiting assistant professor.
Conflict of interest
This disgruntled student is a part-time reporter for the city newspaper. The city newspaper also owns the other university’s student newspaper. Both of these entities are considered competition for The Famuan. During my time as adviser to The Famuan, student editors balked at the idea that the city newspaper would be the printer for the award-winning newspaper. Those were the days when The Famuan scooped the city newspaper on several occasions.
Unfortunately in this case, the loudest voice got the most attention, a criticism that has been levied against media for years. Bloggers saw this as a modern-day David and Goliath story, which is not the case.
Even though we had taken corrective measures since December 2012 to avoid a lawsuit, the story did not become public until Kimbrough met with the student editor in January for an update and to break the dismal news.
As this feeding frenzy has played out, sources have accused the dean of not caring for students. That cannot be further from the truth. The legacy of the HBCU is that we log countless hours toward helping students achieve success, much like the story portrayed in the “Great Debaters.”
The dean and I both got our start at HBCUs-Clark and Hampton, respectively-but we also have degrees from Missouri, Northwestern and The University of Georgia. She has worked at major media outlets; I have been an academician.
We both have prior experience advising student newspapers. The decisions made have been neither “ungrounded” nor “arbitrary.”
I am amused that so many outsiders think they are equipped to question our decisions based solely on one source. These same outsiders should know that we cannot speak due to the lawsuit, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and privacy concerning personnel matters.
Seeing that we were between the proverbial rock and a hard place, the feeding frenzy began and a non-story received widespread attention. It was not until after the blood letting that comments were requested of me. By that time, the lawsuit was served. Just last week, the dean received a threat from a national professional organization “warning” us that our program’s accreditation might be in jeopardy. The FAMU journalism program is the first HBCU to receive national accreditation.
Lack of verification
In a recent story in the local press, statements were made that could not have been verified, due to FERPA, concerning the eligibility of the newspaper staff. However, the ability of the previous staff to meet deadline could have been verified, since the city newspaper prints The Famuan. The fall 2012 staff amassed overtime charges, due to missed deadlines, that contributed to the financial distress of the student newspaper.
The former adviser to The Famuan was not fired, as previously reported in several media. He was reassigned.
A basic tenet of the journalism profession is to print the truth, not just what can be attributed.
The big picture
In the statement I issued on Jan. 24, “The decision to delay the first issue of The Famuan was made in an effort to preserve The Famuan, but a few students made it about them instead of seeing the big picture.”
This award-winning student newspaper dates back to 1909. It has been the training ground for scores of students who have emerged as journalists and other media professionals in the global arena.
Without The Famuan, then student first amendment rights become a moot point and current and future students will not be afforded the opportunities that countless students have enjoyed.
In the words of William Cullen Bryant, “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”
This is business. Don’t take it personally.
Valerie D. White is an associate professor and director of the Division of Journalism.
Note: The online version of “Letter to the FAMU community” contains the following updates from the print version: The story, which is the subject of the libel suit, was published in December 2011 and Kanya Simon Stewart was introduced on Jan. 18.