Imagine if Richmond’s mayor decided that he didn’t like a story and attempted to kill the message by confiscating the newspapers.
If that disturbs you, you understand why what happened at Virginia Commonwealth University matters a lot.
The Feb. 26 edition of The Commonwealth Times was removed from at least six on-campus kiosks by what witnesses and the newspaper say were leaders of the school’ s Student Government Association. The lead story in that edition, with the headline “Toxic,” described infighting within the SGA.
After learning from social media that newspapers had been cleared from a kiosk in the Student Commons, CT News Editor Hannah Eason headed toward the Trani Center for Life Sciences, and “literally saw them run up and grab all the papers,” she said during an interview Thursday.
Eason’s story quoted a VCU Student Commons worker who said SGA President Breanna Harmon was with a person who was taking the publications. Harmon declined to comment Thursday.
VCU’s police department is investigating what amounts to property theft. SGA senators called for Harmon’s impeachment. The media came calling. A story that would have received no attention off campus was discussed during a state Senate Education and Health Committee hearing.
“If they hadn’t taken the papers, the whole thing would have gotten a fraction of the attention it has ended up getting,” Georgia Geen, executive editor of The Commonwealth Times, said during an interview Thursday.
If the mass removal of newspapers has the fingerprints of SGA leadership on it, it only reinforces the toxicity cited in the initial piece. But the crime in question is distressingly commonplace; accountability, no guarantee. Last fall at Radford University, the theft of 1,000 copies of The Tartan by a university employee went unpunished, according to the Student Press Law Center and The Roanoke Times.
I covered a similar story in 2003 at Hampton University, where school officials — unhappy with a front-page story during homecoming week on health code violations in the university cafeteria — rolled hand trucks in and confiscated bundles of the issue.
That episode looks scarier 17 years later, where a president — of this nation, not an SGA — decries “fake news” and calls the media “the enemy of the people.”
When authoritarian impulses become a national model, they can be contagious.
News, in this post-fact era, too often is obscured in a cloud of misinformation by elected officials and partisan noise machines.
But attempts at news erasure are something else altogether.
Fortunately, VCU appears to be taking the theft of these newspapers more seriously than Radford did.
“VCU supports its independent student journalists and does not condone censorship in any form,” the university tweeted.
Whoever is responsible must be held accountable. The Commonwealth Times prints 2,500 copies a week. Papers were removed from at least six kiosks, Geen said.
“We obviously don’t have as many papers left; there was an effect,” Eason said. “It’s still up online. But, yeah, those were a lot of papers.”
We’re not talking about a news rag here. The Commonwealth Times has developed an outstanding reputation, winning a 2019 Newspaper Pacemaker Award, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize in collegiate newspaper circles.
“Never in my time here has an administrator, or a another student organization or anything reached out to us in a serious way trying to censor our content,” Geen said.
The situation conjures unpleasant memories for Geen, a Hanover High School graduate, where she took a newspaper class from English teacher Michael Goodrich-Stuart.
That classroom became part of a Style Weekly story alleging undue political influence in Hanover High School classrooms by Hanover Supervisor Sean Davis, who sued the paper for defamation.
Davis’ lawsuit was dismissed in August 2017, but Goodrich-Stuart left for the Henrico school district.
“I remember feeling so angry that these people could do this to our teacher, the person who introduced me to journalism, and was the reason that I entered this field, and we couldn’t do anything about it,” said Geen, who will intern this summer at The Los Angeles Times. “And now that I’m the leader of an independent newspaper at a university, we can do something about it.”
In the meantime, newspaper theft is not what democracy looks like. Civics education is on the wane. So here’s a refresher:
Ignoring the news media does not make the news stories go away.
Gaining a say in the narrative is an advisable policy. Our nation, as quaint as it might seem nowadays, is built on a system of checks and balances, including a free press.
And people who seek to steal away with the handiwork of the free press will end up reading all about it.