Claremont Insider: Courier-TSL Faceoff

Friday, March 20, 2009

Courier-TSL Faceoff

Left to Right (literally, not politically):
Pepperdine School of Law Dean Kenneth Starr
and UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

We'd meant to write up something about the March 5th mock debate at Pomona College between Pepperdine Law School dean Kenneth Starr and Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the new UC Irvine School of Law. The debate's subject was the Presidental War Powers Act.

Starr came to the debate the same day he argued before the California State Supreme Court on behalf of Prop. 8 proponents who sought to have 18,000 gay and lesbian marriages voided under the new state law.

Tony Krickl covered the event for the Courier, wrote about the goings on in a March 11 article:
Mr. Starr, who serves as the Dean of Pepperdine University’s Law School, was invited to speak by the Pomona Student Union. Along with Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the new Law School at University of California Irvine, the 2 deans staged a mock debate on constitutional powers of the U.S. President in a hypothetical war situation. Mr. Starr was invited to speak before becoming involved in the Prop. 8 case.

When asked why he would choose to represent a minority like violent death row prisoners rather than “a minority that who just wants to marry the one they love,” Mr. Starr responded, “because you are representing a particular cause doesn’t mean you are necessarily approving of that particular cause.

“[In this case,] I was pleased to represent what I feel is a very important principle,” he added. “That is the sovereign power of the people. However you vote is to protect the sovereign right of the people, until we change that mechanism for amending the constitution.”

After the debate, students gathered in the nearby Smith Campus Center quad to stage mock same sex weddings as a form of protest to Mr. Starr’s visit.

Called “Wedding Under the Starrs,” the light-hearted event featured wedding cake and cider, music from an A cappella group and Mariachi band and several staged same-sex weddings.

Pomona College's student newspaper The Student Life seems to have found Krickl's coverage of the event wanting. The TSL editorial board wrote an opinion piece for their March 13 edition that excoriated the Courier for what TSL thought was a "lack of journalistic ethics," as well as other lapses. The TSL editorial, titled, "Courier Article Shows Unprofessionalism [see page 8]," said this about the Courier article:
The content of the article barely mentions the actual debate, or Ken Starr’s opponent Erwin Cherminsky. Instead, the Courier implied that Starr was on campus solely to field questions about “gay rights and his role in the controversial case being heard before the Supreme Court of California.” We stand on a pedestal of perfect reporting here at TSL; in fact, we are well aware of our own missteps.

We do, however make a conscious effort to cover news items with depth, clarity, and balance. What was published in the Courier on Wednesday was a gross breach of journalistic ethics and reporting etiquette.

TSL felt that the Courier article missed the main point of Starr's visit, which was the mock War Powers Act debate, and that Krickl's coverage wasn't balanced because Starr's comments on the Prop. 8 litigation weren't balanced in Krickl's article by the opposing litigants' views.

Krickl, meanwhile, took exception to the TSL editorial and blogged about TSL on the Courier City Beat in a post titled "Big Talk, Little Content from The Student Life." In the blog post, Krickl defended his coverage:
First and foremost, what TSL editors may not realize is that at many professional newspapers, reporters are limited by page inches or number of words for stories they are assigned to cover. Given these limitations, reporters are forced to focus their articles on the meat of the news while cutting out as much fat as possible.

With the high profile nature of the Prop. 8 case and Starr's role as the lead attorney, clearly the presidential war powers debate was the fat. In showing up for the event, I never intended to cover the debate. I was there to report on any comments Starr might make on the landmark case and the planned protest outside.

The COURIER article did not take any sides on this topic. It never criticized or praised Mr. Starr for his position on Proposition 8 or his role in the case. The article simply laid out Mr. Starr’s positions on the issue, his responses to questions on the topic and provided a description of the student protest.

I'm not so sure I could say the same about the TSL's coverage of the event. In their article (see page 1 and 3), the TSL reporter interviewed or used statements from 4 different people who were directly criticizing Starr, his appearance on campus or Prop. 8 itself.

But TSL's report fails to counter these statements with a single voice of opposition, making the student paper's political leanings on Prop. 8 clear for all to see. Is this the neutral or balanced coverage that TSL editors are demanding?

As Krickl notes, TSL is a student paper, so maybe you have to grant them a little more latitude than you would a commercial publication. Still, TSL has had some notable missteps in the recent past. For instance, TSL's coverage of the Jonathan Petropoulos matter last year, when they ran the wrong painting on the front page, along with some other errors, led to the April 4, 2008, edition being pulled from newsstands.

There have been some other newsworthy things happening at Pomona College, including the banning (and subsequent unbanning) of two Claremont McKenna College students, David Daleiden and Kyle Kinneberg, from Pomona's campus. The ban occurred without much respect for due process and drew a good deal of criticism for the "Ready, Fire, Aim" mentality that Pomona Dean of Student Miriam Feldblum displayed in her mishandling of the situation.

We haven't had much time to explore the banning/unbanning, but we may have post or two on the subject in the coming week. The Claremont Conservative, though, has been all over this issue from the beginning.