From the Team McCandless Facebook Page:
“[Because of censorship] Coach Mac has tendered her resignation and as far as we know, no effort was made to retain her in this position. The job has now been posted as open for the next school year. Several students on both the newspaper and the yearbook staff considered resigning as well in a show of support for Coach Mac and as a message to the principal and the school board. Coach Mac asked them not to.”
About ten years ago, I was Op/Ed Editor for my high school newspaper, and Cathy McCandless (Coach Mac) was my adviser. During my time on her staff, I also suffered the insidious humiliation of censorship. I won’t get too much into the specifics of what was censored (it’s never the subject that’s important in these cases) but suffice to say that my pro-LGBT equality values, which I for some reason thought would be shared by everyone in this rural Alabama town, were slightly ahead of their time, and a disparaging comment about an openly anti-gay organization, in my own opinion piece, was forcibly cut. But I also fought it. Hard.
There were ridiculous, arm-waving shouting matches in the middle of class, teeth-grinding debates with the editorial staff, and even the much-dreaded, tersely-worded editorial memorandum! But eventually, under the somewhat dubious threat of everyone remotely associated with the paper being sued, I was forced to relent. The line was banished to oblivion, and I was left with a pedestrian op/ed piece, and all the shame and indignity of censorship.
Now you’re thinking, here’s where I give my little song-and-dance about how I stand behind Coach Mac, and we should all fight mean old censorship, blah blah blah. Wrong. That’s not the lesson I got out of this, and it shouldn’t be the one you get either.
The principal of Timberland is clearly so ignorant, bored, and vindictive that he has nothing better to do than damage the careers of his subordinates. The students are hopped up on prescription drugs and state subsidized sugar water and spend their nights being force fed poison and garbage by the television, but hey, a couple of random photos in the paper is apparently just downright dangerous to the learning environment! Obviously, the guy is either a lunatic, or more likely just a hack. But he wields a bureaucratic system designed to crush you and your adviser, and you are never going to be able to beat that.
That’s OK though, you don’t have to beat it. Let’s be absolutely clear: The purpose of the school newspaper is to promote the school. Got that? Put it another way: The principal needs you to promote the school. Beyond the obvious point that promotion of the school is stupid and useless because both attendance and funding are mandated by law, what this really does is beg the question of whether or not that’s actually what you signed up for. Are you on the newspaper because you want to promote this school, with its idiot administrator who’ll censor you on a whim? Or maybe you wanted to actually do a little journalism.
You already have plentiful access to the tools you need to engage in quality, timely, and interesting journalism, entirely outside of the outdated school newspaper system. You’re organizing Team McCandless on Facebook, raising legal fees with online t-shirt sales, and hell, you’re reading this right now on a blog. That means you have some kind of internet access, on your home PC, a laptop, or your mobile device.
Start your own blog or Facebook group or whatever you want, spread the word to all the students online. Make it good, practicing the same, if not more stringent, editorial and ethical standards as you did in the journalism program. Expose the old school newspaper as tired propaganda by making your own online projects the premiere source for student news and information. Deprive a major source of the school’s communication with students of the credibility and legitimacy it needs by showing everyone exactly what good media looks like.
These are the basics of Citizen Journalism. The old media has failed you so consistently that you must take it upon yourself to replace it with something better, free of censorship and the intellectual constraints of what you have now, state-controlled print media.
This might seem intimidating, even impossible, but a quick glance around the web will show you countless examples of regular people, those without even the primary journalism training you have, using the tools they already have to spread quality citizen journalism around the entire planet. In Gaza, citizen journalists, or CJ’s, gave reports on the Israeli aggression over Skype, an inexpensive internet-telephone service. In Iran, images of brutal crackdowns by state authorities are sent out over cell-phones and Facebook. And in Afghanistan, citizens from around the country reported instances of election fraud with only text messages and camera-phones. Surely you, with your expertise and wealth of technology can, at the very least, create a thriving, quality source of news and information for one single high school in the United States.
So, walk away. Resign immediately.
McCandless told you otherwise because she wants to protect your academic career even as hers is ruthlessly savaged by the administration. She is above all a damn good teacher, and she cares deeply about ensuring the very best education she can. For some of you, that is enough, and you will stay on in service of a system that resents your very sense of personal free speech. But there are some of you who care about good, independent, and uncensored journalism.
This is your opportunity to fight censorship in a highly effective and meaningful way, entirely outside of the system that is designed to defeat you. Forsake the school’s sham of a newspaper, and get involved in your own citizen journalism project that delivers the quality content these students deserve. It is not only an option available to you, but your responsibility as a journalist, the only profession specifically protected by the US Constitution.
For more on Citizen Journalism:
Good luck, I look forward to linking your efforts.
Josh Mull is Community Director for Small World News, and a contributor to Polizeros and Enduring America. He has been active in citizen journalism since 2007, specializing in community-based media for conflict or disaster-affected states. You can follow him on Twitter or befriend him on Facebook.