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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Student newspapers fool around with articles and prestige

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Opinions

Nearly three weeks ago a popular college holiday hit—April Fools Day. While college students may be “adults” who are breaking into the real world, we are still very juvenile in many ways.

Most of us cannot pass up the opportunities for tomfoolery that April Fools Day gives us.
While some of these jokes have been harmless little gags between friends or heart attack-inducing “confessions” to parents, some jokes have made headlines beyond campus.

The editor-in-chief of Boston University’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Free Press, resigned after the paper got heat for its April Fools edition in which an article attempted to satirize the current allegations of administrative laxity about sexual assault and the two BU hockey players recently arrested for sexual assault. The paper received a flood of angry letters and media scrutiny about the attempt at satire.

The last issue of The Hoot published a column titled “BU editors make foolish mistake” in which the author explains that, while one imprudent article should not ruin an aspiring journalist’s career, the paper was still wrong to print the article. The author asserted—and rightly so—that The Daily Free Press is a serious newspaper. As a serious newspaper, dabbling in satire cheapens the hard-hitting and thoughtful articles that the paper usually prints. This is why The Hoot did not have an April Fools edition this year.

If BU were the only school to have this problem, it could be called an error; however, Rutgers’ satirical newspaper The Daily Medium is also facing blow-back for an article they published in their April Fools edition. The article titled “What about the good things Hitler did?” mockingly points out that the Holocaust was not all bad for the Jews; they give reasons such as that the genocide spurred the Jews to create Israel.

While this article seems dumb all by itself, the real issue stems from the byline. The byline listed Aaron Marcus, a senior at Rutgers, as the author and printed a photograph of him next to it. Marcus is a frequent writer for Rutgers’ campus newspaper The Daily Targum, for which he writes pro-Israel columns. He is also the main complainant in an ongoing allegation against the Rutgers administration that they have mishandled anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents and that they do not do enough to protect their pro-Israel and Jewish students. Marcus has enlisted the Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League in his complaint.

First of all, I do not understand why a satirical newspaper—read: a newspaper that is always joking—needs an April Fools issue, but that is beside the point. The Daily Medium is being accused of anti-Semitism, harboring anti-Israel sentiments and harassment.

The Daily Medium’s editor-in-chief Amy DiMaria released a statement reading: “I want to state publicly, in the strongest possible terms, that the only subject we meant to parody was Marcus, whose work The Daily Medium staff has found as something more than suitable for parody. This piece was not an attack on any religious or ethnic group. It was not an attack on defenseless private citizens. The article we wrote was about Marcus, a sometimes controversial public persona.”

I agree with DiMaria entirely. As a co-editor of The Blowfish, Brandeis’ own satirical newspaper, I cannot help but see some similarities in the two papers. As a Blowfish editor, I would not have printed that article—not because it is offensive but because it was not that funny. That was DiMaria’s real mistake: printing an article that was not funny enough to go to press. A good rule of thumb—as reprehensible as it may be—is that the funnier something is, the more offensive it can be. Obviously there are still lines, but I do not think DiMaria crossed those lines; after all, this is not the first time this joke has been made.

As for mocking Marcus, he is a public figure and therefore fair game. A rule at The Blowfish is that we do not make fun of anyone or anything smaller than The Blowfish. So, professors and very vocal students are our meat and potatoes but the average schmo who may live across the hall from me will remain anonymous.

This is a rule that other satirical newspapers employ as well. This past week The Onion printed an article decrying the real tragedy of the Titanic—the poor nutritional content of the food on board. The kicker: This piece was written by Michelle Obama—that is to say, her name was in the byline. It was a funny and well-written article. And why did it work? Because everyone knows who Michelle Obama is and what she stands for.

Michelle Obama is to The Onion as Aaron Marcus is to The Daily Medium. He is a public figure whom most people on campus know of. Had Marcus just been a columnist for The Daily Targum who wrote pro-Israel columns, he would not be an appropriate source for parody; however, Marcus made himself a public figure when he complained about the Rutgers administration, bringing several articles-worth of bad press to the university.

Marcus needs to learn to take a joke—even if it is a poorly told one.

Both BU’s Daily Free Press and Rutgers’ Daily Medium made mistakes this past April Fools Day. The Daily Free Press treaded land that a serious newspaper should avoid; it stepped outside its comfort zone in the worst way and published an offensive article about a very sensitive topic. While The Daily Medium also published an offensive article about a very sensitive topic, it deserves more leeway because those kinds of articles are the paper’s bread and butter. The Daily Medium exists to lampoon people, places and events on the campus-wide and even national level.

The Daily Free Press needs to remember that it is not The Daily Medium and The Daily Medium needs to remember that being edgy is not enough—it needs to be funny as well.