Earlier this year, Andrea McCarren, a reporter with D.C.’s WUSA Channel 9 News, did a controversial special report om under-age drinking in the upscale Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, with special focus on how parents excused and facilitated the law-breaking. She was subjected to a deluge of hate mail and online attacks for her story, and her children, who go to a Bethesda high school, were mocked and harassed by other students. The incident and the uproar had finally calmed down, when the school paper at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, where the McCarren children are enrolled, decided to publish a feature about the episode.
McCarren—journalist, champion of the public’s right to know and the dedicated defender of the First Amendment—called the school’s principal and persuaded her to confiscate issues of the paper that had not yet been distributed, and to demand that students who already had copies return them. Why? Was the story false, libelous, or misleading? No. Was it a legitimate news story with relevance to the school? Of course.
McCarren had the school paper censored because she had the power and influence to do it, and because she felt that the story could have inconvenient and unfortunate consequences for people she cared about. This is called “prior restraint,” (also “rank hypocrisy”) and in a normal journalism context, it is unconstitutional. With school papers, administrators have more discretion to censor student stories, but it is understood and well-established that such discretion should only be exercised in the most extreme circumstances.
In this case, the principal argued that the danger that a perfectly accurate and a legitimate news story might provoke some students to bully the McCarren kids justified burying the story and blocking distribution of the paper. That is backwards, irresponsible, lazy thinking. Rather than deal with the wrongdoers when and if they did wrong, or take steps to prevent the wrongdoing, the principal punished student journalists for writing a completely innocuous and newsworthy story. The principal, Karen Lockard, wrote that “The administration of B-CC High does not exercise blatant censorship of the student press. More important, the administration does not endorse harassment and endangering students.” But the article in question didn’t harass or endanger the students. The problem stemmed from McCarren’s original exercise of her rights as a journalist, an activity that on many occasions has probably caused embarrassment or inconvenient consequences for other families, to which her reaction would be, “Too bad. The public has a right to know. I just report what happens.” Exactly right. Yet when McCarren’s family was subjected to a risk of unfortunate consequences by fair journalistic coverage of her activities, the reporter’s immediate remedy was censorship. Naturally, she was able to find a pliant, principle-free principal who values celebrity more than integrity.
This is a school. What did this episode teach the students of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High?
….That rights are only as real as those in power allow them to be.
…That whether such power-mongers view freedom of expression and the press as worth defending is directly proportional to their personal stake in the outcome.
….That the famous can and will bend the rules and values that they propose to live and work by any time it is to their advantage.
…That journalists are champions for reporting the news until the news has direct consequences to them.
…That school administrators will take the perceived course of least resistance, even if it means treating students unfairly.
Actually, some of these are quite valuable lessons, if disheartening ones. They’re almost enough to drive a student to drink…and then we’re right back to where we started!
The Washington Post reports that Lockard rescinded her censorship and returned the papers. She also apologized to the newspaper staff.
Too late; lessons learned.
As for McCarren, she hasn’t apologized to anyone, and I don’t care whether she does or not. I also don’t care to listen to what Andrea McCarren, who reports at a station I can watch, judges to be news from now on. I know how deep her commitment to objective reporting is. The truth is everything to this journalist…until it’s inconvenient to her.