Almost the entire staff of a New York University student newspaper resigned recently after their advisor said they couldn’t use the term “murder” to describe the police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Abby Hofstetter, 21, the managing editor of Washington Square News, quit in protest, followed by 43 other staff members. In a statement, they said the advisor, Prof. Kenna Griffin, an expert on student publications, was insensitive to black students.
According to the statement: “An editor stood up to Dr. Griffin’s demands and refused to edit out the word ‘murder’ from our article about Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of Louisville cops. Dr. Griffin demanded the Managing Editor discipline them, as she ‘didn’t want to have a full deal publicly.’”
The situation is ludicrous but it is no wonder at a time when supposedly respectable newspapers blur the line between the editorial page and the opinion section. A case in point is the New York Times’ 1619 Project; overwhelming evidence shows the series falsely asserts that America fought the Revolutionary War to protect slavery. Yet, it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Murder is a Legal Term
What the NYU students apparently fail to grasp is that “murder” is a legal term defined by state statute. Generally, a person is guilty of murder when s/he has been convicted in a court of law for intentionally causing the death of another person. Intent is established through admission or evidence and decided by a jury.
A newspaper could be sued for libel for publishing an article calling someone a murderer who has not met the condition precedent – conviction of the crime in a court of law.
The most sacred principle in America’s criminal jurisprudence is that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
It is not surprising that a Kentucky grand jury refused to indict three police officers in Taylor’s death given that Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired the first shot. That shot struck a police officer, who required surgery. The Louisville Journal Courier reports the evidence showed the officer was struck by a 9 mm round; officers on scene all carried .40 caliber handguns.
The plain clothed officers were executing a “no knock” search warrant at 12:40 a.m. on March 13 as part of a narcotics investigation. The officers say they announced themselves and their claim was validated by at least one witness.
All of this is not to say the police acted properly or that Taylor deserved to die. But that’s not the issue.
If Griffin had permitted student journalists to write that the police “murdered” Taylor, she would have exposed the author, the newspaper and the university to legal liability. In that case, Dr. Griffin should be fired for incompetence or dereliction of duty.
The Pulitzer Prize
It is no wonder that journalism students think they can act as judge and jury in the Taylor case.
The editor of the NYT 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote an essay that was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary in which she stated that preservation of slavery was a primary reason for the Revolutionary War.
America’s pre-eminent historians for the era showed that her premise was flatly WRONG and, after many months, the NYT begrudgingly ran a correction.
A spokesperson for the Pulitzer organization, Edward M. Kliment, said in a statement Sunday that “challenges to the Nikole Hannah-Jones essay, including editors’ revision of a sentence in the essay, were vigorously discussed by the Pulitzer Board” prior to voting make the award to her.
Kliment’s statement not only fails to justify the award but raises questions about the integrity of the process.
The essay published by the NYT in August 2019 was the essay placed before the Pulitzer organization for consideration – not the essay that was revised (corrected) by the NYT months later. According to the Pulitzer’s rules: “Pulitzer judges want to review the material as it was released to the public – whether it evolved as a series of short dispatches or was presented as a polished narrative.”
Additionally, the jury that awarded the prize included a NYT editorial writer, Brent Staples, who should have recused himself due to an obvious conflict of interest.
It appears the Pulitzer organization itself has a conflict of interest. The organization’s website states: “As The 1619 Project’s official educational partner, the Pulitzer Center has connected curricula based on the work of Hannah-Jones and her collaborators to some 4,500 classrooms since August 2019.”
If professional journalists act in this way, why would we expect students to behave any differently?