This has not been a great week for student media. In case you missed it, the Daily Texan found itself in hot water when one of its cartoonists decided to put forth a fresh take on the Trayvon Martin shooting and the subsequent flurry of outrage and media coverage and outrage at the media coverage and the media’s coverage of the outrage at the media and so on. In doing so, artist Stephanie Eisner managed to mangle the issues of race, media coverage and spelling all in one fell swoop. The paper pulled the cartoon and then put it back up on its site with a brief “don’t hate the player, hate the game” kind of response to the outrage.
And this was only the second-weirdest moment of the week…
Not to be out done in the “Head Up Your Ass Olympics,” the editor in chief at the Daily Free Press at Boston University was fired after the paper produced an April Fool’s issue that leveled allegations that Cinderella was in a prostitution ring and a group of BU frat guys slipped Alice in Wonderland some LSD. The paper’s lead story? A piece on seven dwarves from a BU frat “gangbanging” a female student as part of a roofie and rape party.
Don’t think for a moment I’m climbing on a “holier than thou” soap box. No way I’m doing the “tsk, tsk, tsk” thing here.
I think in my life I’ve had three true, gasping, heart-palpitation-inducing, freakishly real dreams that made me wake up in the middle of the night and walk the floors of the house.
1) I was being buried alive in a glass coffin and I could see it all happening as shovel after shovel of dirt hit the casket and I was all “Bill Pullman in The Serpent and the Rainbow” and couldn’t do anything to stop it.
2) I was somewhere with girl who wasn’t my wife and she was all over me. I succumbed to this and as I’m in mid-sex, I was screaming in my head, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” as I realized I had done something from which I could never recover.
3) I get a call at about 6 a.m. from the president of the university, who has informed me I’m being fired for something the kids did at the paper. When I see the paper, it’s something so horribly stupid and infantile, there is no way in hell I can say anything other than, “Ah… Well… Fuck.”
I’ve read several studies and seen several “Law and Order” episodes where experts outline how the brains of young people aren’t fully ready for high-order thought and it’s stuff like this that has me believing it. I keep turning over in my head the Trayvon cartoon, looking for answers to questions like “What the hell did you think was going to happen when you published this?” and “Did anyone stop and THINK about how this was doing nothing to address the issue you think you’re trying to address?” and “Should we really let a cartoonist who can’t even spell “Trayvon” right take a potshot at such an amazingly delicate issue through a one-panel cartoon?” And “Who the fuck still uses the word ‘colored’ to describe people? We’re not talking about fucking Easter Eggs…”
I can’t find any, other than to say that this is what tends to happen when people reach beyond their own level of competence and inject themselves into an issue they can’t fully understand. We all do it to some extent in our discussions with colleagues, our bar arguments over baseball teams and our understanding of the human psyche. Most of us don’t fall on our keys as publicly or spectacularly as this, but it’s not a rare frailty.
The same thing can be said about the BU kids: Many of us think we’re funny. The problem is that we probably are in the right situation with the right people. However, while my father’s fart jokes are likely hilarious to The Guys at Work, they aren’t going over with the Moliere crowd. The wider the audience, the more likely your humor will be offensive.
You’re not getting away with joking about frat guys being rapists or dealing drugs any more than you’re getting away with putting on black face and walking around with a watermelon. Frat guys, friends of frat guys and people who know they could be your next target all read the paper. It’s not like the frat guys are looking at this saying, “Hey, look! They got us again! Those clever scribes!”
Even beyond that, there are certain things that are just never funny, no matter who you are.
The late, great George Carlin once tried to prove otherwise in his album segment titled, “Rape can be funny.” Despite his best efforts (“Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.”), I can honestly say it as the most awkwardly painful thing I’ve ever listened to.
And this was being done by a guy who made a fortune being funny.
If Carlin couldn’t pull it off, the BU Daily Free Press didn’t have a shot in hell at making this work.
Every couple years, a staff asks me if I think they could do an “April Fool’s edition” of the paper. I grit my teeth and tell them the truth: You can do whatever you want, that’s part of the joy of operating under the First Amendment. However, keep two things in mind:
1) Just because you can do something, it doesn’t follow that you should. If you publish this, remember that you need to be ready to deal with the fallout when people are pissed about something you wrote.
2) People already look at what we do, find every minor error and say, “What a bunch of shit. Who takes this garbage seriously?” Why would you want to give them an even better reason to think we’re stupid and pointless?
And every time they say, “Oh. Got it. Thanks.” and walk away, I hope I’ve made my point.
And then I usually have the third dream.