Separating Journalism from the Church: Marquette University Student Newspaper Staffers Work Uneasily under the Scrutiny of the Administration

By Wolper, Allan | Editor & Publisher, September 25, 1993 | Go to article overview

Separating Journalism from the Church: Marquette University Student Newspaper Staffers Work Uneasily under the Scrutiny of the Administration


Wolper, Allan, Editor & Publisher


BILL BLANTON, FACULTY adviser to the Marquette Tribune at Marquette University in Milwaukee, watched the pressure build on his student journalists for two and a half years, then resigned.

"I just didn't want to be a faculty adviser any more," said Blanton, 51. "It was not a good atmosphere to teach or practice journalism."

Blanton, whose work as a faculty member was praised in the Journalism Department's most recent annual report, spoke softly about the heavy-handed pressure imposed on student journalists at the Jesuit university.

"We would teach journalism in the classroom, but we couldn't put it into effect in the campus newsroom," said Blanton, now a graphics editor at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. "At one point, they said we couldn't go against any kind of church doctrine.

"We used to joke that we were going to have to get a canon lawyer to tell us what we could and couldn't say in our editorials. I think the journalism school is naive to think that they can separate journalism and the church."

Blanton said the past year was a nightmare.

He related how students published a series that angered the administration and then were attacked in private meetings by its members.

University officials called the paper a rag, accused it of having a tabloid mentality and said it was not sensitive to church doctrine on abortion and homosexuality.

In March, the student editorial board resigned in a dispute about an editorial on the abortion pill.

That spring confrontation was a reprise of a confrontation nearly four years ago about publication of an ad promoting an abortion rally. The university forced the Tribune's business manager to resign and suspended its editors in the 1989 dispute.

James Scotton, chairman of the Journalism Department, said Blanton had told him about his frustrations before he left Marquette.

"Bill did a good job for us," Scotton said. "I'm sorry he left."

When this fall semester started, the Journalism Department was waiting for Marquette officials to approve the appointment of Blanton's replacement.

Caught in between

Marquette journalism professors -- who teach in the College of Communication, Journalism and Performing Arts -- are caught in an intellectual vice between the students they teach and the administrators for whom they work.

They also are involved in an intramural battle of First Amendment rights -- free press versus freedom of religion.

Scotton referred to that conflict in the Journalism Department's 1992-93 annual Report.

"The journalism faculty believes its role is to assist in developing professionally excellent publications," Scotton said in the report. "Signals from the university suggest that its interest is in developing publications 'appropriate' to a Catholic Jesuit university."

Scotton said Marquette has placed him in a conflict-of-values situation.

"The university was increasingly asking me to interpret the content of the student newspaper in relation to the Catholic Jesuit nature of Marquette University," he said in an interview.

Rather than do that, Scotton resigned as director of the Board of Student Publications, which oversees editorial and business operations of the campus newspaper, yearbook and radio station.

"I am the chair of a professional journalism department that has to uphold professional standards," he said. "I didn't think I was the best person to interpret the Catholic Jesuit philosophy to the student newspaper."

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the turmoil is hurting Marquette's reputation.

"The credibility of the journalism program has suffered," he said. "It is an unfortunate situation."

Goodman said he particularly was disturbed because Sharon Murphy, dean of the Marquette School of Communication, Journalism and Performing Arts, has a national reputation for supporting student press rights.

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