Journalists are sometimes targets of criticism for the way we perform our jobs. The criticism is fair if a journalist knowingly get their facts wrong, act with bias, or if self-aggrandizement creeps into their reporting. (See: Brian Williams, NBC) It happens. Not often, but the fact it happens at all is too much.
More often than not, criticisms of journalists are unfair. This was the case Monday at the University of Missouri. Student journalists covering protests over the university administration’s response to racial tensions and other issues at the university were told by some protesters to stop shooting photos and video.
Two of the protesters were university employees. Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri, ordered student videographer Mark Schierbecker to leave a public area where demonstrators had gathered on campus. Janna Basler, the director of Greek life and leadership at The University of Missouri approached student journalist Tim Tai, spread her arms out and forcefully demanded he “back off” shooting photos of the protestors. Tai later Tweeted “A lot of hardworking journalists were physically blocked from doing their jobs – I just happened to be on video. I didn’t ask for notoriety.”
The irony and something to learn
Members of the press have helped give voice and bring wide public attention to the concerns cited by the protestors. That attention helped facilitate many of the changes the protestors have demanded. Interestingly, this was something professor Click called for in a Facebook post two days before Monday’s confrontation with videographer Mark Schierbecker.
The U.S. Constitution
The right to peacefully assemble to hold protests like the one at the University of Missouri is protected under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So is the constitutional right of the press to cover and report on such protests.
Some history is appropriate here
This week’s encounter between the University of Missouri protestors and student journalists sparked a keen personal memory. It took me back to my Kansas City reporting days and a journalist I knew and for which I hold the greatest respect.
Her name was Lucile Bluford. She was “Miss Bluford” to all who knew her. She was owner and publisher of The Kansas City Call, the city’s African-American newspaper.
Bluford was a pioneer, a crusader for equal rights for African Americans and women. Above all, she was a journalist dedicated to getting the news out. Like this week’s protestors, Bluford also knew something about racism at the University of Missouri.
Bluford graduated from her Kansas City high school in 1928 as class valedictorian. She graduated with honors and a journalism degree from the University of Kansas in 1932. Seven years later, Bluford applied to the University of Missouri to work on a graduate degree in journalism. She was accepted into the program, but when she went to Columbia to enroll, she was turned away. University officials didn’t know she was African-American.
The State Historical Society of Missouri wrote of Bluford’s life and went on to tell her story:
She tried eleven times to enter the University of Missouri. She filed the first of several lawsuits against the university on October 13, 1939. Bluford’s case was denied time and time again.In 1941 the state supreme court finally ruled in Bluford’s favor. The University of Missouri had to admit her because no equal program existed at (Missouri’s predominantly African-American) Lincoln University. In response, the School of Journalism closed its graduate program. It claimed that it could not operate properly because a majority of its professors and students were serving in World War II.
Bluford finally received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Missouri in 1989. Bluford said that she accepted the degree “not only for myself, but for the thousands of black students” the university had discriminated against over the years.
To me, Bluford was journalism’s Rosa Parks. Her thoughtful demeanor extended to all, regardless of race, gender, or religion. She was a legend for all the right reasons. In recalling Bluford’s 69 years with the Call, the Kansas City Public Library wrote;
Lucile Bluford made the weekly newspaper a potent force for fighting discrimination. She advanced the cause of African Americans in Kansas City.
Never shy, Bluford once scolded the Rev. Jesse Jackson in front of 3,200 people during a 1984 campaign stop in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. “Why are you so late?” Bluford greeted him upon his arrival. The News Tribune of Jefferson City, Missouri reported:
The 73-year-old then scolded Jackson and told him he should have notified The Call about his speech earlier and the paper could have helped with turnout. “She just lit Jesse Jackson up,” said Donna Stewart, the current president and publisher of the Kansas City Call. “She didn’t care about it being Jesse Jackson running for president. She lit him up.”
Bluford died in 2003. She was called the “conscience of Kansas City.” I suspect if Bluford had been one of those journalists confronted by the University of Missouri protestors this week she would have lit them up too.