The Role of the Student Newspapers

By: Sara Verschleisser  |  May 19, 2021

By Sara Verschleisser

Every functioning organizational system must have checks and balances. Without these limitations, power can run rampant, both in systems as large as the United States and those as small as a high school Model United Nations. Yeshiva University, for instance, as an academic institution, has many checks in place to keep their practices fair and their power balanced. The Undergraduate Student Bill of Rights outlines many of these checks, including those involved in disciplinary procedures. Not only does the school have a separate committee decide on the validity and consequences of an accusation, but a student can even appeal the committee’s decision to the Provost if the individual believes it to be unfair. However, not every aspect of the administration’s power can be checked by the system’s own rules. In many cases, the student body must fill that void. If administrative decisions or school regulations appear unfair, it is often up to the student body to use their voices to check the administration’s power. For example, if the students had not protested, the administration would have gotten away with moving up the drop-by date last semester and reducing women’s Gemara learning. Since the student body is effectively the administration’s constituents, its collective will (backed by tuition money) must be satisfied. 

But how do students know when to protest? And how should they voice their concerns? This, I would argue, is the responsibility of the student newspapers. As Benjamin Koslowe, previous Editor-in-Chief  (EIC) of The Commentator, expressed, “The importance of a serious student newspaper that delivers a check on power cannot be overemphasized.” However, when the newspapers check the school’s power, a new problem arises: Who checks the power of the student papers?

This question is not arbitrary, nor is its answer inconsequential. The relevance of this question became especially apparent this year when an editor at The Commentator was unjustly fired from the staff. This student, having served as a Features editor, was “terminated” via email by the Editor-in-Chief due to supposed “underperformance, the necessity for restructuring the features section, and the unprofessional nature of [the editor’s] response to [the EIC’s] message last Saturday night.” This email was sent with no prior warning, which deviated from The Commentator’s normal practices of issuing multiple warnings to students before positions are revoked. 

This decision was made solely by the EIC of The Commentator, with no support from his staff. The decision to fire this student was not at all popular among the editorial team, largely because all of the so-called reasons listed in the EIC’s email were entirely false, or otherwise absurd. Not only did the current Commentator staff oppose the decision, but previous EICs of the Commentator were asked to get involved and try to prevent the firing from taking effect. These former EICs were asked by current staff members to discuss the decision with the EIC and they expressed extreme discomfort with the decision being made. Another Commentator staff member even resigned in protest. Furthermore, many of the current Commentator staff wrote a letter to the EIC demanding that he reconsider his decision of termination. Despite their arguments, however, this letter was ignored and the decision stood. 

While, as outsiders, it is unclear to us what exactly provoked the EIC to fire this editor, the backlash caused by his behavior makes it clear that this decision was based on personal bias, not objective standards. When the student asked to meet with the EIC, the latter made it clear that he felt paranoid having her on staff. He felt that she had been undermining his position as EIC since he was appointed. The EIC’s refusal to reconsider further demonstrated that his paranoia was the driving factor behind the decision.

While this entire situation may seem rather small and petty, it reveals the power of the student newspapers over students. The EIC of The Commentator was able to negatively impact another student’s resume and cast public doubt on the student’s capabilities with zero personal consequences. A position that the editor in question had rightfully earned and greatly valued was unjustly taken from her. With her removal, the student body became deprived of a diversity of opinions from The Commentator staff. If a student paper removes editors simply because they have opinions different from those of the EIC, or due to personal biases, that paper becomes less of a representation of the student body and more a reflection of the EIC’s personal beliefs. This is why even the student papers need a balanced power system.

The above case may have brought this issue of power abuse to the fore, but the question of who checks the papers also has broader implications, far beyond a paper’s choices of staff. Misinformation, libel, and other harmful material can all be spread by a student paper. Students and other writers can submit works to the papers that are vindictive, fraudulent, and/or hateful in nature. The power that our papers possess in deciding whether or not these works deserve to be published is no small matter. An EIC, therefore, has a unique ability to sway public opinion. Students look to the papers for unbiased and fair approaches to the important issues that the institution faces, but how can students trust the papers if their EICs behave in brazenly biased and indefensible manners, ignoring even the wishes of their predecessors and current staff?

It appears to me that the other half of the checks and balances system for one student newspaper is the very tool that I am using to discuss this question. Another student paper. While The Commentator’s first issue was published in 1935, the YU Observer was founded in 1958. Although it initially serviced mostly the Beren Campus, the YU Observer has developed over the years and now services the entire undergraduate body. The Commentator and YU Observer therefore now fulfill the same role on behalf of the students, sharing important news and giving student voices a platform. I believe, however, that they must also serve another purpose: to function as a checks and balances system for each other. It is up to each paper to hold the other one responsible for its integrity and the fulfillment of its mission on behalf of the student body. In many cases, the existence of the two papers already accomplishes this goal: when writers disagree or have issues working with one paper, they can turn to the other; if one paper won’t publish an opinion piece, the other paper still might do so. Journalistic integrity is thus encouraged, and efficiency as well as accuracy are necessitated when properly sharing information. 

The power of the papers to check each other is still limited, however, without the students’ commitment to playing a role of their own. Simply put, a newspaper needs its readers. While the dual student papers can share information about the actions of the YU administration or the happenings of the other paper, it is up to the readers to really hold them accountable. Two further questions therefore arise: What standards does the student body expect of its papers? And what should the consequences be for discrimination, bias, or unfair treatment of staff? The power of the students is in answering these questions and choosing which paper to support, which paper to share information with, and which paper to write for. 

As a student at this university, I rely on the student papers to hold the administration accountable. As an editor, I ask the student papers to hold each other accountable. I hope that The Commentator and the YU Observer continue holding each other responsible for either paper’s injustices. Additionally, I ask you, the students, to recognize your importance. As the collective readership, you are the true judge of what is fair and what is not, the ultimate check of the system. I urge you to embrace your responsibility as readers and your potential as writers, and hold both student papers responsible for their actions.