Coordinating Editor of The Daily threatened … to sue … The Tribune

It looks more like ego bias than a substantive argument, if we draw on the account of Byron Tau, the Opinion Editor of The McGill Tribune (and the writer of the story on the alleged plagiarism in The Daily). I have permission to quote him:

Drew Nelles contacted me by e-mail immediately after our affirmative endorsement went to print, threatening legal action (on a charge of libel), and saying that he was outraged and shocked that we didn’t contact him for his side of the story. I told him that were perfectly capable of reading and interpreting the DPS constitution ourselves, and that we didn’t necessarily need to tell his side of the story in our op-ed section. Further, I said that we’d provide him whatever column space he, or the Daily, or the DPS wanted in order to draft a reply or debate the issue in public. The crux of his complaint was that he was angry that we accused him of “lying” (which we never did…we merely took issue with how he represented the DPS constitution in the press). I pointed out that what we wrote was an almost exact paraphrase of what appeared in the Gazette, so I’m not exactly sure what his complaint is. I haven’t hear a follow up from him or the Daily since, except for the DPS Hyde Park that appeared today.

So The Tribune supports The Daily in the referendum based on the desirability of a free and competitive press — or in the language of the YES vote, “a free and critical press [which] is essential to a vibrant campus society and a healthy democracy” — and Nelles returns this support by threatening a lawsuit and attempting to squelch serious criticism by the press? … The Daily is the anti-establishment newspaper, right?

I don’t understand this libel accusation against The Tribune, except as a product of Nelles’ blind range. After I read their endorsement, I assumed some people at The Tribune agreed with me that Nelles made a mistake and did not responsibly correct or clarify himself in time for the students to have the full facts when voting. I myself didn’t accuse Nelles of lying. I even emailed him to give him the chance to “clarify or correct,” three or four days before I posted.

This looks like another situation where a recourse to victimhood trumps The Daily’s Coordinating Editor’s taking responsibility for his words and actions — and sometimes taking a hit in deference to the ideals of journalism.

Maybe Nelles simply freaked, but The Tribune’s criticism of Nelles’ remarks seems to have pressured other members on the Board of The Daily to (mis)read a whole Article’s worth of meaning into one line of The Daily’s Constitution, 16(4a). (That line only tells us that if a student gets any bright ideas, he/she should know that they can’t try to force a referendum by going to the top electoral officer.) Nelles’ outrage may have somehow pushed many on the Board toward an interpretation of The Daily’s Constitution based on isolating one line from the rest of the document.

In 1986, the students had referenda rights, to the extent that they could oust an editor. We don’t have those today. Now we can vote to refuse a fee increase, and the University lets us vote every 5 years, when we can take into account The Daily’s pluses (mostly certain writers, illustrators, photographers, etc.) and minuses, the biggest one being the lack of accountability relative to other independent student newspapers.

[UPDATE 5/16/08: After the mini-controversy about this, including Nelles’ threat to sue, the Daily decided to reform the Constitution to allow for referenda in situations other than fee increases — but this was after the last issue for 2007-2008. ]

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I’m not in favor of getting back referenda rights to the extent that we could decide when an editor had crossed the line and should go, but what would we do with those rights if we had them today?

  • Before reading week, the Coordinating Editor’s Op-Ed told us that he didn’t publish any note alerting the reader about “Sparing the Rich” because they were following a lawyer’s advice. But a lawyer advising Nelles about what a court could consider copyright infringement certainly didn’t advise him about his editorial responsibilities.
  • We were told nothing about Lukacs being pushed out even though Nelles’s Op-Ed told us the newspaper was committed to being upfront with us about the plagiarism question.
  • And though Nelles and the other editors pushed Lukacs out to solve a problem supposedly, they didn’t feel we deserved an Errata for Lukacs’ transcribing of a podcast without attribution to the original source and without indications he made large-scale adaptations of the participants’ words. Although the Ethics section of The Constitution says “The editors must rectify errors, in print, at the first available opportunity,” that rule was apparently suspended because a voting period was coming up and then because we were in the middle of it.

All the while, the YES Committee has been telling us that “a ‘no’ vote will mean the termination of all undergraduate student fees for the McGill Daily and Le Délit and will result in the end of their publication.” They got that language into the referendum, and made that their main pitch to the students, instead of saying what Board member Max Reed told CKUT, more accurately, and what other DPS Board members said from time to time: that it would be really damn hard to do budget planning in order to publish.

I understand that people were getting super stressed as the referendum was coming, but none of the above speaks to the editors’ willingness to accept responsibility or the other higher-ups’ willingness to give us transparency. The big vote should ideally demand more responsibility and transparency from a journalist, not the opposite.

There should be trust in the students that they can make the right decision when they have all the information. Instead, it looks like the punctuation to the students’ YES is the Coordinating Editor’s feeling so powerfully about getting us to read the Constitution so that his wayward remarks appeared perfectly fine, he wanted to sue another newspaper that gave The Daily an endorsement.

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