For generations, editorial board members have pushed the boundaries, challenged ideas and ignited reactions within the university community.
“Controversy is good in a way; it means that you’re getting to the heart of something and making people think about stuff,” said Sam Schaefer, who served as opinion editor during the 2015-2016 school year. “The tradition the editorial page has makes it able to say more useful and challenging things than most other newspapers.”
In the 1940s, numerous editorials were penned to discuss the U.S.’s overseas involvement in the World War. In 1948, outspoken communist Bill Robertson wrote a column entitled “Christ was a Communist” and caused fury in the Jim Crow South, and then stoked the fire further by writing to abolish the Confederate flag at UNC sporting events. The Daily Tar Heel fired Robertson for the second column.
By the 1960s, opinion writers took debates to the press over the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the tensions with the Soviet Union.
Schaefer said writers should look to expand current norms.
“There's been a long history of that kind of thing happening at the Daily Tar Heel, where it’s usually better if you just lean into the controversy," he said.
In 2005, The Daily Tar Heel made national headlines for running a cartoon allegedly depicting the face of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Ryan Tuck, who served as editor-in-chief that year, said the original intention was not to show the face of Muhammad, but rather to speak to the political strife occurring after a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons showing the prophet’s face.
“I thought it was exactly what a cartoon is supposed to do, which is to start a conversation in a way that an article can't do as powerfully,” Tuck said. “Really only cartoons and photos have that sort of visceral potency as far as being able to get to the crux of an issue that would take a thousand words if not more to do otherwise.”
In the days after the cartoon was published, Tuck said he received thousands of angry calls, emails and press coverage. A group of students staged a sit-in outside The Daily Tar Heel offices that lasted for several days, Tuck said. Eventually, Tuck met with the leaders of the Muslim Student Association on campus — holding a forum to discuss the cartoon controversy and depictions of Muslims generally.
Tuck said the dialogue was ultimately very productive.
“You’re going to ruffle some feathers, especially on the editorial page, and I think cartoons and columns in particular, that’s not the point but it is certainly a side effect of you doing your job,” he said. “I’m a human being, and I felt bad the many thousands of people I talked to who told me how personally offensive this was to them — but sometimes it comes with the territory.”
Ishmael Bishop, a former columnist and editorial board member who graduated from UNC in 2016, explained that he knows what it’s like to be inundated by offensive comments. He decided to leave the DTH after receiving backlash from community members for the views expressed in his column, “Color Commentary.”
After receiving a flood of hate mail for a column discussing unequal entry into UNC, Bishop said the DTH did not have an adequate infrastructure in place to support its writers when criticism occurred.
“People had access to talk about me directly and to make very harsh comments, and no one was doing anything to shield me from them, to shield writers,” Bishop said. “I was looking for support from the editor-in-chief that year, I was looking for someone to defend me, and it never happened. There was a lot of ‘could have, would have, should have,’ but it boiled down to the lack of pushback from the DTH.”
Bishop said he hopes the DTH continues to be a platform for writers to pursue the critical race work that he focused on in his column. Chapel Hill has a unique persona of seemingly being progressive, but to most students of color who come through the university, they associate Carolina with a racist entangled history and ties to white supremacy, Bishop said.
“A political infrastructure that we've seen developing over the past few decades has been very antagonistic toward people of color, those of us who are queer or those who are women,” he said. “I think that there is a group of people who are attracted to editorial board writing more and more — and they come because that is a space to publicly write about some of these issues that are in our community, they use that as a platform.”
Tuck said a college newspaper should be a space where people can express diverse viewpoints, whether it’s commentary over politics or why Duke University is such a terrible place.
“Student newspapers are unique in that regard,” Tuck said. “I get a lot of people still formulating these viewpoints and working through them — and there's things I believed as a freshman that I no longer did as a sophomore or I no longer did as a junior. And I think that our voice as a student newspaper can really help people at this sort of age of maturation and viewpoint expansion.”
Community newspapers are a great place for freedom of expression, and the DTH’s ability to communicate something to the population for free is outstanding, Bishop said.
“We need to continue to challenge — especially those opinion writers — to challenge the beliefs that we have and what we are willing to compromise on, negotiate and what we're just going to hold to ourselves as the foundational,” Bishop said. “We should be working and learning and unlearning some of those ideas and ideologies as much as possible.”
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