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Thistle, Counterpoint War Rages in Print

By Bill Jackson
American Gladiator

Student publications come, student publications go, and student publications snipe at each other.

In a monumental day in MIT history, just about every paper on campus that is not The Tech put out an issue Wednesday. If you are beginning to think that the line between the ridiculous and the sublime is blurring in student publications, you are right. Wednesday's Thistle and Counterpoint contained the exact same article, a detailed analysis of "Why abortion must be safe, legal, and funded," if you read The Thistle, or "Abortion must remain safe and legal" in Counterpoint, by MIT Students for Choice co-founder Emily T. Yeh '93. It's an excellent article, and I recommend that you read it in the publication of your choice. The article has become a pawn in a war that has been raging recently between The Thistle and Counterpoint.

According to Counterpoint publisher Avik S. Roy '94, "Archon Fung asked us whether or not it was okay for The Thistle to print the article. Normally we charge $35 for reprints, but we decided not to charge them." (Normally you charge $35? C'mon. I think Counterpoint is getting a swelled head now that they've made it one issue farther than The Analyst, which disappeared faster than free food at a graduate student party.) Frankly, Counterpoint should do its homework about its right to sell the text itself; more on that in a bit.

Anyway, Counterpoint agreed to waive its "normal fee" on two conditions: (1) The Thistle wait at least four days after the Counterpoint publication date to publish its reprint and (2) the article be prefaced with the words "This article is reprinted from Counterpoint magazine with permission of The Advocates of Rational Discourse." Indeed, Roy showed me the e-mail exchange where he made these requests to Archon Fung of The Thistle.

Would you believe that The Thistle went 0-for-2?

Appearing on the same day as the Counterpoint original, the "reprint" was preceded only by "This article will appear in an upcoming issue of Counterpoint." Not quite the preface Counterpoint requested. Once again, The Thistle has demonstrated that it had one set of standards for themselves and another for everyone else. If another publication broke a reprint agreement, even one which was made out of journalistic courtesy, I'm sure The Thistle would tell us all about the capitalist conspiracy behind the actions.

Whether it was actually copyright infringement is unclear; after all, both organizations are subsets of MIT, and MIT can't sue itself or violate its own copyright. But who owns the article? Is it the author, the organization receiving the submission, or the organization which prints it first? Calls to the copyright office in Washington and a lawyer friend of The Tech only left me more confused on the legal issue, but any copyright claims by Counterpoint appear to be on extremely shaky ground.

The more important question lies in the morality of the affair. Counterpoint made two requests, neither of which I find unreasonable. If The Thistle indeed had a good reason that they couldn't abide by Counterpoint's requests, it would've been common courtesy -- not necessary, but common courtesy -- to explain why.

The Thistle has admitted that they had so much copy for the issue in question that they had to punt three stories, but they decided to keep the abortion story. By going out of their way to scoop Counterpoint, The Thistle appears to have acted exclusively to anger Counterpoint. These efforts have been an unqualified success.

And The Thistle has been busy battling Counterpoint on other fronts as well. According to Roy, mysterious entities -- I'm guessing magic fairies -- have been flitting about Lobby 7 at night, covering the newsstands with Thistles and moving Counterpoints. According to Steven D. Penn G, this is true, except that the fairies have been moving Thistles and replacing them with Counterpoints. This has become enough of a problem that the issue is coming to a head between the publications on campus, including The Tech, which provides the stands as a service to the MIT community as a whole.

In an e-mail letter to me, Penn explained that he "noticed that the Thistles had been moved from where I had placed them and the Counterpoint had been put in its place. I restored order." (Penn also told me The Tech would be "hypocritical" for printing anything about this because we have the power to correct it and haven't done anything -- I think that printing this column is doing something about it, but what do I know?) Roy says that the man distributing Counterpoint was once followed from place to place, and each time he dropped some off, the person following him replaced them with Thistles. Who to believe, who to believe...

This is actually a battle for about 100 square inches of space on a newsstand. Each publication wants to be on the inside corner, near the traffic flow, so they jockey for position, each pushing the other back 12 inches or so. Yes, it has become this petty.

In a final shot, members of the Alternative News Collective, which publishes The Thistle, made a power play at the Undergraduate Association to have Avik Roy removed as moderator of the upcoming debate among UAP/UAVP candidates. They claimed he has a "bias" which makes him unsuitable as a moderator. This, as Roy rightly points out, from the group which proudly declares its bias in The Thistle each month.

A war of e-mail ensued between Roy and ANC embodiment (and column favorite) Penn. (Interesting piece of trivia: Penn had his e-mail set up so that the "from" line ended in the words "f*ck authority.") Penn mentioned Roy's former association with The Analyst as proof of Roy's bias. Roy was indeed a member of The Analyst when it began, but he had the foresight to see that paper's Titanic-like destiny and jumped ship quickly to set up the somewhat more reasonable Counterpoint.

Roy now goes to great pains to appear unbiased; he recently offered the reasoning behind his recent article about problems with Tech reporting. "Sorry about my column," said Roy. "It wasn't meant to be an attack on you guys. It's just that our December/Jan issue, with the homosexuality article, had slightly pushed our luck in the balance department. The most effective way to establish balance is to pick on everybody. Sorry about that; nothing personal."

Roy is a master of understatement; the homosexuality "article" was trash, written by someone who must see Morton Downey Jr. as the pinnacle of journalistic excellence. Printing the article created serious doubts about the credibility of Counterpoint's editorial policies, despite the magazine's supposed high intentions of promoting freedom of ideas. Interesting that in the very next issue Roy would be willing to offer opinions he doesn't seem to feel strongly about, in his own column, just to avoid being accused of bias.

The Thistle is right in saying that the UA certainly could've picked a more suitable moderator. Any outgoing UA member would be better than the publisher of a political journal. (That's exactly what Counterpoint is. It has no news, just political essays.) Roy should decline the position of moderator and accept a position as the right-wing questioner, since no one, even the UA members who asked The Analyst to send a reporter, is sure if that fine publication even exists anymore. Penn, a graduate student whose deep interest in UA elections far outstrips that of most undergraduates, has spearheaded a series of messages to Roy about why he shouldn't moderate the debate.

However, if Roy sticks to the role of moderator, simply enforcing time limits on speeches and calling on the next questioner, then his political bias won't matter because he won't express any opinions at all.

Now, considering how both parties have acted in the debate about the debate, is it too late to un-invite them to the debate itself?