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COLUMN

Friday’s Flag Editorial Sloppy and Bad Journalism

John A. Hawkinson

Last week Friday, The Tech published an editorial, “Flags and Freedom,” addressing the controversy surrounding the display of flags from dormitory windows. I thought the editorial extremely poorly-written.

It saddens me; I had complimented the editorial board in my Sept. 23 column, suggesting I thought they were improving their organization. They did not show it here.

When I discussed the board in detail in my July 9 column, I talked about membership, but I didn’t discuss their processes very much. An editorial is printed after a majority of the board approves it, and those who disagree have the option to print a dissent; if the editorial board is not unanimous (excepting recusals and absentions), then the vote count is printed.

Errors of fact

“Flags and Freedom” got facts wrong.

It accused MIT’s administration of “measures that inconsistently change existing rules,” and said that “rules across the board are changed to accommodate one particular situation.” In fact, no MIT administration rules have been changed. On Aug. 5, the Sidney-Pacific government revised the Postering section of their Publicity Guidelines to prohibit “posting ... on doors or in hallways or on the exterior of the building.” If this change is construed to be relevant, it’s not the doing of the MIT administration.

Perhaps application of rules has been less-than-consistent, but that’s not an argument the editorial pursued.

The editorial asserted that there is “little, if any, room for appeal.” As I see it, there is plenty of room. There are multiple levels of management available above Director of Housing Karen A. Nilsson to escalate to, if it is felt the situation is not being handled well.

Yes, there are hard feelings and entrenched opinions, but appeal is still possible.

Inflammatory language

The editorial makes some language decisions that seem destined to provoke unhappy reactions from those involved. Characterizing the situation as a “political soap opera” is probably accurate, but seems unnecessarily hostile.

More concerning to me, it repeatedly asked for “rational heads” and said that “these debates should be decided by those with clear heads.” That reads to me as a backhanded way of accusing those involved in the situation as having acted irrationally and without “clear heads.” Accusations like that, especially without explicit foundation, are not the best way to effect change.

The New York Times’ “Guidelines on Our Integrity” says: “No subject should be taken by surprise when the paper appears, or feel that there was no chance to respond.” The editorial board would do well to consider something similar. When I talked to Nilsson as part of my research for this column, she indicated no one from the editorial board had spoken to her. I don’t think they were required to do so, but their piece would have been better if they had.

The editorial labeled the Canadian flag at East Campus as a “copycat.” This is negative language directed at a person who is not otherwise mentioned in the editorial. Who does this kind of speech serve? It dilutes the argument.

Flawed arguments

Reading the news articles on this topic, I felt the attempt to apply the Postering section of the Sidney-Pacific Publicity Guidelines to a flag was one of the less well-thought-out decisions. I think it ill-advised for the editorial to have supported the idea that rules about 8.5x11" paper posters on bulletin boards apply to flags.

The editorial was wrong to say, “the incident has led to the enforcement of this rule at other dormitories, some of which did not have preexisting regulations.”

The housing regulation, which applies to all MIT housing, reads, “The use of flammable decorations, including natural evergreens, in any room, corridor, stairwell, lounge, dining hall, lobby and other public areas is prohibited by Massachusetts fire laws. The use of non-flammable decorations must be approved by the House Manager.” It’s this regulation that was applied outside S-P.

The editorial suggested that for flags to be a safety issue, they must be “on the top of MIT’s safety concerns.” This doesn’t hold water. Safety concerns, when brought to the attention of responsible parties, should be acted on in a timely fashion. The debate should center around whether flags are a legitimate safety concern, not around what level of neglect they may have received in the past.

The editorial claimed “a less extreme and more thoughtful solution ... could have been found.” It would have been better to suggest some solutions, rather than asserting their possible existence.

EIC still on editboard

As part of the effort to separate news staff from editorial staff, the managing board of The Tech considered a motion to remove the editor in chief from the editorial board at a meeting in late September. The motion was defeated, and I think rightly so. The editorial board needs manpower more than ever, and benefits from having members familiar with the standards of research and diligence of news -- standards they need to pursue more vigorously.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.