April 20, 2012
At least since the DKE chanting fiasco last year, if not before, the Yale Daily News and the undergraduate feminist community have had an uneasy relationship. While some of the paper’s actions—for example, the publication of two anonymous testimonies of women who were raped by fellow students—have done much to further the discussion of Yale’s sexual climate, other pieces—most notably the editorial that ran immediately after the DKE incident—have been heavily censured by feminists on campus.
Most of the conflicts between the paper and Yale’s feminists have played out in the opinion section. Last term, under the editorship of Alex Klein and Andrew Squire, there were a number of fiery back-and-forth debates about Sex Week at Yale and sexual culture on campus. An op-ed panel on those issues was filmed and posted online. Klein estimated that, during his tenure, the opinion section published more on the Title IX complaint and sex at Yale than on any other set of issues.
This term, opinion editor Julia Fisher seems to have moved away from that focus on feminist issues. The few pro-woman pieces that have been published have tended to be relatively moderate in tone and in argument. More worryingly, a number of blatantly sexist pieces, including Elaina Plott’s claim that the war on women isn’t real and Elise Ransom’s indictment of the Women’s Center for eschewing her brand of (oxymoronic) “pro-life feminism”, were published without an opposing viewpoint.
Feminist writers who have tried to rectify these deficits have had difficulty getting their voices heard. Several women have been told that their columns are unlikely to be published if they are framed as direct responses to other writers. In one such case, Ellie Monahan sought to respond to Ransom’s article but was told that her piece could not run as an explicit refutation of Ransom’s argument. Deputy opinion editor Jack Newsham also suggested to Monahan that perhaps she would prefer to forgo publication of her piece to ensure that “no one can leave nasty comments on it.” He followed this comment with a smiley-face emoticon. Monahan, who says she felt the YDN was not “a safe space” for her piece, eventually chose to run it on Broad Recognition instead.
A similar scenario played out when Julia Calagiovanni sought to run a response to Plott’s op-ed. Fisher wrote in an e-mail that, while Calagiovanni could address Plott’s points implicitly, she wanted to avoid “a petty back and forth” between the two and encouraged Calagiovanni to make the piece more of a standalone argument. In the end, the article did not run, and Plott’s piece passed without rebuttal in the opinion pages.
The YDN has also suggested to some feminist writers that their views are too familiar to be worthy of publication. For example, when two of the directors of Sex Week sought to contribute a piece to the SWAY controversy, they were told that their arguments added little that was new to the discussion and were encouraged to make their article more confrontational. Calagiovanni was also given a similar rationale for Fisher’s objections to her piece; in an e-mail, Fisher wrote that an argument supporting the notion that congressional Republicans are indeed targeting women “rehashes the same points we’ve seen time and again.”
Taken collectively, these cases show the YDN moving away representing the views of campus feminists—a particularly worrisome development considering the YDN’s influence on how Yale is perceived both within our community and among the general public. As Connie Cho, one of the authors of the SWAY column, says, “The YDN has an enormous ethical responsibility as gatekeepers of information and how it is reproduced within the student body.” The News is undoubtedly the most widely read campus publication, and one of the only ones likely to be seen by those outside the university. If a segment of the student population cannot make itself heard in the News, those outside Yale—including prospective students—are unlikely to know that it exists. As such, the paper’s opinion section should take seriously its responsibility to accurately represent the diversity of student viewpoints on a given issue.
For her part, Fisher agrees that the YDN has a duty to offer “a daily portrait of public opinion at Yale.” She says the decision not to run columns in direct response to other pieces is a broader shift in editorial policy, and has never been intended to silence any particular interest group on campus. Direct responses, Fisher says, are unpopular with readers—they “cut people out of the conversation” if they’ve missed original article. Rather than running such responses as columns in their own right, Fisher prefers to publish them as letters to the editor. In fact, there have in fact been a few such letters articulating feminist objections some opinion pieces, such as Sam Huber’s response to Julia Pucci’s column “Why women don’t write” and Bassel Habbab’s critique of Plott’s piece. Fisher also defends her choice to focus on opinions that are more unfamiliar to readers rather than those arguments many may already haven seen elsewhere. Some submissions, she says, merely repeat “the same thing that has been said again and again” and so add little to the campus conversation.
But while Fisher’s editorial changes are intended to satisfy more readers and advance substantive debate, they seem to have resulted in fewer opportunities for feminists to respond in kind to columns with which they disagree. These changes represent a significant shift in the organization of the YDN opinion section. Last year, the publication of pieces that responded directly to previous columns was common; Klein, one of last year’s editors, says his goal was to “provide a sounding board for the most controversial, divisive issues on campus” and to “get the right mix of voices.” Without publishing direct responses, achieving that mix seems to be more difficult—the fact is, people are more likely to take the time to write a piece that rebuts an argument they abhor than one that advances their own views without provocation from an opponent. To refuse to publish retorts to controversial opinions like Plott’s and Ransom’s, either because they constitute a “petty back and forth” or because feminist views have gotten a decent amount of campus coverage in the past year, seems misguided. As Habbab (who wrote a letter to the editor in response to Plott) says, “I don’t think feminists should be faulted because their arguments aren’t entertaining or novel enough to satisfy the YDN op-ed gods.”
Still, if we as feminists are unhappy with the YDN’s coverage of our platform, it seems only fair to lay at least a healthy portion of the blame at our own doorstep. Fisher says that, as the Title IX has faded from the spotlight, she has received far fewer pitches for pieces on feminist issues, a deficit she has struggled to rectify. Perhaps feminists have eschewed writing for the YDN because of some of its past sins; perhaps we’ve simply stopped writing as much about our issues altogether. Whatever the results of the News’ editorial policies, it seems we have fallen silent more than we are being silenced. Going forward, we would do well to remember that representation in the pages of the YDN is crucial to our visibility outside of Yale. We need to work harder to articulate positive expressions of our positions, instead of merely reacting to others whose views we oppose. While maintaining a public presence on a campus often hostile to feminist stances may be a challenge, it is one we cannot take lightly if we want women considering Yale to know that they do, in fact, have a home here.
Katherine Orazem is a senior in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.