Plan threatens independent media

By Editorial Board

Wednesday, the final draft of bylaws for the proposed Student Media Council was released. The basics of the proposal include combining the U’s Student Publications and Broadcast councils into one Student Media Council. The policies and procedures also call for the hiring of a “student-media advocate” and an increase of $1.34 to the per-semester student publications fee. Although details on the fee are conspicuously vague, it would primarily go toward additional funding for KUTE and to pay 50 percent of the media advocate’s salary, with the communication department paying the other half.

A memorandum attached to the policies and procedures attributed to Ann Darling, chairwoman of the department of communication, and Bob Avery and Glen Feighery. faculty in the department, is as written: “We are grateful for all the feedback that we have received from all the many individuals and groups who are deeply committed to excellent educational experiences for our students. We believe that feedback has allowed us to compose a stronger document…we are happy to report that we were able to respond to and integrate almost all of the concerns raised and the feedback offered.”

The document has changed in a few minor ways. However, before any of these changes were made, a lot of effort was expended by The Daily Utah Chronicle and others to battle what was often a very secretive process. And to suggest that the drafters of the policies and procedures were able to “integrate almost all of the concerns raised and the feedback offered” is an incredible stretch of the truth.

The body of the language is largely still problematic. For example, the policies and procedures explain that the media advocate, true to the position title, “advocates on behalf of student media.” But it should be student editors and managers who advocate for their own publications and media outlets. Although it is not within the advocate’s power to censor content, simply the presence of such a position could result in indirect censorship or self-censorship. Considering The Chronicle, for example, already has a hired adviser, the advocate would be an unnecessary go-between who could hinder independent student media.

Putting that aside, some of The Chronicle’s concerns included in the policies and procedures have been amended. Most notably, language was removed suggesting the media advocate would be responsible for implementing the policies and procedures of the Media Council in campus media operations. Such vague language could further endanger the independence of student media.

Despite the minor improvements, the necessity of the advocate and increased student fee aren’t completely certain. Considering the combination of the two councils itself won’t require any funds, the student fee increase will almost completely, if not exclusively, be used to significantly boost KUTE funding and subsidize the salary of the student media advocate.

Raising students fees to pay half the salary of a new administrator is a worrisome trend. With the university facing a consistent onslaught of budget cuts and a 9 percent tuition hike, it seems unusual to ask students to pick up an extra price tag. If the university lacks the funds to pay for a new position, the students shouldn’t have to pick up the slack to subsidize a faculty member’s salary.

Along with contributing to the advocate’s salary, a good portion of the student fee increase will become general funding to help improve KUTE. In fact, the media advocate would play a major role in KUTE’s renovation should the fee pass, making the struggling campus radio station the major benefactor of the proposed Media Council. The Chronicle doesn’t object to KUTE’s efforts to improve, but if students are paying the tab, they should be given the opportunity to decide by referendum whether or not their student fee dollars should be used to resurrect the beleaguered radio station.

Getting away from the fee increase, this is only the next step in what has been a three-year process. One early side effect of the reorganization of student media was the separation of The Chronicle with its sale group last July, which now sells for a variety of on- and off-campus media outlets. This first phase has already had a damaging effect on student media by splitting ad sales.

Darling repeatedly refused to let members of the Chronicle staff see a draft copy of the proposal until it was released to the Publications Council a few weeks ago because she was worried it would be “leaked” to other press. Interestingly, the final document ignores calls for language that would protect the Chronicle’s ability to challenge open records request denials without going through the U’s Office of General Counsel, which responds to records requests on the U’s behalf. We can’t imagine how the office that routinely denies our open records requests can represent us in the same matter without having a conflict of interest.

Although past and current changes to student media might be fueled by good intentions, too much of it has been done for a long period of time behind closed doors with very little disclosure to those involved. Chronicle staffers were only invited to give input on the plan at the tail end of the process when the authors had already decided on a new organizational structure.

The U Board of Trustees should not only question the necessity of these changes, but the cryptic manner in which they have been produced. Any process to drastically change student media should be open to the public, especially when it aims to raise student fees. This process was a sideshow.

Instead of pushing it through the May board meeting, the Trustees should send the proposal back to the drawing board and insist it be done in a transparent manner.

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