A teaching moment

COLUMBIA, Mo. – At the world’s oldest journalism school, the professors for the most part are long on academic credentials but short on in-the-trenches reporting experience.

Still, the University of Missouri School of Journalism prides itself on offering “real world” opportunities for its budding journalists. It’s called “the Missouri method” which combines “a strong liberal arts education with unique hands-on training in professional media.”

Tim Tai, a photojournalist student from St. Louis, got a real education this week when protestors and some faculty members blocked his attempt to cover the demonstrators’ tent city on the Carnahan Quadrangle. Freelancing for ESPN, Tai was trying to document what was happening after the departures of two top administrators in the wake of racist events on the campus.

The story of how the football team’s boycott led to the departures of the UM System President Timothy Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin made national news. But it was the sidebar about what happened to Tai and another student that rang alarm bells in the School of Journalism.

In a video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRlRAyulN4o three MU faculty members are shown with the protestors who were blocking Tai’s attempt to photograph the protestors’ movement known as Concerned Student 1950. While Tai points out he has a First Amendment right to do his job on the quadrangle’s public property, protestors chant: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go.” The three faculty members were later identified as Melissa Click, a communications professor, Richard Callahan, chairman of the Religious Studies Department, and Janna Basler, director of Greek Life.

Mark Schierbecker, a history and German student from the St. Louis County suburb of Rock Hill, recorded the video. When he posted it on You Tube, he wrote, “This is what civic-level censorship looks like at a university with the largest and oldest public college of journalism.” The video shows Basler pushing Tai, Callahan raising his hands to block the photographer’s field of vision, and Click confronting Schierbecker and calling for “muscle” to help remove him from the tent city.

If anything sets the University of Missouri-Columbia apart from other universities, it’s the Journalism School. The school’s reputation draws students from around the world, and the out-of-state tuition they pay goes a long way toward paying the university’s bills. What happened to Tai seemed like biting the hand that feeds you.

Brian Brooks, who retired as the school’s associate dean but who is still an adjunct member of the faculty, filed a harassment complaint with the school’s Title IX enforcement office based on what he saw on the video. “Dr. Click and her accomplice may also be guilty of battery as our student on one or two occasions protested being pushed by the two women,” Brooks wrote in an email.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee butters the university’s bread, has called for the firing of Click and Basler for violating the school’s code of conduct. The Republican from Columbia said what the two women had done amounted to at least third-degree assault.

Click has since apologized and resigned her courtesy appointment at the Journalism School, although she remains on the faculty of the Communications Department. Basler has apologized, too, and according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she has been placed on administrative leave.

Even before the confrontation between the photographer and the protestors, there were indications that media coverage on the campus was unwelcome. Matt Sanders, the city editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, wrote this week, “The protest leaders were loudly telling students, in front of reporters, not to speak to reporters. Reporters have an agenda and don’t care about their movement, they said. The message was loud and clear—they saw us as their enemies.”

What happened to Tai was “a teaching moment” for journalism students. In the real world they can expect to be unwelcomed—or even despised–observers documenting events. Just ask Paul Hampel, a highly-regarded, 30-year veteran reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who was beaten, bloodied and robbed while covering the anniversary events in Ferguson in August. Hampel was taking photos and videos of break-ins before he was attacked.

Hampel, 54, who colleagues said put his heart and a young person’s enthusiasm into every story, was placed on medical leave suffering head and other injuries. Last month he resigned from the newspaper. On Oct. 12 he began work as a legislative analyst in St. Louis County government.

Author’s note:  Terry Ganey has a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism where he has been an adjunct instructor.