March 20, 2007

Sunshine Week: The Sun shines on JCCC

Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, editor of The Johnson County Sun, wrote an editorial this week about my reporting efforts at JCCC:

Students commit necessary acts of journalism at college

by Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, editor

Student journalists at Johnson County Community College deserve credit from the community for the fine work they produced starting about this time last year and continuing into this year.
Miguel Morales, Kevin Mimms and Joshua Seiden led The Campus Ledger’s effort to tell the community about allegations against Johnson County Community College President Charles Carlsen. In so doing, they displayed qualities that make journalism vital in a democracy.
First, during Carlsen’s silver anniversary year, Morales learned that a female staff member had accused him of sexual harassment.
The ramifications loomed enormously.
If not true, a great leader recognized nationally at the community college level would have his honored name sullied for nothing.
But if true, then what?
Should a man who has done so much for the college have his name smeared on the verge of his retirement?
At least some college leaders would have let Carlsen retire quietly and thereby protected the reputation of the college and man in the hope that the whole thing would slink away, regardless of the damage he might have done. There is reason to believe that outgoing Trustee Elaine Perilla favored that approach, though she chooses to say nothing about what she knew and when.
A similar opinion might come from Carlsen’s many and loyal friends. Some believe Carlsen when he says he is not guilty of the allegations. And, perhaps, Carlsen is not guilty, though after Morales’ original report of harassment other women stepped forward to make similar allegations.
For student journalists at The Campus Ledger, just like for their peers in the profession, there would have been many and good reasons to just keep their mouths shut, thereby protecting Carlsen’s legacy as a great leader, keeping campus trustees who fund the newspaper happy, and keeping people who support Carlsen and the trustees happy.
Happy, happy, happy...
But spreading joy and covering up dirt is no more the job of a journalist’s than spreading doom and inventing scandal.
A journalist reports truth in whatever form.
The alternative to honest reporting, student journalists participating in a cover up, would have frightening ramifications for a democracy. These same students, and those like them, upon entering the profession would encounter far worse instances where a cover up might be easier than the truth n that President Nixon authorized burglars to break into the Democratic Party’s headquarters; that President Clinton had “sex” in the Oval Office, though perhaps he had a different definition for the word; and that the Bush administration, at best, used faulty intelligence as a basis for invading Iraq at a cost of tens of thousands of civilian and military lives.
The public needs to know about the failings of their leaders, whether presidents of nations or presidents of colleges, so that wrongs can be righted.
The Ledger staff acted in the highest traditions of responsible journalism to brush aside consideration for anything other than the truth by reporting the allegations against Carlsen.
The results run deeper than Carlsen’s resignation. The public learned that at least one college trustee may have known about the allegation two years before The Ledger’s report, but said nothing; all trustees are not informed when sexual harassment allegations are made; good reporting can lead to retaliation, which seems a plausible explanation for why trustees refused to allow The Ledger to print summer issues; and perhaps the most important outcome is that the women who felt harassed by Carlsen came forward to vent secret concerns and accept vindication.
In a democracy, good journalists, students or otherwise, do not exist to serve those in power, they exist to serve the public, and the student journalists at The Campus Ledger have acquitted themselves admirably as public servants.