​SPINKS: We need accountability, not retractions

The Cavalier Daily’s Managing Board should have left all April Fools’ Day content online

Last week, I wrote a column about the status of The Cavalier Daily’s editorial integrity. Some may question, “Are Cavalier Daily readers really concerned with editorial integrity?” But to write off this concern as trivial disrespects not only the intelligence of our audience but also the hundreds of students who dedicate hours of their free time to producing our paper. Thousands of people visit our webpage every day. During the several scandals that plagued the University this year, students counted on The Cavalier Daily to deliver the facts efficiently and accurately. To know that our readers care about our editorial integrity, one need only look at the community’s response to the April Fools’ Day issue. Reactions to the issue were varied, but regardless, students had their faith in us as a reliable and reputable publication tested, and they spoke out about it.

The Managing Board’s response to the controversial articles in question proved to me that editorial integrity at The Cavalier Daily is definitely in danger. In an unprecedented (and likely unique) move, I’d like to agree with the Managing Board of The Virginia Advocate, who argued in a recent editorial that “retractions don’t work.” They’re right — retractions don’t work, and The Cavalier Daily’s Managing Board shouldn’t have issued one.

Before the satirical articles were removed from the website, the .pdf copy of the issue deleted from cyberspace and the print copies mysteriously taken from all the distribution boxes, the Managing Board said, “We deeply apologize to anyone who felt hurt, marginalized or that their experiences were trivialized by these pieces.” I applaud the Managing Board for acknowledging that they, through their editorial decision to publish those satire pieces, created an unintended harm. I have spoken with members of the Managing Board and also attended the recent dialogue between The Cavalier Daily staff, the Black Student Alliance and the Native American Student Union. I am convinced the Managing Board’s dedication to do better is sincere, and the pain of marginalized communities at the University is immense and justified.

So I do not take issue with the apology, but only with the retraction that accompanied it, because it undermined our publication’s editorial integrity. As a former Opinion editor, I was taken aback when I heard of the retraction. The Cavalier Daily’s long-held policy has been that controversial editorials are never taken down. We also do not publish anonymous pieces — we make writers attach their names to their words, regardless of how those words could potentially be perceived. I am keenly aware — as is the Managing Board, I’m sure — that Google is the new resume. I have written with self-assurance about liberal politics, race issues and my personal failings — even as I knew those words would be attached to my name for perpetuity. And all other writers on The Cavalier Daily staff are regularly asked — nay, forced — to display equal courage of conviction.

Somehow, the Managing Board saw this occasion as exempt from the rules. Yes, an Opinion column is distinct from a satirical article published once a year. But the editors on the Managing Board are still the last few people to see every piece of content we publish — they hold the final stamp of approval, and they consciously decided to run each of the offensive articles, even as they held positions on the paper with the authority to stop publication. Since April Fools’ articles are historically published under pseudonyms, the Managing Board is the sole source of accountability. It is reprehensible that the Managing Board failed to hold itself to the same standards that it sets for its subordinates. It exercised its own judgement when deciding to run those articles, and the Managing Board needs to stand by its decision. The Cavalier Daily, as an editorially independent institution, had every right both to attempt satire and to publish jokes at others’ expense. The Managing Board actively exercised that right, and to retract the pieces post-hoc suggests that it did so wrongly, which undermines the Board's individual and collective integrity.

Further, it demonstrates Orwellian levels of wishful thinking that all evidence of the problematic satirical articles was eradicated. I was told by a member of the Managing Board that the emptying of the distribution boxes was not an organized Cavalier Daily effort, but the Managing Board did remove all digital copies of the articles. Beyond the philosophical problem with attempting to merely erase the mistake of publication, this decision also had a far more damaging effect: it halted any serious engagement with the satire.

Now those wishing to dissect the articles and to host discussions about what, exactly, was problematic and why are unable to do so. There is nothing left with which people can grapple — only whispers of half-remembered sentences and the pain of jokes that didn’t land remain. How can the Managing Board expect The Cavalier Daily to improve not only its sensitivity but also its skill at satire if the staff lacks bad examples to consult? How can we aim to deconstruct the articles if copies are no longer easily accessible?

The retraction issued by the Managing Board was at best counter-productive and at worst actively cowardly and harmful. I am disappointed in a decision that did further damage to The Cavalier Daily’s already fragile editorial integrity.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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