WHEELER: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

op-cd130-sroehse

Timothy B. Wheeler served as Editor-in-Chief for The Cavalier Daily in 1973-74.

Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

130 years is a ripe old age for a newspaper these days. There are some older than that — the Hartford Courant, for one, has been publishing continuously since 1764.

But it’s remarkable nonetheless, in the modern era when newspapers seem to be on the endangered list, that The Cavalier Daily is marking its 130th year. It’s a feat for an entirely student-run news organization that’s had to scramble to get by on advertising and donations — and at times fend off University administrators bent on suppressing its independence.

The Cavalier Daily can trace its roots to the founding in 1890 of College Topics, a weekly that first appeared Jan. 15. The premier issue featured front-page profiles of two students vying to be president of that even more venerable on-Grounds organization, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. 

Both candidates were white men, as were all five founding editors of College Topics. That has changed, of course, as has the size and diversity of the University student population.

The paper has evolved over the decades, reporting on and reflecting the times. Its frequency of publication grew, reaching six times a week at one point, and it was renamed The Cavalier Daily in 1948. 

Now, it’s back to being printed weekly again, as it was 130 years ago. But it’s still a daily, virtually speaking.

Some things never change. 

“We have associated with ourselves the ablest corps of reporters in the world,” read the paper’s first editorial, “and we are sure those who read us will swear by us forever.”

Or at us, they might have added.

There have been times when student leaders and University officials denounced the paper for opinions or reporting they deemed unfair or irresponsible.There have even been protests against cartoons and other items published that offended. 

But 40 years ago, when the University president briefly kicked The Cavalier Daily off Grounds because its editors wouldn’t bow to the Board of Visitors’ efforts to regulate it, students turned out en masse on the Lawn to show their support for the paper. “The CD may suck,” read one protest sign, “but it doesn’t kiss ass.”

I went to the “CD,” as we called it, nearly 50 years ago, looking for something to do besides study. The first news story I wrote was so bad it never saw the light of day. But I kept at it, and before long I was covering student protests against the Vietnam war, the emergence of gay student organizations on Grounds and a push to pay the University’s staff a living wage. 

I joined the staff at a watershed moment, when the paper went from being just another student activity to one that took journalism seriously. 

In my few years as reporter and ultimately Editor-in-Chief, we exposed shoddy construction of off-Grounds student housing and revealed the lying and stealing practiced by a secret society supposedly dedicated to upholding the Honor System. 

Our editorials ruffled feathers at times because we chose to air our disagreements with the University power structure in public, rather than follow the “Virginia Way” and resolve differences discreetly. 

We raised questions, for instance, about the University’s commitment to racial diversity when its incoming president and a number of faculty belonged to a then whites-only country club. That reporting continued for years afterward until President Frank Hereford finally resigned from Farmington.

The Cavalier Daily has continued to shine a light in dark corners and to ask tough questions. When the University’s first female president, Teresa Sullivan, suddenly resigned in 2012, its staff obtained emails that unveiled the campaign by the Board of Visitors’ rector to oust her. The revelations helped fuel the public uproar that got Sullivan reinstated. 

More recently, The Cavalier Daily’s unstinting coverage of the white supremacists’ march on the Grounds and its tragic aftermath has provided a bracing wake-up call that the community’s racist legacy has yet to be fully reckoned with.

For work like that, The Cavalier Daily has won awards and repeated recognition as one of the best collegiate news organizations in the country. It’s been the launchpad for quite a few journalism careers, including mine. 

Most of the hundreds of students who join the staff every year go into other fields. Given the upheaval in the news industry, who can blame them?  But I hope they carry with them some understanding and appreciation for the role journalists play in our society. That’s vitally important these days, amid the frequent attacks on inconvenient but factual reporting as “fake news.” 

Forty-five years ago, as I graduated from the University, momentum was building to impeach President Richard Nixon. Today, another president is battling an impeachment inquiry. Gutsy journalism played a part in informing the public then, as it does today. 

So, long live The Cavalier Daily! Keep holding up a mirror to the University and the community around it. Without fear or favor, cast a spotlight on what needs attention. We need that now more than ever. 

Timothy B. Wheeler is Associate Editor and Senior Writer for the Bay Journal. He worked three decades as a reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun, and before that reported for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Media General News Service in Washington, D.C. He served as Editor-in-Chief for The Cavalier Daily in 1973-74.

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