Reiland: The sit-down


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Dear Readers:
Please answer the following multiple-choice question:
How much access do you think The Daily Iowan — the campus newspaper serving the University of Iowa and Iowa City community — has with university President Sally Mason?
            A. Unlimited
            B. More than others
            C. Little or nothing

If you answered “C,” then you circled the same letter I did. And as the Editor-in-Chief of the DI, I believe it’s time our readership become aware of how the access we formerly had with President Mason has suddenly come to a screeching halt. Let’s put it this way: our monthly one-on-one Q&As are a thing of the past. The only independent student newspaper at the University of Iowa now possesses virtually zero personal access to the No. 1 newsmaker on this campus.

It is the DI’s tradition to conduct sit-down one-on-one interviews with the president of the university.

During my tenure at The Daily Iowan for the last four years, a reporter had a standing date with Mason’s office every month. The story ran on page one, and the Q&A — often a nearly 6,000-word transcribed interview — would run in the paper, often in its entirety.

I can speak personally about this experience.

Previously, as a DI metro reporter, I was once assigned to the administration beat. The beat required a monthly sit-down interview with the president of the university. This opportunity provided the reporter and university administration a chance to discuss issues from that month and what might be of interest to the student, faculty, and staff, as well as the greater Iowa City community.

I treated this experience as nothing less than a privilege. Getting the chance to speak with a high-ranking university official was exciting. Let’s be frank: I was proud to have a more personal relationship with Mason than most of my other peers would ever have.

That said, these sessions were not what one might expect from a journalist/source interview. Each month, we’d sit in her office at a small round table. The group included Mason, me, and UI spokesman Tom Moore, as well as the occasional Daily Iowan TV reporter, to discuss a list of topics that had been previously approved by the university. If the reporter were to ask a question that had not been approved, Mason would often either refer to someone else for the answer or decide not to comment on such topic. To the best of my knowledge, Mason is the only source we deal with — including national politicians  — who has required prior approval of interview material.

Admittedly, Mason was always very pleasant. She asked where I was from, how I was doing. By the time Dance Marathon arrived in 2012 she greeted me by name at the Big Event and was happy to discuss what philanthropy meant to the UI. In other words, we had as close to a professional journalist/source relationship as can likely happen at a big university. And I’m one of a long line of DI editors and reporters who had a similar connection with past UI presidents.

Neil Brown, current vice president and editor of the Tampa Bay Times and former DI Editor in 1979-80, recalled a very “open relationship” with then-President Willard “Sandy” Boyd. He said members of the staff were able to pick up the phone and call Boyd for an interview if not once a week, then every other week.

“The university administration, including President Mason, have an obligation to provide access for the DI and by extension the students of the University of Iowa,” Brown told me.

“The DI is a great way to provide that openness and honesty and transparency that I’m sure Mason seeks in her administration. To try to control the communication to me seems to kind of counter the values associated with the UI and the state [of Iowa].”

In 2001, the DI conducted monthly Q&As with then- President Mary Sue Coleman. Former Daily Iowan Editor and current senior adviser for open government at the White House Cori Zarek recalls Coleman’s “congenial working relationship” with the newspaper.

“[Coleman] participated in a monthly Q&A, which had a long tradition over the years, and I’m sorry to see it has been eliminated,” Zarek told me. “It is important for journalists and the institutions they cover to have a productive working relationship despite the inherent tension that exists.

“It may be even more important for institutions to foster positive relationships with student journalists as they learn their craft through practice. Everyone has a job to do, and there is always an opportunity to learn from one another.”

And former DI Editor and now freelance writer Laura Heinauer expressed similar sentiments about Coleman.

“I think that she respected the paper and that overall, it was a very positive relationship,” she said.

A little more recently, Jason Brummond, current analyst at Frank N. Magid Associates and former DI editor in 2007-08, worked with former UI President David Skorton — a leader who Brummond said had a very “open and student-friendly” personality.

“… The thing I would underline is how valuable the exchange between the DI and president is for UI students,” Brummond said. “That’s the only source of campus and local news for many students.”

Further, he said, these sit-down verbatim interviews, published in the DI, is the only forum on campus in which students ask questions of a campus leader. And that’s relevant to the student readership, noted Brummond, because it’s important to hear what the president has to say to someone who understands her or his viewpoint.

In fact, for the first six years of Mason’s tenure, the DI did have access. But remember the sexual-assault kerfuffle in February? When one of Mason’s verbatim quotes made it into the paper? If you haven’t noticed — that event alone appears to be what marked the end of a long and proud tradition of granting student-journalists the one-on-one access they have had with the University of Iowa’s chief newsmaker.

I come to this conclusion because after that Q&A ran, two subsequent months of scheduled Q&A interviews with Mason were canceled with little or no notice. And Joe Brennan  — the UI vice president for Strategic Communications — told me and Kristen East, then the DI’s editor-in-chief, in May of this year that the cancellations were due to the bad press Mason got after the interview appeared.

To be more specific: on Feb. 18, a DI reporter conducted a typical monthly sit-down interview with Mason. The first question was about the sixth sexual assault reported in the 2013-14 school year. The reporter asked Mason if the increased awareness and education has been beneficial for students because of the increased number of reported cases.

Mason responded by saying that more assaults being reported was a positive development.

Eventually, she went on to say this:

“The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations …”
This statement created an uproar among many of our readers.

Mason spoke at the 31st-annual Presidential Lecture a few days later, held at the Levitt Center. Several protesters were in attendance, interrupting her speech and demanding she change her position regarding sexual assault based on the comments that appeared in the DI.

A subsequent demonstration took place on Feb. 24 on the Pentacrest, in which students called for change in how administrators handle sexual assaults.

The Associated Press covered the protests, and an AP reporter interviewed then-DI Editor-in-Chief East, who was quoted as saying she and her editors never expected the uproar that would follow from that one verbatim interview with Mason.

But students were upset and wanted to see change. Mason quickly introduced several new university responses to sexual assault, including new sanctions, a six point plan, and an advisory committee.

And then the powers that be took care of one other little loose end: they canceled the Daily Iowan’s March and April Q&As with Mason.

In May, the top editors at the DI received an email from VP Brennan. He asked for a meeting. We held it at DI offices, and Brennan suggested to East and me — then the paper’s managing editor — that future Q&As with Mason should not be published in their entirety. He contended that doing so did not appropriately denote all the context of a situation. Rather, he encouraged us to run a single story from those interviews — not a transcribed, verbatim Q&A.

(Keep in mind the DI is an independent, student-run organization set up as a nonprofit. Journalism professors are not our advisers, and sources such as Brennan possess no editorial direction of our paper.)

And then a very surprising development: Brennan handed each of us a stapled packet of information that included tips and tricks to being better reporters and conducting better in-person interviews.

I am a proud leader of the DI, but I know there’s always room for improvement. I’m fully aware that on some days we succeed with our mission of training student journalists and informing the public, and other days we undeniably struggle. We are a college newspaper, and we strive to be the best we can be. But as a woman, and as a senior journalism major, who, according to awards provided by the Associated Collegiate Press this year and last, has been at the helm of one of the top-10 campus newspapers in the country, I was insulted.

Interviewing Mason was not my first rodeo. By the time we are seniors, we know how to conduct a verbatim interview. You just hit record. And transcribe it.

We were provided only one more Q&A that May — and then that was the end of our access.

From that point onward, our access to Mason has been something entirely different. The administration decided instead to schedule a collective “media availability” meeting once a month to any and all media organizations that wanted to attend. They name the time and the date. And all of us are expected to show up and share the access.

So here’s the new reality:

On Nov. 18, the date of the last “availability,” we sent Metro reporter Aaron Walker to a boardroom in Jessup Hall. He said a group of five or so local reporters gathered, including writers from the Gazette and the Press-Citizen.  Mason was there, of course, along with her “strategic communications” team.  She also brought along two UI photographer/videographers.

Keep in mind that the local media are forbidden to bring their own videographers OR photographers, because we are told that the cameras take up too much space in the room.  But the truth is the room holds 18 to 20 people, and there’s more than ample room. And I will tell you this from my own experience at September’s media availability event: When another local media outlet tried to bring in a video camera, it was told recording was not allowed because Mason’s team would provide any and all images from the event and post it on the university website.

Walker told me that in November, Mason began with an opening statement that lasted roughly 17.5 minutes. She touched on the UI’s relationship with veterans as well as successful start-ups from UI students and community members. She then left roughly 12.5 minutes for questions regarding the tuition freeze, graduate-education costs, and a few other topics. But because major eastern Iowa news organizations were in attendance, asking specific questions about an exclusive story was less than practical, given the fact that a member of each of the three competing dailies would hear it. The obvious result is that all of us walked away with generally the same story lines and the same quotes.

If we do have a question for Mason at any other time, we are asked to send an email or call Brennan or Moore with the request. We receive an emailed response — again from Brennan or Moore, with a statement. There’s never an opportunity for direct communication with Mason — rather, everything is filtered through a strategic-communications team.

So President Mason, I think it is time we have a sit-down.

I’m asking the readers, the state Board of Regents, and the University of Iowa administration to consider reaching out to Mason and encouraging her to reinstate the Q&As with The Daily Iowan.

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