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Editorial Board: FoHo and the paradox of accountability reporting by an unaccountable press

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday morning, the latest edition of the Fountain Hopper (FoHo), a tabloid-esque, semi-regular email digest, went out to the publication’s subscribers. The FoHo has frequently taken aim at our journalistic methods, and in its latest “FAKE (real) NEWS SPECIAL EDITION,” it levelled several charges of implied malpractice at our writers and editors. In the following editorial, we respond to these claims and explore how the FoHo’s disturbing modus operandi, as characterized by its recent attacks, should be of great concern to all students.

 

An accountable press

A responsible press is an accountable press. This has been a central tenet of media ethics for a long time. Yet, the FoHo is as unaccountable as they come. FoHo stories are never ascribed to authors, reporters or editors, and, when sourcing, the FoHo frequently utilizes an unattributed email ([email protected]), so sources haven’t the slightest idea with whom they may be speaking. This means that a given story could be affected by significant bias. A known opponent of a professor, for instance, could slander her in a mass email and remain hidden behind a blanket of safe, anonymous snark.

Moreover, should you be slandered by the FoHo, as in the above example, the FoHo does not provide right of response. The FoHo does not print corrections. This isn’t because the FoHo is never wrong. Everyone in journalism errs at one time or another (even the New York Times has a dedicated corrections page). What this means is that there is no forum for you to contest a claim made by the FoHo or its reporters. No corrections. No addendums. No Letters to the Editor.

The FoHo therefore represents a paradox: accountability reporting by an unaccountable press.

In Friday’s “FoHo #40 Mega Edition,” the Fountain Hopper suggested the following:

  • That Daily reporters fail to fact-check their pieces, specifically with regard to our article on the University’s firing of a sexual assault lawyer, Crystal Riggins, who criticized Stanford’s Title IX process.
  • That The Daily deliberately removed an article about the University’s handling of a sexual harassment case (in the FoHo, the article’s disappearance was characterized as “mysterious”), not because of technical issues but because of “something more relevant” according to a sourcing email sent to a Daily writer.
  • And, most ominously, that The Daily’s use of “$100K a year from the University” makes us puppets of the Stanford administration.

If the FoHo did, in fact, provide right of response (i.e. printed corrections), we at The Daily would currently be clarifying that:

  • The Daily spoke to both Crystal Riggins and the administration regarding the case. Because each source presented contrasting narratives, we included all received facts and quotes in order to provide readers with a complete account of what transpired. Our article on Riggins’ firing was scrupulously edited and fact-checked.
  • The link to the sexual harassment article was broken during updates to our website – as were a number of others. It was not taken down, nor were we ever asked to take it down.
  • Marc Tessier-Lavigne doesn’t just float $100K our way in a secret Main Quad briefcase hand-off to keep us in his pocket. We receive $100K in special fees from the ASSU each year because the student body elects to subscribe to our print product. And the “quiet little 501(c)(3)” referenced by the FoHo is in fact a subsidiary of The Daily meant specifically for fundraising through our alumni (more on our financials below).

Add to this the fact that FoHo reporters rarely make their accusations explicit, but instead omit facts and write in a condescending, if-you-don’t-agree-you’re-an-imbecile tone to imply their points. For example, in its last issue, the FoHo did not directly accuse The Daily of taking down the aforementioned article pertaining to sexual harassment, but instead stated “Mysteriously, when we went to press, the article had vanished from The Daily … [insert emojis here].” If brought to task for the insinuation, the FoHo can simply dodge accountability by saying it didn’t outright make the contested claim.

As a final example, take the FoHo’s subscribers, who are signed up for the digest without their express consent. They are then coerced into remaining subscribers by an unsubscribe warning that informs them that, should they choose to cut the cord, they will never be able to subscribe again. And here we thought, after the FERPA fiasco, the FoHo would be a champion of open access to information.

 

Objective reporting

This brings us to the broader problem with FoHo’s brand of reporting: the selective use of information that ignores the routines of objective reporting.

The FoHo did in fact reach out to The Daily for quotes on our financials. However, it failed to include most of the information we provided over email (for example, that ASSU funds are only used for printing costs). Instead of relaying the complete story – which the reporters had received – it chose facts that furthered its point, which, in this case, portrayed The Daily in a negative light.

Further, in calling the quotes in our article regarding the firing of Crystal Riggins “fake news,” the FoHo misses the importance of balanced reporting. Printing a quote does not imply that we endorse that perspective but rather that we believe it’s important for students to hear – we don’t pass judgment on how sources choose to justify their words.

Unlike the FoHo, The Daily has a relationship with administrators, and we are proud of this relationship. It is not that of blackmailer and blackmailed as the FoHo might have you believe, but is instead one of mutual respect. Good journalism is premised on objective reporting. And objective reporting is premised on the hearing of oppositional voices. Every student deserves to hear multiple perspectives, to synthesize this information and to develop their own opinions, free of wanton and excessive mediation. Part of our job as a news organization is to keep the administration accountable, and we have a duty to hear and attempt to understand the University’s account – to include direct quotes from Stanford officials in our articles.

So, yes. We talk to administrators. The FoHo, on the other hand, does not. For those interested, it is University policy not to comment on FoHo stories because the FoHo is not an official student organization. This means, at any given time, the FoHo is only privy to one perspective (its side, or the side of its sources). You may agree with this perspective, but you should nonetheless be concerned. This means that if you take everything written in the FoHo at face value, your understanding will only ever be half-complete.

 

On The Daily’s financials

We’d like to end this article by responding to FoHo’s questioning of our financials (or, in its own words, “why The Daily’s kowtowing to Stanford’s admin”). Yes, The Daily does receive money from the University. But we’re not hiding anything, nor have we ever.

The FoHo continues to promulgate the narrative of the University’s influence over what we cover. Here’s how we imagine the FoHo pictures the typical Daily meeting:

Marc Tessier-Lavigne: [twirls mustache] Don’t write that or you don’t get this $161K.

Victor Xu, Editor-in-Chief: [salivating noticeably] Fuck, OK.

[MTL tosses a wad of cash onto the floor and Victor pounces, slurping it up like spaghetti or, IDK, coffee]

This, of course, is not the case.

Take a look at this breakdown of our revenue from the University; our financials are and always have been publicly available. In fiscal year 2015, we received $161K to cover the cost of printing and delivering our print publications — $100K of this comes from special fees voted upon by students, and the remainder is provided by the University to cover the cost of distribution on behalf of students. This $161K is not an open fund we can deplete at our leisure. Special fees are only provided upon the direct submission of receipts from our printers to the ASSU, while the distribution fee is solely used for the salaries of our professional distributors and the cost/maintenance of their equipment.

This is not, by any means, unprecedented or shocking. Consider that the San Francisco Chronicle expects readers to pay for its paper. The Chronicle would not exist without charging its customers, and likewise it’s a nonsensical expectation for The Daily to print 8,000 papers a day, every weekday, without some sort of compensation from our readers. The fact that we charge a subscription and delivery fee does not mean we’re beholden to the administration.

With regard to the “quiet little 501(c)(3)” mentioned in the FoHo, the Friends of The Daily is a subsidiary of The Daily that serves as our unofficial alumni association. It operates events, funds scholarships, helps with our archiving expenses and serves broadly as our graduate fundraising arm. The assets of the Friends come from alumni donations solicited over time. We have never deposited student fees into Friends accounts. Far from being a conflict of interest, the accounts of the Friends actually help us maintain our editorial independence, as they ensure we have a financial reserve in case the University ever violated our agreements and threatened to use our student fees as leverage.

And, to further ensure our editorial independence, The Daily has negotiated multiple contracts with the University that ensure our freedom of expression. In 1978, we even took a case to the Supreme Court to defend this freedom.

If, after reading this, you still take issue with The Daily’s financials, we invite you to talk with us or reach out (our names and email addresses are public knowledge). But, as the Editorial Board of The Daily, we can assure you that the $161K in fees that can be traced to Stanford has never had an impact on our content. Never has a writer or editor been threatened with the revocation of these fees. That would be patently absurd and would be a significant cause for alarm.

***

We don’t mean to suggest that the FoHo doesn’t serve a purpose. It does. Despite its questionable journalistic ethics, the FoHo pushes buttons, and that is vital to progress. Its demand for accountability should be applauded, and in some respects, the FoHo has even forced us to evaluate the way we develop our stories.

Our concern, however, is that the FoHo exists in an obscure echo chamber where there is only room for one voice: its own.

We know The Daily is flawed, and we are always working to improve our writing and our reporting. Printing a daily paper is hard, and at times we fail to stir up shit and ask the tough questions. But even when we’re not disrupting the status quo, the journalism we do is of consequence.

Unlike the FoHo, we don’t just arise from the ether when someone does something that might make for an entertaining read. We are out there every morning and every night, printing the news. You may not care when a new building has been commissioned or that Dance Marathon is partnering with Lucille Packard this year, but it’s important that these objective facts are made accessible. Because, chances are, somebody cares. Like, for instance, the FoHo. Have you ever noticed how the FoHo, in emails decrying our practices, continues to cite our reporting (48 times this academic year, to be exact)?

We hope that the next time you’re reading some sarcastic yarn spun by the anonymous reporters over at FoHo, you’ll take a moment to reflect on what they stand for and to consider the very real possibility that you’re not getting the entire picture.

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Editorial Board

Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Victor Xu '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Michael Gioia '17, Desk Editor of Opinions Jimmy Stephens '17, Senior Staff Writer Kylie Jue '17, Senior Staff Writer Olivia Hummer '17 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected]