This column was submitted to The Clarion-Ledger in response to media coverage about JSU’s Madison campus. The version that appears in The Clarion-Ledger does not include the last 10 paragraphs. You can read the column as it was published at the link at the bottom of the page.
If your mama tells you it’s going to rain, call the weather service.
That’s one of the first concepts we discuss in my Basic Newswriting class, the idea being that anything and everything a news source says must be verified.
Verification and fairness must be a part of any journalist’s and journalistic organization’s DNA.
This is why the media coverage about Jackson State University’s pending move into Madison and Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s reaction have been so disappointing and, frankly, alarming.
I’ve known the mayor for nearly 30 years and I am a fan of how she’s developed her city. The list of people and organizations she’s battled along the way is lengthy and diverse.
In this case, some of the mayor’s comments have been misleading while others are simply not true. Sadly, The Clarion-Ledger and other media outlets have become complicit in the distortions.
A Jan. 22 Clarion-Ledger story about JSU’s planned satellite campus cites the university’s 10 percent non-black enrollment goal as mandated by the Ayers settlement, saying the move was based in part on this fact.
What the story failed to point out was that the university’s non-black enrollment is currently 9.6 percent. It also failed to tell readers that Madison County is 38 percent African American. The university plans to target students, regardless of race or anything else.
In a Jan. 24 post about Butler’s State of the City Address, the mayor is quoted as saying she was surprised by JSU’s plan to open a Madison campus, that she had not been told an application had been filed with IHL or a lease had been signed.
That’s inaccurate. She was told of the university’s plan in a Jan. 10 meeting with JSU President Carolyn Meyers, Vice President of Institutional Advancement David Hoard and myself.
The mayor and the president appeared to bond, so much so that Hoard joked that he and I should leave. Butler was invited to chair or at least serve on an advisory board for JSU’s proposed institute of government, which will be housed inside our downtown Jackson campus.
The president sent the mayor flowers the day following the meeting.
Did we tell her that this was on the College Board agenda for approval next week? No, but we were clear about our plans and our proposed Madison address.
The mayor has consistently said the lease was signed prior to our meeting. The truth is the lease was not signed until Jan. 29. The newspaper failed to get a reaction from JSU or verify the mayor’s comments about the lease. That’s irresponsible journalism and it’s unfair.
Also unfair is the suggestion JSU waited until the 11th hour to pay Butler a courtesy visit. I volunteered to arrange the meeting, and I started working on this task the second week of December. I even made two visits to Madison City Hall to get on Butler’s schedule in addition to several telephone calls. Jan. 10 was the earliest the mayor was available to meet with us.
Then there was the Jan. 30 editorial, which accuses the JSU administration of not doing exactly what it did.
The newspaper said JSU should have approached city leaders before petitioning the College Board and it implied that we were unprofessional in not doing so.
We met with Mayor Butler before the College Board approved our request for the Madison campus and before the university signed the lease. Had the mayor expressed concerns, our president was prepared to postpone our College Board presentation and address Butler’s issues.
Butler did not raise any objections in the Jan. 10 meeting. And rather than communicating her concerns privately, she chose to speak publicly to the newspaper and two local TV stations without a word to the university.
Before signing the lease, we also had discussions with the Board of Supervisors President Gerald Steen, District 4 Supervisor Karl Banks and John Bell Crosby, whose district includes the JSU Madison campus. We had conversations with state Rep. Rita Martinson and state Sen. Will Longwitz, who reached out to President Meyers and told me he posted welcoming comments on Facebook.
The Madison County Board of Supervisors is set to consider a resolution on Monday welcoming JSU to Madison. The Madison County Business League and the Madison County Economic Development Authority have reached out, telling us how excited they are about having us in the county. We have been offered two dates for President Meyers to share our plans with the Madison-Ridgeland Rotary Club.
No one can honestly suggest that we haven’t shared our plans with public officials in Madison County. Butler is the only city leader who has voiced opposition to the move.
Probably the most curious element of the editorial deals with competition, that Butler is right to protect an existing institution the city recruited to the area.
That notion is un-American. Isn’t one of the arguments for charter schools that competition will raise the bar? Shouldn’t it be the same in higher education?
Butler would never give McDonald’s exclusivity in Madison’s fast-food market, as one blogger pointed out in another publication. She shouldn’t attempt to manipulate as it relates to Tulane and JSU.
Not all of The Clarion-Ledger’s coverage has been unbalanced. In an article published Feb. 1, reporter Dustin Barnes wrote about Canton Mayor William Truly’s desire to have the JSU campus in his city. Barnes reached out to me for comment, and my response was printed in context.
One of the things that President Meyers preaches is accountability. We embrace that. We understand that we are accountable to the taxpayers for how we spend tax dollars.
This controversy could have been avoided:
1) Had Mayor Butler expressed her concerns to President Meyers before her State of the City speech.
2) Had the newspaper verified Butler’s comments or given JSU a chance to respond before posting a story.
3) Had the TV stations, including one whose mantra is “Finding out Who’s Accountable,” attempted to verify the facts and be fair and balanced before broadcasting their initial reports.
Newspapers, as well as the news media in general, have an awesome responsibility in how they present information. At JSU, all we ask for is fairness, balance and consistent calls to the weather service or whomever to determine whether assertions are indeed facts.
Eric Stringfellow, a former Clarion-Ledger reporter, editor and columnist, is JSU’s director of University Communications. He is founding chair of the Tougaloo College Department of Mass Communication and has taught journalism for more than two decades at Tougaloo, Jackson State and the University of Mississippi.