Credible coverage

By Tim Thornton

Life would be so much simpler if it were a multiple choice test, with an answer key.

But life is more like a series of essays graded by an erratic curmudgeon.

Last week’s right answer might be all wrong today. And the line of reasoning that took you to a solution two days ago might get you mired in all sorts of unpleasantness next week. The only thing you can do is apply the experience and information you have, make you best judgment and live with the consequences.

Take The Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the Pep Band.

I got an e-mail on March 24 from David Black, Vice President of University Relations for Friends of the Virginia Pep Band, Inc. Black, a University graduate and a former director of the Pep Band, wrote, “to express my concern about the CD’s shocking lack of coverage of the single greatest affront to student-leadership in U.Va. history – the unjustified exclusion of the Virginia Pep Band from varsity Olympic sports and the resulting marginalization of the Pep Band from student life at U.Va.”

The Pep Band used to be the band. A student-run organization that performed at basketball games and football games and was known for its quirky, usually funny halftime performances. But one halftime show insulted residents of West Virginia so badly their governor demanded an apology and the athletic department said no more bowl games for the Pep Band. Eventually that became no more games, period. And the University got a big old marching band pretty much like every other university’s marching band.

The Pep Band thought good behavior and offers to sign all kinds of commitments were part of the road back to semi-acceptance by the athletic folks. Then word came that the Pep Band had misunderstood. When it got booted in 2003, it got booted for good. Despite a 2004 resolution from Student Council calling for coexistence of the bands. Despite a 2005 statement by university officials saying they might eventually consider letting the Pep Band play at some varsity sporting events.

The Cavalier Daily wrote a news story and an editorial about the Pep Band in 2006.

“Since then,” Black declared in his e-mail, “the CD has dropped this story. In the past three years, the CD has not run a single new article or published a single editorial addressing the Administration’s continued stonewalling and unfair exclusion of the Pep Band at musically under-served varsity sports.”

The day after I got Black’s e-mail, a story ran about University officials’ saying the 2003 decision was final and always had been. The story also said the Pep Band planned to stage a protest by playing outside Klockner Stadium before a lacrosse game. A photo of the musical protest ran on the front page of The Cavalier Daily. There was an opinion piece by a Pep Band member published recently, too.
So The Cavalier Daily hasn’t ignored the Pep Band controversy lately. Why the three-year hiatus?

Andrew Baker, editor in chief, offered two explanations. First, there just wasn’t much happening. The Pep Band was being its well behaved self and time was passing. Not exactly fodder for scintillating news copy.

But the big problem was the entanglement of The Cavalier Daily’s leadership with the Pep Band. Top editors were band members or roommates of band members and it may have been difficult to produce much non-biased coverage under those circumstances. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to produce coverage that wouldn’t have been reasonably open to a charge of bias.

Baker’s explanation of The Cavalier Daily’s leadership’s decision making won’t fit in this column. But I think he was essentially right. It may have been possible for the paper to write a story or two about the Pep Band in three years. But I’m not sure it was necessary. It really doesn’t look like much was happening.

If the Pep Band felt it needed to be in The Cavalier Daily, members — but not the members who were on the Managing Board — probably could have gotten opinion columns in the paper.

But Baker is absolutely right about the inappropriateness of any editorials during that time. Band members sat on the Managing Board. The editorials represent the opinion of the Managing Board. Even if band members had recused themselves from those editorials, few readers would have accepted that they didn’t influence the editorial somehow.

Which gets us back to the labored test analogy. There’s no absolutely right answer. But this seems to be a reasonable one.

Baker and leaders who preceded him valued The Cavalier Daily’s credibility above whatever good may have been done by more coverage of the Pep Band. And that’s a reasonable position. Because credibility is the most valuable thing a newspaper can have.

Tim Thornton is The Cavalier Daily’s ombudsman. He can be reached at ombud@cavalierdaily.com.

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