Monday, January 30, 2012

The new ASM constitution and The Badger Herald

At the beginning of this academic year, I was a vocal minority on The Badger Herald’s Editorial Board because of my defense of this year’s session. I thought, and still think, that Allie Gardner’s government had not been given enough of a chance to succeed early in their tenure. This was mostly the result of sharp and automatic criticisms from outgoing ASM leaders or trolls on the Herald, Cardinal, and North Park Street comment forums. My first column, which seems like it was written ages ago, focused on many of these automatic critiques and tacitly pledged to give Gardner & Co. a chance. So I did.

Since the year began, I’ve been disappointed not necessarily by this year’s leadership but instead by ASM’s institutional failure to handle disagreement and partisanship. This has been a recurring theme throughout my time at UW, even under the influence of the ideological opposites of the current governing ASM slate. I do not, and never have, supported this kind of dialogue about ASM, but I support the new constitution largely because I believe it’s the beginning of a path not just to a more effective government, but also a less controversial one. 

With all of that said, I just want to break down a few questions about the process we plan to use and what got The Badger Herald, and thus me personally, interested in the constitution.

How the Herald got involved

The Herald (with the Cardinal following close behind) began its involvement in the ACC near the height of the Beth Huang/Niko Magallon service hours controversy. After receiving a tip to the board that a constitution was in the works, we decided to jump on board and invite the Cardinal to join us, similar to earlier initiatives past boards have accomplished, such as the successful boycott of the Nitty Gritty in 2009. 

Both boards sent two representatives to the drafting committee to represent the voice of the board. Some members, me included, dissented and disagreed with some of the processes and language included in the current document. The committee wrapped up changes to the document near the beginning of final exams after about (this is my estimate) 8 weeks of deliberation. Of course, this probably will not be the final document, since we’re still seeking final input from interested parties.

My thoughts on the matter

I have few reservations about the constitution or the board’s involvement in the campaign to adopt it. I was one of the folks who supported releasing the document earlier for a more open revision process, but I was overruled. Such is life, I guess.

Some people have suggested to me that this constitution is, essentially, a carbon copy of the 2009 proposal that has now become infamous in ASM circles for its fiery tailspin to failure. This is not accurate for these reasons:

  • The constitution as it stands today significantly curbs the power of the president compared to the 2009 version. We can thank the (thankful) lack of veto power for this.
  • The creation of an Appropriations Branch allows the SUFAC to remain largely independent of the politicking that has distracted SSFC for the last couple of years. SSFC and its peer committees are the most important and least-political of all ASM bodies, and their separation from much of the politics that makes it to the front page of the Herald (aka Student Council) is crucial.
  • With this document, we are trying to improve on the mistakes of the last constitutional process and be more open to changes, criticism and revisions. I hope these efforts are successful. 
  • Kurt Gosselin & Co. are not involved in this process. I don’t know Kurt personally, and from what I understand he’s a nice fellow, but that doesn’t stop me from disagreeing with his tactics or politics. I would consider any sort of involvement from Gosselin or the last constitutional committee aside from attendance at listening sessions counterproductive to our cause. It would be enough for me to reevaluate my support. 

Also, we’ve heard some questions about the ethics of the Herald and Cardinal being involved in this process. Every editorial the Herald has published for as long as I can remember contains an important disclaimer: "Editorial Board opinions are crafted independently of news coverage." Both papers have made it clear that what we do in the conference is completely separate from what happens in the newsroom. 

The Herald has been considered an experiment since its founding more than 40 years ago. I’ve suggested before that ASM take a similar approach, and some on ‘the campus left’ (I hate that term) applauded me for it.

All of us on the editorial board enter our meetings keeping this in mind, and in some cases — such as this one — it motivates us to step out of our journalistic comfort zone and test what a student newspaper can actually do. This might sound too idealistic, but people who work at the Herald actually forge deep connections with this idea and try to practice it as faithfully as possible. 

I don’t think this project is much different than a larger and mostly effective venture I was involved in during my internship at WHYY in Philadelphia. Not long before I returned to Madison, I (very minimally) helped WHYY with their collaboration with Azavea, a well-known mapping firm, to help Philadelphians draw their own City Council districts. I was enthusiastic about the project because it was separate from news coverage, but I also was proud to be part of something that fulfilled some of my most idealistic beliefs about journalism’s civic power. The venture seemed to strike a chord with a council known nationwide for gerrymandering. 

Those are my personal reasons for endorsing the venture.

But remember: Part of testing our skill as journalists involves maintaining the highest level of ethics possible. Our news department has nothing to do with this, and if the ACC screws up, it will be news. When we go into editing mode, we remain objective and considerate of any opposition. 

If you have further questions about the process, I’d be happy to answer them. Shoot me an email at rainey.ryan09@gmail.com or tweet to @ryan_rainey.