Friday, September 18, 2009

Badger Herald -- All Grown Up

I was pleased to read an online column by the new public editor of The Badger Herald, an independent daily student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a compendium of topics, he notes that a former Herald staffer had become spokesperson for the student government, and that the paper was going to be very vigilant about ensuring that it didn't give the government a free pass because of the popular former colleague's new role.

Why am I pleased? I haven't lived in Madison for nearly two decades, and I don't read the Herald regularly even as nostalgia. But I'm pleased to see that they're addressing this potential conflict of interest head-on and pledging their best efforts to avoid problems.

That's a test the Herald failed during my own time at the paper. While I was a young editorial-page editor at the paper (oh, how I, a politically unreliable center-right-to-liberal-internationalist, became editorial page editor of the nation's premiere conservative student newspaper is a story I'll tell you some day as we sit around the fire drinking hot chocolate), our star columnist (and occasional editorial page contributor) was also student government president. He had won the post the previous year in what was one of the cleverest, funniest, and most exciting political campaigns on that campus (which is saying a lot; UW-Madison is, after all, the place that gave birth to the Pail and Shovel Party, which built a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the frozen Lake Mendota. One of the P&S leaders went on to be a leading light of the great Mystery Science Theater 3000 program, which is one more digression than this paragraph can probably handle.)

Our longtime columnist, Steve Marmel, was also a professional standup comic (over that hot chocolate, I'll tell you about accompanying him on some of his out-of-town gigs -- he's the guy who introduced me to the Shakespeare/Dr.-Seuss teamup). The party he founded with his cohorts was indelicately named the Bob Kasten School of Driving (okay, look, I can't get through this without major digressions; Bob Kasten was the then-GOP U.S. senator from Wisconsin, who apparently had some DUI history.) Bloody hell, where was I???

Oh, yeah! So Marmel ran a campaign filled with some sub-Pail-and-Shovel promises (goldfish in one of the fountains, I think, was one) and the best campaign posters I've ever seen. Each one-sheet poster contained the usual schtick, but the real goodies were contained in the microscopic text at the bottom of the poster. (Which, by the way, was how we all inadvertently learned the sexual identity of another campus politico -- seriously, big mugs of hot chocolate, okay? It'll all become clear.) Marmel won big-time, and his party actually did quite a good job in government, running things pretty well and avoiding a lot of the usual lefty ridiculousness of other parties in power. An example: A successor administration gained notoriety by sending one of its co-presidents to a "peace conference" in North Korea. I think we can all admit that it's been many, many decades since northern Korea has been a legitimate spokes-site for peace.

To bring this back to the Herald: I think BKSoD won two successive terms in office, and all through the campaign and his administration, Marmel remained a contributor to the Badger Herald. His column continued to appear twice a week, and he continued to contribute occasional (bylined) pieces for my opinion pages. He was also a friend of numerous Herald staffers, including yours truly.

The people in the wrong in that activity were, of course, the editors of the Herald. (To salvage my own college journalism reputation now, I'll note that the editorial pages are supposed to be opinionated, so I'll throw the news editors and EIC under the bus here.) But really, though there were some voices on staff that at least raised questions -- often heeded -- I don't think an active office holder being a newspaper staffer is a good idea.

In the many years since those events, everyone involved has more than redeemed themselves, and Marmel, in particular, can be found with his name slathered all over numerous TV programs. A few years after I left campus, the student government there was actually voted out of existence -- a longtime goal of many on campus, not just right-wingers. It eventually reappeared, but chastened, I think. The Herald, I'm very glad to report, remains a vibrant and independent voice on campus.
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