An Open Letter to Sean Spicer

Editor’s note: In the open letter that follows, Voice writer Saadya Chevan alludes to a Facebook post that I made parroting the nickname “Sean Sphincter,” an epithet heard across campus and read in Voice pages in 1993. While Saadya makes valid points about the need for accountability in journalism, I should note that I do not match his feelings of responsibility for the choices of the 1993 Voice. I do not look to the 1993 Voice’s decision to print Sean Spicer’s nickname as a model of good journalism. I instead view it as evidence of what we are: student journalists.

I believe that we should strive for the highest quality reporting possible. I also believe that we are young, and we are learning, and we are human.

When the “Sean Sphincter” story broke, my reaction, before ethical concern or risk calculation, was informed by the impression that the 1993 Voice had given what now appears a sly nod—but was originally probably a clumsy attack—to a man who I can now state, without hesitancy, is an enemy to the press. That is not a partisan claim. Regardless of political affiliation, it is the purpose of journalists to seek the truth, and a White House Press Secretary who tells blatant lies to the press impedes that purpose at its highest operating level.

So because I find that behavior infuriating, I suppose I was less quick than Saadya to criticize the 1993 Voice, and because I recognize those 1993 students’ humanity, I am less inclined to grow concerned over their alleged mistakes.   

Have I ever had a criticism of the Voice of my own? Of course. I’ve even had my own name misspelled. Though I have never chosen to criticize the Voice within the publication itself, and though I find his approach unorthodox and his claims extreme, Saadya is a valued writer, and his opinion matters. In fact, his comments point to some of the planned changes I have detailed on page 2.

Saadya’s letter—and the need for corrections in general—shows evidence of a key plight of journalists: our inconvenient humanity.

-Maia

 

Dear Mr. Spicer,

I get it, The College Voice’s infamous autocorrect error on your last name that managed to slip through the entire editing stage of a report on SGA was an incredibly obnoxious slight on your person. Of course the newspaper was being just as obnoxious when, in a separate article published that same semester, it alluded to the never heard of before or since position of “hosefellow” on Wright’s “house council.” I should note that the article mentioning Wright’s “hosefellow” was most controversial for its erroneous claim that a student elected by the house to manage its funds had been removed from office.

The Voice of Spring 1993 contained many similarly embarrassing articles that featured errors and/or reporting that violated the high principles of objectivity and integrity for which our paper stands (the paper also did contain several other equally or occasionally more nasty letters to the editor). I suppose by writing a letter to the editor in response to an autocorrect mistake that allowed your last name to be published as “Sphincter” (did you know I nearly had my own contribution to this tradition when I misspelled someone’s last name in a draft of my first article for the Voice), you saw yourself as defending everyone whom the Voice had wronged.

But whatever your reasons for drafting a letter, you were right to submit it. The misspelling was a serious slight that the Voice made against you in 1993 during a semester when the Voice made many significantly more serious mistakes. Recent events indicate that the Voice continues to suffer from editorial mistakes. A post on the Voice’s Facebook page from two weeks ago, for example, invited writers who “have something to say to Sean Sphincter” to come to a staff meeting. This post was much more egregious than the 1993 typo itself because the post implied that our editors could let a mistake slip through if it happens to conveniently advance their personal views. If the Voice condones errors for political purposes, we are indeed an organization that does not always practice what it preaches.

Your letter came at a time when the Voice made many mistakes, so we should not be quick to judge your arguments as being completely invalid. However, the apparent link between the letter as well as other letters that appeared in the Voice at the time, and your behavior before the national press over the past six months is very striking. As I have said before, I do not think it was right for the Voice to refer to its own mistake, but I realize that you have exposed yourself in such a way that many of your actions can easily be poked fun at.

There were many other ways for the Voice to make a Facebook post about the mark you left on Conn without seeming to condone its own mistake. I found your failed campaign to become Young Alumni Trustee to be a very interesting story about your time here. You were the only candidate to mention that you had “known many trustees over the last four years.” I wonder why? Admittedly, in that election, the Voice recommended that students vote for one of its own former publishers, but ultimately neither of you won (all facts that do not appear in your letter).

Respectfully, I worry that the way the Voice seemed to ignore the wrong it had committed in the past when this incident resurfaced means that it intends to become an echo chamber for continued partisanship that will do nothing to end gridlock in Washington. I am concerned that the precedent set by President Obama’s reliance on executive power will result in too many of the functions of government being influenced by current presidential administrations. I worry that we could devolve into a cycle where the only real “progress” that gets made in Washington will take the form of executive orders that reverse the policy stances of previous administrations. Your loyal fellow Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio expressed a similar sentiment on CNN last week when he said that Congress should have been involved in the executive order halting entries of refugees and citizens of certain nations.

Despite our occasional mistakes, I still strongly believe in the overall ability of the Voice to report campus news accurately and fairly. I have been writing in the Voice for over three semesters now and I have seen many highs and lows. I continue to support and believe in the Voice’s overall mission to inform the student body even if I have occasional disagreements with its editorial decisions.  Two weeks ago our sister New London newspaper, The Day (which also produces the copies of our print edition), wrote an editorial acknowledging the reality that journalists do not always execute the duties of their profession faithfully, which I recommend that you read. The Day claimed: “Serious journalism is an imperfect art practiced by skeptical idealists and admitted obsessives. They never have all the answers.” If we can agree to acknowledge our mistakes, then our readers must accept that we always strive with integrity to provide the best information we can on issues facing our campus and lives, a promise that should also be held by the White House Press Office.

When we make these mistakes, we risk letting our readers believe that journalists cannot ever write in an objective manner. Even a single Facebook post, such as the Voice’s, can be used by writers disseminating fake news as evidence that their unfactual articles constitute a public service. I am most worried, however, by mistakes that occur without editorial accountability. I have been concerned about how, in recent semesters, we have made very few attempts to make our corrections process transparent to readers. This has given the impression to the community that we are unconcerned about our mistakes. I am happy to report that our new editor-in-chief has pledged to make the Voice more accountable this semester, which I hope will allow the campus to place more trust in us.

In closing, I would draw your attention to comments Professor William Frasure made in an article recently published by the College about you. Specifically, he stated: “The most important journalists in America will be sitting before him every day. Aside from Trump’s, his will be one of the most listened-to voices in the country.” I think that Professor Frasure assumed you would be doing your job with the highest integrity, the same integrity that college and professional journalists aim to practice every time we write for and publish an issue. Professor Frasure is right to call you a “great talker,” but can you do more than just talk?

Thank you for taking the time to read my attempt to acknowledge the wrongs that this newspaper has committed against you. I hope that we can both agree to act with integrity and transparency about our mistakes as we try to get the facts correct in our respective jobs. In particular, I personally expect you to be honest in the statements you will release in response to petitions I and others signed on the White House website calling for the release of President Donald J. Trump’s tax returns and his divestment of assets in a blind trust. These two petitions are the only ones to have received over 100,000 signatures, which means that you have to respond to them. Hey, it’s better than explaining why an extraordinarily low number of Syrian refugees are allowed to enter this country or why only a “medieval maniac” (in the words of Charlie Chaplin) would categorize  Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization! Since the petitions were posted on Jan. 20, and the White House has promised you will respond within ninety days of their posting, I look forward to seeing what you have to say about them on April 20. After all, I hope you will prove yourself to be a more responsible Press Secretary than the ones Barack Obama appointed, who always seemed to be late responding to their White House petitions.

1 Comment

  1. Spicer and The Voice will never resolve their differences now that both have prolonged the rift well past the second decade. Spicer never grew magnanimous enough to let it go. The paper never summoned the courage to admit it wasn’t the spell-checker’s fault. It was their own, either by fabricating the auto-correct story, or being negligent by not proofing the spell-checker’s result, or by never admitting what Spicer suspects to this day: you said it because you meant it. My money’s on the last one. I don’t see how even an ancient spell checker would get Sphincter from Spicer. I also cannot wrap my head around the idea that this was ever a significant matter. Apologize and move on.

    Is Spicer’s reaction the exception, or is it the norm? Has the college’s social experience become a process of thinning one’s skin until offenses occur by any abrasion whatsoever? Do the injuries to your impossibly frail and tenuous personal dignity grant you any amount of masochistic joy? Do you hold aloft your wounded social status like a Munchausen-by-Proxy sick baby for clucks of sympathy and a dark desire so see the perpetrator knifed by the mob’s outrage?

    Indignation is no virtue. Trying to make a respected status fill that the void left by underdeveloped character results in all kinds of trouble that spills out from the personal to the social space. And social security is an oxymoron. Sooner or later, it will be threatened. Then the inquisition that tries to correct some slight dynamites the small pond of a college like this, with the outsized rights of the offended the stick’s fuse. Fish of bigotry and hatred float to the surface, but also the collateral damage of spontaneity and humor. Dredge as you may after the pond is cleansed, you’ll find deadening caution where there once was vibrant discussion. Was placating upset people turned vindictive worth it? Worth turning the marketplace of ideas over to thought police kept somnolent only by the insipid?

    Perfecting a hollow mimic of filial love can never full the heart of the speaker or the spoken to. The artifice of such becomes a people-pleasing mask while your true nature, never expressing itself, will weaken and form to the mask, reinforced by every daily social approval feedback until the meld is complete. Who you were, who you might have been in all its difficult glory, dead. Replacing it is a congenial team player, with a darkness behind the eyes of that soul that could have been.

    My imagination fails me for a worse way to live. There are countless better ways, some I learned by playing hooky from scanning the library stacks for mis-placed Dewey Decimal-ordered volumes, and actually (!) reading the books. I bet they’re still there, buried in the basement at Shain in those stacks you now have to crank open: an old series on the lives of the saints. Skim a few. A saintly life was an invitation to disaster. They lose reputations, families, fortune, health, limbs, and life. For these sacrifices, the Catholic Church calls their lives, despite the consequences, exemplary.

    Likewise, history should look fondly on Sally Yates, though the moment of her defiance of a wayward President was a lonely one. She lost the organization that had been her home for 30 years, and the financial security it brought, to an uncertain future. It’s scary to defy a President, and you’ll never know until that moment if you have it in you. But, a lifetime of practice in becoming your true self should not fail you when the test comes. I want my old school to help get you started, but am not comforted by what little I know of how things are now.

    The now 42 year old Sean Spicer’s cowardice, in full display in his first appearance before the White House press…those lies about inauguration crowd size mouthed out of craven obedience to Trump, will live in infamy. He lost his own shriveled soul, already weakened from nursing that old grudge back in ’93, but kept his job. Save your pity and keep careful watch, for through such small men great evil can flow. Just look at what the minions of any of history’s worst dictators wrought. Without accomplices, Stalin would have just been a nasty lunatic, raving to empty seats.

    You can be a Sally Yeats or a Sean Spicer type. The first steps you’re already taking will become a path leading upward, or downward. I hope you do not choose the comfortable, affluent, banality of niceness that will end after a long life, quickly forgotten, but rather boldness: true to principle, counting the cost, paying the price, and becoming truly great thereby, even if fame never finds you. Your last exhalation can end with an enigmatic smile.

    Scott Davis ’77

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