Opinion

Letter to the Editor: Will the Phoenix Rise Again?

Loyola Phoenix

A Pulitzer Prize finalist (team reporting) and former Chicago Tribune columnist, editor and writing coach, Lou Carlozo was faculty advisor to the Loyola Phoenix from 2002-2008. He writes about investment for U.S. News & World Report and serves as managing editor of the Bank Administration Institute, the nation’s largest banking non-profit.  

It’s been a dozen years since my unceremonious ouster as advisor of the Loyola Phoenix.

Having never told my story, I step forward because there is a crisis involving the Phoenix, thanks to misguided media policies instituted by a tone-deaf administration… and, apparently, a fairly clueless one. If I were standing atop my desk — as was my custom in my Reporting and Writing class at the Water Tower Campus — I would shout:

“How on earth is it possible to tout the virtues of a journalism program when you enforce and defend policies that put a clamp on what and who student reporters can do, say and talk to?”

I was never one for subtlety.

Still, I kept my mouth shut when fired from the Phoenix and relieved of my teaching duties soon thereafter. It was actually a former Phoenix editor and one-time intern, which helped me see the obvious truth: raising a stink could only hurt the paper and the great students associated with it.

Today, the situation has twisted itself into a bizarre little antipode. Keeping my mouth shut means standing by while the Phoenix staff fights its battle badly outnumbered and outmuscled. But no longer a part of Loyola, I’m at a safe distance to speak truth to power. They can’t fire me twice. Though I’ll bet some university board members wish they could.

So let’s start here: what’s going on now — a ham-fisted clampdown on a free student press — is nothing new.

How I got bombed by Halliburton

In September 2007, student reporter, Nicole Charky, ran up to me one day at the Phoenix offices and said, “Professor Lou! Guess what? Loyola has money invested in Halliburton!”

As in the no-bid, Dick Cheney-connected, evil Iraq War machine? I was skeptical. Peace-loving Jesuits don’t do that sort of thing.

The conversation was short.

“Nicole, are you sure about this?”

“Yes!”

“How do you know?”

“I saw the portfolio.”

“Now look. If someone comes up to you and cries foul, can you prove what you’re saying? Do you have the documents to back it up?”

She smiled like the cat that had just eaten the Jesuit canary. “Yes.” She showed me a copy of Loyola’s stock portfolio from March 2007. I’d still love to know how she got it.

“Okay, run with it.” And that was the beginning and end of my involvement.

When Nicole’s story “Halliburton & Loyola: Controversy amid financial gains” hit the stands on Halloween 2007, the university’s brass was in no mood for a trick instead of a treat. Her work attracted national attention, and Fox News tried to make conservative mincemeat out of Phoenix Editor-In-Chief Nick Gamso. But they picked the wrong guy. Nick was a beyond-brilliant, irreverent far leftie — kind of like Seth Rogen’s naughty little brother. He was impossible to hogtie and made the Fox TV interviewer and Loyola look bad at the same time. If the university wasn’t pleased to begin with, this didn’t help.

Not that the university helped its own cause, either. While taking issue with Charky’s reporting, Assistant Treasurer and Chief Investment Officer Eric C. Jones admitted in a Phoenix letter, “I am not writing to debate the fact that we own certain stocks that some may consider controversial.”

And, citing Loyola’s proxy voting record: “It is a certainty that if the university did not own shares in these companies — Halliburton, Dow Chemical, etc. — another investor would buy the shares and might not vote in the same manner.”

Ohh, I get it: own stock in the war machine so that the University can say, “bad, bad Halliburton” and cash the checks with a clean conscience. Neat!

Here’s a thought, too, for the 2019 Phoenix staff: check the portfolio again. Can’t say the university ever promised to divest itself of Halliburton. Any comments, Mr. Treasurer? Come to think of it, we never checked for Monsanto. Rats.

From ouster to reinstatement to ouster

A few weeks later, Gamso approached me in the newsroom. As much as you could never wipe that beautiful, insouciant smile off his face, he looked concerned. “Professor Lou… you’ve got a target on your back.”

Nick told me he had reliable information that the university board was looking for a way to get rid of me. I didn’t believe him. Then again, I didn’t believe Nicole at first.

Loyola couldn’t expel Nicole, could they? Or fire her from The Phoenix? Of course not. But they could make someone an example. And so several months later, I received a letter from Father Richard Salmi, vice president of student affairs, thanking me for my time at Loyola as the Phoenix advisor… which was now over.

This no doubt pleased him. For my six or so years as advisor, Salmi made his disdain for the Phoenix plain in a thousand ways. The student journalists feared and hated him. One, without my prompting, dug up some dirt on Salmi after he let me go. Some stories, I admonished, are better left to die…

Truth and consequences

What is the lesson to be learned here? To me, it was and still is this: the truth is dangerous.

This was only reinforced when I appealed to the dean of the newly created School of Communication, Don Heider, to have a committee hear my case for reinstatement. I was actually on an advisory committee involved in his selection.

The members of the reinstatement panel included Phoenix Editor-In-Chief Katie Drews. I recall that at least two dozen former Phoenix staffers sent emails on my behalf urging reinstatement.

The committee unanimously approved me to once again become the advisor. But for reasons I’ll never understand, Heider vetoed this decision. To this day, I still don’t know why — he never told me.

But he did go out for coffee with me and dangled what turned out to be a pseudo-carrot: a potential new advisor job overseeing all student publications. Smart. This kept me on my best behavior for weeks. He called me into his office under the pretense of an interview and then… ghosted. Or I should say busted; one of my Phoenix reporters, former Loyola Society of Professional Journalists president Alysse Dalessandro, reported that the actual hire was “a glorified coffee boy” making $80,000 a year. Don’t take my word for it. She wrote about it for me in AOL.

The only solace I had during this time was the support of the Phoenix staff. One young woman prepared a 50-page bound document for me to defend myself. I still have it. Students took me out for lunch and coffee. Meanwhile, I called the Student Press Law Center at the University of Kentucky for advice. They said, “Lou, you have no idea how many times we get calls like this. The paper prints something the university despises, and they send the advisor packing.”

But they could, and did, get away with it. The SPLC predicted as much.

What the Phoenix meant, and means

My replacement, Bob Herguth, is a hell of a great advisor and a good guy. A solid Sun-Times journeyman reporter. I admire him.

That said, if I had my way I would still be Phoenix advisor today.

It was a job I loved and I cried when Heider overruled the committee. The pay was crap, but there was and is no reward like seeing your former reporters and editors go on to become: a White House correspondent for the New York Times — Katie Rogers. Music critic at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — Piet Levy. The editor-in-chief for the Chicago Booth magazine at the University of Chicago — LeeAnn Maton. The founder of the Ready To Stare fashion blog — Dallesandro. Political reporters in Springfield. Lawyers. Columnists. Contributors to McSweeney’s. Starbucks baristas with $75,000 in student loan debt.

No matter where they wound up, they’d reach out to say, “Hey Prof. Lou, thanks for being there. You really made a difference.”

And for those students, I poured it all out. We didn’t talk about concert reviews in my Arts Criticism class: I brought a band in to play live. After former Loyola PR man Bud Jones cajoled me into accepting an adjunct slot, he then convinced me to take the Phoenix and do something with it. I was a Tribune reporter then and got senior Tribune designers and journalists involved. We turned the paper around from a terrible, unloved runt into something special: an SPJ national award winner during the time that straddled my last year and Bob Herguth’s first.

Then I took about a dozen Phoenix writers and Loyolans — many still in school — and got them paying journalism gigs working under me. It was for a student finance website we created for AOL called “Money College.” And they kicked ass. We routinely scored page views in the five and six digits.

Somebody, I hope, is doing all this and more now.

It was a former student, in fact, who alerted me to what you’re facing. So did a former advisor to the DePaulia. Then another Phoenix staffer from the 2000s. They all said the same thing: tell your story.

And so, we arrive back at the situation as all Loyolans know it today. A current Phoenix editor directed me to this statement by the University in the wake of the mess. I think it’s interesting:

“We are in the process of reviewing Loyola’s media relations policy with the help of a cross-section of stakeholders, including administration, Campus Safety, faculty, student journalists, and outside experts, including professional journalists. The goal of this review is to deliver policies that represent best practices for protecting free speech and helping the University maintain its interest in accurate media coverage by all outlets.”

Translation: “Blabbidy blahbiddy blah, hem haw committee to study the committee, consultant, white paper wait for it to blow over, stall, stall, stall, yadi, yadi, yadi.”

“Stakeholders”? What happened to… students?

Parting shot: first amendment things first

The only thing that will count — in the end — is what Loyola puts down in writing. And then delivers. An apology from Rooney for the cold shoulder would be nice, too. From Penn State to Michigan State and across academia, there is this epidemic of above-it-all university presidents who forget they are there to serve the students, without whose tuition money they might as well be pushing Ph.D.-sized lattes out a drive-through window into someone’s SUV. At the very least, you’d hope that they would remember that once they were young, optimistic and full of ideals.

For a lesson in that, we could all stand to look 40-plus years back.

One day, while hanging out in the moldy, windowless basement offices of the Phoenix, I asked aloud how the paper got its name. I was told that in the early 1970s, the administration had enough of student journalists decrying the Vietnam War. I don’t know what the paper was called then, but I’ll damn well bet it spent the better part of the ‘60s covering pep rallies, campfires and profiling Joe Crewcut of the Hi-De-Ho Student Go-Kart Club.

But when the students spoke out against Vietnam, the university stepped up and put the hammer down. And, my Phoenix reporter said, that was that. Except …

Rather than give up, the students rallied themselves and reorganized. The paper became an independent entity and picked a name that encapsulated their fierce spirit: The Phoenix. Rising from the ashes!

Is it ashes to ashes today? As I headed out the door in 2007 I could see the university slowly working to absorb the student newspaper back into the fold. On the one level, the Phoenix would now become a show pony for the university brass to trot out for parents ready to fork over their borrowed-to-the-hilt tuition dollars. And how can you blame Loyola? The School of Communication was new. It needed something to show off. It had already added the once-independent WLUW to its trophy case.

Fact: my colleagues over at WLUW, Shaun Campbell and Craig Kois, were dumped just months before me.

When a university sinks its hooks in a student newspaper, this is what you get: someone like Jo Ann Rooney calling the shots from a power perch, and refusing to speak to the very students she owes her job to… even while dictating who the students can’t speak to?

Will the Phoenix rise again, then?

Maybe the university was smart in letting me go. Because if I were in the middle of this, I’d push the paper to break free once again. Hard. In this day and age of crowdfunding and creative fundraising, a student paper untethered from university interference can pay the bills and do its job: speak truth to power.

Again: for students in service to free speech and a free press, the truth is dangerous. Threatening. It was in 1972. And in 2007. And is today, in 2019.

And, as the priests on campus like to say, forever and ever amen.

So here we are. We have a current media environment at the highest levels of power where it’s fine to lambaste, lie about and lie to the media. I can’t help but think that this emboldens people to push journalists around, like they have no clue as to what they’re doing. Or, that the media-bashing tone of Trump’s Twitter feed trickles down even to the halls of academia, where it gets a respectable makeover and is dressed up in words like “policy.” Police-y. Whatever.

No matter what the administration tells you that you can and can’t do… remember that you are far from powerless in all this. From the sidelines, I’ll cheer you on and wish I were there. I’ll always be loyal to the Loyola Phoenix.

You are the future of journalism. Rise above.

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