The Weiss Files: To Hell With the Independent Newsroom
On July 2, 2015, LSU Law Center Dean and Chancellor Jack M. Weiss announced he would be stepping down the following month, citing “major policy differences” with faculty. Weiss’s press release deftly avoided mentioning the increasing pressure Weiss felt from faculty and students concerned with the school’s institutional commitment to diversity and minority student success. In the months preceding Weiss’s resignation, public records surfaced showing episodes of racism, homophobia, and misogyny among LSU Law Center students and administration.
The Weiss Files detail how Weiss strong-armed The Daily Reveille, LSU’s undergraduate newspaper, into backpedaling on two important stories documenting student concerns with racism at the Law Center. Records show Weiss intimidated not only The Daily Reveille’s undergraduate student editor but also Manship School of Mass Communication Dean Jerry Ceppos and Student Media Adviser Bob Ritter. Former Reveille Editor-in-Chief Chandler Rome later told The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.), “I’d never dealt with a lawyer of that prestige [speaking of Weiss], if you will.” The Weiss Files suggest Ceppos and Ritter, driven by fear, abdicated to the Law Center’s chancellor their roles as journalism educators and advisers. Weiss denied wrongdoing.
Letting the Fox Into the Henhouse: How the Manship School of Mass Communication Opened The Daily Reveille’s Newsroom to LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack Weiss and Left the Student Editor to Stand Alone
Only a decade ago, the LSU Law Center was still subject to a federal settlement agreement forcing desegregation. During Weiss’s term as chancellor, the school commendably increased its numerical diversity, but student experiences and institutional mechanisms lagged far behind. The Daily Reveille’s reports on minority student experiences at the Law Center forced into the open a sometimes-uncomfortable conversation about race, gender, sexuality, and diversity, whereas Weiss had tried to quell student concerns by shunting them into a powerless task force.
Unhappy with The Daily Reveille’s coverage of diversity at the Law Center, Weiss intervened on November 4, 2014. That morning, he made a phone call to LSU Student Media Adviser Bob Ritter. Ritter memorialized his conversation with Weiss in a memorandum to Manship School of Mass Communication Dean Jerry Ceppos. According to Ritter, Weiss had “serious concerns” with Reveille stories about race and discrimination at the Law Center. Ritter noted that Weiss “said the newspaper acted irresponsibly in its approach to the stories” on racial concerns at the Law Center.
Weiss also reached out to Ceppos directly, apparently seeking access to Chandler Rome, The Daily Reveille’s editor-in-chief. In the afternoon of November 4, Weiss wrote to Ceppos that he had heard “[n]o word from the editor.” Ceppos responded, “Let me nose around.” Less than a minute later, Ceppos wrote to Ritter, “Im [sic] not sure how to handle this other than to stay out.”
Ceppos’s response is astonishing. How is it Ceppos, a former Knight Ridder vice president for ethics and long-time executive editor at the San Jose Mercury News, was unsure of how to respond to outside pressure directed at the newsroom of a purportedly independent student newspaper?
Ceppos’s initial response to Weiss’s intrusion into the Manship School was pathetically weak, but a later email he wrote to Ritter provides insight. Ceppos feared Weiss. When Ritter disclosed to Ceppos that Rome, the editor, had referred to Weiss as “Jack” only to be chastised by the chancellor, Ceppos wrote back, “I would have been scared to death to do that.”
Later emails show Ritter was similarly blinded by Weiss’s reputation as a leading media lawyer in Louisiana. Ritter advised Rome to carefully assign reporters to cover the Law Center, “especially when the chancellor is a renown [sic] First Amendment attorney.” Whether Weiss intended his former life as a media lawyer to influence The Daily Reveille or Manship School faculty, the mere perception of undue influence raises serious ethical concerns. Weiss undoubtedly knew of the risk.
If Ritter was in awe of Weiss and Ceppos feared him, what result did they think would come by giving Weiss direct access to The Daily Reveille’s undergraduate student editor? Add to the equation that Rome was not only a Manship student but also enrolled that semester in an ethics course taught by Ceppos.
Ceppos quickly overcame his insecurity, but rather than stand up for The Daily Reveille’s historic independence, the dean intervened with Rome on Weiss’s behalf. Indeed, in Rome’s first contact with Weiss, the editor offered to schedule an in person meeting with Weiss to discuss the newspaper’s coverage. The meeting was not Rome’s idea. It was “something Dean Ceppos said” Weiss wanted.
Records clearly show the gatekeepers separating the Manship School and The Daily Reveille from editorial interference cowered when Weiss complained. Ceppos and Ritter opened the henhouse to make their escape, but they led the wolf directly to Rome and The Daily Reveille newsroom.
Rome Stands Alone: The Daily Reveille’s Editor Pushes Back (A Little)
When Rome first reached out to Weiss by email on November 4, the editor profusely apologized for any shortcomings his newspaper might have made in its reports. Rome took responsibility for the newspaper’s actions, but he rightly reminded Weiss, “[W]hile The Daily Reveille prides itself on being more than a student newspaper its staff is comprised of just that–students.”
Apparently not knowing Rome had already reached out to Weiss, Ritter wrote back to Ceppos’s earlier email, in which Ceppos expressed insecurity with how to proceed in light of Weiss’s concerns. Ritter said he would “corral” Rome after a news meeting. Corral: A verb meaning “to gather and put (cows, horses, etc.) into a corral.” Ritter’s language strongly suggests he did not intend to treat Rome as and independent editor of an independent newspaper. Rather, Rome was, like livestock, to be put in his place and closely monitored.
Rome was being bombarded on all sides. His dean, the student media adviser, and the Law Center chancellor were pushing and pulling the student, all because The Daily Reveille dared write about minority law students’ experiences at the LSU Law Center.
Then entered LSU Law Center Director of Communications and External Relations Karen Soniat, whose willingness to commandeer student publications is discussed in The Faulk Files.
At 6:41 p.m. on November 4, Soniat wrote directly to Rome (cc’ing Weiss), “The Chancellor and I look forward to hearing back from you as soon as possible regarding steps The Daily Reveille plans to take to correct the facts and assertions in your recent stories . . . .” Soniat attached a variety of documents relating to diversity numbers at the Law Center, including outdated information on faculty diversity and charts comparing LSU’s enrollment percentage of African American students and students of color with the “aggregate average” of other Southeastern Conference law schools.
Less than ten minutes after Soniat’s correspondence with Rome, Weiss sent Rome a long email detailing the chancellor’s gripes about the Reveille stories. In the email, Weiss wrote that he “would welcome the opportunity to review the recording” of his conversation with the Reveille reporter who interviewed him for the October 28 story. “I trust you have safeguarded [the tape],” Weiss wrote. “If not, I’d like to see [the reporter’s] transcript of the recording.”
The great irony here is that Weiss is best known professionally for his work standing up for newspapers.
The other “shortcomings of the two pieces,” according to Weiss, included “the failure to incorporate” data Weiss had provided on LSU’s diversity as compared to other SEC schools and “unsubstantiated references to a ‘coalition of law students’ supporting the Alagood/Hairston letter [of October 20].” Weiss, to my knowledge, never inquired about the student coalition. Rather than engage with students to address their concerns, Weiss resolved to undermine dissenters.
Neither Soniat nor Weiss explained why The Daily Reveille should have included in its reports a comparison of diversity at the LSU Law Center with the average across a football conference comprised primarily of formerly segregated schools located in former slave states.
Rome wrote back within the hour. He explained the reporter had not been in the office that evening, but Rome assured Weiss he would “analyze and listen to the recording” of Weiss’s interview and report back. Rome proposed writing a “follow-up story” to “finally give a voice to the Law Center on the matter of diversity.” Rome said he would give “serious consideration” to running the story on the front page could not “absolutely guarantee” a front-page run.
Regarding Rome’s correspondence with Weiss, Ritter wrote to Ceppos, “Not pretty, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
But Weiss was not appeased. He wrote to Soniat that Rome had not promised to produce the reporter’s recording. “I think I should insist,” Weiss told Soniat, “no recording, no meeting.” The next morning, Weiss’s mere request to review the reporter’s recording and/or transcript morphed into a demand.
The Biggest Bully on the Block: Weiss Issues an Ultimatum
On the morning of November 5, Weiss issued an ultimatum to Rome: If Rome would not produce his reporter’s recording and/or transcript and could not “confirm we are discussing a publication in the nature of an editor-authored correction and apology,” there would be “no point in meeting.” These were Weiss’s “ground rules.”
Rome promptly wrote back, telling Weiss the reporter had not recorded her interview but otherwise acceding to Weiss’s demands. Rome offered to “provide [Weiss] with a copy of [the reporter’s] notes” and said there would be no other stories on diversity at the Law Center unless written by Rome. One goal of Rome’s follow-up story would be to “give [Weiss] an opportunity to refute what was reported” earlier. Rome closed with a note that he “need[ed] to have a serious discussion with [the reporter] regarding her future at the paper.”
Ceppos meanwhile continued to facilitate Weiss’s intervention in The Daily Reveille’s newsroom, checking with Weiss at lunchtime on November 5 to ensure he had heard from Rome. Weiss wrote back to Ceppos in the affirmative and added a note of thanks to Ceppos “for your help in getting the conversation started.”
Front Page or Bust: Weiss and Soniat Micromanage The Daily Reveille
After meeting with Weiss, Rome began drafting a column “that addresses [The Daily Reveille’s] shortcomings,” according to an email from Rome to Weiss. “The tentative plan,” Rome wrote, “is for that column to appear Friday, but as is always the case in the newspaper business, things could change.” Weiss asked Soniat for her thoughts. She responded, “I don’t like the column idea..unless it runs on the front page…[.]”
On Friday November 12, Rome’s column ran on the front page of The Daily Reveille under the headline “Previous Stories Erroneously Portray Law Center.” Ritter wrote to Weiss the morning Rome’s column ran, “Thank you for your effort this week to counsel Chandler Rome . . . . [Y]ou assisted greatly in this unfortunate part of his education.” But Weiss was not satisfied.
Shortly before noon on November 7, Weiss emailed Rome. “Thank you,” Weiss wrote the student, “for . . . taking responsibility for the erroneous and dangerous characterizations of the Law Center . . . .” The chancellor continued, “Your article does not go nearly as far as I think it should have, but I think it represents a well-intentioned effort to set the record straight.” Continuing his intrusion into The Daily Reveille’s editorial content, Weiss wrote to Rome that while “[t]he headline on your [print] column correctly states that the articles ‘erroneously portray [the] Law Center’,” the newspaper’s online version was “not labeled as either a correction or a retraction . . . .” Weiss complained that Rome “should state very plainly that each article (to use your word) erroneously portrays the Law Center. . . .The link should begin with ‘Correction’ or ‘Retraction’ or, at a bare minimum, ‘Error’.” Aside from Weiss’s attempts at micromanaging Rome’s newsroom, the chancellor’s jab at labeling the earlier news reports as articles was unbecomingly petty.
Having largely succeeded in strong-arming an undergraduate student editor into publishing the Law Center’s public relations propaganda, Weiss descended into pedantic polemics—a fancy way of saying Weiss was nitpicking and bullying Rome.
LSU Law Professors Respond in Defense of Student Concerns
LSU Law Professor Elizabeth Carter responded to Rome’s column in a November 14, 2014 letter to the editors of The Civilian (an LSU Law Center student publication) and The Daily Reveille. Carter, writing in her personal capacity, called into question both publications’ unquestioning reliance of numbers and data provided by Law Center administration. Carter questioned why the editors implicitly agreed with Law Center administration’s comparison of LSU to other Southeastern Conference schools and whether the editors had fact checked the data provided regarding faculty diversity at the Law Center.
Rome, battered from his week-long fracas involving his adviser, dean, and the Law Center chancellor, forwarded Carter’s letter to faculty advisers with a note: “I feel like I just don’t want to touch this.”
On November 21, thirteen LSU Law Center faculty members signed onto a similar letter to the editors of The Civilian and The Daily Reveille. That letter, drafted by Professor Christopher Tyson, described the publications’ stories as “in many ways contribut[ing] to [a] pattern” of revictimization in which a student’s willingness to speak about his or her experiences is met with censorship, compounding discrimination, and fear of retribution. “Issues of racism, sexism or homophobia have never been solved by closing ranks and marginalizing the messengers,” the letter said. “Laudable progress with diversity should never be used to muffle or silence inquiries into the extent to which there remains hostility towards members of the institutional community based on their identity.”
* * *
The Daily Reveille stopped covering the Law Center, even after the release of a damning report Weiss commissioned on racism at the school. The task force Weiss appointed to study student concerns with diversity had not completed its investigation by the end of the spring 2015 semester, as Weiss had directed. Then in May 2015, twenty-five professors, including almost those who wrote The Daily Reveille, called for Weiss’s ouster.
For the Weiss Files, click here.