Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Remembering a couple of conservative college columnists

A quick digression to set up the story. After getting a B.F.A. in creative writing, I did what seemed at the time to be the sensible thing and went off to a master's program in a very big out-of-state school. It didn't go well -- the main thing I learned was that I didn't want to be an English professor -- so I returned to my alma mater to get a teaching certificate. The education requirements didn't fill up my schedule so I decided to take some math courses and get a double certificate (which eventually led to a much more pleasant grad school experience but that's another story).

While I was making that initial run at grad school, a conservative columnist at the university paper (which was big enough to be a multi-section daily) was kicked off the staff for repeatedly lifting large chunks from George Will columns. It wasn't a big story even around the school but there was something slightly funny about the columnist's name that made him lodge in my memory.

A year later, back at the then-small college in Arkansas (it has grown considerably since I left), I noticed something in that school's paper (a far less impressive weekly tabloid of about twelve pages).

The paper's conservative columnist was an odd, bitter fellow, antisocial and prone to bizarre feuds with faculty members and student groups whom he felt were promoting a leftist agenda. His column that week was focused on the ways conservative voices were persecuted in academia and exhibit 1 was the previously mentioned plagiarist. Not that plagiarism figured prominently in this account. The column was written under the assumption that the dismissal had been politically motivated and any charges of journalistic impropriety had been trumped up to silence a someone willing to challenge the liberal establishment.

The slant was not unexpected given the author. What did surprise me was the reference to this obscure story from a school hundreds of miles away. This was in the late Eighties, years before the internet so it's not like they got it from a friend on Facebook. I was fairly certain that I was the only student at the small school who had attended that big university the year before and the only reason I remembered the incident was because of that odd connection I had made with the name. How did the story make that long trip and how did it get transformed from embarrassing lapse to heroic stance?

After I started paying more attention to this columnist in particular and to other conservative writers at other colleges, it started to make more sense. Both the left and the right had channels for distributing useful information and in some cases misinformation, but the channels on the right tended to be more centralized and obviously better funded. When a conservative journalist ran into trouble, there was a national network in place to disseminate his side of the story.

Things may have always been this way with more money and support available on the right, but I suspect that much of what I observed was the result of the rise of the conservative movement and that today's right-wing media owes at least some of its DNA to those information exchanges of the Eighties.

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