Anti-Pluralism at The Daily Princetonian and Announcing a New, Independent Editorial Board

On Tuesday, Daily Princetonian Editor-in-Chief Sarah Sakha announced in a Letter from the Editor that the ‘Prince’ Editorial Board would be abolished and replaced with a group -- composed of senior ‘Prince’ editors from the Managing Board and select students -- that would publish opinions on certain issues “when exercising an institutional voice is appropriate.” Until last week, the Editorial Board wrote biweekly unsigned editorials on a variety of campus issues. Ms. Sakha’s letter does not explain the rationale for the change, aside from noting that the new structure will more closely resemble the Editorial Board’s previous structure, which had been in place until 2005. It is clear to us that this change was made because the Editorial Board published some editorials that expressed viewpoints contrary to the personal political opinions of the ‘Prince’ Editor-in-Chief and many of the senior editors. Unfortunately, instead of continuing open discourse, the decision was made to silence our voices.

If the ‘Prince’s’ decision to dissolve the Board were considered absent other factors, there might be no reason for alarm. Neither the new nor old structures of the Editorial Board are inherently flawed, and although Ms. Sakha claimed otherwise in her letter abolishing the Board, there is no “traditional model” for editorial board structures. The Wall Street Journal’s Board includes opinion writers who write under their personal bylines, whereas those who write New York Times editorials do not write under their own bylines and specialize in only writing editorials, a structure similar to that of the former ‘Prince’ Editorial Board. Yet the highly irregular process by which the Managing Board undertook the reorganization as well as the past political disagreements between the Editorial and Managing Boards underscore that this was a decision to censor perspectives with which senior editors disagree.

The ‘Prince’s’ decision to abolish the Editorial Board in the middle of the calendar year is a radical departure from historic procedure. Each December during ‘Prince’ elections, Editor-in-Chief candidates present their platforms for the paper which staff members debate extensively. The winning candidate then defines the policies and organizational setup for the paper in a contract to which the Managing Board and Trustees jointly agree, and these policies stay broadly intact during the Editor-in-Chief’s tenure. While the paper may thus change from year to year, it is unprecedented to fundamentally alter an entire section halfway through the year, as was done here. Moreover, if the Managing Board’s decision were motivated by a desire to improve the quality of editorials or the functioning of the section, it could easily have solicited input from existing members of the Editorial Board. Instead, members of the Editorial Board were alerted one hour before the public announcement. Even the co-chairs of the Editorial Board were informed of the decision only two days prior to the public announcement, during a meeting at which the change was presented as final with no opportunity for discussion or redress.

This is not the decision-making process of a Managing Board that is carefully considering ways to improve the newspaper. Rather, the catalyst for the change in the Editorial Board’s structure was a series of editorials that did not align with the personal political convictions of the Editor-in-Chief and other senior editors.  

The first attempt to silence the Editorial Board occurred in October 2016, when the previous Editor-in-Chief sought to block publication of an editorial on the Women*s Center. While it was eventually published following much debate and some revision by the previous Editor-in-Chief, such interference with the Board’s independence had never occurred in institutional memory. In an email to the Board, the reason given for this unprecedented assertion that “this particular editorial should not run” was that “more than half of the editors on the masthead...feels uncomfortable having the editorial published on [sic] the Prince.” The previous Editor-in-Chief wrote that her “standard for deciding whether an editorial (or any other article) should be published is simple and clear; whether it adequately represents the viewpoint of the Daily Princetonian as a whole and whether it reflects the values we stand for.” This is a disturbing argument for an ostensibly neutral campus newspaper to impose a values-based vetting standard and to decline to publish an editorial or even an article that does not reflect the personal views of the paper’s senior editors.

Soon after in December 2016 came the elections for the next, and current, Editor-in-Chief. In her campaign platform, Ms. Sakha expressed support for maintaining the Editorial Board. The only change suggested at that time was introducing a short statement clarifying that Editorial Board pieces were not the official opinion of the ‘Prince,’ a change the Board quickly adopted. Still, when the Board continued producing opinions that conflicted with the personal convictions of senior editors, a number of them would often post on their personal Facebook accounts emphasizing, in an apparent attempt to undermine the credibility of the Board’s arguments, that the Editorial Board did not represent the official opinion of the ‘Prince’ and suggesting their personal disagreement with the editorials. This culminated in Tuesday’s unilateral decision to abolish the Editorial Board.

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In his remarks to the Class of 2021 during Opening Exercises, President Eisgruber eloquently spoke of his refusal to take an official University stance on the Charlottesville controversy: “It is, however, neither my role nor that of the University to prescribe how you should react to this controversy or others. It is rather my role and the role of the University to encourage you to think deeply about what these events mean for this country and its core values, and to encourage you to find ways to participate constructively in the national dialogue they have generated.”

As the campus newspaper of record, the ‘Prince’s’ functions parallel those of the University as a whole, including a responsibility to be a neutral platform for pluralistic dialogue. That the Managing Board’s decision was apparently motivated by political reasons makes us skeptical that the newspaper will provide such a neutral platform for debate. As all those who try to enforce an ideology eventually find out, ideas cannot be suppressed.

Thus we proudly introduce the Princeton Editorial Board. The Board includes most of the members of the former ‘Prince’ Editorial Board and will function with the same procedures as did the past Editorial Board, but with pieces published on our own website. We believe this structure provides a unique opportunity for campus discourse that is worthwhile to continue. Due to the demanding time commitment necessary to produce a daily newspaper, being a senior editor at the ‘Prince’ is usually a student’s primary extracurricular activity. By contrast, our Board includes varsity athletes, singers, debaters, and other students from a diverse range of campus backgrounds. Having a membership composed of a representative cross section of campus experiences was one of the former Editorial Board’s greatest strengths as we commented on a range of campus issues, from campus sustainability to eating clubs to the departmental advising experience. Notably, a number of our recommendations have been implemented by the University. Most recently, this fall the University began offering meals for student leaders with early move-in; in a September 2015 editorial, the Board called on the University to do precisely that. We look forward to continuing these important contributions to campus life in our new form.

We invite all students to apply. In our application process as well in the writing of future editorials, ideas will be evaluated based on how well they are argued, not the conclusions they reach. The Board will continue to publish dissents from the majority, enabling a diverse set of views to be heard. We hope that eventually, The Daily Princetonian will follow suit.