Journalism students at Cal State Fullerton who called out the school’s administration, and specifically chief spokesman Christopher Bugbee, for choking off transparency, hope a meeting next week will put an end to controls and delays that block access to public information.
A student editorial in the Daily Titan called for administrative openness and cleaning up “a shameful track record of delaying and denying inquiries.”
In the April 23 editorial, the student newspaper’s editorial board wrote: “CSUF media relations officials block the Daily Titan’s access to administrators and require reporters to submit all questions through email, denying requests for in-person or phone interviews. When a response is received, sometimes more than a month later, the information it contains is often watered-down, filtered and written by a media relations officer.”
The editorial was unanimously supported by the faculty in the university's communications department and by the Academic Senate, both of which passed resolutions backing up the students.
In its resolution, the communications faculty said its been trying for “many years” to get the university administration to fix the problem and, since 2010 has given administrators “many pages of documentation of rude, dismissive, hostile and evasive treatment of its students by the office of Strategic Communications,” where Bugbee works.
And Nikki Moore, an attorney for the 800-member California Newspaper Publishers Association, says the university’s pattern of actions could put it in danger of violating state law.
By causing long delays before providing information to the student journalists, limiting the information that ultimately is made available and barring journalism students from interviewing administration officials, she said administrators may have adopted a “soft” form of censorship or punishment.
Not only would that be illegal, she said, the result could impact the quality of the journalism students’ education, “which is the purpose for them being there.”
It’s an issue that for several years has been festering not only on campus but among the Orange County press corps. Reporters at both Voice of OC and OC Weekly have experienced stonewalling by Bugbee.
Jeff Cook, CSUF chief communications officer and Bugbee’s boss, denied the university was trying to limit contact between student or outside journalists and members of the school’s leadership or faculty.
“The guidance that we have offered to the campus community is that they are encouraged to work through the media office,” he said. The purpose, he said, was to direct journalists, both student and outside, to the best sources of information.
He acknowledged answering some inquiries “does take time” but “certainly there is no effort on the part of our organization to withhold information or slow it down.”
Without getting specific, he said his meeting with student journalism leaders next week is intended to “chart a way forward that is constructive for everyone.”
But both students and outside reporters paint a very different picture.
They say Bugbee, whose official title is director of news-media services and social-media engagement, interferes with their ability to report university news.
Bugbee declined to be interviewed for this article.
A History of Problems
The OC Weekly wrote about the Daily Titan editorial and outlined its own problems getting timely information from Bugbee’s office.
“When the Weekly covered an alleged rape that rocked the campus a day after a rape culture protest, it took five school days to answer four related questions by email,” wrote Weekly reporter Gabriel San Roman.
He quoted a Bugbee email that outlined the administration’s policy and what followed.
"’Please be advised that for all queries of a non-emergency nature, faculty and staff have a minimum of three work days (Monday through Friday, when the University is in session) to respond to media requests for information,’ Bugbee wrote at the time. ‘Please factor this time into your planning and deadlines.’ When the responses didn't come when promised, Bugbee followed with, ‘we won't stiff you and this isn't a stall,’ without any prompting or accusation of the sorts.”
OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano said in a telephone interview his staff complains that Bugbee “delays and he delays and he delays.” An ironic lesson the students may be learning, Arellano said, is how PR “hacks” really work, something they also will encounter once they graduate.
Voice of OC ran into a different problem last September when reporter Nick Gerda was writing about who was paying for a CSUF public discussion of oil well fracking.
The university failed to comply with the California Public Records Act in responding to a request for information by a member of the public and, when asked about it, Bugbee told the reporter: "You understand that your story is not of particular concern to me.”
Among other things, he later said in a telephone conversation with this reporter that he could automatically declare information on “background,” meaning even though he is a public employee, he couldn’t be quoted by name. Bugbee’s stance, which never was agreed to or followed by Voice of OC, runs counter to longstanding journalism principles which require both sides to agree before information is on background.
In addition, he said Cal State Fullerton was moving to a system where reporter questions to professors and others will be handled by his office rather than allowing journalists to immediately speak to them directly.
In its resolution, the Communications faculty urged CSUF President Mildred Garcia “to personally examine and radically change the practice of centralizing and obstructing responses to inquiries about what is clearly public information.”
Garcia, in an email to the entire campus, said “I take these concerns very seriously, as the tenets of transparency and collegiality are essential to fulfilling the academic mission of our institution.”
Garcia said she asked Greg Saks, vice president for university advancement, the department responsible for building relationships between CSUF and outside sources including alumni, businesses and foundations, to set up meetings to resolve the problem. One meeting with Titan editors was held last week and another is scheduled for May 14.
Titan Editor-in-Chief Samuel Mountjoy said at this point “nothing has really changed.” He said the meeting last week was mostly spent laying out all of the problems. He said it was his “hope” the next meeting will come up with solutions.
Terry Francke, general counsel to the open information nonprofit Californians Aware, said the CSUF issue demonstrates the “chronic disadvantage students have in college. The bureaucrats know students only will be there for so long (so) ‘if I ignore you, there’s no consequence.’”
Long-term, he said, it’s up to the faculty and administrative staff to stand up for open access.
An alternative to the Fullerton approach can be found at the University of Missouri, home to the nation's oldest journalism school, founded 107 years ago.
“We never, never prevent faculty from talking to the news media,” said Mary Jo Banken, head of the university's public relations department. She said she and her staff “consider it part of our job” to help the journalism students learn how to conduct in depth interviews and other journalism skills so they get the most possible out of their university experience.
Banken said encouraging journalists and university personnel to do interviews means when the stories are done, those who were interviewed “come across as more truthful, more transparent.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org