Censorship, Intimidation, Confusion: The REAL ‘Truth About The Gramblinite Chaos’
The current controversy surrounding the temporary suspension and alleged firing of two Grambling State University student newspaper editors started earlier this semester with seven words: “David, get the f*ck out the Gramblinite.”
Gramblinite adviser Wanda Peters purportedly said this to the paper’s online editor David Lankster Sr. in September during a heated staff meeting. Lankster earned Peters’ ire for questioning her about her sub-par work, an assessment shared by a sizable portion of the staff. According to multiple editors, Peters has exhibited a noticeably growing indifference toward the paper, symbolized by the rising number of meetings and other staff business she has missed. At the meeting, Lankster also addressed an especially enormous elephant in the room — the perception that Peters’ son, Evan, the Gramblinite’s production manager and designer, was increasingly serving as a proxy of sorts for her.
“Her enthusiasm, it started trickling down and we started not seeing her as much,” said Lankster. “Me being me, I spoke out at a meeting, and everybody knew I was going to speak out except for the adviser. … [I said] ‘Ms. Peters, why aren’t you and Evan ever at the same meeting? Why is he at a meeting and then you’re not at a meeting?’ She said, ‘David, get the f*ck out the Gramblinite.’ I proceeded to walk out as gracefully as possible. … This is when our rift, I would have to say, started.”
That rift became a full rupture this past week when Peters condemned Lankster and briefly suspended fellow Gramblinite editor Kimberly Monroe in connection with a high-profile university athletic protest. A front-page article set to run in today’s issue of the paper boldly declared it would report on itself, revealing “The Truth About The Gramblinite Chaos.” However, it contained numerous inaccuracies and was ultimately pulled prior to publication. The staff writer in the byline: Evan, the son of the adviser who cursed out Lankster. (Pause. Shake head. Sigh. OK, keep reading.)
By comparison, in a session this afternoon at the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention in New Orleans, Lankster and Monroe sought to tell the REAL truth about the recent chaos. (Kudos to Gary Metzker at Cal State Long Beach for arranging the session.)
The Gramblinite chaos began at 5:36 p.m. on Wednesday, October 16th. That is the time-stamp on the first tweet Lankster sent out from the paper’s Twitter account about the football program mess.
Sources: Several football players walked of a “team only” meeting with President Pogue and AD Aaron James yesterday after practice.
— The Gramblinite (@TheGramblinite) October 16, 2013
As I previously posted, Grambling State football players earned mega-media attention recently for publicly criticizing the poor conditions of their practice facilities and rough-at-times away game road-trips. To show their collective dismay, they refused to play last weekend against conference rival Jackson State University, forcing the team to forfeit.
As part of his reporting on the protest and the problems from which it sprung, Lankster tweeted photos of the team’s “sh*tty work conditions” and provided inside information he gleaned through connections on the team — including a trusted source within the coaching ranks. As he shares:
“On October 16th, we started hearing things throughout the day about the football team not going to practice or walking out of a meeting with the administration. The football team had lost coach Williams, Doug Williams [in mid-September]. All but five players had been recruited by coach Williams. So they kind of wanted an explanation as to why [he had been fired]. The administration waited five weeks to give them an explanation or to even set up a meeting. … They finally had a meeting and it started surfacing that players walked out of the meeting. There’s hearsay on campus. You try to hear things. I have a friend who I went to high school with. He’s a graduate assistant [coach with the team]. He turned out to be my source in the whole situation. He said as long as he can remain anonymous or unidentified, I can get information from him. Before I was a journalist and he was a coach, we both were students. This is somebody I would kick it with after school and stuff like that. Eventually we got reports. There was no practice Wednesday. Thursday there was some commotion going on around campus. People were trying to understand what was really going on with the football team. I used to work with the football team, all the way up to week two [of this season]. I was hired by coach Williams. I kind of knew what was going on … but it wasn’t my business anymore. I’m not in their shoes. … [The team attended a rally on campus Thursday evening, the second day in a row they didn’t practice.] Thursday evening the first news article about the whole situation was published by The Shreveport Times. In it, it quoted our SGA president, who was in on the meeting [between the players and administrators]. It quoted him saying the football players were ‘soft’ [the Times has since removed that statement from the story]. It seemed kind of fishy. The SGA president came to the newsroom … while we were trying to get the paper out, furious, like ‘This was not what I said.’ So I went back and called some of the people on the football team and called my source who was in the meeting and he said ‘This is not what was said.’ So I started believing what the SGA president was saying. I started realizing the administration was trying to put out a whole different story. This is when [I felt] knowing the true facts would allow everything that’s been in the dark to come to light. I felt like if I was telling the truth, I wouldn’t have any repercussions.”
Yet, Lankster did feel repercussions. So did Monroe, the paper’s Voices editor. Grambling’s SGA president approached her in the newsroom after his misquote appeared in the Times. He wanted Monroe to run a piece explaining his true thoughts on the situation. It was officially past the issue’s deadline, but Monroe agreed to run it — in part because she did not have any other copy to fill her allotted space.
Soon after, she said Peters, the paper’s adviser, inexplicably told her to remove the piece. After Monroe declined, Peters took it out herself, replacing it with an AP story. As Monroe recounts, “At that point students were confused. They didn’t know what to believe as far as what the media was putting out there. … I told [the SGA president] he needed to organize something where students can get on one accord. That will show what the administration and other people are putting out there isn’t necessarily true and they’re trying to cover what the truth is.”
Did she feel it was a conflict of interest to organize and participate in a potentially newsworthy, controversial event? “Where my mind was at that moment was not on the Gramblinite,” she said. “I was already ticked off about [Peters] telling me to take [the SGA president's piece] off the page. So I was like, ‘Let’s get something done.’”
As students walked to the rally site, football players emerged and expressed a desire to participate. One player — the team’s de facto spokesman — ended up addressing the gathered students. “As the media, we knew if that’s the top story of what’s going on nationwide, of course we want to hear what he has to say,” Monroe said. “It looked like I organized a rally for the football team’s boycott, but that was not the intent at all. … This is not the only problem at Grambling. Every academic building on campus has a problem. … Had it not gotten so big with the media being there, I don’t think I’d be in this situation I’m in now.”
The story behind Monroe’s situation: The day after the rally, Peters asked for her email address and then sent her a message with the subject line “Unprofessionalism [sic] behavior,” CC’d to a relevant department chair, dean and the university provost. In the email, Peters informed Monroe she was being suspended for two weeks for violating part of the paper’s ethics code, which she said Monroe had previously signed. Yet, Monroe said she did not sign a code.
Meanwhile, Lankster said he started receiving calls from fellow staffers telling him he had been fired or would soon be fired. He then received a text message on his mobile phone from an unidentified individual asking for his email address. It turned out to be Peters. He did not respond at the time, in part because he did not initially know who the text was from. In his words:
“I’m still chronicling everything that is happening. Now mind you, I’m sourcing my friend who is a former football player and he’s now a graduate assistant. He’s now in a leadership role. He’s a coach. So Friday morning, I’m asking him, ‘How’s it looking?’ He said, ‘It’s not looking good. … The whole time there has been a press conference set up by our public relations director for our athletic director and our president basically saying ‘They’re going to play [against Jackson State.' He said 'We’re going to Jackson. We still plan to go to Jackson. But I can't tell you how many players are going to show up.' I tweeted that. ... Football players who follow us [on Twitter] replied and said, ‘Oh yeah?’ This is when as a journalist I started feeling the confusion. They were not on the same page, the administration and the football team. A little background: I did public relations with the Redskins [in the NFL] last year, so I’m kind of familiar with [the fact that] if you’re the PR director you’re in every meeting just so everybody can be saying the same thing. In this case, this was not what was happening. So I felt like the administration and the public relations director was trying to not tell the truth. I felt like basically I had to tell the truth. I told the truth. As I’m tweeting, I get a reply from the public relations director. He actually replies from his personal account [to a tweet Lankster wrote saying unidentified sources confirm the SGA president is on the players' side] and says, ‘What is this journalism? Are you serious? Someone needs a lesson.’”
Lankster soon after responded to the PR director from his personal Twitter account: “I said ‘If we needed a lesson, we wouldn’t need one from you.”
By the start of this week, both Monroe’s suspension and Lankster’s purported firing/suspension/something had been overturned. At the moment, Lankster, set to graduate in December, is unsure if he will return to the paper. His hesitation stems in large part from a letter penned by Peters. She never sent it to him herself. But during a meeting, a dean shared it with him. He read a portion of it during today’s convention session:
“You were given a role of responsibility, but your behavior has irretrievably damaged the reputation of the newspaper. Your appointment as The Gramblinite’s digital presence was based on your longtime role at the newspaper, as well as the maturity and professionalism that should have been gained at your internships. More was expected of you. If further investigation substantiates your unprofessional behavior, you will be terminated and removed from any association whatsoever with The Gramblinite. Your failure to use common sense and good judgment in performing your duties showed a lack of professionalism that will not be forgotten. You have not only painted The Gramblinite with a tarred brush, you could have possibly destroyed your own journalistic career.”
Moments later, a room full of student journalists, journalism professors and student press advisers applauded Lankster and Monroe for their efforts.