2013 College Media Year in Review: Top 5 Viral Op-Eds & Letters to the Editor

This is part three of a quick series of posts providing a highlight and lowlight reel of the 2013 college media circus. More specifically, it is a review of the year’s most viral student press creations, performers and sideshows.

1. ‘Good Advice from a Jewish Mother’

In late March, The Daily Princetonian published a letter to the editor from Susan Patton, a Princeton University alumnae who is also the mother of a current Princeton student and a young Princeton graduate – both men. It very quickly triggered national media debate and such impassioned interest it may have temporarily crashed the Princetonian website.

Patton’s earnest missive urged female Princeton students to quickly find a suitable husband from among the university’s undergraduate male population. As she wrote, “For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

The letter inspired a bevy of snarky and intense putdowns in the press – and tons of online comments – from those who found it generationally out of touch, socially elitist or anti-feminist. As The Wall Street Journal wrote cheekily about the reaction at the time, “A kerfuffle swept across the land, and it was a marvel of nature – at once purposeful and chaotic, a frenzied unity. As if one, every feminist of childbearing age in America (we exaggerate, but only slightly) simultaneously arched her back and let out a deafening hiss.”

This hiss combined with genuine interest in Patton and her pronouncements. During the first day the letter appeared online, Googlers searched for her name more than 100,000 times. A Princeton senior summarized the country’s focus at the time by stating, quite simply, “America was going nuts over Susan Patton’s letter.”

For her part, in a follow-up interview, Patton expressed surprise at the letter’s virality, while sticking to her guns about the advice it contains: “I’m astounded by the extreme reaction. Honestly, I just thought this was some good advice from a Jewish mother.”

Months later, she confirmed the advice, and the letter, would be adapted and expanded into a book set to be published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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2. ‘Booze-and-Rape Op-Ed’

In early November, a petition and “national controversy” swirled around a “booze-and-rape op-ed” run in the Southern Methodist University student newspaper.

In the piece, Daily Campus contributing writer Kirby Wiley argued greater attention must be paid to what she sees as a link between female student alcohol consumption and sexual assaults. As she argued, “The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day. If women quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable, it will be much less likely for men to try and take advantage of them.”

Upon its publication, a pair of SMU gender and sexual rights groups proclaimed the op-ed as nothing more than irresponsible victim blaming and female bashing. A Change.org petition launched by the groups implored the Daily Campus to “STOP publishing articles contributing to rape culture and misogyny in general.”

In a separate letter to the editor, two recent Daily Campus editors similarly criticized the piece for “plac[ing] the blame for sexual assaults on their victims. Needless to say, this is not an appropriate way to report on a serious problem affecting colleges around the country.”

As CNN reported at the time, the hubbub surrounding the op-ed vaulted it “beyond the Dallas campus and into the ongoing national debate over how much responsibility potential victims of sexual assault bear.”

The paper also ran a news report on the backlash, labeling it online with two hashtags: #DailyCampus and #controversy.

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3. ‘Turning Point in Pipe Dream’s History’

In November, a column in the Binghamton University student newspaper defending the use of blackface during events such as Halloween spurred an organized protest outside the paper’s newsroom.

In the piece, Pipe Dream columnist Julianne Cuba criticized the commotion and media coverage surrounding actress Julianne Hough’s blackface costume. This past Halloween, Hough dressed as the popular black character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” in part by painting her face black.

According to Cuba, a BU senior, Hough’s face paint was purely an attempt to more accurately match up with the character she was portraying. As she argued, “Had Hough dressed as President Barack Obama and donned a mass-made mask, which of course is black like the president, nothing would have come of it. Had a black person dressed as the Pope and painted his face white, again, nothing this severe would have come of it. Our reaction to Hough’s costume is nothing short of racism itself.”

At Binghamton, the reaction to Cuba’s column was nothing short of combustible, leading to an event editors confirmed was “a turning point in Pipe Dream’s history.”

Along with a slew of angry online comments, a group of more than 50 students and faculty at one point gathered in protest outside the Pipe Dream newsroom. Some protestors declared the Pipe Dream ignorant and irresponsible for allowing the piece to run. As one BU student said about the opinion section, “It’s not a bathroom wall; we need an editorial policy.”

Cuba quickly apologized. So did Pipe Dream editors. In an editorial response, the paper’s leadership also expressed a commitment to increasing staff diversity. As they wrote, “This was the first time in recent memory that Pipe Dream has been protested in this fashion, and while the event was uncomfortable for all of us, it was also a wake up call. … The column that gave rise to the protest does not reflect the collective opinion of our staff, but we question whether or not we would have published this piece if we had a more diverse staff.”

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4. ‘Hindenburg Over New Jersey’

In early November, a letter to the editor in The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison written by student David Hookstead argued “‘rape culture’ does not exist.” It sparked endless “hate tweets,” more than 1,000 nasty online comments, a smattering of disgusted letters to the editor and a bloc of dismissive and derisive media reaction posts. City Pages in Minnesota summed things up most succinctly: “Hookstead’s victim-blaming column went over about as well as the Hindenburg over New Jersey.”

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5. ‘Coming Out’

In March, Yale University student Will Portman, the son of U.S. Senator Rob Portman, wrote a buzzworthy op-ed for The Yale Daily News discussing his experiences letting his classmates, friends and family know he is gay. It briefly entered the national media conversation.

As he shared, “I worried about how my friends back home would react when I told them I was gay. Would they stop hanging out with me? Would they tell me they were supportive, but then slowly distance themselves? And what about my friends at Yale, the “Gay Ivy”? Would they criticize me for not having come out earlier? Would they be able to understand my anxiety about all of this? I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with Yale or Cincinnati, or with gay or straight culture.”

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To read my full year in review on Poynter, click here or on the screenshot below.

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Related

2013 College Media Year in Review: Top 5 Viral Videos

2013 College Media Year in Review: Top 5 Viral News Stories

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