Dinner with Hitler: How a Q&A with a college newspaper became a national story and an ethical dilemma

While interviewing Grand Valley State University’s new offensive coordinator, the sports editor of the student newspaper threw in the kind of softball question that hundreds of journalists had asked before:

KV: So you graduated from Drury with a degree in History, you’re a history guy. If you could have dinner with three historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? And I’m ruling out football figures.

MB: This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler. It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.

Morris Berger’s answer to Kellen Voss’ question drew national attention to the school, the football program and Berger. It also forced the staff of The Lanthorn to decide what was the best way to handle a story that was quickly becoming a hot potato.

“When you have a Q&A especially, the piece is meant to be raw and personal,” Lanthorn Editor In Chief Nick Moran said Friday in an email interview. “We don’t edit answers and the questions asked help give a glimpse into the source. So when I first saw it, I certainly knew it was an odd, questionable answer, but we ran it with the rest of the piece. Honestly, when we first saw it, our thought was, ‘Why wouldn’t we run this?'”

Moran, a third-year student double majoring in multimedia journalism and communication studies, works with a staff of about 45-50 students at The Lanthorn to cover GVSU’s campuses in Allendale and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In most cases, the coverage doesn’t receive much attention outside of that area, but he soon came to realized that this time, things would be different.

“We first knew it was bound to take off somewhat on Sunday night when Fox 17 ran an online story and broadcast segment on it,” Moran said. “When Fox 17 runs a story here in Grand Rapids, the other two local outlets are going to cover it too. So we knew it would at least get views in the Grand Rapids area, but then it grew. The Detroit Free Press called, making it state-wide. Then we saw it on ESPN, YahooSports, Barstool and more. Then the national media reached out, like the Washington Post, CNN and the Huffington Post. Eventually, it even went international with the Guardian covering it as well.”

Along with the attention came mounting pressure on the publication. An official in the athletic department asked Moran and his staff to pull the story or at least cut the line about Hitler. Initially, the paper acquiesced, something the staff outlined in its explanatory editorial later that week:

When confronted by a university official in a position of influence, the “student” portion of “student journalist” kicked in first. In a lapse of journalistic vision, we removed the portion in question. We quickly realized that was a mistake.

Moran said he worked with his staff and his adviser to determine the best way to decide if The Lanthorn should go back to the original version or stick with the edited version. After discussing the issue with multiple people, including some journalism professors, Moran had the original piece put back on the website.

“From the get-go, I was sure we had to reinstate the piece to its full version,” Moran said. “The support and wisdom around me provided me with the rationale to back up my gut-instinct and the confidence to stick with it.”

The university suspended Berger, pending an investigation into the comments. Berger later resigned, saying he “expressed regret” over the comments he made regarding Hitler.  At each stage, The Lanthorn was at the forefront of the coverage.

“I’m very proud we had the chance to scoop some major outlets,” Moran said. “It was an opportunity for us to show the community, state and country that student journalists can tango with even the professionals.”

Moran said while some outside of the GVSU community have posted negative comments, people on campus have been generally supportive of the paper’s stand.

“In my journalism classes at the very least, a lot of students respected the decision we made to stick to our guns on keeping the comments in the Q&A,” he said. “We’ve even heard from administrators that we made the right call, with the president sending us a letter to assure us.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate to be part of a university that respects freedom of press so openly,” he added. “I know this isn’t the case everywhere.”

Moran said the lesson learned here is to make a decision that can be supported and stick with it.

“As young journalists, we should have an idea of what is the right thing to do, or maybe an organization you work for has those standards,” he said. “In our case (and maybe yours), the ‘student’ portion of ‘student journalist’ may react first, but if you assess the situation as an ethical, professional journalist, there’s time to remedy that. In doing so, be transparent. Your audience may not appreciate if you made a mistake, but many of them will respect you acknowledging it and correcting it if you explain the process.”




Leave a Reply