I tried my best to give my university, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and its head of University Marketing and Communications, Peggy Breister, every possible benefit of the doubt when it came to FIRE’s allegations that UMC was suppressing student journalism. The exact charges in FIRE’s article included the requirement that student journalists MUST contact UMC for ALL interviews with university personnel.
Breister lied to me. And here’s the proof.
She told students at the Advance-Titan, the university’s independent student newspaper, they MUST request interviews through UMC:
She short-stopped interview requests student journalists made to UWO personnel without talking to her first and demanded that all requests for interviews be routed through UMC.
In this instance, she also required that the questions be submitted in advance, something else she said never happened:
She leaned on the staff to make changes to published copy. In addition, as recently as this fall, she reiterated that the A-T MUST go through UMC for any interviews, stating it is a “required procedure” for reporters who wanted to interview UWO personnel:
These are just the emails I was provided through former A-T staffers who had graduated. I imagine there are more with similar messaging that I could find with a full open-records request.
In light of these revelations, today’s post is going to look at what has happened, what needs to happen next and how you can help fix this situation:
I reached out to a couple former staffers at the Advance-Titan for their recollections of working through UMC over the past two or three years, which is when I’m told this non-policy policy started to take shape.
Jack Tierney was the editor in chief for the A-T in the 2018-19 school year and said he had generally positive interactions with UMC during the earlier part of his tenure, noting “I always thought that working with Peggy was easy.” During the later part of his time at the A-T, he said UMC officials established a policy in which interview requests needed to go through them.
“That became a problem toward the end of my time with the paper,” Tierney said in an email interview. “Instead of having streamlined communication between officials and the paper, the messaging would be filtered through UMC. This would add time, hours or sometimes days between requesting for comment and getting an interview done, which is a problem when working on deadlines.”
By the fall semester of 2019, several A-T staff members noted they sensed a change in how UMC was interacting with the paper.
“There definitely was a shift in UMC’s approach to dealing with the A-T in Fall 2019, and it escalated early in Fall 2020,” former managing editor Joe Schulz said in an email. “My first year on staff, I don’t remember talking about how UMC would feel about a story or feeling that UMC had much of an impact on our work. By Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, it became clear that UMC really didn’t want us printing anything negative about the university.”
Carter Uslabar, the editor-in-chief from Jan. 2020 to May 2021, said UMC had clearly established criteria that required A-T staffers to use UMC as a portal to university sources.
“There definitely was a policy that we were supposed to go through UMC to get interviews,” he said in an email. “Peggy repeatedly demanded that we go through UMC to set them up. In one email from Peggy on Sept. 15, 2020, she said she told Joe Schulz that ‘A-T staff must work through UMC regarding any requests for interviews with staff.’ She also said we should contact her if we ‘don’t understand this,’ which I thought was kind of comically rude, like a Newspeak way of calling someone an idiot.”
Schulz said he remembered “swearing like a sailor in the newsroom” when the staff received Breister’s email that mandated all interview requests for UWO personnel go through UMC.
“It’s understandable to have a marketing person sit in on an interview with the chancellor, but making all interviews with staff go through UMC is ridiculous,” he said. “Direct communication with sources is key to building good relationships with sources and establishing a sense of mutual trust. Being able to directly communicate with staff enabled me to build relationships with professors that I otherwise wouldn’t have built. Having a rapport with sources is crucial to reporting.”
The ability to build rapport was also important to Uslabar, who said he thought going through UMC made the whole process of reaching sources feel “very impersonal.”
“The general feeling was that it was bogus, and that if we had to do that, it would make it exceedingly and unnecessarily difficult for us to do anything meaningful,” he said. “I think people mostly ignored it at first. I was particularly frustrated because this really hurt our ability to build rapport with sources in the university. A lot of these relationships were built by students dropping by during office hours or sending cold emails to staff, and now that was going to be mediated.”
Former managing editor Amber Brockman said the transition to this new policy also included frequent chastising from Breister.
“Before all this, we could just reach out straight to our sources and email them,” Brockman said in a phone interview. “We had no problem and we’d get an email back. Easy as pie. Then this thing started happening where Peggy started emailing us back instead and saying we had to work through her. In one case, the professor I emailed must have emailed (Breister), and Peggy scolded me for not going through her.”
Other former staffers, who asked not to be named, also noted emails getting intercepted or sources getting cold feet in talking to the paper after UMC rebuked them for talking to the A-T. One former reporter said she was working on a story in 2020 about custodial staff and what precautions existed for them as they sanitized the campus during the pandemic when UMC stepped in.
“I had four interviews with custodial staff already set up when they all turned around and told me they weren’t allowed to give interviews,” the former staffer wrote in an email. “Breister then emailed me saying reaching out to those staff was against policy and I was only allowed to talk to their supervisor. I had to vet my questions with Breister to get a response and I only ended up getting a brief statement from the supervisor saying UWO was doing its best to keep its custodial staff safe. This completely impeded my ability to be a quality journalist and essentially shut down the story. It was stuff like this that continually kept A-T staff out of key COVID-19 responses the university was taking.”
Uslabar also said not only was the policy that all interviews must go through UMC problematic for getting the news covered, but the department’s overreaching approach to what the A-T covered made him leery.
“It was disappointing that we were being told to go through UMC for interviews,” he said. “It made things slower for students and staff, and made it more difficult to work on a deadline. Additionally, it was concerning because the paper has always had trouble receiving adequate funding, and I was worried that if we ran coverage critical of the university or its administrators, our paper would receive even less funding in the future.”
Although all of the sources interviewed here said that neither Breister nor UMC issued any direct threats to funding, Schulz said the paper felt the department was looming large in staff discussions in an uncomfortable way.
“We received several somewhat demeaning emails regarding our coverage, and UMC became a regular topic of discussion at our meetings,” he said. “It was always a fear that UMC would cross a line that would make it impossible to do our jobs. It didn’t reach that point during my time at the A-T, but we did have those fears.”
Tierney said UMC’s actions did lead to at least one story being censored. After Breister reached out to him to complain of what she called a series of inaccuracies, he and journalism Chairwoman Sara Hansen scoured a story, looking to see how what Tierney wrote was different from what Breister was telling them.
(In a separate discussion, Hansen confirmed working with Tierney as he explained. She also said she found the paper had quoted Breister accurately, but Breister continued to argue that the paper had incorrectly stated the facts.)
“After working together for nearly an hour to get the story to a place where Dr. Hansen and I felt was accurate, the A-T re-published the story,” Tierney said. “UMC reached out to the A-T after re-publishing and said they found more errors than what was originally published. The story was about a funding change to the college of letters and science with opposition to the change from the faculty union. After continued messaging from Breister about the noted inaccuracies of the story, we decided to pull the story entirely. I followed the story for the remainder of the year without publishing anything about it.”
The student journalists at the Advance-Titan continue to operate under a system in which all interviews of UWO personnel must go through UMC. Uslabar said he felt UMC was more concerned with the university’s image than treating student journalists with dignity and respect.
“The way UMC interacted with student journalists was shameful,” he said. “The pedantic, all-bold email I received from Peggy was the most unprofessional communication I have ever seen, and it was clear that the university and UMC were more concerned with controlling its appearance than providing real learning opportunities for students.”
Tierney said he understands that the goal of UMC is to present a positive image of the university, but the press still has rights.
“I think this situation shows a university using its leverage to maintain its image,” he said. “I have respect for the university and the people who lead the university, but I think it is clear the university is hyper-concerned about the message that gets put out into the public and does not like to have any negative communications surrounding its image. I think this issue reflects larger on the university than it does on Peggy or UMC.”
The fact the policy has gotten to this point has upset former staffers, who didn’t like the intrusive nature of the process and the way in which this has all kind of flown under the radar to this point.
“I think student reporters at the A-T should be able to talk directly to their sources without being filtered through UMC,” Brockman said. “I can see where UMC is needed for busy people like the chancellor and other people who need more schedule-conflict help, but they shouldn’t be the middleman with all the communication.”
In the wake of the FIRE article, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Editor-In-Chief Cory Sparks connected to discuss the situation. Leavitt, Sparks, Breister, adviser Barb Benish and several other folks plan to meet on Thursday on this topic.
“I’m glad this is getting some attention and hopefully something will be able to happen,” Brockman said.
As an alumnus, Schulz said he plans to keep an eye on the situation, hopeful that this issue gets resolved in a way that protects the autonomy of the paper.
“I sincerely hope the policy is changed to give student journalists and UWO employees the freedom to speak to each other without marketing interference,” he said. “I can’t imagine having all interviews go through UMC. In covering any community, whether a campus community, a big city or a small town, more often than not most news stories will be a positive reflection of that community. However, local reporters — at any level — should not fear that negative stories will hamper their ability to do their jobs moving forward.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The whole group meets on Thursday, where I’m sure some of these issues will likely be discussed. This situation isn’t as bleak as it might seem and there is something you can do to help:
This is Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. He’s the head of UWO and a really all-around decent guy.
He prizes student press freedom and he was exceptionally helpful to me when I was advising the paper. At that time, a group of little… um… student government people tried to get me fired. It would have been much simpler for him if he just did it, but he told me, “That’s not how we do business here.”
He told me on multiple occasions he appreciates the importance of the paper to the campus and I believe that he honestly believes that.
His email is: email@example.com
Please feel free to email him and explain to him why the approach UMC is taking here is problematic to you. Also, feel free to explain what you think the “best practices” should be for the relationship between UMC and student and/or all media.
This is Peggy Breister. She is the head of UMC at UWO and the person who wrote the emails I screen-shotted above.
Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please feel free to email her your thoughts about her approach to UMC, student media and other similar topics. Also, if you are displeased by her actions regarding the Advance-Titan, please feel free to respectfully explain how you think things should be handled in the future.
This is Cory Sparks. He is the current editor of the Advance-Titan and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my students.
I’ve done my best to keep him out of the danger zone on any stupid thing I write on the blog and not ask him to comment on any of this, lest there be questions about entangling alliances.
That said, he and the A-T crew have been dealing with a lot of garbage these days because of this situation, so please feel free to email the kids at: email@example.com
Please let them know you’re supportive of their rights and that you are behind them. I can speak from experience in this one case: When you’re in student media, you are isolated in a lot of ways, since there is usually only one paper or one TV station or one radio station on a campus. You can feel alone or that no one cares about what you’re dealing with.
Please disabuse them of that notion with a note of support.