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Campus ink tanks

Conservatives make their voices heard with a rising tide of hard-hitting student newspapers.

May 07, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Wingate, N.C. — More than a dozen earnest college students gathered in the marshy meadowland of rural North Carolina recently to plot the overthrow of campus liberalism.

Their weapon of choice? The newspaper.

"People complain about the media," said Joshua Mercer, the pink-cheeked director of the seminar held at the Jesse Helms Center in the heart of chicken-growing country. "Our philosophy is, 'Be the media.' "

In an eight-hour session that bore little resemblance to a traditional journalism class, the students were taught how to start their own conservative newspapers and opinion journals. And how to pick fights with lefty bogeymen on the faculty and in student government.

By the end of the day, the student journalists were fired up for battle -- determined not only to change the tenor of notoriously liberal campus dialogues, but also, in the long run, to alter the basic makeup of the nation's professional news outlets.

"What do you want professors to feel when you call them up?" asked Owen Rounds, a former speechwriter for Rudolph Giuliani.

"Threatened," replied Duncan Wilson, a tousle-haired 19-year-old from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the war on Iraq, seminars such as this one are brimming with recruits to the battle for the hearts and minds of America's college students. There are now more than 80 right-leaning newspapers and magazines circulating on campuses from Stanford to Yale. That's the most ever, and 50% more than just two years ago.

"This year alone we've had 35 inquiries for starting new papers," said Brian Auchterlonie, executive director of the Collegiate Network, which trains conservative journalists. "That's double what we usually have."

The reason, the students say, is a mad-as-hell feeling among campus conservatives that they are the only ones in academia who seemed to notice that the world changed after the Sept. 11 attacks on America. They say they have watched aghast as left-leaning professors and student leaders blamed America for the attacks. So now they're starting their own guerrilla publications, often styled as unbridled opinion journals, to drum up support on campus for President Bush and the Iraq war.

"Conservative students have felt shut out on campus," explained Vince Vasquez, 22, college field director for the Leadership Institute, which sponsored the North Carolina seminar. "9/11 motivated them to say, 'If this is the case, we'll start our own newspapers.' "

Though most of these boot-strap affairs cannot compete in the finer points of writing and editing with better-funded campus dailies, they make up for these deficiencies with passion and combativeness. They gleefully ridicule student government antiwar measures and lampoon baby boomer professors and their teach-ins.

"How many sides are your professors teaching?" asked UC Santa Barbara's incendiary Gaucho Free Press, one of six new conservative publications on University of California campuses. "Hint: One."

The Free Press, whose front page features the slogan "We Do Not Apologize," is among the newest members of the fraternity, having begun this year. But its bite-the-ankles approach is typical of the breed. The Free Press prints embarrassing e-mails from faculty members and taunts the administration with surveys showing that most professors are Democrats.

"A lot of my professors don't try to hide the fact they are outright Marxists," said Nicholas Romero, 20, the feisty editor of the Free Press.

Romero, whose father is a doctor, became a convert to the conservative cause when the school asked him if he wanted to live in one of the "minority-interest" floors that concentrate minority students in parts of some residence halls. He said he was appalled at what he viewed as an implication that, as a Latino, he didn't "have the social skills" to interact with other ethnic or racial groups.

Romero and co-editor Gretchen Pfaff, 21, had no interest in writing for the main campus newspaper, the Daily Nexus, which they say too often glamorizes drug use and promiscuity. "It's offensive," Pfaff said.

The confrontational tactics encouraged in the seminars have inspired opposition on campus, ranging from vandalism to death threats. Seth Norman, managing editor of the California Patriot, said the magazine's Berkeley office was broken into and copies stolen. Distributors have been spit on.

When the UC Irvine Review called it "sheer lunacy" to create a Filipino studies department during a budget crisis, Filipino activists threatened advertisers with a boycott, said Editor Nathan Masters. Two companies stopped advertising.

Some conservative editors confess to being nervous about the opposition, but most are defiant. Staffers at the Patriot helped publicize the in-your-face flag-waving march by Republicans in Berkeley late last month. At UC Irvine, Masters said: "Our opponents' bully tactics will not silence the Irvine Review."

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