Frank LoMonte Comments on University President Searches, Pressure on College Newspapers and Ambush Journalism
Frank LoMonte, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Brechner Center for Freedom of Information director, is quoted in “Secret Searches and Faculty Fury” published in Inside Higher Ed on Aug. 23.
The article focuses on university presidential searches conducted in private by outside firms. This process can often be a point of contention for faculty.
According to LoMonte, in states that have legal requirements to reveal finalists before selecting a president, the selection of a sole finalist meets the letter of the law but not the spirit.
“Unfortunately, it seems that the prevailing structure these days is that the law specifies up to three or up to four finalists,” he said. “The growing practice has been to default to one finalist. Even though you would certainly read the intent of legislation like that to suggest that the public should see multiple finalists, that’s not the way trustees and search firms are applying it. They’re gaming those laws to achieve the maximum secrecy.”
He adds that community members should have the opportunity to protest and share their opinions.
LoMonte was also quoted in “Bureaucrats Put the Squeeze on College Newspapers,” published online in the The Atlantic on Aug. 23. The article focuses on the leverage academic institutions have over student journalists and the pressure they are applying to prevent negative coverage.
LoMonte comments on how access to top administrators has tightened as University public-relations offices have expanded.
“The concentration of resources into university PR offices has made the job exponentially harder for campus journalists,” LoMonte says. “The PR people see their job as rationing access to newsmakers on campus, so it is harder and harder to get interviews with newsmakers.”
He also argues that many administrations see their campus newspapers as liabilities rather than assets. “When we turned that corner culturally—when colleges became a brand and they began to embrace this idea that they were a brand—then the bottom fell out in support for independent watchdog journalism,” he says. “The endgame in many institutions is for the independent, student-run media to go out of business.”
LoMonte was also quoted in “What is the Difference Between Assertive Reporting and Ambush Journalism” published in Sizing Up the South on Aug. 20.
According to LoMonte, an ambush is a situational judgement making it hard to set specific rules.
“When a journalist tries to get in contact or interview someone and the individual continues to dodge them, ambush journalism becomes defensible,” he said. “To determine if ambush journalism is ethical or unethical in a given situation depends on how serious the story is. If it’s somebody who’s been plotting an international money laundering operation, it’s much more important that you get the person on camera than if they just used some expired deli meat.”
He adds, “When you’re gathering news inside somebody’s private business, the proprietors of that business set the rules. If they don’t want photojournalism going on inside of their business, they get to remove you just like they can remove you for any reason. The First Amendment doesn’t give you a right to insist on being able to remain on someone’s private property if you’re not wanted there.”
LoMonte tells journalists if they are told to leave, they must leave.
“You don’t get to demand to stay,” LoMonte said. “You should politely excuse yourself and then try to get the information some other way. Ethically, I don’t think you could justify doing an ambush interview of the person who happens to be standing at the front desk of a restaurant. They are not the people who set the policies, and there’s every chance that they are the least senior, experienced people in the entire place. Journalists should be courteous to people.”