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News Monday, December 29, 2003

Slant hoax ends in apologies

by Meredith Berger
March 14, 2003

Vanderbilt's chancellor and its student newspaper have spent the week recoiling after a practical joke that some said went too far.

A false edition of The Vanderbilt Hustler, whose headline proclaimed Chancellor E. Gordon Gee dead, sparked mass chaos on campus Tuesday morning, including early dismissal from classes, tears, and moments of silence.

But Gee made it clear in a press release issued around noon Tuesday that he was very much alive, saying the perpetrators of the hoax had a good sense of humor.

That's about when staff members of The Slant, a humor magazine run by students, began to take responsibility for the prank.

"It was a bad idea, and we got wrapped up in it," said sophomore Slant editor-in-chief David Barzelay. "We had no intentions of making anyone upset or disrupting the university."

Barzelay said the entire publication staff was not involved in the prank, which was a 12-page replica of The Vanderbilt Hustler with the front-page headline, "Gee Dead." Slant staff members said they distributed the phony on Vanderbilt Hustler racks Tuesday morning.

Senior Mike Mott, The Slant's former editor-in-chief, said only the magazine's senior staff members were involved. He said the idea had been in the works for a year.

Now, Barzelay and junior Brad Ploeger, The Slant's managing editor, along with staff members of the campus humor publication, are facing stringent investigations and the possibility of a firm-handed reprimand from parent company Vanderbilt Student Communications, the corporation that owns The Hustler, The Slant, and other media outlets at Vanderbilt.

Barzelay was quick to offer The Slant's apologies, but Ploeger said he had nothing to say.

"I have the right to remain silent, and I am exercising my right of silence," he said.

At an emergency board meeting Wednesday, VSC board members listened as Vanderbilt Hustler Editor-in-Chief Alex Burkett provided information on the bogus paper's impact on The Hustler, and senior Student Government Association President Samar Ali registered a formal grievance against the publication on behalf of the student body.

"Some people thought it was funny, and some were hurt by it; I went and represented both sides," Ali said in an interview Thursday. "Many are concerned with the issue at hand."

The board elected to suspend both print and Web publication of The Slant, pending further discussion, scheduled for today at a regular VSC board meeting.

"Board members wanted to ensure that their response was a measured response, not an emotional one," said Chris Carroll, VSC's director of student media.

One of the quickest responses came from the man of the hour, Gee himself, who called the paper a simple college prank by which he was not offended.

But some of Gee's Kirkland co-workers were not so quick to dispel the prank.

"It was a distasteful thing to do," said Francille Bergquist, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science.

And that leaves some calling for stringent action by VSC, which can take two avenues in response to the prank, according to the corporation's newly-revised bylaws.

The first involves complaints brought specifically against the division head. Pending investigation, the Board has the authority to reprimand, remove from office or reduce the stipend of a division head.

The second option, a newly-created section of the bylaws, deals with censuring a publication as a whole.

The board will vote on an action at today's meeting prior to VSC division head elections, which includes the election of The Slant editor-in-chief.

Ploeger, whom Barzelay called "our very talented layout guy" in conjunction with the prank, is slated to oppose Hustler Opinion Editor Steve Nelson in that election.

Mott, in reflecting on the marked similarities between the imitation paper and the real one, directed the credit toward Ploeger, as well.

"That was Ploeger," Mott said. "He's so meticulous about it; he wanted to get everything just right."

One aspect of the prank that the VSC board is examining is that of the role of VSC funding in the production of the prank.

Barzelay and his co-pranksters maintain that Tuesday's prank didn't use VSC funds.

According to Mott, the entire endeavor cost the group approximately $350, which paid for approximately 3,000 copies. A majority of the funding came from a $250 full-page ad for the campus band Jimmy B and the Fortune 500.

"I've been a long-time supporter of The Slant," said senior Bradley Metrock, the band's leader who lives with three Slant staffers. "I knew everyone would be reading this and that it would be a hot commodity."

Additional funding came from an ad placed by hamburger vendor Cheeseburger Charlie's, which entered into an agreement with The Slant to place an ad in every edition of the publication, Mott said.

Senior staff members said that they would finance the balance of the cost of Tuesday's fake by collecting donations from staffers and supporters of the publication.

But pundits said Slant staff members' claims that they used their own money for the prank might not cut it.

"We need to look at the ethics of using ad money for a separate purpose than the board knows about," said first-year graduate student Chad Wilcox, a VSC board member who will vote on the board's action today.

Also, the perpetrators printed the publication at the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal on a credit established by VSC, which, to date, has not been paid in full, Carroll said.

"I signed off on the credit that they have at the Daily News Journal," he said. "They sat in the office and used their computers, which both come from VSC. If it were truly independent, then it would have been off campus, not using VSC property."

But the hoax paper was not actually labeled as a product of the campus humor publication. And that's an issue board members said they will examine closely today.

"A primary issue is that the publication did not have 'Slant' anywhere on it," Wilcox said.

That made the deception convincing for some students, although students said the bogus paper appeared truly authentic because it was distributed on The Hustler's racks.

Barzelay said staff members knew early on they might violate VSC rules by using the newspaper's racks.

"But Chris (Carroll) said that what belongs to one VSC division belongs to all VSC divisions," he said.

Carroll said he is surprised at the group's reasoning, saying he thought that it was understood that everything belongs to VSC in the end.

"How property of VSC is used is up to the board of directors," Carroll said. "It's bizarre reasoning. They have their own racks."

As VSC board members debate and decide the fate of the publication and its leaders this afternoon, University officials are keeping a healthy distance.

Administrators said all week they're keen to stay well clear of official involvement in the resolution of the prank, relegating it instead to the VSC board.

University censorship of a student publication, they said, isn't much of an option.

Ruth Nagareda, director of the University's Office of Student Conduct, said she will wait and see what conclusions the VSC board reaches today.

"I would like to see what their findings are," she said. "I'll pay attention to what they find as things come to light to see if there is a violation of university policy."

Meanwhile, Slant staff members said that, in retrospect, they could have achieved the same effect without the intense scrutiny.

Barzelay said the other idea the group had originally considered a headline announcing a change of the University's name to Ingram University.

"In hindsight, that would have been much funnier," he said.


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Slant hoax ends in apologies
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