September 30, 2005

Backspace: Jay Branegan '72

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Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Pulitzer Prize winner Jay Branegan ’72 was a Chicago Tribune reporter and TIME magazine correspondent for nearly 30 years. He covered the White House during the latter part of the Clinton administration and the State Department at the beginning of the Bush administration. Branegan is now working as a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. – MK The hoopla over The Cornell Daily Sun’s 125th anniversary has, quite rightly, highlighted the newspaper’s autonomy from the University. When those first editors cheekily announced that (thanks to advertisers like Theodore Zinck) The Sun’s “financial success is already assured,” it was a declaration of both fiscal and editorial independence. Freed from worrying about things like “What if the administration gets mad at us?”, Sun journalists have wondered instead, “How can we make the administration mad at us?”

By my day the investigative juices were flowing freely. We disclosed, for instance, that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a celebrity Harvard professor, was being courted for the prestigious Senior Chair in government. President Dale Corson later publicly – and unfairly – blamed The Sun for derailing Moynihan’s appointment.

We also, much to Day Hall’s dismay, reported on sharp internal disagreements at the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP), still coping with the aftermath of the Straight takeover.

For my part, senior year I got a tip from an anonymous source (who, now it can be semi-revealed, was an assistant dean of students): the campus cops were secretly compiling a photo dossier of students who attended legal, peaceful rallies and demonstrations on campus, and were requiring counselors and others on the dean of students staff to identify them.

Vietnam was still a hot issue, and campus protesters were targeting recruiters from big corporations supposedly supporting the war. Following a recent illegal disruption of Honeywell and Chase Manhattan Bank recruiting, authorities expected big trouble at a Statler speech later that week by Strom Thurmond (who was old even then). Rather than risk injuring police or students by making arrests in the midst of unruly crowds, the cops would use their file to identify the culprits later and refer them to the Judicial Administrator.

At least, that was Cornell’s story. The Sun’s story was that this was a scandal. After I’d confirmed the tip, we splashed my piece all over Page One on a Friday morning: “Campus Police File Photos of Protesters,” with photographs of University police photographing demonstrators.

Campus anger swelled over the civil liberties violations and the coerced betrayal of trust by dean of students personnel as The Sun pounded away at the story in editorials and cartoons as well as the news pages. Monday’s front page quoted a student leader calling Cornell “practically a police state,” and Tuesday’s lead, headlined “Univ. Senate May View Photograph File Policy,” reported that lawsuits were being readied.

Although some officials gamely defended the photo dossier, the administration was buckling: the dean of students said he would no longer cooperate until the policy was clarified. By the next day, the University caved completely. “Photo Policy Changed” we said in story and pictures that took up much of the front page. (In other news, Nixon had just returned from China.) A University lawyer admitted to a Straight audience that compiling the photo file was “kind of like tapping a public telephone.”

The climax came abruptly and dramatically: less than a week after we broke the story, the University burned all the now-infamous photo files, dating back to 1969, in a ceremony before two student witnesses.

It was all great crusading fun, and while the incident today rates just a footnote in the chronicles of Cornell’s tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, The Sun did something worthwhile in helping rein in an overzealous administration.

More to the point, that long-ago decision to forego any financial or official links to the University meant that through unpopular wars, campus upheavals and sex columns, The Sun has never faced reprisals for its revelations from the administration – or from easily outraged Albany legislators.

So next time we all have drinks at Theodore Zinck’s or successor establishments, let’s remember that the phrase now gracing the masthead, “Independent Since 1880” is not just a slogan, but a birthright.

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