As President Pollack put it, “Free expression is the bedrock of democracy…” I should remind the administration that there is no free expression without a free and informed press. At Cornell, student journalists face every obstacle in pursuit of the truth — namely from the Media Relations Office.
Last February, I reached out to Vice President Ryan Lombardi to request a live interview about Cornell’s mediocre mental health services. (The University invested in multimillion dollar suicide nets beneath campus bridges but doesn’t have a single psychiatrist on campus.) Dr. Lombardi seemed interested and copied Rebecca Valli, the Director of Media Relations, who in turn asked for a prewritten list of interview questions. Any journalist knows that handing over questions prior to an interview goes against best practice. But refuse Media Relations’ every whim and say goodbye to the possibility of getting any answers. So I played their game — something I will never do again.
I relented, sending seven straightforward, punchy questions. Dr. Lombardi ignored my request for a one-on-one discussion and responded with an email that dodged half of my questions and answered the rest incompletely. It was clear to me that his letter was either manufactured by a lawyer or a P.R. henchman, though Ms. Valli denied that allegation when I last spoke to her. By the time Media Relations gets involved, talking to a brick wall is a better use of a student journalist’s time.
A few weeks later, I was on to my next story, an exposé on how Cornell Housing price gouges dorm room key replacements. I try to represent both sides fairly, so I called Brandi Smith-Berger, who helps oversee lost key claims, for comment. She was helpful and gave some useful quotes. She said she wanted to get down to the facts as much as I did. So we scheduled an in-person appointment for later that week. She promised to give me a tour of the office where maintenance requests are processed and answer all of my questions. I trudged through the snow and showed up to Robert Purcell Community Center early and eager. ‘Finally, some transparency and accountability around here,’ I thought.
After a while, out came Ms. Smith-Berger, surprised to see me. She explained that she wanted to help me, but when the Media Relations Office found out about our meeting, they immediately canceled it. “They told me not to answer any more of your questions,” she said. They also told her they would reach out to tell me they had kiboshed our meeting. They never did. So I showed up under the impression that nothing had changed. The conclusion is the Media Relations Office lacks both honesty and professional courtesy.
The next morning, Ms. Valli sent me an email complaining of my “feistiness.” That could be Media Relations doublespeak for journalistic due diligence. She left her number after the closing salutation. I called it. ‘Maybe she’ll understand my frustration,’ I hoped. The sense I got from her after a lengthy talk was that she’s just trying to do her job, and student journalists keep getting in the way. At one point in the conversation, Ms. Valli accused me of regularly asking uninformed questions. “I shouldn’t have to lecture all of you!” she exclaimed, referring to Cornell’s many student journalists.
Well, Media Relations, I shouldn’t have to lecture you either. If Cornell wants to advertise itself as a cheerleader for First Amendment rights, let’s not forget about one of them: freedom of the press. Going forward, I want full transparency: no more breaking up interviews, no more lawyerly non-answers, and no more sidestepping real issues that students have a right to know about. Maybe Media Relations has forgotten this year’s campuswide theme is freedom of expression.
Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. His column Almost Fit to Print spans issues in science, social justice and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].
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