PITTSBURGH — Being funny without being offensive is tough to do, which is why three college newspapers that published April Fools’ Day editions — those at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Scranton and the University of Nebraska at Omaha — are in trouble.
Carnegie Mellon’s paper, The Tartan, voluntarily shut down for the rest of the semester after publishing a racially charged cartoon in its 12-page spoof edition. The cartoonist lost his job, and the editor in chief — who blamed fatigue for clouding editors’ judgment — is taking a leave of absence from the Pittsburgh university until fall.
University of Scranton officials in Pennsylvania closed The Aquinas for parodying Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, college administrators and Georgetown University, a fellow Jesuit institution.
The Gateway, the Nebraska paper, apologized for its four-page edition titled The Ghettoway. One story, with the headline “Gateway cameras stolen during weekend,” was written by Ono Udidn. Another fake byline: Mindjo Bidness. The news editor, who is black, told The Gateway for a story Tuesday that she thought the content was representative of pop culture in general.
The NAACP, the Urban League and many community members filed complaints with Nebraska’s chancellor. Nancy Belck told The Gateway: “I find it (The Ghettoway) offensive and we will not tolerate it on this campus.”
About 75 readers protested Carnegie-Mellon’s The Natrat — Tartan backward — which included a depiction of female genitalia and poems about rape and mutilation. The school is forming a committee to investigate.
“The horrible cartoon … is a repudiation of our core values and it must not be tolerated,” university President Jared L. Cohon wrote in a letter to the newspaper of the drawing, which shows a goat using a slur in describing how he hit a black person on a bicycle.
Besides apologizing, The Gateway is planning sensitivity training for its staff members and a forum on student relations. The Tartan has decided to hire an ethics manager to review future issues.
Many of the student publications that find themselves in hot water over spoof editions don’t have a professional adviser on staff, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
The law center discourages April Fool’s editions, which Goodman said have been known to lead to lawsuits. Still, he said, the organization defends the rights of student editors to decide what to print.
“The suits are seldom successful, but the problem is, they can really cause a lot of headaches” in terms of cost and effort to fight, he said.
April Fools’ issues are much less common than they were in the 1970s and ’80s, Goodman said.
“I think what most newspaper staff have come to realize is, humor and satire are completely appropriate … in the right place” such as a regular humor or satire column or separate publication, he said.
“The conflict, I think, for newspapers is when every other issue of the year they’re covering straight news … it creates problems.”
Also, Goodman said, not everyone is good at being funny: “Anyone who’s ever written satire knows it’s not really easy.”
People also have different senses of humor, said Aly Colon of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“When you engage in humor or satire, the challenge that a newspaper … faces is one of interpretation. The general idea is that people who are doing an April Fool’s joke expect that people on whom it’s played will understand the prankster’s position,” Colon said. “That’s where a disconnect can take place.”