A Once-Bright Star Dims
The flagship of American conservative campus publications stands on the foundation of twenty years of attention-grabbing antics. The Dartmouth Review's early attacks on affirmative action, homosexuality and women's groups, promoted as expressions of free speech and as reactions to liberal conformity, conferred immediate national recognition on the paper. That notoriety, as well as the combative style behind it, continues today, though the paper's impact is much reduced.
The Review is part of a network of conservative publications that began in 1979, when the Institute for Educational Affairs gave a $5,000 grant to the fledgling intellectual magazine Counterpoint. By 1984 the IEA had created the Collegiate Network to aid roughly thirty conservative campus publications by providing financial and publishing advice. Alumni of conservative campus journalism who have moved on to jobs in think tanks and the media serve as role models and mentors. Says former CN executive director Stanley Ridgley, "My organization provides institutional knowledge," adding dryly that the network is part of "the vast right-wing conspiracy." Crucial support for the network came from former Reagan White House staffer Morton Blackwell, whose Leadership Institute enlisted past Review editors to train campus conservatives who wanted to start their own papers.
Founded in 1980, The Dartmouth Review was the galvanizing force for the movement, and its success inspired many new publications modeled on its provocative style. The Review was accused of being antigay after referring constantly to "sodomites" and printing a transcript of a covertly taped meeting of the gay students' group. It also incurred accusations of racism after its staffers took sledgehammers to antiapartheid shanties, and of anti-Semitism when a staff member inserted a quote by Hitler into its credo in one issue. Still, national figures like Ronald Reagan, National Review founder William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan have defended or supported the Review.
The Review has not been alone in its rhetoric. In 1993 the University of Wisconsin Times, funded by the Bradley Foundation, ran a mock advertisement of a bloody coat hanger as a way to get an abortion. In 1997 the conservative Cornell Review (founded by right-wing pundit Ann Coulter) described a course on racism in American society as "Da white man be evil an he tryin' to keep da brotherman down. We's got Sharpton and Farrakhan so who da...man now, white boy," in a mockery of ebonics speech.
Decisions to disassociate the network from a paper are rare. Ridgley says his predecessor organization kicked at least one paper out of the network in the early 1990s for being virulently antigay. But Ridgley stresses that he does not prescreen anything and that charges of censorship and editorial influence are baseless. "I've been accused of being some kind of puppetmaster, somehow pulling strings and giving directions from headquarters," he says. "I do nothing of the sort. The downside is I don't have any control."
Former Dartmouth Review editor Dinesh D'Souza says the current Review's "impact on campus is debatable." The paper hasn't received much controversial publicity in the past decade, and it also has not been doing well financially. According to 2001 tax returns, the Review had $187,290 in revenue but ran a deficit of $76,180. Its website apologized for being down for a few days this past summer, saying it lacked funds and needed donations. The paper's fundraising director, meanwhile, was earning a salary of $84,000 (he's since been removed).
While the Review is faltering, the number of papers in the Collegiate Network has increased--from thirty-eight papers in 1995 to about eighty today (the Leadership Institute has provided seed money for new publications). That suggests that conservative campus papers are doing well, but their success is not secure. "The quality is uneven," D'Souza says. "There are some good ones and some bad ones." With few exceptions, the papers do not garner the attention they got in the 1980s, and perhaps for that reason, some may be seeking to return to the shock journalism that made them famous. Laura Dellatorre, summer co-editor of the liberal Dartmouth Free Press, says that in the past two years the Review has reverted to old habits, personally attacking campus activists and revealing the name of a woman who had anonymously complained of harassment by fraternity brothers, while racist comments on the paper's affiliated website ridiculed black hairstylists being brought to campus, saying that next would be "number-runners" and "crack dealers."
While controversy may increase donations and push conservative papers back into the spotlight, there are limits to what the conservative network will tolerate. When Bradley Smith, director of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, succeeded in 1998 in placing Holocaust revisionist ads and opinion pieces in more than two dozen campus newspapers as part of an ongoing campaign, CN's Ridgley took swift action. "Every [CN] newspaper was told if you do run the ad, we kick you out," Ridgley says, adding that there is a difference between "censoring speech and subsidizing speech." It's good to know the line is drawn somewhere.