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ASU Student Radio Journalist Won't Back Down After Jacob Blake Tweet

Rae'Lee Klein defended her tweet on Tuesday during a virtual meeting with The Blaze's board of directors and more than 100 members of the student-run radio.EXPAND
Rae'Lee Klein defended her tweet on Tuesday during a virtual meeting with The Blaze's board of directors and more than 100 members of the student-run radio.
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An Arizona State University journalism student is refusing to bow to pressure to resign from her job at a student-run radio station because of a pointed tweet about Jacob Blake that offended Black Lives Matter supporters.

The decision by Blaze Radio station manager Linda Rae'Lee Klein to stand firm against the Blaze's board of directors and members who want her ousted puts ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, still recovering from a racially charged scandal earlier this summer, in the delicate position of having to choose whether to remove her or not.

Interim Dean Kristin Gilger didn't return a message. Spokesperson Karen Borderleau released a brief response to Phoenix New Times' request for comment on Tuesday: "Cronkite leadership is working with Blaze students to try to resolve the situation."

A lengthy video conference on Tuesday night with Klein, the board of directors, faculty advisers, and more than 100 journalists and workers with Blaze brought out diverse opinions, but no resolution.

The board said that no new programming will occur until Klein is gone. (Music only.) Board member Ethan Jordan said that if ASU decides that Klein can stay on as station manager, the station will have to find a new board of directors.

Blake's shooting in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police on August 23 sent the summer's already-high tensions boiling over again, leading to protests and destruction in the city followed by the deadly shooting of two protesters by a teen armed with a rifle. Police have released little information about the shooting of Blake, who's alive but paralyzed from the waist down.

As online discussion of the case raged, Rae'Lee Klein, station manager for Blaze, noted in a short retweet on Saturday that new facts were coming out about the case: "Always more to the story, folks. Please read this article to get the background of Jacob Blake’s warrant. You’ll be quite disgusted."

The New York Post article she retweeted by Gabrielle Fonrouge states that Blake was a wanted, accused rapist and police responded that day because he'd showed up at the home of his alleged rape victim. It also provided a graphic description of the alleged sexual assault that the woman said occurred in May. According to the victim — a former girlfriend of Blake's who said he routinely beat her up — Blake had sexually assaulted her with his finger and declared that he smelled the presence of another man. 

Klein's opinionated tweet resulted in an explosion of criticism by many of her peers and Black Lives Matter supporters, who felt she was intentionally minimizing the seriousness of the incident as well as the BLM movement itself. The Blaze's six-member board of directors voted unanimously to give her the boot, though they can't enforce the decision. Some have said her tweet made others "unsafe," while others have praised Klein for refusing to back down.

"I'm so disappointed. Social media is something we have to wield with great responsibility," said student Nicholas Sanchez on Tuesday's video call. "Putting out opinions that may seem political, too left or right, are deeply, deeply frowned upon in our business as journalists. We are taught that if you are to do that while working... don't be surprised if you lose your job."

Another video caller, identified only as "Sam," said Klein's choice to stand firm and her patience in the face of the backlash "is really inspiring to me... I don't think you could expect more out of a leader."

'Truth Hurts'

Klein deleted the tweet after the weekend firestorm began and put out a public apology for it. She never meant to offend students, she told New Times, and she's in no way suggesting that Blake deserved to get shot or that police handled his arrest appropriately.

But from her point of view as a journalist and from her own "moral compass," she did nothing wrong.

"The truth hurts," Klein said. "The truth brings up facts that people don't want to hear. We have an obligation to seek truth and report it."

Klein admitted she thought about "cancel culture" and was a bit worried about a backlash when she made her tweet on Saturday. She "realized it may be a truth people needed to hear" and knew the story was controversial, but she never expected the reaction and escalation that followed, she said.

Klein is in her second year as Blaze station manager. She's also a reporter for Cronkite News Service. She's supposed to cover the Olympics in Tokyo next year. How the calls for her dismissal over the tweet will affect her future is uncertain.

"I'm definitely afraid of how it's going to impact all of that," she said. Many people at Cronkite News are supportive of her, but the Cronkite College Council, a student club, wants her to "disappear," she said, adding, "I have no intention of doing that."

The council posted a tweet on August 29 in support of the decision to oust Klein, and claimed she had "posted some bias [sic], factually misleading, discriminatory and racist tweets on social media."

ASU's Multicultural Student Journalists Coalition wrote in a public statement that Klein's tweet "made her peers feel uncomfortable and unsafe," had "racist implications," and violated the school's journalism ethics policies.

"Klein engaged in an article meant to defame and to justify the shooting of Jacob Blake," the coalition claims.

That couldn't be further from the truth, Klein said. Although the 200-year-old New York Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton and owned by Rupert Murdoch in its current conservative-leaning phase, has credibility problems, she said she trusted the article's author when she shared the story. In fact, the primary details of the story's reporting have not been disputed.

The part of her tweet in which she called Blake's actions "disgusting" was misinterpreted, Klein said. "I was highlighting the very grotesque" details of the alleged crime, she said. "It was very much an issue of what happened to the woman."

Social-Media Policies

The details about Blake's rape charge are indeed relevant to the public's understanding of the case. However, Klein's situation raises another timely question about journalism ethics and the use of social media.

In preparing journalism students to work at real-world media outlets, the Cronkite School threatens possible discipline for violating its social-media policy, which includes warnings to not post things that "call into question your ability to act independently as a journalist," and to "refrain from posting information to social networking sites or blogs that could discredit you, the Cronkite School or its professional programs."

Klein could face a reprimand for her tweet, in theory, because it called her journalistic independence into question and brought discredit, albeit of the subjective variety, to her and the school.

Yet Cronkite's social-media policy was blasted by critics last year by former student Aida Chávez, now with the left-wing site The Intercept, after she appeared to criticize Trump's immigration plans in a tweet while working as a Cronkite reporter in Washingon D.C.

Chávez, who ultimately was not disciplined, received support from many journalists who also dinged Cronkite's social-media policy as too rigid.

Last month, a group of Arizona Republic reporters published a mission statement that included a demand to "ensure that journalists are not unfairly disciplined for their social media posts about diversity, race, racism, inclusion, equity, inclusion and other topics."

But such support can often seem to be politically one-sided. Neither the Republic reporters nor Chávez or her supporters have offered any defense of Klein's tweet in the name of journalistic social-media freedom.

Klein said a former faculty adviser told her that being a "white woman from Wyoming who's competed in a pageant diminished my credibility to talk about" the issues. (Klein was formerly a contestant in Miss Teen USA beauty pageants and 2nd Runner-Up Miss Wyoming Teen USA in 2018.)

She's concerned her case to save her job won't get "fair representation" by ASU, she said.

"I don't think I'm going to get a nonpolitical decision on this," Klein said. "I think that's the sad part of this. It's been so taken out of proportion and politicized."

'Perception Is Everything'

ASU leaders are likely fearful of fanning the flames of racial tension at Cronkite even higher than they were before Klein's tweet. As the Multicultural Association pointed out in its letter about Klein, this is the second time in a few months that the association has asked ASU to "be accountable for leaders within our community."

The first time was back in June, when ASU turned away its new dean of the Cronkite School, Sonya Forte Duhé, after allegations emerged that she'd treated Black students poorly at her former job at Loyola University New Orleans.

New Times broke the story on June 4 that Whitney Woods, a former student of Duhé's, had called Duhé the "most racist human that I have ever encountered in a professional setting." Woods gave examples of how Duhé allegedly asked her about her "African roots," told her that her hair was too "messy" for TV, and made other racially charged statements. Officials then learned that Loyola had not been forthcoming during background research and that the school had dealt with several complaints from Black students regarding Duhé. ASU eventually told Duhé not to bother coming to Phoenix.

Instead of Duhé, Associate Dean Kristin Gilger was appointed as interim dean to fill the space left by departing Dean Christopher Callahan, who became president of California's University of the Pacific on July 1.

Still smarting from the debacle, ASU now finds itself forced to take sides on whether Klein deserves her job as Blaze station manager.

Kiarra Spottsville, president of the National Association of Black Journalists at ASU, agreed that Klein's situation comes down to how her tweet has been perceived by some people. Spottsville told New Times that as a reporter herself, she would not omit the rape allegation against Blake if she were writing a story about the shooting, because "it's not a problem to share New York Post details if they're true." She also agreed that the alleged rape details are, in fact, "disgusting."

But Spottsville also said Klein's now-deleted tweet, even if it shared the truth, was left open to interpretation and could be used to justify the disproportionate use of force against black people.

"Perception is everything," she said.

The timing of the tweet was important, she added, because it came "when there's a lot going on with police brutality."

The tweet "proves" Klein has biases, which is a bad trait for a leader, Spottsville said. And, she noted, it follows a previous message on Instagram in which she posted a photo of slain former St. Louis policeman David Dorn with the words, "So tell me how killing one of your own is bringing any justice."

The Blake tweet immediately made Black students who saw it "uncomfortable," Spottsville said, yet all students should be welcomed at Blaze, she said.

"She's already setting a precedent [that] 'If you're black, I might not support you the best way I can because I have these biases,'" she said.

Spottsville also said she's concerned that students of color are more afraid than white students to speak their minds on social media. The Cronkite School is currently reviewing its social-media policy to determine, "Is objectivity really the correct way to go?" she said.

Cronkite would not comment on its policies or potential changes.

(Update: After this article was published, ASU released an additional statement on the matter):

"Over the past few days, the ASU student club Blaze Radio has been grappling with a controversy over the posting of a tweet by its newly appointed station manager. The station manager, Rae’Lee Klein, has not been removed from her position. The student board is working its way toward a resolution. More information will be provided when the situation has been resolved."

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