Truth, Lies, and Accountability in the Stanford Bubble: Reflections from the Fountain Hopper

Truth, Lies, and Accountability in the Stanford Bubble: Reflections from the Fountain Hopper

Campus legend has it that whatever shadowy figure is behind The Fountain Hopper, Stanford’s anonymously published, email-based investigative news publication, is obsessed with secrecy. And perhaps because the name of the publication lends itself to questions like “Who’s the Fountain Hopper?” a surprising number of students seem to believe there is in fact one person behind the operation. As the outgoing editor of the publication in question, popularly known as the FoHo, I find both of these things quite amusing. Like so many of the rumors about the admittedly mysterious FoHo, though, they’re not exactly true.

I took over leadership of the FoHo in fall 2017, after the previous editor resigned unexpectedly due to the time commitment involved. That person, who ran the publication during the 2016-17 school year, had taken over from the original “FoHo,” Ilya Mouzykantskii, who started the email-based incarnation of the publication in the fall of 2014 and ran it until he graduated in 2016. I have done many things differently than my predecessors, but the innovation of which I am most proud involved recruiting a talented group of collaborators (currently at 15 undergraduates and counting) and developing some semblance of an organizational structure where previously there was none. The FoHo today is far from a one-person operation.

Behind the scenes, moreover, my collaborators and I have not been nearly as secretive as you might think. For the past few months, I have regularly identified myself to friends and sources as the editor of the FoHo, and the majority of my collaborators are quite open about their own involvement. Such information travels quickly at Stanford — and if I have continued my predecessors’ policy of publishing anonymously until now, it is because the FoHo’s “official” anonymity is a central part of the mystique surrounding our unusual news outlet, not because I had any need or desire to “protect” my identity. Considering it good practice to take both credit and responsibility for one’s work, in fact, I had always planned to publicly identify myself as editor at the end of the year. To that end, I agreed to participate (and be named) in a magazine feature on the FoHo, to be published in the June 4 edition of Stanford Politics, another student publication.

While the piece that was ultimately published gives an excellent overview of the FoHo’s origins, it unfortunately omitted numerous key details about how the publication works today, and repeated several well-worn “ethical” objections to our practices while largely neglecting to engage with my detailed comments on each of them. Believe it or not, I have no desire to provoke Stanford Politics into an “op-ed war,” as the Stanford Daily recently did when they responded to the magazine’s critique of their publication. As I hand over leadership of the FoHo to younger collaborators, however, I do feel compelled to correct some long-running misconceptions about my unconventional publication and offer a few parting observations on the role it plays at Stanford.

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Almost from its inception, the FoHo has faced criticism for some of its unorthodox practices, including our policy of publishing anonymously, our willingness to grant anonymity to our “tipsters” where traditional publications such as the Stanford Daily might not, and the “accountability” of our publication or lack thereof. These are important issues that I, for one, have never taken lightly: I thought about them long before I became personally involved in the FoHo, and have continued to wrestle productively with them this year as editor, spending enormous amounts of time discussing ethical dilemmas both large and small with everyone from freshman collaborators to tenured professors. Like my staff members, I welcome criticism and disagreement. But to say the FoHo “still struggles to employ basic journalistic ethical norms,” as Stanford Politics editors did in the blurb explaining my recent #6 ranking on their annual list of top campus “politicos,” is both condescending and misleading. Like Ilya, I have professional journalism experience and have learned from top-notch international journalists; I am perfectly familiar with basic journalistic ethical norms, including the guidelines which Stanford Politics cites in their article, and my staff and I are not “struggling” to follow them. If we do not consistently follow all of the guidelines in question, this is entirely by design, not by accident.

While future FoHo editors may choose to do away with the FoHo’s editorial anonymity, the anonymity of our “tipsters” is less negotiable than some might think. In most cases, we cannot identify our sources more clearly than we do without exposing them to potentially serious repercussions from the university or from peers. Our general willingness to grant anonymity, however, does not mean we don’t consider sources’ motivations carefully, as good reporters at any publication should, and it certainly does not mean we blindly publish anything our sources tell us. Guidelines aside, one of the chief rules of journalism is that you do everything within your power to report only true information, and I have followed this rule religiously. If the FoHo ever reported scandalous things based on a few dubious tips or settled for subpar reporting in the interest of scooping the Daily, that was before my time. Whatever else the current incarnation of the FoHo is, it is a solid journalistic operation. Every FoHo story this year has been meticulously researched, written, and edited.

As conscientious reporters, moreover, my staff and I take great care to distinguish between facts and things which are not facts, such as claims and allegations. Numerous presumably unintentional distortions of our reporting, however, indicate that even some of our most journalistically savvy student readers are either unwilling or unable to do the same. While it is standard practice among reporters to refer to one another’s work as reporting (as in “The Times reported…”), the Daily and others have on several occasions labeled our reporting as accusations or allegations — both terms which imply something other than reporting. Other distortions go beyond terminology. In one recent instance, Stanford Politics labeled my November story on the senior class presidents' now-infamous U-Haul crash a "bloop" on the grounds that the Daily's follow-up report, which mentioned an Office of Community Standards review of the perpetrators, directly contradicted a "central claim of the FoHo's scoop" — apparently, the part where we "claimed" the class presidents were not disciplined. In reality, we claimed nothing of the sort. Three separate sources had alleged to me that no one was punished as a result of the incident, and if their information was incorrect, the Student Activities and Leadership deans or the students who crashed the U-Haul should have said so when I asked them for comment before publishing my story (which I stand by). They didn’t — and so I wrote that “as far as we can tell” the perpetrators were not disciplined, which is completely accurate.

While some may consider inconsequential the difference between facts and allegations, or that between claims and insinuations, an obsessive attention to such details is the very lifeblood of responsible journalism — and as any good journalist knows, reckless disregard for the truth is the stuff of libel suits. The all-important distinction between truth and falsehood, however, is separate from the distinction between opinions and reporting, and the related issue of editorial “slant.” As described in the Stanford Politics article, I have deliberately made the FoHo’s voice less opinionated this year than it was under my predecessors’ leadership, but future staffers may choose to do things differently. And while there is no conscious political agenda behind the FoHo, liberal or otherwise, I think that to entirely eliminate slant from the FoHo or any other publication is an unrealistic and probably unattainable goal. In any case, such matters are always open to debate, and I see no reason to engage with them here. More important, in my view, is the reason opinions and slant in the FoHo have struck some people as such an issue in the first place.

If the FoHo occupies a unique position in the Stanford media ecosystem, it is because we consistently reach a segment of the undergraduate student body which other publications do not: the significant number of students who would not read any campus news at all were it not for the tabloid-esque newsletter which appears in their inboxes every week or two, filled with jokes, flashy red headlines, and yellow highlighting. You might argue that it is inadvisable to get all of one’s news from just one source, and I wouldn’t disagree — but news readership among Stanford students is what it is. I have always been overwhelmingly aware that the FoHo has what some consider an outsize influence on what Stanford undergraduates believe is true. But if the FoHo comes with outsize power, it also comes with an outsize responsibility, and one which I am convinced it is essential for someone to assume. Although the FoHo may publish shocking ~ exclusives ~ when warranted, the less glamorous side of our mission is simply to educate people in and about Stanford University, and ideally to make them care. We’re uniquely positioned to do that, and I would argue that our publication has done as much for the cause as any journalistic outlet in recent history. Moreover, we routinely direct readers to articles published in the Daily, the Stanford Review, and other publications, via scores of links conveniently embedded in each regular edition of the FoHo. In principle, what is there to object to?

At different times in the FoHo’s four years of existence, various groups and individuals have objected — sometimes publicly, and usually in quite rational terms — to our publication’s content and our reporting methods. The only institution to have acted consistently and irrationally threatened by the FoHo’s very existence, however, is the central Stanford administration. I find this quite telling.

While outgoing vice president for University Communications Lisa Lapin might complain that the FoHo lacks “accountability,” a nebulous charge dutifully reiterated in Stanford Politics’ recent article, the real issue is that Lapin and other Stanford administrators are as unaccountable as they come — and because of the FoHo’s reach, distribution mechanism, and reputation both on and off campus, our publication is uniquely able to challenge the official narratives which they disseminate. My own distrust of the Stanford administration began just last fall, when Lapin emailed me in a clear attempt to kill an important, well-reported story on the travesty of administrative justice that was Sigma Nu’s Organizational Conduct Board investigation. (Among other things, her email said that “We believe you have incomplete documentation regarding the subjects you are planning to report, so you would be publishing false information” — a statement which contains a blatant non sequitur.) But it has been bolstered by numerous incidents since then, as well as the overall picture I have gleaned of Stanford’s sprawling administrative bureaucracy, which copious evidence indicates is positively riddled with systemic flaws, sorely lacking in internal checks and balances and the safeguards necessary to prevent inappropriate sharing of information between different administrative “branches,” and by and large accountable only to itself. However conscientious and well-intentioned some individuals within the bureaucracy might be, there are very few things which seem to trigger any kind of institutional distress in an entity as vast and unaccountable as the Stanford administration, and the unfortunate fact is that moral appeals are not among them,. Some of the things which do speak to Stanford are donors, lawsuits, and bad press — and preferably some combination of the three. That’s where the FoHo comes in.

The Fountain Hopper is indeed unaccountable — to the phenomenally murky Stanford administration. And we’re proud of it. The notion that our publication is unaccountable in any other way is incoherent; readers can contact us anytime using the email address and phone number listed in every FoHo issue, or publicly contest our reports in the Daily or another forum. Moreover, we are perfectly willing to publish corrections should the need arise. If I have not printed any major corrections this year, it is because none have been necessary — and if they had been, that would mean I had not done my job correctly. Just as the New York Times is not obligated to print a correction or publicly defend its reporting every time Donald Trump calls it “fake news,” it’s not my job to print a correction when someone publicly contests something reported in a FoHo story or to convince readers that the FoHo is always right. It’s my job to do the reporting and let readers judge for themselves.

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However much I have learned about Stanford and its people this year, I still wonder: how is it that the “official” side of Stanford differs so dramatically from the Stanford I know and love, the one where 21-year-olds regularly stay up until three in the morning discussing ideas in dorm rooms, where conversation flows freely and matters deeply? Why is it so hard for this institution to treat students as people, rather than as a liability? And why is it so hard for individuals in power, both at Stanford and elsewhere, to tell the truth? I don’t have answers. But as long as these questions exist, as long as Stanford University fails to live up to its own ideals, and as long as the behavior of some people within this university (whether students or not) continues to fall short of that expected of responsible citizens, I think there will be a place for an institution like The Fountain Hopper. Despite what you might think from my publication’s sometimes cynical tone, I’m not a pessimist, and neither are most of my collaborators. Like so many people inside and outside the bubble, we genuinely want Stanford and its people to be better. And like so many journalists in the “real world,” we believe a thriving independent press is crucial to the twin causes of institutional transparency and independent thought.

I’m not perfect, of course, and neither is the FoHo. You can disagree with some of the calls I’ve made as editor of the publication, and in fact, I myself have doubts about some of the difficult decisions I have made this year. There are paragraphs I wish I hadn’t written, phrases that now strike me as unnecessarily harsh, and people whom I wonder if I treated fairly, either in person or in print.

But at the end of my Stanford career and my time with the FoHo, I can see that what matters most is the fact that I faced the ethical dilemmas associated with running such a publication at all. It would have been easy to say no when I was unexpectedly asked to take over the FoHo last fall, and practically speaking, it would have been advisable. I could have let the publication die a quiet death (as it would have done, had I said no), continued my quiet existence as an unobtrusive literature major, and avoided the considerable stress, anxiety, and risks associated with running Stanford’s most obtrusive publication for all of my senior year. But as a recent convert from apathy to engagement, I am convinced that would have been morally unjustifiable. I’m very glad I said yes to the FoHo — and I would advise anyone facing a comparable dilemma to do the same.

I graduated last weekend, and it’s with a kind of bittersweet relief that I’m passing on the leadership of The Fountain Hopper to people I believe are eminently qualified to lead it. What direction they will choose to take it in, I don’t know. But I sincerely hope you’ll continue to read the FoHo, discuss it with friends and co-workers, and criticize it when necessary. After all, it takes a village to build a culture.

As always, we’re so glad you’re with us.

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