Here’s a Shocker: Shock Value Doesn’t Work

There’s probably something to be said for shock value, but after watching the aftermath of college newspaper editor David McSwane’s decision to run an editorial that said “Taser This – F*** Bush,”  it’s difficult to know what.

McSwane, editor of Colorado State University’s Rocky Mountain Collegian, got everyone’s attention. But like another recent shocker,’s “General Betray Us” ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus in the New York Times, the attention turned out to be counterproductive.

A student/faculty committee met publicly Wednesday night to question McSwane and get an earful from supporters and detractors before meeting privately Thursday to decide whether to discipline McSwane.

The 20-year-old junior was clearly nervous. He rightly refused to resign under a blatantly political attack by college Republicans and advertisers more interested in the B-word than the F-word in the Collegian editorial.

Still, McSwane was contrite.He had not anticipated the national and international outcry, he told me. He had not anticipated the scope of advertising losses that cost members of the newspaper staff pay and could cost many their jobs.

McSwane’s family story has been told – sometimes incorrectly he said – rather than the story of a student tasered by cops at the University of Florida for refusing to give up the microphone while asking Sen. John Kerry a question. McSwane’s personal agenda has been critiqued because as a high school student he teamed with a TV reporter to produce a hidden-camera expose on a military recruiter cutting legal corners to make his quota.

Free speech was supposed to be the focus of the four-word editorial, just like the waste of lives and money in Iraq was supposed to be the focus of MoveOn’s New York Times ad. Instead, shock value invited what it usually does: confusion and visceral overreaction.

McSwane got big doses of both.

Last year’s Collegian editor told the six-student, three-faculty Board of Student Communications committee that McSwane should be fired for “making a joke” of the Collegian.

A Fort Collins resident challenged students and McSwane to consider their reaction if instead of using George W. Bush and the F-word, the editorial had used Barack Obama and the N-word.

The paper’s current advertising director, Lenay Snyder, wanted McSwane out for costing a potential $50,000 in ad revenue and threatening a 116-year-old publication with “pure extinction.”

It took one young student and one old student to bring things back into perspective.

“Most of us who attend CSU for the academic collegiate experience hand over the tuition not for the facts in the textbooks, but in hopes that we will graduate with an intellect that has been tested, challenged and grown as a result,” Allison Knight said. “Although we may hope that this process spreads itself out over the course of four years, it seems the Collegian gives us a taste of this in the course of four words.”

Barry Arthur Littwin, who said he gave up a career as an investment broker to return to college at Colorado State, took Knight’s youthful exuberance and applied to it the lessons life teaches about the limits of shock value.

“Next week, our college newspaper will still be here,” Littwin said. “Next year, it will still be here.”

As for McSwane, Littwin asked the Board of Student Communications to show “grace and wisdom.”

That didn’t necessarily mean a free pass. It meant that, handled correctly, “our biggest mistakes” can translate into “our biggest gains.”