OPINION: Stories of the century

Photo Illustration by Isaac Ritchey.

As the student paper, Central Michigan Life serves several purposes.

First and foremost, it acts as the voice of students on campus. But it also has another goal: to train the next generation of media professionals and to train them damn well.

With tens of thousands of stories that have been published over 100 years, there are bound to be a few missteps and missed opportunities. But for every mistake, there are bound to be five more shining examples of journalism that have affected change on this campus and in this community.

There are simply too many noteworthy stories to highlight them all. One thing makes itself abundantly clear to anyone who looks through our coverage from years and decades past; CM Life has always held itself to the same high standard of professionalism that it does today.

The stories become part of something bigger than themselves as you read them. Themes and patterns emerge throughout each and every edition. 

Drawing attention to social injustices on campus. Advocating for racial and gender equality. Increasing awareness of the issue of sexual assault on campus. Holding those in power accountable. Providing a voice for the voiceless.

The list goes on. 

I can't highlight every impactful story that we've ever done. There's simply too many. But I can provide a handful of those shining moments that exemplify the values that CM Life has always championed.

Editorial independence

In March 1959, CM Life took its first steps towards becoming the publication it is today. Before then, it was officially an appendage of the university – meaning that students didn't have the final say in what did and didn't go to print. After the policy was changed, it meant that CM Life could finally be what it was always meant to be: a voice for the students, by the students. 

When the policy change was being discussed, CM Life published an editorial by Jim Donahue in the March 13, 1959 edition that urged administrators to support the policy change and allow the paper to have complete editorial independence. Donahue outlined what might have happened to CM Life if the policy change didn't take place:

"There is a possibility that we won't always have such an open-minded administration in the future, and when and if such an event occurs, LIFE will degenerate to a state of mediocrity. It will then merely be a training device for journalism students.

Our plea is simple. Give us the freedom to practice journalistic principles in our paper. Our instructors and advisers are giving us adequate training in the classroom, but this is useless unless we can apply theory to practice."

University Plaza shopping center fire kills three

On April 7, 1963, a fire broke out at the University Plaza shopping center north of campus, near where the former SBX and Malt Shop buildings are located on Bellows Street today. As firefighters battled the blaze, a crowd gathered to watch. Shortly after, a collapsing wall killed three of the bystanders and injured others. Among them was CM Life photographer Cheerie Anderson, who was the first and last CM Lifer to die in the line of duty. 

The coverage of the University Plaza fire on Bellows Street marked one of the first times CM Life would have to cover a tragedy of this scale that occurred on campus. Two pages were dedicated to the fire in the edition that printed the following day, with much of the coverage being dedicated to obituaries of those who died.

Gene Ragland racial discrimination investigation

In 1965, CM Life teamed up with then Student Body Vice President and President of the Student Senate Gene Ragland for one of the biggest investigative journalism projects since the inception of the paper. 

Then CM Life Managing Editor Tom Needles came up with the idea for the story, which involved sending two students, one white and one black, to 15 university-approved off-campus housing units to apply for rent. Needles approached Ragland to be the white student, and CMU football player Cecil Rice to be the black student in the experiment. 

Ragland was accepted at all 15 housing units, while Rice was only accepted at five.

When the story published in CM Life, it sparked demonstrations and conversations about racial discrimination all over campus. That same year, university administration passed non-discrimination policies for approved off-campus housing. Ragland received the David H. Morgan Leadership Award and was later elected to president of the student body.

The experiment marked one of the first of many times that an investigation by CM Life would motivate change for the better in the CMU community. It was also one of the first times that CM Life collaborated with another student organization to report on a campus issue.

Ragland went on to obtain a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan, served as a physician to the U.S. Navy Medical Corp. during the Vietnam War and lived out a career as a medical doctor. He visited campus on Oct. 24 to talk about his experience with activism on campus.

"Central Michigan Life at that time was extremely important because it was one of the only few vehicles in which students could be informed of what was really going on," Ragland said. "And it was especially a beacon for me."

DeMarcus Graham murder

In the early morning hours of June 25, 2004, 26-year-old DeMarcus Graham was leaving the Shaboom Pub Club, now Encore, The Nightclub at 106 Court St., when he got into a fight.

No one knows exactly what happened or why. What is known is that several other men beat Graham so savagely that he would die from his injuries weeks later.

Chad Livengood, at the time a CM Life news editor and current Crain's Detroit Business senior editor, started covering the story in the fall semester of 2004.

"This was an off-campus crime that occurred in the summertime when no one was really paying attention. Almost immediately players on the football team were suspected of being involved in the beating death of this man," Livengood said. "There was basically a brawl at closing time outside of Shaboom's Pub Club. Graham went to the ground and got his head kicked against the concrete curb."

Seven members of the CMU football team faced second-degree murder charges. The police investigation and legal process that followed took nearly three years to complete due to a lack of cooperation among the suspects and witnesses in the case. 

Because of the uncooperative witnesses in the case, a grand jury was appointed, Livengood said. Several were jailed for lying to the grand jury during the investigation. Eventually, witnesses started to flip and the case came to a close.

Throughout the entire investigation, CM Life was there with the latest developments in the case. They helped Mount Pleasant make sense of tragedy and reported on what steps were being taken to ensure justice was served. 

In an editorial published in the Dec. 5, 2007 edition of CM Life titled "It's finally over," the editorial board gave their final thoughts on the closing of a dark chapter of CMU history after the conclusion of the final trial in the case:

"CMU's environment of keeping to oneself, of not coming forward, of letting questionable or immoral acts continue no longer is tolerable. DeMarcus Graham taught us that. Students, administrators, faculty, parents, community members – we all have a responsibility to stand up and say, 'Justice will not be absent at CMU.'"

Livengood said that covering Graham's death was a huge learning experience as a journalist.

"It really helped me learn the ropes of covering a beat and writing about an issue in new and fresh ways, keeping up with the facts, sorting out different facts, and being able to explain it authoritatively to readers," he said. "I had never covered something like this for a sustained period of time aside from university politics and governance issues."

James Eric Davis, Jr. shooting

March 2, 2018, fell on the Friday before spring break. Students were wrapping up their last classes for the week, packing their belongings and filing out of dorms to travel home. Around 9 a.m. that morning, James Eric Davis Jr. shot and killed his parents Diva Davis and James Eric Davis Sr. in his dorm room on the fourth floor of Campbell Hall. 

As soon as Central Michigan University Police sent out an alert notifying everyone on campus what had happened, a state of chaos erupted. Students remained locked in their classrooms and dorms for several hours as a massive police manhunt engulfed the entire Mount Pleasant community. 

Despite this, CM Life was on the scene in minutes. I know this because from my bedroom window in Campbell Hall I could see my colleague and CM Life editor Mitchell Kukulka on the other side of a police barricade with a reporter's pad and a camera.

Jordyn Hermani, at the time CM Life's editor-in-chief who now covers state agencies, state house races and the state attorney general for Gongwer News Service, said covering events as they unfolded that day taught her more about accountability as a journalist than ever before.

"It's always the job of a reporter to be as accurate as we can, but we're human, so it's natural we make the occasional mistake. On that day though, we couldn't afford to do that," Hermani said. "We had real people counting on us to update them on, what we thought at the time, was an active shooter. If we made an error, there was a chance someone could have ended up hurt."

Amidst the chaos of an active shooter lockdown, CM Life banded together to provide the most extensive, most accurate and most timely reporting on the events that transpired that day – and we were competing with the likes of The New York Times and CNN. The work that those student journalists put forth that day is enough to make all CM Lifers past, present and future proud of what this publication is capable of.

Hermani commended the newsroom for coming together to get the work done, and to get it done right.

"This was a team effort," she said. "Yes, I was editor-in-chief at the time, but this work couldn't be done alone and every single person who had their hands on telling these stories deserves to be commended. I just had the luck of being at the helm and the fortune of having a great, hardworking staff."

Hermani said she couldn't pick one thing when it comes to what she is most proud of that day. But she could list a few. She mentioned the dedication, professionalism and determination of all the reporters that day.

"Most important, maybe, I'm proud of the way we did it with the nuance of real reporters because that's what college journalists are – real reporters."

Advocacy for victims of sexual assault

Rachel Wilson shared her story with CM Life reporter Emilly Davis, and it published on Oct. 11, 2018. 

"Covering Rachel Wilson's story taught me how important it is for reporters to be persistent, especially when it comes to writing a really thorough, in-depth piece," Davis said. "I also learned so much about covering sensitive topics and how to interview people about the worst experience of their lives while being empathetic and making sure they're not uncomfortable."

In the story, Wilson described the night that she was sexually assaulted while drugged and how her case against former Student Government Association President Ian Elliott was dismissed by an interim prosecutor after being bound over to Circuit Court. 

On Oct. 31, 2018, then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed for reinstatement of the charges against Elliott. 

The request to reinstate the charges was denied on Dec. 18, 2018 because the only way charges could be reinstated was if there was a clinical error, fraud or a mistake in the original case. 

Two days later, the Michigan Attorney General's Office filed new charges against Elliott on Dec. 20, 2018. Wilson, CMU alumna Landrea Blackmore and two other women shared experiences involving Elliott where sexual assault, drugging and violence occurred.

Elliott pleaded no contest to one count of criminal sexual conduct of the third degree and was sentenced to one year in prison on Aug. 2, 2019. Wilson and Blackmore met with the media outside the courthouse following the sentencing.

"Today is a huge victory," Wilson said. "After today, the sentences (Blackmore) and I served will be over and Ian Elliott's will begin."

Davis said working with Wilson to publish her story is what made her want to spend her life in journalism.

"The impact the story had is the best part about it for me," she said. "It confirmed for me that I can make positive change while doing what I love to do.

"Once (Ian) finally received his sentence, it felt like I could believe in justice and believe that I actually have the power to make a difference in helping others get justice."