The "Chucky" Caper
Jason Zengerle '96
I was at Swarthmore for a good two-and-a-half years before a professor threatened to file criminal charges against me. Along with my friend and classmate Ben Seigel, I edited a campus magazine called Spike, which the two of us created when we were sophomores. Taking its cue from venerable professional titles like Spy and Might-OK, blatantly ripping off venerable professional titles like Spy and Might-Spike was our attempt to blend good writing, thorough reporting, and snarky humor into a coherent and entertaining whole. Whether we succeeded at that, it's difficult to say. One thing we undoubtedly did accomplish, however, was ticking people off. Our article on how much donors paid to get their names on campus buildings angered the Development Office; our first-person account of the sordid goings-on among Swarthmore students studying in Ireland annoyed the people who ran the Study Abroad Program; our "undercover" investigation of Strath Haven High School won us no friends in the greater Delaware County community. But it wasn't until one of our writers decided to catalog how "insecure" the Swarthmore campus was-by walking through unlocked doors and climbing through unlocked windows to gain after-hours entry to a bunch of places like the Admissions Office and labs filled with expensive equipment-that we came close to feeling the long arm of the law.
The problem was that one of the places our writer visited was the office of a professor who, perhaps not surprisingly, didn't appreciate the fact that Spike had told the entire campus that he did not lock his office door. And, as this professor informed Ben and me in a letter that we found in our campus mailboxes upon our return to school from winter break, he hoped to bring criminal trespassing charges against the two of us and anyone else who had been involved in the story. Of course, the professor didn't know who those others-namely, the story's writer-might be, because we had published the story, at the writer's request, under the pen name of "Chucky Des Moines." When "Chucky" originally approached Spike, he/she had already done all of his/her research, and Ben and I had merely told him/her to write up the results. That, Ben and I reasoned, protected us from any criminal trespassing charges; after all, we didn't do the actual trespassing, nor did we commission it. But the professor's letter made it quite clear that he would pursue any fruitful avenue in his determination to make sure someone paid for this transgression, which meant that there remained the not-so-small matter of what Swarthmore might do to us at the professor's behest. Would the College pull Spike's funding? Would it ask Ben and me to relinquish control of the magazine? Would it ask us to take a semester off? All these possibilities occurred to us, before something else occurred to us as well: If we revealed "Chucky's" identity, would the professor focus his ire on "Chucky"-whoever he/she may be-and leave us alone?
Thus, Ben and I faced our first bona fide journalistic dilemma. It wasn't exactly the stuff of Woodward and Bernstein-"Chucky" was no Deep Throat; the professor hadn't threatened to put any of our appendages through a wringer-but it was a dilemma nonetheless. Although I take no pride in the fact that I, at least, did briefly flirt with the idea of selling out "Chucky" to save our hides, I'm relieved that I can look back and say that we ultimately decided that revealing the writer's real name was out of the question. Still, that didn't mean we didn't think the College might try to force us into making such a revelation, and as we headed into our meeting with the dean on whose desk this little matter had landed, we promised each other that, no matter what the dean threatened us with, we would take "Chucky's" identity with us to the grave.
Those melodramatic promises, it turned out, were completely unnecessary. First, the dean did not try to force Ben and me to reveal "Chucky's" identity. What's more, he told us that we were welcome to continue our studies at Swarthmore, that we could stay on as editors of the magazine we had founded, and that the College would even continue to pay for Spike's publication. But with Swarthmore's sword of Damocles sheathed, the dean didn't completely let us off the hook. What, he wanted to know, had we hoped to accomplish by running such a story? We told him that we had intended to point out how easily Swarthmore's community of trust could be exploited, much in the way a television news reporter sneaks into the local nuclear power plant to blow the whistle on how insecure the facility is. But why, the dean asked, hadn't we just approached the College before we published the article to see if it had any good answers to our concerns and then, if we weren't satisfied with the answers, run the story? It was a good question and one that forced us to admit that, although we did have some high-minded reasons for running it, we also had some not-so-high-minded ones as well: Just as the television-news reporter inevitably runs his nuclear-power plant story during ratings-sweeps weeks, we thought the campus-security article was a good read.
Now, was that good read ultimately worth letting the whole campus know how easy it was to get into some places people probably shouldn't be able to get into? That was an open question, but it wasn't one that we had honestly wrestled with until the dean made us do so. I don't think we ever did answer it that day, but, after promising that we would keep the question in mind when we decided on future articles, we left the Dean's Office and went on to edit Spike for another year-and-a-half without serious incident. (Yes, without serious incident; by the time Spike decided to comb through faculty members' garbage cans and report on the contents, Ben and I had already graduated.)
The point of this shaggy dog story? That, whatever other meanings Swarthmore may have, the most important one to me is that it is the kind of place where young people are given the room to make mistakes and then to learn from them. I'm not saying that Swarthmore was so permissive that all mistakes were tolerated. They weren't. But, more often than not, in instances where there were gray areas, or where there was no malicious intent, the College admirably refrained from lowering the boom. The thinking seemed to be: Punishment didn't necessarily facilitate learning.
And I did learn. In my career so far as a professional journalist, I've been involved in a handful of situations that have raised questions similar to the ones I encountered in the Chucky Des Moines affair, and I like to think that I handled those questions more forthrightly, and answered them more intelligently, because of what I experienced at Swarthmore. But, more important, I can think of other lessons-lessons less suitable for publication in this book because they are either more personal or less entertaining than those learned as the editor of a campus magazine-that have helped me in my development, not as a journalist but as a person. I left Swarthmore a different person from who I was when I arrived there. And, today, I think that I am a different person from who I was when I left Swarthmore seven years ago because, I believe, I am still processing some of the lessons I learned there.
Jason Zengerle, an associate editor at The New Republic, also writes for other publications.