The Fed

The History of Columbia’s Oldest Student Paper

Fed Looks Back on a Millennium of Distinguished Publication

Laurie Marhoefer

The Fed had a long history before it began publishing at Columbia.  It crawled from the ooze in approximately (its hard to date these things exactly) 9,000 BC and spent the next 3,000 perfecting its badminton technique.  Around 700 BC it experienced a period of substantial decline, due in part to drinking water contaminated by toxins from lead pipes.  The turn of the last millennium found the Fed in an era of incastellimento, with mini strong holds springing up in place of towns.  The Fed was the second document to roll off the Gutenberg press (in fact, it is still published on the Gutenberg press) and it fought with the nationalists in Spain in 1936.  In 1943 it moved to the Morningside Heights campus and founded Barnard College.  It has been with us, living largely in a converted bathtub made specifically for its use, except for a brief period in 1998 when all the members of the Ed Board were either in a state of stupor or in airplanes crossing international waters, ever since.

“PLEXAMOK”! the Fed proclaimed in a banner headline on the front of its third issue.  The word refers to a race riot, (or it may have just been a ‘private brawl’), that took place outside of the ‘Plex discotheque in FBH (that’s Ferris Booth Hall, the old student center: keep the memory burning!  The Lodge lives!).  This was in the golden days, when cynicism was not yet required to write for the paper, and “fascist!” was a badge of courage around the Fed office.  The headline, although hopefully not the altercation it referred to, heralded the Fed’s journey into the new millennium like an approaching army’s trumpet core: Here comes disco gone horribly wrong!

Neil M. T. Gorsuch, Andrew L. Levy, and P. T. Waters, who were, according to a former Fed editor from the early 90s, a libertarian, a conservative, and a socialist (although no one knows which was which), founded the then-monikered Federalist Paper in 1986. The paper’s original mission was to be ‘classically liberal’; that is, to be content neutral, to print any intelligent and well-written opinion, regardless of its political slant.  The earliest issues of the paper feature primitive, dull-looking layout and loaded content about everything from the USSR (remember that?) in Accuracy in Academia.  Whichever one he was, it appears that the socialist founder was the layout editor or something (the layout does remind on e of Mao uniforms a little).  Early articles are, for the most part, rabidly conservative.  Samples:

An interview in the third issue with penitent staple of the New Left David Horowitz in which Horowitz said “The better future we promised was just a fantasy.”  Quoted from the National Review in the same issue:

“Q: How many disarmament folks does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: They won’t, because ‘It is the responsibility of the Federal Government to provide light to all Americans, without regard to race, age, creed, color sex (anatomic), sex (persuasion), religion, socio-economic status, national origin, or need.’”

And an article by Andrew L. Levy in the fourth issue that begins: “Freshmen often arrive at – wait; I’d better change that before I’m lynched by radical feminists and other left-wing bizarros.”

Levy goes on in the same article to give the definition of feminist as
“1. someone who believes that women are naturally better than men.
2. Someone who believes that women deserve special favors and preferential treatment.”  Guess he wasn’t the socialist.

The fourth issue even contains a favorable review of John Jay food.  Boy, times have changed at the Fed.

The shadow of the Madison Center, which is a conservative foundation, looms in the early issues.  Until the mid-90s, the Fed received annual grants from the Madison Center’s Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  The ISI was established to found and support conservative college newspapers.  Sister papers that also received ISI grants include the so-conservative-it-makes-your-eyes-water Cornell Review, which is regularly burned in big bonfires by Cornell students.

Several former Fed editors attested that they helped the paper pose as conservative in order to get ISI money and other perks.  More than one not-quite-conservative Fed editor had the gall to take advantage of the free hotel stay, food, and hapless corruptible republican boys at the ISI’s annual convention.

Even when the Fed was just pretending to be conservative, the ISI, which does not put itself above controlling the content of the newspapers it gives grants to, was assaulting the Fed’s journalistic integrity.  In a 1992 letter preserved in the Fed archives, the ISI thanks the Fed in advance for reviewing the enclosed copy of neo-Horatio Alger and founder of Walmart Sam Walton’s biography.  The letter reminds Feditors that, as part of the ISI ‘book of the month club’ they will receive a book each month that “should then be reviewed in your publication.” Undoubtedly, Fed editors regularly dealt with similar requests from the source of the “unconditional” grant money.

Until the mid-90s, the Fed had more than a passing resemblance to a conservative paper, despite its originally inclusive mission.  Columbia campus logistics probably contributed to the Fed’s conservative outlook.  In the early 90s, the worthy Spectator was solidly progressive, and real lefties had the socialist Modern Times (since defunct), so the voiceless people who gravitated to the Fed were by default conservative.

And yet, during its long incarnation as Columbia’s conservative paper, a yearning came through the boilerplate rhetoric of the right in the Fed’s pages.  Between the lines there is an urge back to the original mission, away from life as a mouthpiece of the Republican Party.  In 1992 a new Board of Editors (rather dramatically) reaffirmed the paper’s commitment to be a forum, identifying “The dangerous trend of labeling: of the left branding those with conservative views as fundamentalist, racist, and reactionary.”  In this piece, and elsewhere, the Fed railed against what the 1987 Ed Board called ‘granola snobbery’: the tendency of American “liberals” to shout first and asks questions later.  It’s true that conservatives, and anyone else who deviates from the purest leftism, have a tough time speaking at Columbia.  Whether this policy is good or bad, it certainly isn’t very classically liberal, it doesn’t make for much useful debate, and the Fed knew so in its little Millsian heart.  Even in the midst of its decade-long orgy of conservatism, which is still recalled fondly by conservatives on this campus, the Fed retained its original clue: diversity.

Around 1993, the Fed Editorial Board began to consciously move away from unadultered conservatism and toward its founding mandate: pluralism.  But many remember 1996 as the year the Fed really changed, because in that year Fed layout underwent a drastic overhaul (formerly the paper looked about as interesting as the directions on a soup can).  The 1996 Fed staff, led by Marc Doussard, reshaped the paper into something like Columbia’s version of The New York Press.  The Fed still ran cranky conservative articles.  But it did so in a forum seeped in criticism and cooler-than-thou.  It inaugurated ‘They Watch’, lampooned Enhancement and Enlargement, and added a booming culture section cols Polis.  The John Jay bashing began, and even got to the point where the Fed proclaimed that John Jay bashing was yesterday’s news.  Standards changed.  Former Editor Becky Smeyne recalled, “I started writing about sex.”  The Fed had begun to larch into the 21st Century.

The Fed was beginning to mature into the paper its founders intended, or claimed to intend.  But the paper’s new life almost came to a tragic end.  Recruitment was at an ebb.  Gradually, the staff shrank as more and more people graduated.  At this time, the paper was set up to be produced by a relatively small number of people, each of whom made a huge time commitment.  Smeyne described Fed life where “we’d go in on Friday afternoon with some of the writing done, and not leave until the middle of the night, sometimes not ‘til 8 the next morning, and pretty much the whole paper would get done during that time.”  This system worked like a charm with five to ten staffers, including an associate editor making periodic beer runs – hence the mammoth bottle collection that could be seen from space and survived to present day.  But as the staff dwindled, burnout ensued.

In the second half of 1997, only two editors were left of the entire Fed staff.  Both editors at that time were in the process of pursuing careers in design, and neither could devote the huge amounts of time necessary to fix the paper’s major wounds.  That semester, the Fed published on issue. It reflected the Ed Board’s interest.  Each editor wrote a 3,000 word article about their field of choice.  One was on architecture; the other was a review of designer underwear that observed of a $500 pair, “that’s one important snatch.”  The front cover featured a picture of the Editor in Chief putting her makeup on.  That’s how two people produce a 12-page newspaper.

After the ‘fashion issue’ things looked bleak for the Fed.  Speculation that the paper would fold ran rampant.  Compounding its staff problems, the Fed’s computer were in meltdown, and it was broke.   For a semester the beer bottles gathered dust in a dark Fed office.

Then, the paper’s fortune began to turn around.  A new crop of editors took over.  None of the new bosses had the least bit of newspaper experience, and it shows in their first issue, which came out in February 1998 (all the text was 12 point).  But as the paper continued to publish, interest in it grew again.

I got involved with the Fed at this time, and I stayed during its year-long rise back to brilliance.  I saw many things help save the Fed.  A recruitment meeting where the editor broke up her forty minute-long account of the Fed’s history by taking off her shirt to reveal a skin-tight corset (and a lovely set of tits, if I may say so) produced audible gasps and a number of eager recruits.  A very generous gift from a Columbia alum enabled the paper to fix its computer. (Unfortunately, this benefactor’s identity is still a mystery to the Fed due to loss of records during the staffing crisis. If anyone knows who the aforementioned donor is, please let the current staff know.  We are grateful pretty much every day.)  An understanding printer allowed the Fed to publish despite a substantial debt.  But, along with all these things, it was the dedication of the new Fed staff that saved the paper.  None of these people had worked on the paper before, but they were each seduced by The Fed’s weird spirit and unique mission, which survived through its 15 years.

In the fall of 1999 the Fed enjoyed a very talented class of recruits, who breathed new life into the paper and began to make it their own.  Together with the now-seasoned Editorial Board, these kids put the paper firmly back on its course as Columbia’s truly alternative bi-monthly paper.  The Fed rededicated itself as a forum for opinions, and a home for unique and quality writing and art.  To cement its rebirth, the paper changed its name officially from the conservative-tinged ‘Federalist Paper’ to ‘The Fed’.

For the Fed, 1999 was a returned to foundations.  It took up the mission its founders gave it, and put to its service a new critical, and self-critical tone.  Over 15 years, the Fed played out a bunch of radically different interpretations of the same purpose. Disco always comes back in style, and the Fed always returns to the same idea.  Sure, it’s Plexamok, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Fed looks forward to another 1,000 years of journalistic excellence, or, in the event of millennial world-meltdown, a bank error in its favor.  Happy New Year everyone!

December 1, 1999