When University of Maryland students picked up their campus newspaper Thursday, out fluttered the annual Holiday Shopping Guide. This year's cover featured the face of an actual corpse with hat and beard added, and a banner headline asking, "IS SANTA DEAD?"
Inside the advertising supplement to the Diamondback were articles on how to drink and drive, what to do with a Brooke Shields doll -- cut her hair with a razor blade or nail her head to a door -- and a holiday story, "Death Row Christmas Follies," in which 13 orphans are strangled by a chain gang.
Calls poured in, mostly from aghast College Park merchants who, according to the paper's equally surprised business office, not only found the supplement "macabre, insidious and gross," but were shocked to discover parodies of the very ads they had placed in the issue.
Members of Maryland Media, the private publishing board that produces the Diamondback -- which with its commercial print shop has annual revenues of $800,000 -- and five other student publications, met that night and found there was little they could do.
There would be no firings, no suspensions, and above all, no orders to print a retraction or an apology. For what had taken place, the publishers reluctantly concluded, was yet another unmitigated act of editorial autonomy. All they could do was call their lawyer and hope that the advertisers would be gracious enough to accept a free reprint in another, more conventional, Christmas supplement.
John S. Toll, the university president, said, "We have no editorial control . . . I'm sorry if there are any lapses in taste."
"Appalling. Totally appalling," said Terri Werbowetzki, manager of the newly opened Making Waves hot-tub spa, whose ad was parodied by another for "Making Love, College Park's newest sex emporium."
To understand what might bring a group of perfectly stable college students to turn against both the advertisers that support them and the sales staff that makes their paper possible, is to understand the fierce and independent camaraderie among the Diamondback's student journalists.
Grades plunge and semesters are written off in the quest to produce a high-quality, award-winning paper. Students spend 14-hour days, living on day-old fast food, thanklessly cranking out endless copy on such continuous yawners as the university's budget, faculty grievances and official enrollment reports.
The rewards include a string of clippings, an honorarium and most of all, the satisfaction of putting out a daily 30,000-circulation newspaper that is entirely student run, free of faculty advisers, administrative overseers and university funding.
But the editorial staff has felt put-upon, being expected to write copy for periodic advertising supplements on autos, fashion and stereo equipment. "They're viewed as a joke by the newsroom," said Diamondback editor-in-chief Rick Holter. "It's a release . . . It's fun. That's the bottom line."
In an introduction, "Why we did what we did," editors John Patterson and David Mills explained that "the advertising office would have preferred something that conveys the essence of the Christmas season (like 'BUY STUFF NOW!')
"We, on the other hand, felt compelled by conscience to come up with a title more progressive in its attitude toward Christmas advertising supplements (like 'The Fascist Pig-Dog Commercialist Holiday Ripoff Guide')." So it was titled.
Michael Fribush, Maryland Media's general manager, said the editorial staff wasn't worried about advertising because "this isn't the real world up here. Their jobs don't depend on it."
Still, the publishing board decided there was no way it could tell the staff what to write in future supplements. "It could happen again," Fribush added ruefully.
Next spring, there will be a wedding supplement. Assistant managing editor Linda Allnock has her eyes on it. "Let's just say, it will not be normal."