Harvard Crimson editors explain to outraged students why the paper asks for comments from attacked people or groups

October 24, 2019 • 11:00 am

Because of the curfew in Valparaiso, I can’t go outside after 6 pm, and even during the day the town is dead, with most of the businesses shuttered (perhaps in fear of rioters or because business is slow). In short, I have some time in the evening to post. This will vanish when I board the ship.

And so to the matter at hand.

According to this “note to readers” in the Harvard Crimson, penned by the paper’s managing editor and its president (click on screenshot), Harvard’s students have their knickers in a twist. Why? Because the paper asked the targets of a recent student protest to comment for the story. It was simply the paper’s asking for a response that got the students upset. Read and weep:

Excerpts are indented:

Last month, The Crimson covered a rally organized by campus group Act on a Dream that called for the abolition of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During the course of our reporting, Crimson reporters requested comment from ICE — a decision that has proved controversial with many of our readers. We stand behind that decision, and we wanted to share with you our thinking.

And the second link, to an earlier Crimson article, says this about the “controversial” nature of the Crimson’s request for ICE to comment:

More than 650 people have signed onto an online petition condemning The Harvard Crimson’s coverage of a protest demanding the abolition of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The petition — started by student-led immigration advocacy group Act on a Dream earlier this month — criticizes The Crimson for requesting comment from an ICE spokesperson for its Sept. 13 article, “Harvard Affiliates Rally for Abolish ICE Movement.” The article covers a Sept. 12 protest hosted by Act on a Dream and quotes several students’ criticisms of ICE, including calls for its dissolution. The article notes that ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off, regardless of how they are contacted,” the petition reads. “The Crimson, as a student-run publication, has a responsibility to prioritize the safety of the student body they are reporting on — they must reexamine and interrogate policies that place students under threat.”

Virtually every claim in the petition is wrong.

Fu and Guillaume’s explanation/apologia patiently explains the need for contacting ICE and also tells the offended students that nobody was endangered or outed, and nobody was “tipped off”:

. . . we seek to follow a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small.

Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them. That’s why our reporters always make every effort to contact the individuals and institutions we write about — administrators, students, alumni, campus organizations, and yes, government agencies — before any story goes to press. We believe that this is the best way to ensure the integrity, fairness, and accuracy of our reporting.

. . . After the protest had concluded, but before the story was published, The Crimson contacted an ICE spokesperson to ask if they wished to provide a statement in response to the protest.

Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occuring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

The Crimson behaved absolutely properly here; it acted as an observer rather than an advocate and then reached out to ICE to see what they had to say. As I would have expected, they said nothing.

The students, of course, have every right to have a protest, and they have the right to publicly criticize the newspaper for asking the target of the protest to comment, misguided as that criticism is. But, as Bernie Sanders says, let’s be clear about this. The student pushback to the paper bespeaks a complete ignorance of how responsible journalists work. It’s even more distressing because this is Harvard, for crying out loud.  Haven’t the students ever opened a newspaper to see how reporting works?

What we see here is that students no longer expect journalists to be journalists; they expect them to be advocates, and advocates for the students’ political agenda. This is not unique to Harvard, for more and more I see journalism in mainstream papers like the New York Times creeping closer to the boundary between reporting and advocacy.

This is a dangerous line to cross. By all means papers should proffer editorial opinions about matters of the day, but there must be an impenetrable wall between opinion and straight reporting. Once that wall is breached, the very function of journalism in a democracy is seriously endangered.

I left a comment below the Crimson article, but I’ll omit that from the ones I show below (there are several more; the piece above was the most-read article in yesterday’s Crimson). The last reader’s comment is by way of explaining why the students seem so obtuse, and I added it for balance and for those who, unlike your curmudgeonly host, are more forgiving of student misbehavior.


23 thoughts on “Harvard Crimson editors explain to outraged students why the paper asks for comments from attacked people or groups

  1. … they [The Crimson] must reexamine and interrogate policies that place students under threat.”

    “Interrogate,” really? Are “enhanced interrogation techniques” allowed? Waterboarding? Maybe the “policies” should complain to The Hague.

    What does “interrogate” add that’s not already connoted by “reexamine”? This is language the self-important use when they’ve nothing to say.

    1. In the context, I think the word is meant to convey the meaning “reexamine”. i.e. they must reexamine and reexamine the policies, but with the added nuance of hostility to the said policies.

    2. “Interrogate” has become of the favorite and most over-used words in academic writing, so I’m not surprised to see it reappear here. The word is better suited to reruns of “Law & Order,” and when an academic uses it, you can be 99& sure that person is a hack.

    3. That reminds me of Transmetropolitan, a “cyberpunk transhumanist comic book” (Wikipedia) by Warren Ellis.

      In one scene, the protagonist’s boss asks him if the apartment he provided him with is okay, and he answers:

      “Fine. The security system interrogates fresh air before it lets it in.”

  2. From the final comment by gaylefalkenthal:

    They [students] do not understand the difference between traditional news coverage (or earned media), versus paid or promoted content or straight up advertising.

    That may be the greatest danger to democracy today.

    1. I agree. I’m not sure that public understanding of the differences was better to any significant degree in past eras though. It seems to me that the problem we have today is that the press, traditional news journalism, changed significantly. In past eras the press themselves upheld the standards we are mourning the loss of, and of course there used to be some regulations in place to apply pressure to do so.

  3. Maybe students no longer understand the difference between reporting and advocacy because of their exposure to whole academic programs, of the grievance studies type, which blur or abolish entirely distinctions between advocacy and the discovery and promulgation of data.

    1. It’s worse than that, they’ve been taught that everything is narrative and that if someone contradicts what they ‘know’ to be ‘true’ (Because it feels right.) then it will cause them mental anguish

    1. Well given that the article contained no apology and explained the principles of good journalism in terms a ten year old could understand, I think it really was an FU. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first draft actually did just say “Fuck off. It’s called “journalism”, you useless oxygen wasters.

  4. If PCC has more down-time in his hotel, he might be interested in eviscerating the latest anti-atheist screed, which appeared a few days in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

    However, I can’t blame him if he wishes to avoid reading such garbage, since most of its points are not new and are taken from the work of the odious John Gray.

    In any case, have fun in Antarctica and I hope you get there soon!

    1. What a crapulous screed, a paen to his own self-righteousness. Garbage, indeed. I can’t imagine Dr PCCe would bother with it.

  5. A discouraging statement on the state of education today. Granted this is something of a niche topic, but I have a family member who creates and sells digital content for teaching technology to elementary students. Things such as digital citizenship, digital tattoo / footprint, as well as topics such as evaluating an online source. I was under the impression this was all taught when students are fairly young. It’s depressing to hear that students made it to Harvard without knowing the difference between paid content and traditional news coverage. Maybe such programs are new enough that older students weren’t exposed to them as kids? Hopefully digital curriculum are being incorporated more widely now.

  6. There should be only one response when a paper covering Harvard, a university with 22,000+ students, receives a self-evidently ridiculous petition signed by just 650 people(the majority of whom probably aren’t even students themselves, since it’s an online petition)…the petition should be ignored.

    These students should learn that not every single one of their complaints merits a response.

    1. …Also, I’ve said it before but the most pernicious aspect of all this is that these students are not learning how to debate. They are not learning how to argue people around, to convince, to maybe even charm.

      Worse than that, they’re beginning to believe that the idea of debating issues like this is somehow offensive in and of itself. If you try and argue with them they object not to your arguments but to the fact that you’re daring to make an argument in the first place.

      I personally do not see them as future authoritarians.

      …What I do see is that in the future they will be unable to convince the rest of society that their views are worth taking seriously. They will not have the rhetorical skills to do so. They will not be able to go up against their ideological opponents in a TV studio and win over neutral viewers. Because they never had to learn to do so.

      Which is bad for them, good for conservatives, and a mixture of the two for the rest of us.

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