Middle East studies in the News
Undressing The Times
by Jason Maoz
New York Times, still reeling from the Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg and Judith Miller fiascos, was caught — yet again — with its pants down last month, but you may have missed it if you don't read The New York Sun or are oblivious to blogs and the media-transforming reality of the blogosphere.
On March 31, the Times, in a front-page story by Karen Arensen, reported that "An ad hoc faculty committee charged with investigating complaints that pro-Israel Jewish students were harassed by pro- Palestinian professors at Columbia University said it had found one instance in which a professor ‘exceeded commonly accepted bounds' of behavior when he became angry at a student who he believed was defending Israel's conduct toward Palestinians.
"But the report, obtained by The New York Times and scheduled for release today, said it had found ‘no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.' "
Oh, the panel's report did, in Arensen's words, "describe a broader environment of incivility on campus" — but that environment, wrote Arensen, was attributable to "pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies and some faculty members feeling that they were being spied on."
Several paragraphs into Arensen's story, readers learned that "Many have already questioned the makeup of the ad hoc committee, pointing out that several members have expressed anti-Israel views," and that "Some of the report's harshest criticism was directed at Columbia itself, for not having clear processes that would have allowed earlier action on faculty and student complaints." But the story's thrust was that the complaints by the pro-Israel students were for the most part without merit.
The curious thing about the article was a complete absence of comment from anyone on the pro-Israel side of the controversy. Joseph Massad, the professor whose behavior was criticized by the committee for having "exceeded commonly accepted bounds," was given the opportunity by the Times to respond (he took issue with the report's findings and denied the allegations), but from the students whose complaints triggered the investigation there was not a word.
The next day, April 1, the Times published a second story on the Columbia report, this one given less prominence (appearing in the paper's Metro section) but containing comments from Jewish students.
By then, however, the Times's public undressing was well underway. The New York Sun was reporting that the Times had made a deal with representatives of Columbia: in exchange for exclusive access to the report prior to its release, the paper would not ask the parties involved for comment until the report was made public the day of the Times's initial story.
"As it happened," the Sun's Jacob Gershman wryly noted in a follow-up piece a week later, "the [Times], with Columbia's permission, did seek comment from ... Joseph Massad, but kept its promise not to solicit comment from the Jewish students who had come forward with the complaints against the professors."
By the time Gershman wrote that follow-up on April 7, the Times, after several days of corporate silence, had run an editor's note in its ever-growing "Corrections" section acknowledging that a deal had been struck with Columbia in violation of the paper's policy, and that "the article was incomplete [and] should not have appeared in that form."
Special note should be made of the role played in all of this by the blogsite CampusJ (www.campusj.com), which was on the story immediately and never let up its dogged pursuit of the Times. The blog's founder and driving force, Steven I. Weiss, made repeated calls to the Times — to Arensen, to a flack in the Times's public relations department, and to the Times's public editor, Dan Okrent. Two days before the Times's public admission, Weiss was indicting the Times by quoting from the company's own ethics and integrity guidelines.
Once the Times's editor's note finally appeared on April 6, Weiss wrote: "The Times concedes that not only its writer, but its editors, suffered an ethical lapse in negotiating the deal in the first place. That the Times then sought professor response, but not student response, speaks volumes. The question remains how a story [like this one] got through the editorial process and ran on the front page."
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