ABC's Assist to Campus ConservativesWere censorship stories too good to check?
Action Alert (2/3/05)
On February 1, ABC's World News Tonight offered an uncritical platform to
conservatives who complain that their free speech is being curtailed on
college campuses across the country.
ABC anchor Charles Gibson introduced the segment by saying that
conservatives "claim they are victims of a double standard on college
campuses," and seemed to boost that notion by saying, "There certainly is
evidence to suggest that colleges are bastions of liberal thinking.
Seventy-two percent of faculty members in one survey identified themselves
as left of center."
ABC correspondent Dan Harris ran down a series of examples to back up this
storyline, beginning with a community college that wouldn't allow a
screening of the movie "Passion of the Christ" because it had an R rating.
Harris went next to a soundbite from David French of the Foundation for
Individual Rights in Education: "You're going to get more political and
intellectual diversity at your average suburban mega-church than you are
at an elite university." Harris prefaced that statement by calling
French's group "non-partisan," seemingly an attempt to make an obviously
ideological soundbite seem less so.
Harris then moved on to Columbia University, "where Jewish students
complain about harassment from pro-Palestinian professors." ABC included
a clip from a documentary that makes a series of claims about allegedly
anti-Israel professors, but made no attempt to balance that with a source
who might challenge the arguments advanced in the documentary. The New
York Civil Liberties Union, for example, has concluded that "the major
academic-freedom problem arising out of the current Columbia controversy
is that a film produced by a Boston-based advocacy group has provoked
public officials and others to demand the punishment of certain identified
Columbia professors based largely on the ideological positions that these
professors have advanced in their writings and lectures." (NYCLU letter to
Village Voice, 2/2/05)
In a segment purportedly about free speech threats, ABC might have noted
these issues, which include death threats against pro-Palestinian
professors and the cancellation of at least one class because the teacher
thought its criticisms of Israel might be too controversial. That
Columbia instructor, Joseph Massad, has also publicly challenged the
accuracy of charges made against him in the documentary. Including these
aspects would have complicated the simple story ABC seemed to want to
Harris also cited another case popular on right-wing websites: As he put
it, this one happened at "Foothills College, where this freshman says he
was told to get psychotherapy after refusing to write an essay criticizing
the U.S. Constitution." The student, Ahmad Al-Qloushi, then appeared on
ABC and said, "I was attacked and intimidated because I love America."
ABC apparently felt no need to check Al-Qloushi's claim-- an unusual
journalistic decision, given that he is making a serious charge against a
specific instructor. The network might have at least discovered that the
name of the college is Foothill Junior College, not Foothills, as it is
called on many right-wing websites that have taken up Al-Qloushi's cause.
ABC might also have done well to examine Al-Qloushi's essay, which is
available on the Internet (he did not "refuse to write" it, as Harris
mistakenly reports). The essay is unresponsive to the assignment-- an
examination of a book which argues that the U.S. Constitution reflected
the elite interests of those who wrote it. Even conservative blogger
James Joyner (Outside the Beltway, 1/16/05), after reviewing Al-Qloushi's
work, called it "an incredibly poorly written, error-ridden,
pabulum-filled essay that essentially ignores the question put forth by
the instructor." "I'd have given the exam a failing grade, too," wrote
Joyner, who edits the journal Strategic Insights at the Naval Postgraduate
It appeared that an attempt to balance these perspectives would come from
former university president Robert O'Neil. Harris reported that O'Neil
"says conservative students may be trying to protect themselves from ideas
they don't like." But O'Neil's soundbite fed ABC's storyline: "I think
there's a sense that, well, liberals have had their way and they've
advanced their views for quite some time. There should be balance."
Actually, "balance" is not a major principle in academia, where professors
are supposed to be chosen for the excellence of their scholarship, not for
their ideological views. But it is a professed value of journalism, which
makes this an odd comment by Harris:
"Many academics say conservatives are blowing a few isolated incidents way
out of proportion in order to launch a McCarthyesque witch hunt, which is
designed to intimidate professors, limit academic freedom and promote a
sort of affirmative action for conservative professors."
If "many academics" are saying this, why weren't they included in the
report, rather than being paraphrased by the correspondent? If ABC did
not want to give the professors attacked a chance to respond, the network
was at least obligated to check the accuracy of the stories the students
were telling-- and note that the full story was more complicated.
Contact ABC and ask them why their report on conservative
complaints about free speech infringement did not evaluate the validity of
those complaints, and did not offer any experts who might challenge those
ABC World News Tonight