The Columbia Daily Spectator's recent decision to publish, under the rubric of opinion, Paula Stern's editorial ("Greatest Victory, Even in Defeat," Nov. 15) maligning Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj is the latest instance in which the paper has become an instrument of external interests opposed to academic freedom. To what end does a student newspaper run opinion pieces that advocate discrimination on the basis of ethno-national identity or religious affiliation, falsify the work of faculty members, and engage in defamation?
No doubt, the editors think that such columns display the paper's willingness to confront controversy. And the countervailing editorials placed next to pieces like Stern's initially give an impression of balance. But this implies that they are equivalent kinds of discourse. They are not. There is no need to offer an opinion that contradicts defamatory statements and falsehoods because there is no need to publish the latter. "Opinion" is not an alibi for misrepresentation.
I sent two letters to Spectator about the Stern editorial, and received swift, direct responses to my questions—a good sign of transparency. Yet, what they revealed disturbs me greatly.
The editors claim they were unaware that the Stern piece had been published prior to Nov. 15, when it appeared in Spectator. Upon my remarking this fact, they issued an admission and an apology. However, they also admit to not having informed Ms. Stern about policies against republication—a nearly inexplicable omission. Still, one could ask: How did they not know of the earlier appearance? The article had appeared in no less than five venues, including Campus Watch, which indexed and hosted it after it was first published on Stern's blog on Nov. 1.
It is not incidental that the Stern piece had been hosted by Campus Watch before arriving at Columbia. According to Larry Cohler-Esses of The Nation ("The New McCarthyism," Nov. 12), Campus Watch published the first assault on Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground. It has a record of attacking Columbia University faculty. As of Nov. 23, the organization's Web site hosted an astonishing 1159 entries devoted, almost exclusively, to impugning this institution's Middle East studies faculty and programs. If that's not an obsession, I don't know what is.
Campus Watch even has a special initiative, "The Columbia Project," that aims to publish hyperbolically critical articles on each of Columbia's Middle East faculty members. It's written by "independent scholar" Hugh Fitzgerald, who also runs a blog on which, among other things, he advises the spiritual leader of a Muslim political party in Malaysia to watch soft-porn videos on YouTube, and then dares him to sue for the offense. This is the direction in which Campus Watch wants to "improve" Middle East Studies at Columbia? Such is their stated aim.
The Campus Watch articles on Columbia faculty are characterized by falsehoods, citational errors, and clearly intentional misrepresentations. But this is common in the discourse of those who would deny, a priori, the rights of scholars to include Israel among the other states subject to critical analysis. Stern actually admitted to Cohler-Esses that she does not quote Abu El-Haj entirely accurately—yet she organizes petitions that attempt to influence tenure decisions and, when that fails, advocates discrimination and retribution (via claims on alumni giving, for example).
The Middle East Forum, which created and operates Campus Watch under Daniel Pipes' leadership, has deep pockets from which to fund this kind of activity. According to its own filings with the IRS, it raised more than $7 million in gifts and donations between 2002 and 2006 to fund its projects—including the one that maligns Columbia faculty. Many of its active affiliates, including Martin Kramer of Tel Aviv University, are regularly quoted by Spectator and are given an opportunity to comment on the work of our faculty members whenever a controversy is contrived.
What is insidious is not the presence of these people in the community of interlocutors with whom Spectator engages, but the selective revelation of their interests and the editorial board's refusal to ensure the truth of their claims. In the paper's stories about Campus Watch, Kramer's affiliation is recognized, but in other stories that reproduce his "criticism" of our faculty members, his university appointment is generally mentioned while his Campus Watch association goes unnoted. Moreover, when student columnist Chris Kulawik and others serve up the clichés and untruths propagated by these individuals and organizations, they seem to be exempted from the demand for accuracy in reporting. In a recent piece ("The Trouble with Tenure," Sept. 18), Kulawik falsely describes Nadia Abu El-Haj as having studied anthropology with Barnard President Judith Shapiro at Bryn Mawr. This is not true. She did not study anthropology at Bryn Mawr, and she had never even met Judith Shapiro prior to her arrival at Barnard. These are facts. On the ground.
Here are some more facts: Nadia Abu El-Haj's scholarship was reviewed by the departmental faculty members in anthropology at both Barnard and Columbia, by the Committee on Appointments, Tenure, and Promotion at Barnard, and by a five-person ad-hoc committee of tenured faculty members from departments other than anthropology at Columbia. In addition, it was assessed by more than 15 experts from across the nation and abroad, who included in their analysis a consideration of all of the legitimate critical literature surrounding professor Abu El-Haj's work. The committees all concluded that her scholarship exhibited the qualities of excellence that are prerequisite for the conferral of tenure.
After the Spectator editors answered my questions, I was left with some profound worries: How can the paper immunize itself against outside influence if it does not inform contributors of its policies or conduct background checks on externally-generated articles? How does it maintain ethical standards when it doesn't ensure that its writers and editors are fully aware of its own standards? One can be forgiven for believing that it does not accord a very high priority to these issues. According to the paper's Web site, "Reporters and editors subscribe to a complicated set of ethical guidelines that is often poorly explained to readers (and sometimes even to our staff members themselves)" [emphasis added].
Inevitably and rightfully, the editors claim that the opinions expressed on the editorial page do not reflect those of the newspaper. Nonetheless, the editors are responsible for ensuring that even opinion pieces do not engage in discrimination, defamation, or libel, and that they are truthful. According to Spectator Editor in Chief John Davisson, "Spectator adheres to the guidelines laid down in the Associated Press Stylebook for what qualifies as discriminatory, offensive, and defamatory language," but "final editorial judgment is left to the discretion of the three editors who review each op-ed before publication. This editing process is designed in part to weed out language which exceeds the bounds of reasonable argument, but it is also engineered to ensure the publication of coherently argued—if controversial—viewpoints."
On this basis we can only conclude that Spectator's editorial board thinks that Ms. Stern's recommendation that all Jewish students avoid a Palestinian-American professor does not constitute discrimination. (What would they say if Christians and Muslims were told not to attend classes offered by an Israeli or an American Jew?) Nor, apparently, do they believe that the linking of professor Abu El-Haj's receipt of tenure with the appearance of swastikas and nooses on the campus exceeds the bounds of reasonable argument. This despite the fact that such instances of hate speech and intimidation had been proliferating on this and other campuses, and in other public spaces across the country in the months before professor Abu El-Haj received tenure!
Reason is in grave trouble. And discrimination has been given free license.
The aforementioned AP Stylebook to which Spectator editors pledge adherence includes a chapter on media law, in which one learns that, in New York, "a libelous statement is one that intends to expose a person to hatred, contempt or aversion or to induce an evil or unsavory opinion of him in the minds of a substantial number of people in the community" (339). It continues, "a newspaper can be called to task for republishing the libelous statement of another" (340).
If I were an editor at Spectator, or a member of its independent Board of Directors (an illustrious group of truly extraordinary journalists), I would take pause. But I am an anthropologist and a teacher, and I would therefore like to understand how the situation has come to be what it is, and to encourage students to do better in combating it.
There are a number of very fine young investigative journalists at the Spectator. I've read and profited from their stories. There are some courageous and eloquent editors writing strong and well-reasoned commentary on issues that affect the local community. But it appears that the paper has accepted the widely-circulating, but deeply flawed idea that fairness in reporting is the same as balance, and that balance consists in the arrangement of contrary opinions, regardless of their truthfulness. This is clearly not an adequate understanding of balance (never mind fairness) if it is to inform public discourse. The point of "balanced" coverage should not be to create a milieu in which everything—including lies and defamation—goes. It should be to ensure a sufficiently capacious and factually-grounded coverage of events and perspectives to permit the exercise of judgment by readers. Among the worst debasements of the always-fragile public sphere at a university is the reduction of the idea of fairness to one of balance and of balance to the agon of mutual insult.
The tale of controversy is a self-perpetuating prophesy of organizations like Campus Watch and self-appointed inquisitors like Paula Stern, who have harassed scholars and students while saturating the public sphere with disinformation simply because they don't like the conclusions to which these scholars have come. It is my hope that the staff of Spectator will recognize this and determine to be better. At a time of war, every exchange of words can be submitted to the structure of friend versus enemy. Spectator should refuse to be drawn into this mockery of public debate. At the very least it should get its facts right.
The author is a professor of anthropology and the associate director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not constitute an official statement on behalf of either the department of anthropology or the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.