WASHINGTON -- February 3 -- 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 tell, however.
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 School.
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.
ACTION: 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 claims.
ABC World News Tonight
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc firstname.lastname@example.org with your correspondence.