Since the release last fall of the documentary film
Columbia Unbecoming in which students accused professors in the Middle
East studies department of academic intimidation, Columbia University has been
embroiled in a controversy which garnered international headlines. Close to
campus, the New York Times' coverage of the contentious dispute has been
largely one-sided and overtly sympathetic to Columbia's faculty and
On March 31, Columbia released a report from the Ad Hoc
Grievance Committee's investigation into the charges of academic intimidation.
The committee found that Professor Joseph Massad had shouted down one of his
students who expressed a point of view at odds with his own. He allegedly said:
"If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against
Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!" In another incident,
Massad reportedly prevented an Israeli student from asking a question, and
instead demanded to know: "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
In a striking violation of journalistic fairplay, Columbia
offered the Times exclusive access to the then unreleased report
provided the paper did not seek comment from "interested parties."
Contrary to its stated policy to "not promise sources that we will refrain
from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story," the
Times accepted Columbia's conditions.
An article on the committee's findings appeared in the March
31 New York Times under the misleading headline "Columbia Panel
Clears Professors Of Anti-Semitism." The committee was, in fact,
investigating complaints of intimidation, not anti-Semitism. Even worse, the
March 31 story omitted reaction from the students involved in the controversy.
As a result, on April 6, the Times ran an editors' note apologizing for
having cited only Massad's reaction to the report.
Just two days after running the apology, the Times
again flouted journalistic norms by publishing a laudatory profile of the one
professor singled out by the committee. Times reporter Robin Finn called
Massad "a fan of free speech." From beginning to end, the article,
entitled "At the center of an academic storm, a lesson in calm,"
whitewashed Massad's conduct, presenting him as tolerant and "not
intimidating" (April 8, 2005).
On the other hand, on April 7, the Times ran a
balanced editorial stating:
this job...by appointing one member who had been the dissertation adviser for a
professor who had drawn criticism and appointing three members who had
expressed anti-Israel views...
A balanced editorial, however, cannot undo the lapses in the
paper's news sections.