The Times’ Compromised Coverage of the Columbia Controversy

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 administration.

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:

[Columbia] botched 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.

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