Quick Trigger Fingers on Campus

The story of the firing of Jillian Bandes, an opinion columnist for the Daily Tar Heel at UNC Chapel Hill, has been stirring up the ire of free speech advocates far and wide. Bandes was dumped on Wednesday for her column from the previous day, which carried the headline:

“It’s sad, but racial profiling is necessary for our safety.”

The column wasted no time getting to Bandes’ incendiary point: “I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.” And the waves of criticism from UNC students — who, like most American co-eds, tend to lean to the left — were nearly as heated as Bandes’ lede.

But Chris Coletta, the opinion editor who fired Bandes, maintains that it wasn’t the surge of hate mail that motivated his decision. In his own column that ran yesterday, Coletta wrote “I fired her because she strung together quotes out of context. She took sources’ words out of context. She misled those sources when she conducted interviews. In other words, she conducted journalistic malpractice, and that’s simply not something I, or The Daily Tar Heel, will tolerate.”

That’s a stout defense, and one apt to earn Coletta sympathy for his decision. After all, few would disagree with an editor’s choice to let go of a writer who disregards journalistic standards — or for that matter, with any boss’s choice to the terminate employment of anyone who has “conducted malpractice.” But the examples of Bandes’ crimes that Coletta cites don’t even remotely hold up to his characterization of “malpractice.” As Coletta explains it:

This is the bottom line: Bandes told the three people quoted in her column — students Sherief Khaki and Muhammad Salameh, as well as professor Nasser Isleem — that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world. That’s not what happened; that’s a major problem. Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn’t their entire conversation. At no point did Khaki, Salameh or Nasser ever think the only quotes Bandes would use would be their comments on the subject.

That’s it? That’s the crime? We have a hard time understanding what exactly about Bandes’ interview practice was, in fact, a “major problem.” She told her sources that she was interviewing them for a column about Arab-American relations since September 11th. And then, for all that we can tell, she wrote a column about Arab-American relations since September 11th. Yes, her focus was on racial profiling — but that is in fact one very significant part of how Arab-American relations have changed in the past four years.

So claim number one on Coletta’s list strikes us not just as trivial, but also as, well, wrong.

On to claim number two: not everything that Khaki, Salameh or Nasser said made it into the article.

Okay. But anyone who’s been interviewed knows the sting of dishing out what feels like reels worth of insightful and eloquent quotes only to be discover that the writer finds only a few of your pearls of wisdom worth printing. That’s how the interview process works. If Bandes told her sources she would be printing a Q & A, we’d see Coletta’s point here. But surely the act of sifting through long interviews for a few usable quotes does not qualify as gross misconduct.

Keep in mind, of course, that no one is disputing the accuracy of Bandes’ quotes, simply whether they were used “recklessly and thoughtlessly,” which is Coletta’s claim.

We actually had our own problem with the quotes — one that Coletta apparently failed to notice, and one that might have smoothed this whole thing over if it had been caught earlier on. Here’s the first time Bandes uses a quote in her column: “(Racial profiling) really doesn’t bother me,” said Sherief Khaki, a first-generation Egyptian-American and representative of the UNC-CH Arabic Club.”

If Coletta is so sensitive about his columnists’ careful and thoughtful use of quotes that remain true both to the letter and the spirit of what was said, perhaps he should consider implementing some sort of brackets policy. I, for one, sure would like to know what words Khaki actually said before the words “really doesn’t bother me.”

But such a rule would mean that Coletta couldn’t throw his own brackets around at will. Toward the end of his column about firing Bandes, he quotes Daily Tar Heel editor Ryan Tuck as saying “I blame myself (for Bandes’ inaccuracy) as much as I blame anyone involved.” Seems like there are a whole lot of other words that could have gone in those brackets. Like, “for the newspaper’s inaccuracy.” Or “for Bandes’ minor oversight.” Or, “for my failure to institute a policy on bracket use.” At least the latter may have allowed us a clear idea of what Tuck actually blames himself for.

The inadequate responses from the Daily Tar Heel staff to Bandes’ firing continue with today’s column from Elliott Dube, the paper’s pubic editor. Dube decides to weigh in on the controversy, despite the fact that he wasn’t involved in the initial investigation of Bandes’ piece, and therefore “can only accept the conclusions of the people — namely, Tuck and Coletta — who did.”

Dube goes on to explain that he is “inclined to trust their findings that Jillian grossly misrepresented her sources, because I see no reason for them to have been untruthful.”

From here, he launches into an assumption of what “the average reader” would have assumed from Bandes’ transition sentence from her own brazen assertion that “I want Arabs to get sexed up like nothing else” to the more tempered acceptance of racial profiling that her sources put forth. Here’s a look at the part of Bandes’ column that gave Dube, and readers, such a hard time:

When asked if she had a boyfriend, Ann Coulter once said that any time she had a need for physical intimacy, she would simply walk through an airport’s security checkpoint. I want Arabs to get sexed up like nothing else. And Arab students at UNC don’t seem to think that’s such a bad idea.

According to Dube, the average reader “could infer that the sources actually relayed a belief that Arabs getting ‘sexed up’ wasn’t ‘such a bad idea’ — and the average reader would have no way of knowing whether or not Jillian actually shared the ‘sexed up’ concept with her sources.”

Personally, we thought it was pretty clear that Bandes was not implying that her Muslim interviewees had used the same offensive phrasing that she had in their acquiescence to the need for racial profiling. But hey, we’re not necessarily the “average reader” of the Daily Tar Heel. But Coletta and Tuck are, and if Dube is right — that Bandes’ transition sentence would be so very difficult for the “average reader” to digest — then the editors should have jumped in and changed it.

At the very least, we hope the editors are ready for the onslaught of irate protest apt to come from today’s Daily Tarheel column. It’s a dicey look at one woman’s dream to bring her Grandma’s delicious brown sugar pie to the world. Bandes may be gone, but at least the legacy of daring and controversial columns lives on.

Samantha Henig

Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.