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.”