Media reporting on campus protests plays into culture war narrative

Photos by Tulika Bose

Last week, the Columbia University College Republicans hosted a talk by Tommy Robinson, a British anti-Islam campaigner who founded the extreme-right English Defence League in 2009. Robinson spoke to students via Skype—he’s been banned from the US since he went to jail for entering the country on a friend’s passport in 2012. His distance didn’t stop protesters and reporters from turning up. The campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, counted over 30 demonstrators inside Lerner Hall and more than 250 outside. National newspapers and outlets from Germany and Japan were on the scene to watch as protesters wielded signs and chanted while Robinson tried to speak. Others have since picked up the story. The response to Robinson was in many ways unsurprising—the far-right and free speech are hot topics in the urgent media debate on America’s open wounds.

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But now wind back a year. In an almost identical Skype address to the College Republicans at Columbia last October, Robinson waxed uninterrupted for an hour about how Islam promotes violence and “cannot assimilate” into British culture. When he called the Prophet Muhammad a “barbarian,” he was applauded, not jeered. A handful of pointed questions (including one from this reporter) followed his speech, but there were no banners or protests, and few raised voices. Although Robinson had no problem being heard in the room, his voice wasn’t amplified beyond Columbia’s walls. This year, a university media handler guided registered press to designated seats; last year there were no such arrangements—and no press—to be seen.

It might just be a fluke that last year’s Robinson event didn’t cross reporters’ desks. But that they showed up this year probably says less about Robinson’s words than it does an increased likelihood of a hostile response to those words.

 

We’re taking marginal events and shining a spotlight on them, and in this way viralizing them.”

 

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“There is growing interest in these types of protests, not necessarily because of what the speakers are saying, but because of how students are reacting,” says Toni Airaksinen, a senior at Columbia’s partner college, Barnard, who covered the event for the conservative college news site Campus Reform. “The media wouldn’t really be as interested in these campus events with conservative speakers unless there are protests.”

The election of Donald Trump didn’t invent student activism, even if it did give it a shot in the arm. Media attention, however, has intensified since Robinson spoke to Columbia students a year ago. Some news organizations forget that campus conflagration is nothing new—seeing instead an all-too-easy metaphor for the groaning tensions in the country as a whole.

“Many of these same things were happening on campuses all along and nobody was particularly worried about them,” says Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Right now, they draw a lot more attention because they are supposed to represent changes in the general public debate, which I think is misguided. We’re taking marginal events and shining a spotlight on them, and in this way viralizing them.”

Trump, the rise of the alt-right, and the scarring aftermath of the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have lent campus clashes a media-ready viciousness and broader cultural relevance. In February, violence roiled UC Berkeley in response to a planned speech by far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. A month later, students at Middlebury College in Vermont shut down a talk by the controversial political scientist Charles Murray. And earlier this month, the Virginia director of the American Civil Liberties Union was hounded off-stage at the College of William and Mary, curtailing an address about free speech.

Photo by Tulika Bose

“We saw the same thing [as the Robinson phenomenon] at Berkeley,” writes Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley’s law school and coauthor of Free Speech on Campus, in an email. “Last year, [conservative commentator] Ben Shapiro spoke with no attention at all. This year, it took $600,000 of protection. I think the Trump election has caused everything to be more polarized.”

The Robinson appearance touches on a deep divide in journalism when it comes to covering the more offensive fringes of the right under Trump: Do such views demand attention because of their apparent ascendancy in the country, or is the coverage itself responsible for spreading their appeal?

Approaching this question through the lens of student protests doesn’t resolve it; if anything it paints a one-sided picture. The debate over who can say what on a campus is more complicated than the alt-right phenomenon and camera pans of garish placards and left–right screaming matches.

It’s probably not news every time Murray or Ann Coulter shows up for a college talk. But it is noteworthy when a mainstream college club like the Columbia Republicans repeatedly solicits a fringe figure like Robinson—who is virtually unknown in the US, and who last weekend rushed to the scene of a London road traffic accident to make a video suggesting the driver, who was black, was a Muslim convert. The targets of hateful rhetoric, on whose behalf the free speech debate is supposedly weighed, are affected regardless of whether protesters show—and they often don’t. For every event that draws angry mass action and a national media response, many more pass without incident.

“Charles Murray has spoken at more colleges where he wasn’t interrupted than where he was,” says Scott Jaschik, editor of college news website Inside Higher Ed. “That’s not news. Protest draws people in.”

 

For every event that draws angry mass action and a national media response, many more pass without incident.

 

The atmosphere around controversial speakers on campus is febrile but also unpredictable, which poses a challenge for those on the higher education beat. “The campus climate now is such that you never know if something is going to blow up,” says Sarah Brown, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Universities are affected by this uncertainty, and I think so are we. We send a reporter to far-away college campuses and have to accept the fact that it’s possible nothing will happen.”

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Every good story hinges on tension; the easier it is to illustrate, the better and clearer the story. And there are new and difficult issues for the media to parse behind the vivid excitement of shouting matches and fist fights. Brown, for example, is interested in the breakdown in dialogue and understanding of the First Amendment between students on opposing sides of the political spectrum, while Inside Higher Ed is focusing its reporting on controversial proposed punishments for students who shout down speakers.

Photo by Tulika Bose

But we shouldn’t lead readers to believe that censorious, balaclava-clad leftists are suddenly lurking at college gates to chase away any right-of-center figure who dares show. Outlets like Breitbart—which said Robinson was “shut down” by the “alt-left” last week—use this type of campus caricature to undergird claims of a broader culture war. It’s a time-weathered tactic, used to potent effect by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California in response to Vietnam-era college activism. The press should be wary of amplifying flashpoints that match Trump’s own “intolerant left” narrative.

Division is real, both in American society and on college campuses. But that doesn’t mean it manifests the same way across issues; there’s no single standard uniting the politics of immigration, police brutality, and university speech. The press should focus not on how snugly campus unrest fits the national mood, but on whether and how they reflect trends in higher education.

When we selectively cover protests, we blind ourselves to the full complexity of the college picture and risk reinforcing hacky-sack stereotypes of college students. As Airaksinen, who reported Robinson’s recent Columbia talk for Campus Reform, notes, “There’s a large population of older, mostly male Americans who like to look at what’s happening on college campuses and laugh at what the kids are doing these days.”

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Jon Allsop is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.