The Media Today

Spectator at the center

April 24, 2024
Members of the press conduct interviews during the demonstration. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rebuild their encampment with tents at Columbia University in solidary with Palestine. (Photo by Derek French / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Last week, the congressional spotlight fell on Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, who followed the acts of Claudine Gay (formerly Harvard’s president) and Elizabeth Magill (formerly Penn’s). Gay and Magill were asked to speak in December to a House committee about their schools’ climates since October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel launched a siege on Gaza; both presidents’ tenures unraveled shortly after. Shafik, who had other plans the day of their testimony, was now called back to the stage. “Do you want Columbia to be cursed by God?” Rick Allen, a Republican of Georgia, asked her. “Definitely not,” she replied. Back on campus, hundreds of students convened on a section of lawn; since the scholarly hour of 4am they had been pitching tents, constructing a Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

The next day, Shafik summoned the higher power of the New York Police Department, which conducted a sweep, arresting more than a hundred protesters. (“The students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” John Chell, the NYPD chief of patrol, told reporters.) The gates were mostly closed, a security measure imposed by the university’s department of public safety; some members of the press found themselves locked out. As the action swelled, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the campus newspaper, was positioned to be the main source of information about events that soon reverberated across the world. 

The Spec’s editor in chief, Isabella Ramírez, who is twenty, and managing editor, Esha Karam, twenty-one, steered the reporting. “We were really trying to cover as much as we possibly could,” Karam told me. They sprinted to DC, for the hearing, then back to New York, maneuvering their way through crowds on campus and off, where the Spectator—an independent publication—has an office on the fourth floor of Riverside Church. Classes were a maybe, though concern for that dimmed somewhat thanks to a wee-hours-of-Monday email from Shafik announcing that all classes would be held virtually. Ramírez and Karam spoke to me—a former Speccie, now a fellow member of Columbia’s independent journalism scene—later on Monday, when they found a moment to catch their breath. Then it was back to work and wee-hour emails. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

BM: Has anyone been making it to class?

IR: Umm… sure we are, yeah.

EK: Actually, I did today. It was nice that they were on Zoom so I could be working on a couple things.

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IR: I did not go to class, but not necessarily of my own volition. My Spanish professor canceled my class the day before we received a surprise 1:15am email from Minouche Shafik. I have other professors I haven’t heard much from. I think the implication is: We’re not hosting class at this time. I don’t quite know every single professor’s reasons.

Getting any sleep?

IR: These past few days we’ve been running close to a twenty-four-hour schedule—as close as I could possibly imagine. It truly started, I would argue, on Tuesday. We had our regular production night from 6 to 12. We were running a lot on the hearing, in preparation, with a lot of preview stories, and just doing a lot of prep for a trip to DC. Production ended at 12, and almost immediately after, we headed to the station. We took a 1am bus with our university news editors; a photographer and a reporter were taking a train a little bit later on. That same time that we were on the bus we were running some stories that spilled over into the middle of the night. We had already received knowledge about a significant demonstration. The details of it were still very, very under wraps. But we had received some information more than a week in advance, so we were quote-unquote “prepared” when we got on this bus, and a team in New York was keeping their eye out for something. We ended up breaking that story—I believe it published around 5am—that suddenly there was this massive setup on the lawn. 

We took what we could in terms of naps. But we soon arrived in DC, around 6 or 7am. At Union Station, we were finally able to get breakfast and change into our suits. We got ready very high school–style, in the train station bathroom, putting our makeup on. 

Eventually we set up in the Rayburn Building, where the hearing was being held. Our reporter and photographer who had taken the train met up with us, and from there we were running live updates all day on the hearing. At the same time, of course, back in New York City we were trying to keep up with the encampment and protest activity—a humongous juggling act. 

We returned, same day, to New York City from DC. I believe we got to New York past midnight, so it was almost, at that point, more than twenty-four hours awake, doing work. And then we had to go to bed. We wake up the next morning, and that day is Thursday, which is the day Shafik authorized the New York Police Department to sweep the encampment. So many people—reporters, writers; young students, of course—were up for ungodly amounts of time.

That’s a lot.

IR: It is, especially because other journalists have had a very challenging time getting onto the Columbia campus at the moment. There’s been some movement from the administration and the Journalism School to assist press into getting on campus—because of course that is an incredibly important right. But ultimately we’ve had the biggest access. So we’re currently thinking through how to juggle that while we need to take care of ourselves. How do we maintain this student-journalist dual identity that we have? 

EK: We also have been covering this for many, many months, right? We’ve been talking to these students—the same students who are now receiving this national attention. So we have uniquely developed relationships with these students and sources in a way that has allowed us, I think, to report with a greater level of nuance.

Have you all felt safe while reporting? Have you had any run-ins with school security or police officers?

EK: We’ve felt relatively safe. We have had to make makeshift press badges for our staff. And we make sure that whoever’s on the ground is staying in pairs. I think there was one incident the other night when there was a large police presence, and I believe our reporters at some point felt a little bit unsafe when they were on the ground at a particular protest. But for the large part, I think we’ve felt comfortable reporting.

IR: We’ve been reporting on this since October 7. We’ve learned a lot about how to safely cover protests—how to avoid confrontations with sources or with people that we’ve attempted to speak to. It is definitely scary, despite the safety measures—especially for journalists on staff for whom this might be their first introduction to journalism. That’s an incredibly intimidating and scary thing.

We often emphasize: Make sure you have very visible markers, make sure that you’re with other people, that we always have your phone number, your ringer is on; make it easy for us to contact you and text us your updates. Reporters are often sending us videos and photos so that we’re up to date; if we’re not physically there, at least we know what they’re seeing, and maybe can give advice on the spot. We tell them to be continuously cautious of their surroundings. 

How has it been just getting around the campus, getting back and forth from your dorms to the office, getting pizza?

EK: We haven’t had that many problems getting around. The university has limited what exits and entrances are open at a given time. It is, I would say, an inconvenience—you don’t know which entrances are open at what time, and they close entrances when they need to, or when protests are happening, particularly outside of campus. Over the weekend, we were sort of stationed in one of the libraries on campus. 

IR: We have Columbia IDs. We can just swipe in. Which I think is a really huge advantage for us.

How has production of the paper gone?

IR: We typically run on a biweekly schedule, although this semester we’ve actually been closer to weekly. So we already had plans for a print edition slated for last week. We typically do our print nights—that’s what we call them—on Wednesdays, and then on Thursdays it gets sent to print. We usually receive it on Thursdays, and then it’s distributed on Fridays. However, in anticipation of the hearing we had actually pushed our print night from Wednesday to Thursday. When the sweep happened, on Thursday, we knew it had to go in—not just for the importance to our community but also for the archive. 

For us, this print edition was maybe one of the best examples of how print has remained relevant for our student publication and for our community. We ran that print night on Thursday; we got it delivered to us on Friday afternoon, and that Friday afternoon we started distributing it on campus. We went and we distributed it on the lawns. We distributed it at the protests.

How many people are at work covering the news on campus now?

EK: Upwards of fifty: Our copyediting team. Our news teams. We’ve also had some arts and culture writers pitch in. Of course, our photography team. Our videography team. Our audio-journalism team.

IR: We have our engagement team, which has been working overtime to post every single thing on our social media platforms. We typically post on X, Facebook, Linkedin—every single story. With Instagram that’s usually not the case, but we shifted that because of how much we saw people were looking to Instagram to receive their news. Our Instagram page has ballooned.

How is traffic on the Spectator site?

IR: Pretty crazy—which is, honestly, really great to see. I think over the past seven days it was over four hundred thousand page views. Somewhere between that and half a million page views in just the past seven or fewer days. I think when I first joined Spectator, we got two to three million page views a year.

What has the response been like from readers?

EK: We’ve heard, umm… a wide variety of responses. We have heard both negative and positive feedback. We try to encourage our writers and reporters to stay off social media as much as possible.

IR: People should really know that we are in a constant state of learning—which I believe all journalists are at all times. But especially for us, as students. Although we’ve been covering this story line since October 7, we are not experts on the Middle East or global affairs. So this is certainly an introduction, in the sense that Columbia’s campus has become a sort of proxy for these issues, or a place in which these issues arise.

We’re considering our role as journalists; how we’re different, of course, from the activists on campus and other people who are contributing in important ways to the campus discourse. We’re always evaluating: What is our specific role as journalists? How do we maintain objectivity? Being a Spec reporter is being an arbiter of the truth on our campus, as much as we can. It’s a really interesting dynamic that we have with our community, where we’re simultaneously embedded in the community, but we’re also—as a play on our name—spectators to a lot of it. We maintain a certain level of intimacy and distance that is really interesting to navigate.

Some of you have friends, roommates, classmates, professors who are grading your papers who are in the mix here. Have you talked as a staff about your own relationships to the story and your relationships to people involved in the story?

EK: I think every newsroom in this moment is facing the challenges of objectivity and maintaining that in coverage. As students, we’re reporting on everything that’s been going on as we’ve experienced it. It’s hard when it’s so emotionally charged on campus, and we all have personal relationships that are affected by this coverage. We’ve really just tried to put our reporters first and listen to their needs. Give them the space to process. We’ve emphasized that reporting is a way that we help our community. 

IR: We’ve also tried to offer ourselves more and more as a resource, in terms of Spectator as a community space. Which I think is really crucial, especially because we’re independent. We have a space outside of campus that people can come to and reflect and speak.

I definitely have friends involved in many different aspects of the story. We have a policy: you don’t interview your friends and your professors. But my friends and my professors are the people I speak to all the time—off the record or on background, in a way. We get into conversations that do inform my reporting, because I’m hearing a very specific perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to. I’m not interviewing them. But we’re in a community and listening to people that are close to us, and we’re able to represent and tap into our set of relationships.

Has anyone not wanted to talk with the Spectator?

EK: Some people have wanted to be anonymous, or not fully on the record, because of concerns of doxxing or harassment. But I think one thing that has helped us on that front has been our continued relationships with our sources. We’ve been talking to these students since October 7.

What about Minouche Shafik?

EK: We’ve been trying to, honestly—this whole semester, last semester. We’ve requested to sit down with her and have had no luck so far.

IR: Even prior to the hearing, we were like, Let’s set something up, let’s catch you. We’ve been chasing you for a while. I mean, if Claudine Gay could speak to the Harvard Crimson two days after her hearing, that felt like a pretty good reason to bring our president to the table, too. She was very adamant—or, I don’t know, maybe the team surrounding her—that she not speak to the press prior to the hearing. So we were like, Okay, after the hearing, that’s a perfect time, right? There wasn’t a very clear answer. And then the next day came the authorization of the New York Police Department. 

It’s been really hard. Esha and I were among the first students to meet her, when she was announced as president. It was one of the first assignments that we had together, actually, covering her coming into the presidency. And then we spoke to her for a casual, fun interview on the day of move-in for freshmen. That was the last time we talked to her. (I also covered her inauguration—which was October 4. So, three days before October 7.) Since then, we’ve been in pretty close touch with the communications office. The line of dialogue between the administration and the student newspaper is an incredibly important one. We don’t know what the future holds.

What is the outside media getting wrong?

EK: Columbia has restricted access inside of its campus to Columbia ID-holders. And there have been protests outside of the gates that have brought many people from across the city to Columbia’s campus. I think the distinction is not always so clear in the national reporting that I’ve seen, what the difference is between the outside versus the inside.

IR: It is so crucial to avoid overgeneralizations—the temptation to say that this one particular incident reflects either group involved. If you’re only coming in during these times, you’ve seen a very different campus than Esha or I have seen. We know a Columbia before this. We may know a Columbia after this.

Other notable stories:

  • In other news about student journalism, the Kansas Reflector spoke with high school reporters in Lawrence who successfully fought for their school district to remove student journalists from a surveillance program ostensibly aimed at monitoring students for signs of mental-health crises, drug use, and other problems; the reporters are now fighting for other students’ privacy rights. Elsewhere, The Oaklandside reports on the controversy that ensued after a student paper serving a community college district in California published reporting that derailed a multimillion-dollar campus security contract. And dozens of students in New York gathered at City Hall last week to press local officials to expand their support for journalism programs and student newspapers in public high schools, most of which lack such infrastructure. City Limits has more details.
  • Yesterday, David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, continued to testify in Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York, outlining in detail how the tabloid worked with Trump and his associates to “catch and kill” embarrassing stories about Trump and promote stories attacking his rivals in the run-up to the presidential election; at one point, Pecker said, the Enquirer paid off a man looking to sell a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock even though the tabloid believed the story to be false. (Pecker will continue testifying tomorrow.) Meanwhile, prosecutors argued that Trump should be held in contempt for violating the terms of a gag order, including in comments to the media outside court. The judge did not rule, but did scold Trump’s lawyer.
  • KQED, a public radio station in the Bay Area, is offering buyouts to some staffers in a bid to reduce costs, and could implement layoffs or a hiring freeze if the plan doesn’t work; SFGate has more details. In other media business news, Rhode Island’s attorney general approved a merger between The Public’s Radio, a station formerly known as Rhode Island Public Radio, and the state’s PBS affiliate after checking its compliance with a state law regulating the commercialization of public broadcasting; the Rhode Island Current has more. And CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that Scripps News has been hoovering up talent from Vice after the latter company cuts swaths of its news division.
  • And for CJR, Laura Kukkonen dissects a controversy in Finland, where Matti Kuusela, a veteran reporter for the newspaper Aamulehti, wrote an autobiography in which he “acknowledged—almost in passing—that as a reporter, he had created details out of whole cloth, or made it look like he had interviewed people he hadn’t.” In response, Aamulehti removed most of his work from its website. “Everyone would like me to say that I regret tremendously telling the truth in the book,” he said. “But it’s not who I am.”

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Correction: This article has been corrected to identify the state that Rick Allen represents in Congress.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.