The Media Today

The adults in the room

May 3, 2024
NYPD officers stand watch as pro-Palestinian demonstrators are arrested during a protest at CUNY Harlem campus following a march from Columbia University on April 30,2024 in New York City. Columbia officials announced that students who broke into Hamilton hall on campus early Tuesday morning will be expelled. Arrests are at an increase as demonstrations over the war in Gaza continue to escalate among the country's universities; while encampments in some schools have been vacated. (Photo by John Lamparski/NurPhoto via AP)

One photo shows a counterprotester, their black-clad body a blur of motion, spraying a Palestine solidarity encampment with aerosol, its particles dissolving into a yellow haze in front of a person in a kaffiyeh, shielding behind a placard. Another shows a protester, their face in stunned close-up, angled toward the camera and visible between the legs of the police officers pinning them to the pavement and zip-tying them. Another shows a university president, arms folded, her face tilted downward in a frown, the crystals of a smashed door panel to her right glinting in the light.

All three images were taken by student journalists (or journalism students) at their own schools—respectively, by Zoraiz Irshad, at the University of California, Los Angeles; Manoo Sirivelu, at the University of Texas at Austin; and Indy Scholtens, at Columbia—in recent days, as campus protests in solidarity with Gaza spread nationwide. The images are three particularly striking swatches in a broader national tapestry that student journalists have woven together over this period, often at personal risk. Student journalists have been detained in the course of their work on at least two campuses, and threatened with arrest elsewhere. At UT Austin—where a professional photojournalist was arrested last week (and now faces charges)—Sirivelu described being pushed down by an officer before taking the photo of the protester being arrested. (“I felt needed to take a picture that would encapsulate both her feelings and my own,” Sirivelu recalled.) At UCLA, four student journalists said that pro-Israel counterprotesters surrounded and sprayed them, then punched one of them and kicked another for nearly a minute.

The correct artistic metaphor for these and other students’ images and reports might not be the warp and weft of a tapestry but dots in a pointillist painting, one that is necessarily impressionistic and also incomplete—not least due to the threats and other access restrictions these students have faced, but also due to the complexity of the unfolding story. In places, student reporting has rendered the painting comprehensible. (We reported last week on the sterling work of the Columbia Daily Spectator in covering unrest and arrests on that campus. As a reminder: CJR is not a student publication.) At its best, local and national media coverage has usefully filled in the picture, too. At its worst, it has taken a hand to the dots of paint and smeared them across the canvas. And there has been a lot of worst.

In the name of not smudging the picture myself, some national-level coverage has respected the nuances of the story, including by amplifying or commissioning the work of student reporters on the ground. Speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday, Alex Wagner sagely warned that, “with a story this big, it’s important not to paint any of this with too broad a brush. All of these protests are made up of individual actors. All of them are happening on different campuses with different responses from administrators and different responses from police.” 

Still, too much coverage—especially on, but not limited to, TV—has blurred into a heady, sometimes incoherent mix of alarmism, condescension, and misplaced nostalgia: one in which the protests are proof of some shadowy, nationwide conspiracy that police are heroically facing down, and also proof that the kids are not all right, and also proof that protest standards have slipped since the sixties (no matter how those protests were seen at the time). At times, the vibe has lurched between analysis of the Zapruder film and Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons

In the process, no little coverage has muddied the actual facts—not least out of Columbia, where, on Tuesday night, hundreds of police officers swept in and arrested protesters who had occupied Hamilton Hall, a campus building. University administrators, police officials, and New York City mayor Eric Adams all to some extent attested to outside agitators playing a key role in the occupation. (For their part, pro-Palestinian organizers at Columbia described the occupiers as “autonomous.”) Sections of the media amplified the official narrative, including a claim from City Hall that the wife of a “known terrorist” was in the building. (She was not.) On Wednesday morning, a deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe brandishing a chain that he said had been recovered from Hamilton Hall. “This is not what students bring to school,” he said. “Don’t think so,” Mika Brzezinski, the cohost, chimed in emphatically. Various journalists suggested that the chain looked an awful lot like a bike lock sold on campus. 

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Later in the day, police officials released a four-and-a-half-minute video, set to heart-pumping music, smashing together footage of preparations for the operation at Hamilton Hall and the sweep itself. But neither they nor Adams offered any sort of clarity as to who exactly had been arrested, even as some diligent outside journalists pressed for answers. In one interview yesterday, Adams estimated the number of “outsiders” involved at 40 percent, though this also included protests on a different New York campus; in another, he suggested that the true figure didn’t matter. Last night, Columbia said that forty-four arrests had been made at Hamilton Hall, of which thirteen were of “non-affiliates.” But the exact role played by the latter remained murky at time of writing.

The circumstances of the police sweep remain somewhat murky as well. Police officials were quick to hail it as precise, a characterization that itself was quickly amplified on cable news, alongside the claim that there were no known injuries. Shortly after the sweep concluded, a law enforcement analyst on CNN, who claimed to have spoken to people in the building, said he thought that police had shown up in such numbers in part “to minimize the use of force that they would have to use.” Shortly afterward, though, the Spectator reported that officers “threw protesters to the floor and slammed into them with metal barricades” outside Hamilton, and that one protester “lay unmoving on the ground” before being carried away.

On Wednesday night, CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Adams about testimony from a Columbia student who said that police pushed away press, then “ambushed,” “tackled,” and “beat” people at Hamilton. “When you look at the analysis of national independent news outlets, they used the terms of how much restraint, how well this was handled, how organized this was handled,” Adams replied. “I agree with those national outlets.” 

Last night, the New York news site The City reported that an officer fired his gun inside Hamilton Hall, citing a spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney. A police spokesperson confirmed that this had happened, stating that the officer was using a flashlight on his gun and fired it accidentally; the spokesperson said that no students were in the vicinity at the time, and no one was hurt. Accident or not, the discharge didn’t make the four-and-a-half-minute police showreel.

Again, generalizing about media coverage is always hard. On the night of the sweep, CNN, for example, also brought on voices connected to Columbia, including Julia Vargas Jones, a student at Columbia Journalism School who broadcast live from campus, and Mahmoud Khalil, a negotiator representing student protesters at Columbia. The network also, by my count, brought on at least six law enforcement or legal or national security commentators, some of them repeatedly, despite their obviously imperfect insight into what was happening on the ground. The following night, as the story continued to reverberate, no representative of the protesters was invited onto CNN in prime time, as far as I can tell—though it did invite Kevin O’Leary, a judge on Shark Tank, to discuss the rest of their lives. (“I’m not against you protesting, but you must understand, in today’s economy, with AI technology, you just killed your career,” he said.)

I believe that cable-news interviews with experts and outside voices can add interesting context to unfolding stories. (Nor is it always straightforward to interview representatives of protest movements that are often diffuse, and leery of the press.) But those who believe that real journalism is dying at the hands of ill-informed armchair punditry—and they are legion—have had a banner week for their cause. Ever since the first round of arrests at Columbia two weeks ago (which I wrote about at the time), the story of campus tensions has been turned into a circus; politicians have not needed much help with this, but sections of the media, not least the armchair pundits, have given it to them anyway. As I wrote previously, this isn’t to say that this nationwide story doesn’t matter—it does, for myriad reasons I listed at the time—or that disturbing instances of bigotry haven’t been a part of it; they have, and continue to be. But the circus-like atmosphere has too often drowned out facts and complexity. And it has fueled a volume of coverage that has, ultimately, been wildly out of proportion to the stakes.

I wrote after the first arrests that the longer-term story of American campus culture, particularly since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and Israel bombarded Gaza in response, had sometimes distracted from the events on the ground that the protesters have been trying to highlight. Since I last wrote, this has certainly been the case, as various media critics (and one United States senator) have pointed out. This more important story hasn’t stopped, of course: in the last two weeks alone, there have been reports of mass graves in Gaza, a murdered Israeli hostage, Palestinian children killed in air strikes, and more. These developments have been covered, including on CNN. Often, though, the student protests have taken precedence.

If covering these protests has been difficult, sometimes dangerous, work, it of course pales in comparison to covering Gaza, where Israeli officials have controlled access for outside journalists and air strikes have killed dozens of journalists on the ground. As a result, that painting, too, is lacking many dots. Journalists might point to this fact as reason for caution and nuance in their coverage, and they might have a point. But in many areas, that painting is already clear enough. And, if this week’s campus coverage is any guide, too many in our media seem quite happy to draw sweeping conclusions when the subject matter suits them.

Other notable stories:

  • A year ago, a report in the Washington Post cast doubt on US claims that a military strike in Syria had killed an influential figure within Al Qaeda; the family of the man who was killed said that he was a shepherd with no ties to terrorist groups, while unnamed US officials told the Post that they weren’t sure who they had killed. Following the Post’s story, officials opened an investigation into the incident; yesterday, they acknowledged publicly that the strike killed a civilian by mistake. The public statement about the killing did not go into much detail as to how it occurred, but the admission, the Post reports, underscores the Pentagon’s “persistent struggle to avoid unintentional casualties despite the Biden administration’s pledge to curb such incidents.”
  • The New Yorker’s Clare Malone dug into Hunterbrook, a combined financial and media company that places trades based on its investigative journalism, and that launched recently to no little controversy. “In many ways, Hunterbrook behaves more like a hedge fund than a journalism outlet,” Malone writes. “A core principle of traditional journalism, of course, is that reporters should pursue information if it is in the public good—not for remunerative reasons. Conflict disclosure is another basic tenet of journalism, but Hunterbrook doesn’t disclose the investors in its hedge fund.” 
  • Reporters Without Borders is out with the 2024 edition of its World Press Freedom Index, which shows that journalism has increasingly come under political pressure globally, RSF says. There were notable falls down the rankings for Niger and Burkina Faso, both of which are now governed by military juntas, while Argentina tumbled twenty-six places following the election of the populist president Javier Milei. And the US fell ten places to fifty-fifth position, out of a hundred and eighty countries worldwide.
  • And the writer Siri Hustvedt—whose husband, the author Paul Auster, died this week—said in an Instagram post that her family was denied the “dignity” of sharing the news after word spread in the media and online without their knowledge. (According to Le Monde, a family friend told the New York Times that Auster had died.) “I do not know the full story about how this happened,” Hustvedt wrote, “but I know this: it is wrong.” 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.