Within the span of five days, a crowd of students surrounded Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway on Cross Campus, University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe resigned under pressure from the football team and hundreds of Ithaca College faculty and students publicly condemned their president’s handling of campus racism.
These demonstrations quickly made headlines in every major national publication, and battles lines were soon drawn: while conservative pundits framed the protests as an issue of freedom of speech, left-leaning writers used the history of discrimination at American universities to defend the protests as a long-overdue reaction to institutional racism. The past two weeks’ coverage of Yale’s protests in particular has highlighted how the national media can shape the direction and discussion of a developing story, both for a national audience and on campus.
THE SHIFTING NARRATIVE
Although much of the Yale community has pointed to a history of racism at the University as the main reason for the recent demonstrations, several major news outlets described the origins of the protests more narrowly in an alleged “white girls only party” at Sigma Alpha Epsilon on Oct. 30 and in an email from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis concerning culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.
During a race teach-in held on campus last week, student activists decried the media’s coverage of recent race-related discussions and controversies, arguing that campus events had been framed in a way that was unfair and damaging to the minority student community. Student discontent largely stemmed from the national media’s early coverage of student activism as a challenge to free speech on campus.
Aaron Lewis ’16, a web developer for the News, wrote a Nov. 8 article on the website Medium titled “What’s really going on at Yale.” He told the News he wrote the article because he found early media coverage one-sided and incomplete.
According to Lewis, the first article about the Yale protests that went viral was authored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an organization which vigorously defends free speech on college campuses — and did not paint a complete picture of the events that led up to the protests.
In his own article, Lewis criticized FIRE for describing the student rallying as a protest in response to just the Christakis email. The reality, he wrote, is that students have been discussing serious racial issues on campus for “many, many years.”
“But chronic racism isn’t newsworthy,” Lewis wrote. “It quietly whittles away at the hearts and minds of people who feel like they’re not being heard.”
Lewis told the News that many journalists overlooked the fact that free speech and anti-racism advocacy are not mutually exclusive. He added that as the week went on, publications like Vox, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Yorker did a better job of correcting the narrative. But problems with the initial coverage may have betrayed the trust of many students on campus, he said, leading them to be skeptical of the press.
“It takes time to understand the full story,” Lewis said. “It’s tempting to publish as quickly as possible, but oftentimes some media organizations sacrifice accuracy for speed and virality.”
Holloway, who gave interviews to The New Yorker and The New York Times last week, also expressed disappointment at the national media’s depiction of campus events as a free-speech issue.
In an interview with the News, Holloway said while the national media is more patient than social media and waits longer before commenting on an issue, the press has only recently improved its coverage and begun to truly understand what is going on at Yale.
“It is unfortunate the media didn’t take the time to understand what is really happening on the ground,” he said. “But after a week of focusing on free speech, they have turned the narrative around and realized there is a lot more going on.”
THE ALLURE OF THE FREE SPEECH SPIN
Professors and journalists interviewed said the national media’s eagerness to characterize student activism as a free-speech issue may have stemmed from a desire to find a new angle or to narrate a national trend.
In journalism, many editors follow a “rule of three” for assigning stories, said Yale political science professor and managing editor of The Washington Spectator John Stoehr.
“When you see three things happen, it’s a trend,” said Stoehr, referring to the events at Yale, Mizzou and Ithaca College. Even though the protests occurred over several days at colleges with differing histories of racism, the press united the disparate threads into a single story, he said.
While the SAE party and Christakis email may have fueled students’ sentiments that the University is not an inclusive space for people of color and minorities, Stoehr said the national press glossed over the nuances of events at Yale in order to draw connections between the protests at Yale and those at other schools. When a photographer for a campus newspaper at the University of Missouri was blockaded from taking pictures of protesters, several writers suggested that protests were silencing free speech, both in Missouri and at Yale.
“I think Yale’s news was caught up in the momentum of what happened at Mizzou,” Stoehr said.
Elite universities like Yale are bellwethers of cultural winds, he added, and when it comes to the national media, things that happen at Yale are more likely to be news.
English professor and New York Times bestselling author Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75 said the national press painted the Yale protests in the context of free speech because many campus publications did not report much about free-speech concerns.
“I think there are free-speech issues,” Brill said. “It seemed as if the concerns about the [free-speech] side were not given the weight that they should have been.”
Still, he acknowledged that Yale students are concerned with more legitimate grievances about racism at Yale than just Halloween costumes. He echoed Stoehr’s hypothesis that the media was looking for a trend in drawing up their stories.
Additionally, freedom of expression on college campuses has historically been a hot-button issue.
Freedom of speech on college campus became an issue during protests of the Vietnam War at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, Stoehr said. Following these protests came the idea of political correctness — the policing of language and the reclamation of derogatory names in order to empower marginalized people. In the early 1970s, wealthy conservatives who felt threatened by these activist movements began to create a “conservative media establishment,” Stoehr said. Conservative think tanks and political writers condemned what they called the liberal censorship of American colleges.
These concerns became especially prevalent after Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, filmed and released a video of a Silliman student shouting at Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis, and after protesters at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program’s conference on free speech spit on a conference attendee. Several national magazines and newspapers began to draw links between the protests against racism and the silencing of free speech. After the video circulated online, Lukianoff wrote a Washington Post op-ed describing his experience at Yale titled, “On the Front Lines of the Fight For Free Speech at Yale.”
An article in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf painted Christakis as a victim, writing that “in the face of hateful personal attacks like that, Nicholas Christakis listened and gave restrained, civil responses.”
Karoli Kuns, a blogger for the political commentary site “Crooks and Liars,” said the trope of campuses being completely liberal and squelching free speech is a myth fabricated in large part by think tanks, who regularly defend their arguments with partisan research that they send to journalists.
“When you send that stuff to reporters routinely, it does shift their perception of events as they’re happening,” Kuns said. “The words ‘non-partisan’ don’t mean anything anymore.”