November 9, 2015

DAVIS | Journalists Against the University

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By now, Cornell’s most recent Fox News incident is old news. Jesse Watters and his camera crew came, recorded some ambush interviews of students and cut and pasted a segment together to support their foregone conclusion: that Cornell as an institution is a hotbed of some sort of thought-crushing “liberal indoctrination.”

Many people will also remember Cornell’s last brush with right-wing pseudo-journalism, when an undercover “reporter” from Project Veritas (an organization with less journalistic credibility than Fox News) pulled off his own feat of ambush journalism to make it appear that Cornell would welcome a group which materially supported ISIS.

And now Project Veritas has released yet another video, this time portraying Cornell as anti-Constitution. The video follows the same tactics used to obtain the ISIS video: a reporter poses as a student and puts a university employee in an awkward and unrealistic situation; a “gotcha” video is then recorded.

Much has been made, especially in the wake of the Fox News incident, of the issues of journalism and what rights the press should have on campus: the journalistic practices were bad, the journalistic practices were bad but the university was wrong for trying to stop the interviews, the university was in the right for following their previously established policy on unannounced campus interviews, etc. Certainly these are important conversations to have, but we also have to look at the deeper issue behind these incidents: the delegitimization of the university.

No rational human being would contest the fact that the media organizations behind these videos went in with a predetermined conclusion in each case. Jesse Watters didn’t embark on his trip to Ithaca to answer the question, “Is Cornell home to liberal indoctrination?” He embarked to obtain, by any means necessary, evidence to support the conclusion that it was. The motivation behind Fox News and Project Veritas is not a fact-finding one, but an ideological one, and theirs is an ideology which opposes the modern university. The university is a place where so many of their traditionally cherished ideas — the necessity of American militarism and the sanctity of the Constitution, to name a couple — are put up for critical debate, and often aren’t judged favorably. There’s a progressive (and at certain times in history, even revolutionary) potential in universities that has always frightened conservatives.

This is where the videos come in. They aim for the same end they strive for with right-wing ballyhooing about safe spaces and trigger warnings and “political correctness,” and that is the othering of the university. When universities are othered — that is, put into a political category of ivory towers and dangerous ideas which are essentially opposed to whatever is supposed to define the rest of the nation — so too are their students and faculty. In the context of a sociology professor disseminating his or her ideas on racial justice to the general public, or student activism against rape on campuses, or the increasing demands from students to alleviate the burden of student debt, the effects of things like those videos thus become very problematic. The ideas and demands of faculty and students can be ignored because they are coming from people other than “the folks.”

At some point before the end of this school year, some right-wing media group will probably do another story on Cornell. It will probably spark a mild controversy, and with it all the debates and dialogues and opinion pieces that accompany any political controversy on the hill. It would do us all well to remember now and when the next occasion arises that these stories are about so much more than bad journalism.