On April 19, a panel entitled "Singapore UnCensored" was held at Yale, in the aftermath of strong faculty reaction against the creating of the Yale-National University of Singapore campus. There is much to say about that arrangement, and many reasons for skepticism; Jim Sleeper has pulled together a series of critiques into one mammoth compendium, Yale Has Gone to Singapore, but Can It Come Back? A fuller analysis on my part will have to be for another time. For the moment I just want to comment on the curious handling of the panel in the Yale Daily News.
Here is the way the YDN account begins:
Seven Singaporean students and alumni from Yale and Columbia offered their perspectives on the liberal arts college Yale is planning with the National University of Singapore at a panel discussion Thursday.
Speakers on the panel touched upon many issues typically raised with Yale-NUS — academic freedom, the liberal arts model in Asia and the Yale “brand” — and fielded questions from the roughly 60-person audience of students and professors in Luce Hall related to those topics. But the panelists also established at the start of the afternoon’s event that, as students, they did not feel comfortable questioning the University’s decision-making for the project. They asked that the conversation, which was open to the public, not be recorded because their comments were exclusively meant for the Yale community.
The article proceeds to quote not from the panel itself, but from comments offered to the YDN after the event by various people who were there. But the YDN does not even fully characterize the degree of self-censorship to which it agreed: As Sleeper explains,
A poster for the meeting in print and online read, "Yale Faculty and Students Welcome," not "Open to the Public," and E-Ching made clear, in response to a faculty member's request to listen in and participate via Skype or conference call, that "we would certainly welcome the virtual presence of faculty at our session, if it is understood that there will be no recording of any kind, and no quoting from what is said during the session. This is because we expect it to be a lively debate and are concerned about quotes out of context." [Audience members were instructed,] "To everyone here, including reporters, do not record or quote from the session, it's off the record."
Why on earth would the YDN agree to such conditions? Well, to be fair: They are the same conditions under which the Crimson and even the Harvard Magazine are allowed to attend Harvard FAS faculty meetings, in spite of my best efforts to get the ban on direct quotation listed. But it gets worse. Sleeper goes on to report,
Only when I rose toward the end of the session and asked if they were indeed recording the discussion and if the government might receive a report did they acknowledge that they were and that it might.
Huh? The YDN knew that the Singapore government was going to get a copy of the recording, in blatant contradiction to what the ground rules had implied, and still stuck to its end of the bargain? Yup. As Sleeper goes on to explain,
The story neither named nor quoted any of the five faculty members who'd asked questions, astonishing because if anyone in the room could have been quoted without risk of reprisal from Singapore or the Yale administration, we could have been. Nor did the story ever mention my question about why the organizers had imposed ground rules they hadn't observed. It didn't report their acknowledgement that they were recording the session and that Singapore authorities would get a report.
And yet a government-controlled Singapore newspaper gave an anodyne report on the event, largely matching the carefully self-censored YDN version but including details that could only have come from that recording.
Two conclusions seem inescapable. First, even the Yale Daily News is eager to go along in order to get along, not to ruffle the harmony-loving feathers of the repressive government with which the Yale Corporation has struck its Faustian bargain. If another Bob Woodward is to emerge from Yale, he or she (like the original) will not come from the ranks of YDN reporters. We had better not count on this crucible to set the standard for the investigative journalism and free speech on which democracy depends.
And second, the Yale-NUS partnership can work only if professors and students agree to censor themselves meticulously, often against limits that can be known only once they have been violated. It seems unimaginable that the spirit of free inquiry can flourish in anything resembling the sense to which it has been understood at Yale and Harvard. How can those old defenders of the right to pursue and argue the truth, and to "give a true account of the gift of reason,""harmonize" their teaching and scholarship with the rules of a regime that so controls the press?