Monday, May 7, 2012

Amazing Student Journalism

and not in a good way.

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?


  1. Harry, your first conclusion is severe and misjudged. I've been following YDN coverage of Yale-NUS since the beginning, and while they certainly and inexplicably appear to have fucked up here, their work over the 18 months has kept the issues alive even when the faculty, for instance, was asleep at the watch for much of that time. Go back and have a look. And don't overlook their editorials, such as this one:

    E Weinberger

  2. I understand -- as they say, it's not quite fair to condemn the whole program on the basis of a single slip-up.

    I am glad to know about the previous reporting; I care less about the editorializing. But the question remains: does the YDN agree with you and me that they fucked up here? If so, please point me to where they say so. If not, we have to assume that this will be their normal mode for dealing with attempts to control their reporting.

    What Sleeper says -- that they were ready with precedents when challenged -- suggests that they do think they did the right thing here, that they think you have to make reasonable compromises and not impose Western cultural imperialist standards on non-Western cultures with regard to information freedom. I really wonder who made the decision just to accept the "off the record" ground rule, even after the hosts acknowledged that a record was in fact going to be given to the Singapore government. Was it the reporter, the night editor, or some alumni advisors?

    Though that is the pretext for this blog entry, I don't really care about the YDN. And I don't think the Crimson has been a paragon of investigative journalism lately -- the recent story on SEAS which quotes me so generously certainly doesn't seem to have drilled down very hard! I am, rather, worried about how universities will make reasonable-sounding compromises in order to "engage the world," and students will follow the leadership as they learn learn what they should consider reasonable.

  3. Jim Sleeper, who is abroad and having trouble posting a comment, asked me to post the following on his behalf.

    I'm really grateful to Harry Lewis' for taking note of it, but I should emphasize that my "mammoth" post opens its account of the Yale Daily News story in question with the observation that it came "after two months in which its editors and reporters had published a commendably broad range of news reportage and commentaries by all interested parties." I would appreciate this being noted.

    What I proceed to describe is an outrageous, Orwellian story co-authored by a YDN reporter whose own stories have been similarly flawed. Obviously some editing at the YDN is also to blame for this, but at no point did I suggest that the whole paper and its other reporters are to be condemned.

  4. There is an open letter written by one of the panelists at the conference, responding to Jill Campbell and Jim Sleeper, who wrote a letter posted on the Yale internal mailing list and an article in the Huffington Post respectively. It can be read at .

  5. To state the obvious:

    If you put on a panel and announce at the beginning that it is off the record and no recordings or direct quotations are allowed, and you disclose later on that YOU made a recording, but claim you made it because you knew the AUDIENCE would not stick to the ground rules, you lose all right to be taken seriously when you proclaim what you did or did not do with the recording you made.