Student journalists hard at work

"The escalating authoritarianism we’re witnessing in the crackdown on college campuses is, in part," writes Karr, "a byproduct of a media system that fails to hold powerful interests accountable for the lies they tell."

(Photo: Tim Karr/Free Press)

Student Reporters Offer a Lesson on World Press Freedom Day

The escalating authoritarianism we’re witnessing in the crackdown on college campuses is, in part, a byproduct of a media system that fails to hold powerful interests accountable for the lies they tell.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a day that recognizes the journalists worldwide who expose wrongdoing, challenge power and seek the truth. Since mid-April, student-run news outlets have been carrying the banner of press freedom as they cover the often brutal police crackdowns against pro-Palestinian encampments set up to protest what students consider to be genocide happening in Gaza.

If coverage of the crackdowns results in any Pulitzers, the awards should go to cub reporters like those at Columbia University’s student-run radio station WKCR, and not to those members of the corporate press who’ve relied more on their virtual Rolodexes of official sources than on the sort of shoe-leather reporting that gets closer to revealing what’s actually happening on college campuses.

Beginning with Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, school administrators have called in police to conduct sweeps at dozens of protest encampments nationwide. Many of these university officials have aligned themselves with the law-enforcement claim that “outside agitators” who are not members of the student population are leading the campus protests.

On World Press Freedom Day, it’s worth asking what makes a free press free.

This false characterization is designed to cast students as mere pawns in some larger scheme, and not as engaged members of a well-organized, student-run movement that seeks to compel their schools to divest any financial support from a state that’s perpetrating atrocities in Gaza that have killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Grooming the press

Unfortunately, many in the media establishment have also aligned their reporting and commentary with the views of administrators and law enforcement.

Prior to police involvement, most of the student protests were peaceful — though there were reported instances of antisemitism that must be universally condemned. The violence at Columbia only started once Shafik ignored Columbia students and faculty and opened campus gates to a heavily militarized police force.

Shafik’s disastrous decision sparked a wider backlash. Student protesters built new encampments — or expanded existing ones — on campuses across the country. This in turn drew front-page media attention to the movement. Through the distorted lens of many mainstream outlets, though, it’s the students who are on the attack.

On April 22, The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed in which political commentator Steven Stalinsky claims that Hamas is coordinating and “grooming” student activists for acts of terrorism.

ABC News and Fox Television’s New York City affiliate portrayed the mass arrests the week of April 29 as a “clash” between protesters and police when most available footage clearly shows law enforcement as the aggressors.

One New York Times piece framed the spread of student encampments as a “contagious” disease. “The piece focused largely on why demonstrations have been so prevalent in America but not overseas, yet failed to mention the fact that the U.S. is Israel’s most powerful and generous supporter,” writes The New Republic’s Alex Shephard. “That would seem highly relevant.” Reporters could help their readers better understand the protests by covering the complicated money trail that links the investments of heavily endowed universities like Columbia and UCLA to a military-industrial complex that arms repressive regimes worldwide.

In an overly commercialized media system, the press is not as free as it claims to be.

The Washington Post’sLaura Wagner wrote a piece about student protesters giving the professional press a “cold shoulder.” Wagner mentioned that students “felt that their protests are not being covered fairly,” but did not follow up with examples of unfair coverage or offer much further analysis.

While professional journalists can be dogged in their reporting on other commercial sectors, they tend to shy away from criticism of their own.

Meanwhile, student reporters with Columbia’s WKCR spent hours on April 30 and into the early hours of May 1 wading into the protests to livestream the escalation of the NYPD presence on campus. The brutal reality of the crackdown that followed unfolded before their cameras. “[W]e’re all very dedicated to our coverage,” WKCR’s Sarah Barlyn told Mother Jones. "It’s hard to sleep when we know that we have a job to report on what’s going on.”

Eventually, police ordered WKCR reporters to get off campus. “Frankly, no one is left to document what’s happening,” one reporter responded on air.

Indeed. Many journalists working for professional media outlets were instead attending press conferences convened by NYPD officials and Mayor Eric Adams. The media were told that the protests had been “co-opted by professional outside agitators” who are not Columbia students. Their subsequent reporting followed this talking point. Many portrayed one 63-year-old civil-disobedience trainer as a puppet master, downplaying students as the legitimate organizers of protest encampments.

The un-free press

It may seem off to criticize the press on World Press Freedom Day. Today, we should be celebrating the essential role a free press plays in giving the public the information it needs to exercise democratic power. Ideally, to paraphrase Chicago Evening Post journalist Finley Peter Dunne, this freedom allows the press “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

But in an overly commercialized media system, the press is not as free as it claims to be.

The escalating authoritarianism we’re witnessing in the crackdown on college campuses is, in part, a byproduct of a media system that fails to hold powerful interests accountable for the lies they tell. U.S. media firms of most every type need to make money via advertising. When commercial outcomes dictate your success, catering to wealth and power matters more than keeping that same power in check. As a result, commercial media view the world through a corporate scrim, and shy away from any reporting that “afflicts the comfortable” too much, and that potentially undercuts their bottom lines.

To foster a public-interest media system that promotes democracy and gives voice to dissenting views, we must create public structures to support the production of noncommercial news and information.

Systemic failures in commercial media coverage of protests have helped normalize ideas about police violence against dissenting voices. Our media system is supposed to act as a counterweight to and not an enabler of such suppression.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania found that countries with the most financial support for noncommercial media per capita had the highest levels of public knowledge about and engagement in democracy. According to the study, noncommercial media also feature more diverse news coverage, potentially diminishing commercial media’s ability to dictate public discourse on a given issue.

To foster a public-interest media system that promotes democracy and gives voice to dissenting views, we must create public structures to support the production of noncommercial news and information. We must let a thousand WKCRs — and other noncommercial outlets — bloom, including those that actually pay reporters a living wage.

While this approach doesn’t pretend to answer all of the questions about the media’s role in service of democracy, it recognizes that a strong independent noncommercial media system can serve as a major bulwark against democracy-destabilizing forces.

On World Press Freedom Day, it’s worth asking what makes a free press free. We have the young reporters at WKCR to thank for helping show us the answer.

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