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Opinion Harvard Crimson pressured by campus immigration activists to bail on journalism

People walk through the gates leading to Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/AP)

It’s the sort of sentence that news consumers encounter thousands of times per year. It has a pro forma, check-the-box feel to it. It’s usually doomed to oblivion: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”

That line in a 600-word-plus story in the Harvard Crimson from Sept. 13 on an immigration protest will not be forgotten, however. It’s currently the focus of an online petition from activist groups at Harvard University. They’re not peeved that the newspaper covered the protest; they’re not arguing that they were misquoted; they’re disappointed that the newspaper contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for comment.

“In the reporting of the article, The Crimson staff contacted ICE for a request for comment on the protest,” reads the petition, referring to the abolish-ICE rally held by campus immigrants’ rights group Act on a Dream. “In a follow-up meeting to discuss their policy, Crimson staff stood by their decision to call ICE and stated that they would do so again. This was the wrong call,” says the petition.

Oh, no it wasn’t, responds the Crimson, a student daily in its 146th year. A note to readers from Crimson President Kristine E. Guillaume and Managing Editor Angela N. Fu reads, in part, “The Crimson exists because of a belief that an uninformed campus would be a poorer one — that our readers have the right to be informed about the place where they live, work, and study. In pursuit of that goal, we seek to follow a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small.”

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“Commonly accepted” understates the matter: Go ahead and dial up anyone in the field of journalism — reporters, editors, professors, whoever — and try to get them to endorse a policy of not seeking comment from the target of a protest. Fairness is merely the beginning of the imperative: “What if the story ends up saying something false about ICE or someone else mentioned in the article? A failure to investigate can be evidence of negligence in a defamation suit if something turns out to be wrong,” notes Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor often consulted by the Erik Wemple Blog.

In their petition, campus activists allege a “long history” at ICE of “surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” A former journalist at the Crimson tweeted:

To underscore its point about the implications of protesting ICE, the petition links to three stories about the agency’s pursuit of immigration activists. The first of those cited stories comes from Vice, under the headline, “ICE Keeps Arresting Prominent Immigration Activists. They Think They’re Being Targeted.” The story quotes Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU Law School: “This is definitely a marked shift from past policies where people’s involvement in immigrants’ rights, civil rights, and labor rights was recognized as a reason for a person to not be targeted. … That activism was, at minimum, respected, and certainly was not a basis for targeting people.”

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The story also contains this bit of reporting: “ICE did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.”

Which is to say that the main story cited by the activist groups to support its call not to seek comment from ICE seeks comment from ICE. Another piece flagged by the activist groups includes actual pushback from ICE.

The Crimson’s decision to request comment from ICE, argues the petition, “is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.” Bolding is original. Yet the Crimson persuasively rebuts any tip-off claim, pointing out in the note to readers:

In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occuring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

In a notable wrinkle, the petition doesn’t criticize the Crimson for actually covering the rally and publishing the names of the protesters. It limits itself to comment outreach. The implication here is that the protesters were content to have their names and comments enter the public record via the Crimson, while pounding the publication for seeking a general comment regarding the protest.

To punish the Crimson for informing its community, Act on a Dream is urging other groups to shun its inquiries:

There are signs that the campaign is working: A follow-up story in the Crimson about the controversy, for instance, cites a lack of cooperation from key players: “Seven of the organizations that signed the petition also declined to comment for this story,” notes the piece. Act on a Dream didn’t respond to the Crimson’s inquiries.

There was a time when reporters got in trouble for failing to seek comment from the other side. That there’s a petition out there with 680-plus signatures shaming a student newspaper for doing things the proper way extends an argument that dates back to the early Trump days — namely, that President Trump himself and associates such as Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Sanders shouldn’t be interviewed on live television and the like because of their tendency to spew falsehoods and just lie. It’s a tempting proposition until you consider that key officials — most recently, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who admitted a Ukraine-related quid pro quo last week — are prone to admitting their malfeasance when called upon to defend it.

Seeking comment from a corrupt administration, accordingly, is an act of patriotism. Keep reporting, Crimson.