Samilow ’19: The case against anonymous commentary

President Trump has many betes noires — his enemies, some of his friends, germs and sharks, to name a few — but none is more despised than the “FAKE NEWS media.” And nothing the FAKE NEWS media does winds him up more than when it quotes “phony unnamed sources” on dysfunction in his White House.   

Yet much in the way that children’s books often deal with adult themes, his tweets can pose serious questions, in this case about anonymity in journalism: when its recipients should be trusted; when its power dynamics are unfair; when editors are responsible for errors committed under its cover; when it is more prejudicial than protective. A recent experience I had with the College Hill Independent, another publication at Brown, shows that these dilemmas, and their attendant ethical and editorial failures, extend to college papers as well.

Six weeks ago in these pages, I panned an event — put on by Brown’s Middle East Studies program — that promoted a boycott of Israeli universities. I argued that academic boycotts, no matter how righteous they might seem, should be rejected because they establish “one standard of pedagogy for teaching Israel, and another standard of pedagogy for teaching all other countries.” This imbalance in scholarship, I said, is “a form of political activism that invariably corrupts education.” I also noted that MES’s series of talks, known as “Critical Conversations,” has featured panelists who almost exclusively hail from the post-colonial far-left. “Not one has included an individual who defends Israel with half the intensity of the median panelist who criticizes it,” I wrote.

I knew I was touching a third rail but didn’t expect it to take so long for the electric shock to be delivered. A few days went by. Then a week. Then a month. A response finally appeared last Friday, in the Indy. It was printed anonymously, under the byline D.A.M.A.J. The 1,500-word think piece didn’t talk about only me, but when it did, D.A.M.A.J. accused me of “exemplify(ing) (a) dangerous, anti-democratic ideology that seeks to diminish dissenting voices within the Israeli nation.” What did I do to earn the dubious honor of “exemplifying” an anti-democratic ideology? I had complained that the MES event “lacked ideological diversity” (D.A.M.A.J.’s words) but I failed to mention that one of the panelists, Professor Ariella Azoulay, was Israeli herself. So apparently I was “openly discrediting Azoulay’s voice as unworthy of representing an Israeli perspective.”

This obviously makes no sense: Being Israeli doesn’t mean you represent a mainstream or supportive position on Israel. Indeed, Azoulay is an expat who publicly supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as a way to free Israeli Jews from becoming “perpetrators” of  “crimes against humanity.” She’s free to think and say whatever she wants, but she can’t exactly be offended if I don’t see her as sympathetic to Israel. I was clearly talking about the views of the panelists, not their nationalities.

But maybe this is just quibbling. I’m far more dismayed that the Indy allowed this commentary to be published anonymously, and I said so to the managing editors. The three agreed to meet me immediately, but insisted that it was proper to let D.A.M.A.J. hide in the shadows because the author is afraid of personal or professional repercussions if they go on record as being critical of Israel. I don’t doubt D.A.M.A.J.’s sincerity, but editors have to independently balance a writer’s concerns against the asymmetry of an anonymous reply. And in this case, the balance tips sharply against incognito mode. I wrote using my name. I took, and am taking, the risks that come with that: public disapproval, the embarrassment of making a mistake, creating a permanent record of my views on this topic. It’s quite common for a named reporter to quote unnamed sources, but it’s virtually unheard of for newspapers to publish political analysis with no byline. Student newspapers should take seriously their role in fairly mediating debate between students, and their responsibility to make sure that their contributors are held accountable for their views.

People in invisible houses shouldn’t throw stones — especially when they have no aim. D.A.M.A.J. too “exemplifies” something: how anonymity compromises a writer’s caution. D.A.M.A.J. says CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog group, is “known to blacklist students and professors” who are “remotely critical” of Israel, lumping it in with the likes of organizations like Canary Mission. No citation is offered for this remarkable accusation against CAMERA, and that’s because there’s no evidence CAMERA blacklists students for their views on Israel. It criticizes news articles and public statements it thinks are incorrect, biased or anti-Semitic. D.A.M.A.J. may think that CAMERA is too trigger-happy with alleging anti-Semitism or is deliberately unfair; that’s an opinion they’re entitled to. But they can’t produce any articles suggesting it blacklists students or professors. Writers tend to be careful to characterize their opposition generously so as to avoid inadvertent slander. But I guess when you’re writing anonymously, why bother?

You might wonder: Why not reply in the Indy, since it’s their judgment I’m questioning? Indeed I asked to. After all, their website boasts, “Though our editing process provides an internal structure for accountability, we always welcome letters to the editor.” They said sure: next fall.

Jared Samilow ’19 is a member of Brown Students for Israel and a fellow at the organization CAMERA. He can be reached at jared_samilow@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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