NYU News: Media coverage of airstrike fails, outlets quietly rewrite articles

My column this week for the Washington Square News. Staff applications for the WSN came out yesterday, so when I have time this week I’ll link y’all to some great columns my contributing writers have written for the paper.

The world was shocked this weekend as news emerged that 19 people were killed when a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was attacked by a U.S. air strike. The hospital, operated by Doctors Without Borders, was systematically bombed, reportedly leaving 22 dead, including three children. The hospital, which is the only one of its kind in the region, had generated controversy for treating members from both sides of the conflict. The U.S. media once again showed itself beholden to the U.S. military establishment, with high-profile news outlets unwilling to call out what is arguably a war crime in a country where U.S. conflict had allegedly ended last December. CNN reported that the hospital was bombarded “about the time of a U.S. airstrike,” seemingly incapable of drawing the probable link. In a first draft of its story captured by NewsDiff.org, a website which records when major news sites change their stories, The New York Times refused to say more than that a U.S. strike “appears to have badly damaged the hospital,” despite reporting that the military “confirmed” the strike. The NYT, with no critical eye, regurgitated the military’s statement that an attack may have led to the hospital coming under attack from “collateral damage.” Newspapers fail their readers when they mindlessly lean on official sources or quietly rewrite their stories with no word to the readers.

But beyond a national media that is largely unwilling to directly call out the US military when they attack civilians, another cause for concern is the propensity of  newspapers like The New York Times to quietly rewrite their stories, with no acknowledgement until days after. This happened in July with a story on the Clinton email scandal, and it happened again with the story on the Afghan hospital bombing. NewsDiff has archived 16 separate versions of the NYT story, under five different headlines.

Newspapers have long been the “rough first draft of history,” an admittedly imperfect report of the previous day’s events. Front pages after the Titanic sinking, V-E day in Europe or Sept. 12, 2001 have become iconic and are used as examples in journalism schools around the country. As journalism moves online and editing content becomes faster than a correction in the next day’s edition, it is important that newspapers do not abdicate their role and report events as correctly as possible, without mincing their words.

It remains to be seen if outrage at the Kunduz attack will force U.S. leaders to examine their strategy in the region. However, so long as media outlets quietly change their articles, it is up to third-party sources such as NewsDiff to serve as a watchdog on the media. This is not how our news media should work, and papers such as the NYT must lean less on official sources and be more transparent when it reports on these issues.

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NYU News: Bring home Snowden in time for 2016 election

My column for Washington Square News, NYU’s official student-run newspaper, this week.

Our favorite NSA whistleblower joined Twitter last night, sharing jokes with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about the U.S. government canceling his passport as he garnered more than a million followers in less than 24 hours. Edward Snowden, who has lived in Russia since leaking thousands of documents about U.S. mass surveillance to journalists, has been a polarizing figure in Washington since blowing the whistle on the NSA. This served as a rare moment of consensus as politicians from both sides of the aisle tripped over one another to denounce him. President Obama dismissed him as “some hacker” as Clinton charged that his actions helped terrorists while presidential candidates Jeb BushMarco Rubio, and —of course— Donald Trump all denounced him. Leaving aside the fact Snowden himself has said he did not bring any documents with him to Russia and such claims of his cooperation are not based in fact, the rush to denounce him shifts attention away from where the U.S. public should be looking: the three-letter agency who violated the constitution and the former intelligence chief who lied to Congress. Obama is wrong to target one whistleblower who revealed the extent to which the government had betrayed the trust of the public. He should pardon Snowden, allowing him to come home in time to vote for the 2016 election.

Two common criticisms of Snowden revolve around his status as a Muscovite and the fact that he leaked documents rather than working with the NSA to address his concerns. These arguments are easily debunked. First, Snowden has said that Moscow was never meant to be his final destination. After he left Hong Kong, the U.S. government revoked his passport, effectively stranding him in place. Additionally, Snowden claims to have raised his concerns about the domestic surveillance program with NSA superiors before blowing the whistle.

Framing Snowden’s actions solely in the dichotomy of legal and illegal is too reductionist. Anti-sodomy laws existed in the United States until 2003 despite the growing national call for marriage rights, while marijuana, which illegal in 46 states, currently stands as the most commonly-used illicit drug. Slavery, too, was legal in the United States for much of the 19th century. People must not rely on legality as the sole lens with which to judge Snowden’s actions. His actions must be weighed against the revelation that the NSA was vastly overstepping its mandate and going far beyond the bounds of the constitution.

For a country born in revolution, many in the media and the beltway are quick to scorn an act of conscience, a rebellion against what one man saw as government tyranny. Since former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has said he would consider granting Snowden clemency, Snowden supporters have two options: starting a petition for a second Carter presidency, or petitioning Obama to give Snowden clemency. Given how all presidential candidates have been forced to take a stance on domestic surveillance one way or another, it is only right that he be allowed back to the United States to vote in 2016. Obama must drop the charges against Snowden and allow him home.

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#BetterSexTalk Update

A few days ago, I wrote about the #BetterSexTalk campaign and their fundraiser to expand the initiative beyond NYU, to Harvard, Brown, Stanford and others.

Today, I’m delighted to say that their Kickstarter reached and exceeded its target of $3,000. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’ve seen first-hand how impressive the folks behind BST are — you can and should still donate to their campaign.

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Campus Journalism

I tweeted this a year ago today:

(The article I ended up writing took a slightly different tack, but was still predictably on online privacy.)

It’s September 23, 2014. I woke up late this morning and then spent part of it responding to emails about a piece we published over the weekend. That responsibility —being opinion editor— is a long way from the contributing writer I started off as in fall of 2014. I’m fairly confident that in years to come, I’ll look back at this time, writing columns for WSN, as my most enjoyable and formative experience of my undergrad career.

What a year it’s been.

More soon — I didn’t want the day to pass by unmentioned.


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NYU News: NYU should issue campus transparency report

An editorial I helped write at the Washington Square News that I’m particularly proud of. 

The University of California, Berkeley became the first university in the country to issue a transparency report, detailing the instances where the government requested information about UCB students and staff. Recent cases involving Wikileaks and Edward Snowden notwithstanding, transparency rarely makes headlines — the release of statistics, no matter how important they are, does not quite fit the old newsroom axiom of “if it bleeds, it leads.” But as more and more of our college experience moves online, how NYU uses student data is of concern to all of us. In total, there were 36 data requests in 2014, and a further 19 during the first six months of this year. Given how much information NYU has on its students and staff and how much we depend on NYU Classes during the academic year, the administration should follow Berkeley’s lead and release a transparency report of their own.

NYU has over 49,000 students and over 4,500 faculty members. The university provides each and every one of them with an email account and access to Google Drive, which means that they are stewards of our data as much as any internet service provider. They host our syllabi, our homework assignments and our emails. And as with any ISP, NYU is responsible for the data that they process. Letting the NYU community know when that data has been requested by the government is the least they can do, a relatively small aspect that plays a massively important role in keeping the school community informed of the goings-on surrounding their data. As NYU Law professor Jason Schultz noted in Slate, releasing the data regularly makes it easier to spot anomalies, such as if the number of government requests increases after periods of unrest or protest. Many NYU students took part in Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, and knowing if the administration was asked to turn over private correspondence between students would be highly informative.

The Berkeley transparency report, by publicizing government data requests, chips away ever so slightly at the monolith of government surveillance. By informing students and faculty of government requests for their data, Berkeley makes the surveillance process more transparent, giving students an insight into how the university uses data entrusted to it. As more universities release transparency reports, students and staff can begin to take back control of their private information. Our information shouldn’t be less private just because it’s digital. NYU should start start gathering information and pledge to follow Berkeley’s example, releasing a transparency report in 2016.

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One of the things that constantly impresses me is how civic-minded and enterprising the people I go to college with are — these are the people who make me proud to be part of NYU.

During my sophomore year, I worked with a group at The New School to develop a consent workshop geared at college freshmen. Reducing sexual assault on campus is something I feel strongly about, and so I was delighted to get to know Josy Jablons and the #BetterSexTalk campaign.

Their mission statement is fairly simple:

If you could give one piece of advice about sex to a younger sibling, what would you say?

The initiative is a photo campaign which raises awareness about the twin issues of sex education and sexual assault. You can see some of their existing photos from the NYU campaign here, and now they’re looking to expand to other universities, including Harvard, Brown, and Stanford.

The group has a website and a Kickstarter that, at the time of this writing, only needs another $400 to reach its goal. I’ve donated, and I hope you do too.

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NYU News: Students Must Come Before Expansion

My column this week for Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. 

collison_tommyWSN reported yesterday that the university’s lowest-income students pay comparatively more for their education than similar students at other universities in the United States. Citing reports from ProPublica and The New York Times, reports indicate that NYU’s lowest-income students pay an average of $25,441 a year, ranking 11th out of the 100 universities which the reports focused on. Whether the university fully appreciates this or not, the high costs of attendance here are part of its reputation — we’re known as a good school, but also one where students have to stretch quite a bit to afford. Unfortunately, another facet of our reputation, which will stay with us long after we graduate, is NYU’s expansion plan, both in Greenwich Village and abroad. Quite simply, the administration is failing its low-income students. In this light, it is unreasonable for NYU expansion to continue: it must focus on its current students, even if this means halting new development in the near future.

Giving million-dollar loans to faculty-members for homes and second homes can make financial sense — these loans make money because of the interest generated.  However, given student resentment that continues to be felt around campus when the subject of John Sexton’s Fire Island home is brought up, the question of common sense must be raised. It is true that faculty deserve bonuses and incentives like these help NYU attract better professors, but a distinction must be drawn at some stage between what is financially prudent and what is best for students.

Another reason that NYU would be right to make student financial aid its central priority is that, loans aside, the administration has been no stranger to scandal over the last number of years. From four votes of no confidence in outgoing President Sexton to harsh labor conditions during NYU Abu Dhabi’s construction and animosity between the administration and Greenwich Village residents, the administration should take this opportunity for some good press — not to mention doing the right thing — and increase financial aid for those who need it most.

When Sexton’s presidency is evaluated with the clarity of hindsight, I have no doubt that his time at the helm of this university will be viewed as a success, but what sort of success is debatable. NYU is a very good business — it is savvy with loans and manages to consistently increase the number of applicants and tuition it brings in each year. The problem is that NYU is not a business. It is, as we are often reminded, a private university in the public service. If the administration wants to do right by those record number of applicants each year, it should serve them better when it comes to financial aid. It should downsize its expansion plans and put that money back toward students.

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Why I Stopped Using the Term “Arab Spring” and You Should Too

The demonstrations that that took place in several Middle Eastern countries during the early months of 2011 quickly became known in Western media outlets as the Arab Spring. The term was most likely coined in an article in “Foreign Policy,” and that it originated in the West rather than in the Arab world countries themselves is both telling and problematic. The phrase began to be used in the countries directly involved in the protests, but only after it appeared in the US.

It was described in the West as a new horizon — something unexpected and perhaps unimagined. But given that, years later, Tunisia is perhaps the only success story from the 2011 protests, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call what happened a spring — from what/where? Where have they ended up? What about Syria, where civil uprisings turned into a brutal civil war with 4 million refugees?

Few people would have predicted in 2005 that the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen would be overthrown in the coming years. But just because something wasn’t imagined doesn’t mean it was unprecedented. As a term, “Arab Spring” implies that it both comes after and replaces some sort of “Arab Winter.” This simply isn’t true, as the political landscape wasn’t barren before 2011: in Egypt, for instance, there was the 2008 general strike; across the Red Sea in Jordan and Lebanon, thousands marched in the streets in 2002. The region has a long history of large, unarmed protests. The protesters’  desires for political and constitutional rights weren’t new — they were long-standing, centuries-old demands.

Many have written —myself included— that this was the Twitter revolution, but technology has always facilitated rebellion, from the telegraph’s role in the revolutions of 1848 to Ayatollah Khomeini using the then-cutting edge technology of cassette tapes to bring his sermons to the Iranian people while in exile in Iraq.

This isn’t to say there was nothing new in the 2011 protests. While most of the protests mentioned above concern what Arab countries saw as Western (usually American) interference, the 2011 protestors pointed their fingers directly at their own elites, understood that their leaders were part of international political economies (e.g. arms sales) that people didn’t want to be a part of any more. The protestors were capable of that internal-external divide. Additionally, individual rights was highlighted in these protests in a way that hadn’t really been seen before, as evidenced by slogans such as “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian.”

So — what to call these events if not the Arab Spring? “Arab uprisings” works, or, even better, “2011 Arab uprisings,” to tip your hat to the fact that folks in Middle Eastern countries are no strangers to protests.

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NYU News: Facebook’s Real Name Policy Must Go

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. 

tommyEvery few months, a story surfaces of someone being kicked off Facebook for refusing to adhere to a little-known, sporadically enforced policy that requires users to use their “real name” in their profiles. The summer saw two high-profile cases of blocked facebook accounts: Laurie Penny, a British journalist who uses a pseudonym due to the rape and death threats she regularly receives; and Zip, a former Facebook employee who had used her name for six years through her employment, both had their accounts deactivated. However, German regulators have forced Facebook to stop enforcing the rule, claiming that banning users from using alternate names and pseudonyms violates German law. This is a step in the right direction, but change must come from within: Facebook should drop their real name policy entirely.

Facebook’s rationale for the policy stems from their belief that real names push up user engagement on the site. Facebook is inherently less valuable if you cannot easily find your friends or the cute person you just met at a bar. But not only that — Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg cannot fathom why someone would have two names. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. He has also said that privacy is no longer a “social norm” people care about. This is a belief that benefits Facebook but is incorrect and should be abandoned.

There are plenty of reasons people may not use their real name online. Facebook is positioning itself as the gatekeeper of our social interactions: if everyone at NYU knows me by a nickname and not “Tommy,” it should not be Facebook’s decision which name I use on the site. Alternatively, users could be transitioning, closeted or victims of stalking or domestic violence who want to use the site for support and outreach without leaving themselves vulnerable to their abusers. They could also be Native Americans, whose accounts have been suspended by the social network in the past. Facebook seems to have a pre-existing idea of what a name should be, and “Dana Lone Hill” does not fit the idea. Suspending accounts for this reason in no way Facebook’s jurisdiction, and this odious practice must stop.

On an iPhone, if you ask Siri how old “Bruce Jenner” is, it will correct you and say that Caitlyn Jenner is 65 years old. If you type “Bruce Jenner” into Wikipedia, the site redirects you to the article on Caitlyn Jenner. These subtle shifts, prompting users to refer to and see Jenner by the name she has chosen, is an example of how technology is not neutral, and can shape our realities. Last year, Facebook introduced custom genders, allowing users to identify as genders other than “male” and “female.” They must now take the next step and end their toxic real name policy.

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Report on first week of junior year forthcoming once I make some inroads on my assignments due over the next few days, but makes sure you check out this fantastic New York Times editorial on the Black Lives Matter movement:

The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, and is of a piece with this history. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued.

When someone is drowning in a pool, the folks sitting by the water’s edge do not begrudge the lifeguard diving in to save the swimmer in distress. All lives matter, but not all are in immediate danger.

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