Signal Boost: How Conservative Media Outlets Turn Faculty Viewpoints Into National News

June 22, 2017

Screen captures from Hyperallergic and Heat Street
A U. of Iowa professor wrote an essay expressing dismay at "alt-right groups appropriating classical antiquities for nefarious reasons." It was a short trip to the front pages of the internet's conservative media sites.

In an era of deeply partisan media and social-media sharing, news travels fast, and outrage has no trouble keeping pace.

That’s certainly the case when a professor chances a provocative statement on politics or race. Whether true or trumped up, tales of liberal faculty espousing tone-deaf or noxious views are good business for the network of conservative media outlets that purport to document the leftward drift of higher education.

Review enough such cases of faculty polemic gone viral, and an archetype starts to emerge — an assembly line of outrage that collects professors’ Facebook posts, opinion essays, and classroom comments and amplifies them until they have become national news. Often, at the start of that line, you’ll find Campus Reform, a news site that dispatches student journalists to track "liberal bias and abuse on America’s campuses."

Campus Reform’s pieces are often stamped with the hallmarks of nonpartisan journalism. Its reporters reach out to the professors, and sometimes to their institutions, to seek comment. But the stories run beneath shareable, quote-strewn headlines that tend to offer a thumbnail sketch of a more complicated statement: "American patriotism is ‘drenched in whiteness,’ prof claims." "Prof blames ‘Trump and trumpism’ for Scalise shooting."

Then, and often quite quickly, a thriving conservative-media industry delivers a signal boost. Longstanding industry leaders like The National Review and edgier newcomers like Heat Street and The Blaze offer their own write-ups of the controversies, often drawing from the Campus Reform reports without contributing additional reporting.

As the signal is boosted, it is slowly but inexorably mutated, as in a game of telephone. A Campus Reform headline describes a professor’s essay as arguing that white marble in sculptures "contributes" to white supremacy. Two days later, a Daily Caller piece, citing Campus Reform, has the professor "equating" white-marble statues with white supremacy. Two days after that, a site called Truth Revolt — now citing another account from Heat Street, which had also picked up on Campus Reform’s report — is blunter: "Professor: White Marble Statues Are Racist."

The end result, much of the time, is reporting from more-conventional national outlets. A professor, now at the center of a firestorm, gets a call from the producers of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News: Would she like to come on the air and defend her views? A pundit, reading a local newspaper’s report on the incident, folds it into an essay on the state of the academy. Or The Chronicle reports on threats of violence the professor or her institution has received since her comments made their way through the assembly line.

About those threats: They’re increasingly common. The assembly line of outrage doesn’t just expose faculty statements to a national audience; it also calls forth an id. Readers disgusted by what they view as the social-justice agenda of higher education barrage professors and their colleges with invective and promises of personal or campuswide violence. With that in mind, it’s worth understanding how these stories metastasize. Here’s a look at three recent cases.

Sarah E. Bond: An essay on antiquities stirs white supremacists

What the professor said: On June 7, Ms. Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, wrote an essay, "Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color," for Hyperallergic, an online arts forum. The piece explored the cultural history of white marble statutes in an attempt to demonstrate how they established "a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today."

"I’m really sick of alt-right groups appropriating classical antiquities for nefarious reasons," she told The Chronicle about the genesis of her essay. "And I was like, OK, it’s time to just take it back and say classical antiquities belong to everybody, not just Western civilization."

What Campus Reform reported: Coverage appeared on June 8. The headline: "Prof: ‘white marble’ in artwork contributes to white supremacy." The reporter, a Campus Reform intern, contacted Ms. Bond and included a quote from her in the piece.

Where the story spread: On June 9, the story was picked up by Heat Street. The headline: "Iowa University Professor Says ‘White Marble’ Actually Influences ‘White Supremacist’ Ideas." It links to the Campus Reform piece.

The National Review also ran with the story, again linking to Campus Reform. The headline: "Professor: White-Marble Sculpture Contributes to ‘White Supremacy.’"

On June 10, The Daily Caller, again citing Campus Reform, runs with the story. The headline: "Professor Equates White Marble Statues With White Supremacy."

How it broke through: On June 12, a Fox News producer asked Ms. Bond to appear on Tucker Carlson Tonight. She declined the offer. Meanwhile Truth Revolt, a self-described "media bulldog," cited a portion of the reports from Heat Street and Campus Reform. Its headline: "Professor: White Marble Statues Are Racist."

On June 16, a week after the Campus Reform story, The Des Moines Register reported on death threats Ms. Bond had received from white supremacists.

The repercussions: Ms. Bond told The Chronicle that she had received death threats and hateful email messages. Her university supported her throughout the process, she said, but the episode gave her pause about bringing academic work to the public.

Johnny Eric Williams: Facebook posts lead to a campus shutdown

What the professor said: On June 18, Mr. Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, wrote several pointed and occasionally profane Facebook messages about law enforcement and race, encouraging "the racially oppressed" to "put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system." Earlier he had shared a Medium post — called "Let Them Fucking Die" and attributed to a writer named Son of Baldwin — that made reference to the June 14 shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball practice.

"It is evident to anyone who carefully reads my posts on Facebook and Twitter that I did not call for the death of all self-identified ‘whites,’" Mr. Williams said in a statement on June 21. "This was an admittedly provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasoned, reasonable, and yes angry argument."

What Campus Reform reported: Coverage appeared on June 20. The headline: "Prof calls whites ‘inhuman assholes,’ says ‘let them die’." The author, identified as an investigative reporter for Campus Reform, wrote that Mr. Williams "seemingly endorsed the idea that first responders to last week’s congressional shooting should have let the victims ‘fucking die’ because they are white." The article stated that Campus Reform had reached out to Mr. Williams but received no response.

Where the story spread: Hours after the Campus Reform story appeared, the conservative news website The Blaze ran a story, citing Campus Reform. The headline: "College professor to blacks, other minorities: Let white people ‘f***ing die." The Daily Caller had a story later that afternoon, again citing Campus Reform: "Professor Calls White People Inhuman."

How it broke through: On June 21, The Washington Times filed a report mentioning the articles in Campus Reform and The Blaze: "Trinity College professor calls white people ‘inhuman’: ‘Let them f-ing die’."

Later that day, The Hartford Courant reported that the campus had been closed because of violent threats. That story identified the Campus Reform report as the ignitor of the controversy. Fox News published a piece the same day by Todd Starnes, a conservative commentator who cited Campus Reform as the original reporter of the story. The piece mentioned the closure but its headline had a different focus: "Professor’s profane, anti-white messages cause campus controversy."

The repercussions: On Wednesday, facing what law-enforcement officers called "non-specific" threats, Trinity College temporarily shut down.

Mr. Williams said he also received threats by email and telephone. "This attack is at a level of vitriol and hatred in excess of what I have ever experienced," he said in his statement. "This seems to be a national drive of intimidation of professors which all colleges and universities should be concerned about."

Trinity’s president, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, rebuked Mr. Williams and said the dean of faculty would be conducting a review to see "whether college procedures or policies were broken."

On Wednesday evening the Hartford Courant reported that Trinity had reopened its campus and that Mr. Williams had apologized for the furor over his posts and had taken his family into hiding "far from Connecticut."

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: A commencement speech reaches Fox News

What the professor said: On May 20, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, delivered a commencement speech at Hampshire College. "The President of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist, sexist, megalomaniac," she said. "It’s not a benign observation, but has meant tragic consequences for many people in this country."

What Campus Reform reported: Coverage appeared on May 25. The headline: "Prof tells grads Trump is a ‘racist, sexist megalomaniac.’" The author — the same reporter who first covered Mr. Williams’s Facebook posts — wrote that while "many of this year’s commencement speakers have used their platform to pontificate on 2016’s contentious election, most have refrained from explicitly attacking the president by name." This time the author did not mention any attempt to contact Ms. Taylor.

How the story spread: On May 27, The Blaze cited Campus Reform in its own report: "Princeton professor delivers unhinged attack against Trump in graduation speech." The author described Ms. Taylor’s remarks as "multiple vile attacks."

How it broke through: In a short news item the following day, Fox News picked up the story, citing both Campus Reform and The Blaze. The headline was taken nearly verbatim from Campus Reform: "Trump a ‘racist, sexist megalomaniac,’ Princeton prof says in commencement speech."

The repercussions: Ms. Taylor said she had received racist, sexist messages as well as death threats. In a statement on Facebook at the end of May, she announced that she was canceling her forthcoming public talks.

"The cancellation of my speaking events is a concession to the violent intimidation that was, in my opinion, provoked by Fox News," she said.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.

Brock Read is assistant managing editor for daily news at The Chronicle. He directs a team of editors and reporters who cover policy, research, labor, and academic trends, among other things. Follow him on Twitter @bhread, or drop him a line at brock.read@chronicle.com.