We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: an interview with Dean Peter Awn; the quixotic quest for a Quidditch team; and a discussion of the institution of the Columbia presidency. This month, magazine Senior Editor and Bwog Editor Claire Sabel (with additional reporting by staff writer and Bwog Friday Editor Peter Sterne) reflects on Columbia’s year in the headlines.
Late December was, unfortunately, an auspicious time for student reporting. The NYPD’s undercover drug bust and the David Epstein incest case had shaken up Columbia, splattering the University’s name across the national media for stories that were to varying degrees degrading and embarrassing. Come spring, Columbia was in a prime position to bear the brunt of the press’s disapproval over another highly sensitive issue: questioning whether those academic institutions that had taken a stand against the military’s discrimination should be expected to formally engage with them after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
One expects Columbia’s critics would be ready to mobilize these scandals from the fall; contesting the obligation to invite ROTC back to campus could easily have been presented as further evidence Columbia students and faculty were over-privileged and amoral. While the attention garnered by the debate over military engagement was certainly unflattering at times, it was remarkably untainted by residual malevolence from the slew of highly-publicized scandals. The Operation Ivy League coverage was largely a class narrative, and stereotyped Columbia as an organization of arrogant elites, but never referred to Columbia’s outspoken politics or legacy of activism either. A close examination of the way Columbia was portrayed in the media during these two dramatic spells leads to some telling conclusions about what our university has come to stand for beyond the bubble.
Most of the Operation Ivy League coverage fit the drug bust into a larger narrative about class. The very name “Operation Ivy League,” first used in the press release from the Office of Special Narcotics announcing the bust, hints that the sting was not only seen as an indictment of the five arrested students, but the Ivy League as a whole. The label implicitly portrayed the drug bust as the rightful punishment of wealthy and entitled students flagrantly violating the law. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said of ‘Operation Ivy League’: “I think that was a media conception… Nobody referred to it with me using that name internally.” The mainstream media, particularly conservative tabloids like the New York Post, were more than willing to take the bait. Despite the fact that one of the arrested students was on financial aid, the New York Post harped on the students’ privilege when describing the bust, writing that “five students at the prestigious college—some from wealthy families—made stacks of cash by peddling a wide range of narcotics out of their frat houses and dorm rooms, authorities said.” The Post did not just assume that all Columbia students are wealthy, but went to lengths to be condescending. The Post described the arrested students’ claims that they only sold drugs to pay for tuition as “whining,” and wrote that “daddy doesn’t seem so stingy anymore” after Harrison David’s father bailed him out of prison. David had allegedly told the police that he was selling drugs to help pay for college, and that his father did not pay tuition.
The New York Times was much more cautious about boarding the Ivy-bashing bandwagon. Their headline, “Typical Drug Case, Except for Ivy League Address,” was more critical than inflammatory. The Times recognized that the bust was noteworthy not because of the actual facts of the case, but because it fit into a narrative of elites laid low. “The five-month investigation, branded Operation Ivy League by the police,” they wrote, “is more noteworthy for its locale than its scope, considering the relatively meager size of the haul and the amount spent on drug purchases by the undercover officers.” The NYPD was willing to expend a ‘module’—several undercover cops, a sergeant, and five investigators—on such a minor bust, and then heavily promote it to the media, because they knew that taking down Ivy League students was striking. In the same interview, Kelly claimed that the cops on the case were not planning on announcing the sting. Until the morning of the arrests, he had not heard of the tabloid-friendly label.
Columbia’s status as an Ivy League school does not entirely explain why Operation Ivy League was covered so extensively by the media, though, since drug busts at other Ivy schools did not receive the same coverage accorded to Columbia’s experience. Only a week after the Operation Ivy League bust, Hanover police arrested a Dartmouth freshman after intercepting a shipment of drugs bound for his campus mailbox. No media aside from The Dartmouth and niche blogs like IvyGate paid any attention to the story, although the student was charged with three felonies. The next month, a Cornell senior was busted in possession of a heroin stash worth $150,000. The NYPD’s haul of 4 bottles of LSD, 38 ecstasy capsules, 15 Adderall pills, 2 plastic bags of psychedelic mushrooms, and a pound of marijuana pales in comparison. The discovery of a lab producing DMT in a freshman dorm at Georgetown passed through media outlets both major and minor, but these reports lacked any perniciousness towards the individual students or the university.
There are two important and intimately related reasons for this, which are both closely related to, but not wholly predicated on, geography. After all, NYU reports five times as many drug-related infractions than we have in the past few years. Columbia is a major player in New York. After the Catholic Church, it is the largest private landowner in New York City, and is one of the city’s largest and most important employers. It is hugely influential in local and national politics, and frequently provides a forum for discussion of important political issues—the week we go to press has seen Columbia host a discussion about New York’s current budget crisis with Senator Gillibrand, former Governor David Paterson, former Mayor David N. Dinkins, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and many other prominent academics and influential policy-makers. The university is one of the most prominent and influential sites for policy-making in New York.
In turn, New York is the capital of equally powerful public advocates—the press. Typically, the press coverage benefits Columbia. Faculty, departments and specialized centers are cited daily in the news. As December’s drug bust and Epstein scandal make clear, though, being located in an international media hub means that your dirty laundry will be aired all over the United States and beyond. Even international media conglomerates are more readily prepared to report on matters that occur closest to their main sites of operation, which is a virtual guarantee that the press will both heavily publicize anything related to Columbia and reduce issues that affect all colleges to their impacts at Columbia. “Illegal drug use,” The New York Times wisely observed, “is an issue on virtually all university and college campuses in the United States, and Columbia is no different.” Of course, there is one difference: the media can pay much more attention to Columbia.
Columbians saw this attention become uncomfortable once again this Spring when the press turned a beady eye on the campus’s public ROTC hearings. The same factors went into the equation, and The Times treated Columbia gracefully while the Post threw bombs at a sensationalized stereotype of Columbia. The Times, in fact, did not even comment on the return of ROTC to Columbia until after the University Senate had already voted to bring it back. The Post, on the other hand, used the “heckling” of Anthony Maschek, GS’14, as the basis for editorials that excoriated Columbia. Ignoring the actual arguments being made by both sides of the debate, and more importantly assuming that all Columbia students opposed ROTC when polls clearly showed most supported its return, the Post argued that Columbia students are fundamentally inferior to their peers in the armed forces. “Who’s to doubt,” asked a Post editorial, “that [Columbians] would benefit from being marched around the Afghan outback long enough to learn what fundamentally better young men and women do on their behalf all around the world, every day, as a matter of routine?”
Given the sensationalism of papers like the Post, it is remarkable there was no intersection between this view of Columbia as a hotbed of liberal sentiment and the drug bust’s rendering of the university as a bastion of entitled elites who think they are above the law. Even the most salacious reports on the student body and their unpatriotic tutelage, such as the Post’s claim that “the academy’s affection for Marxism, a doctrine in fundamental conflict with America’s founding principles, is invincible,” never made a link to either the drug bust or the Epstein case. The Post made sure to connect the opposition to ROTC to our activist past, even noting at one point that “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who tortures and imprisons journalists and other critics, is welcome at Columbia but not a program to train officers for the US military,” but they never connected this opposition to the scandals of the previous months. Why didn’t the Post choose to mention Operation Ivy League as evidence that Columbia’s America-hating liberalism leads them to run roughshod over the rule of law, or the Epstein scandal as evidence of Columbia’s moral depravity?
While we should of course be grateful that the reputation of our institution, and our degrees, was not raked through three-month stale mud to arrive at the regrettable heckling incident, it does warrant concern for another reason. If Columbia has become merely the plaything of the 24-hour news cycle, with such an easily manipulated reputation, we have lost some integrity as an institution. At least in the aftermath of our hallowed activist past, highlighted in The Blue and White’s March issue, we had an unwavering character for people to rail against. Increasingly it seems, we’re more of a Lindsay Lohan than a leader of either academic institutions or national politics, as we emerge from the anti-climactic and somewhat bumbling process of inviting ROTC back to campus (which all of the members of the Task Force approved). Given our extremely privileged position in the media and the political sphere, we could afford to pull our weight a little more, stand up a little straighter, and stop being (proverbially) Perez Hilton’s bitch.