Hey, Spec—your bias is showing. And that’s OK.

No form of media can escape all bias. Even without explicitly endorsing a policy or candidate, publications demonstrate bias through what they cover, how often they cover it, where they position certain articles, and the people in their network who they can interview. That is, if a paper run mostly by liberals were instead run by conservatives, the paper would turn out very differently. However impartial even a paper like the New York Times tries to be in its reporting, it will always be a center-left paper.

This is not an indictment. We need some candor about inextirpable bias so that readers can better contextualize what they are reading. The danger in reading only ostensibly neutral publications is not in gaining a skewed perspective of the world—the world is the unavoidable source of bias in the first place—but rather in forming a skewed perspective unaware that such a skew even exists. In this way, to the consumer of “fair and balanced” media, deviations from personal opinions are not merely different perspectives but perversions of “the truth” and “the facts.” The inability to admit that “maybe I’m wrong” leads to the polarization we see today. To this end, papers like the Times and Spectator need not emblazon “A CENTER-LEFT PUBLICATION” on their nameplates or give up all efforts of impartiality. We just need an implicit understanding of the reality of bias.

The situation is a little bit different in the realm of opinion. The New York Times knows most of its columnists are on the left and does not try to hide that fact. But it does try to provide a little balance to the discourse on its pages by including writers like David Brooks and Bret Stephens. While I take no issue with this, liberals won’t gain true understanding of the enemy camp by only reading Brooks and Stephens in the Times. Luckily, we can access many diverse national publications, some unabashedly conservative. Simply going to nationalreview.com or breitbart.com will give the curious liberal reader better insight into the other side.

But campus commentary is yet another different case. In virtue of having 30,000 potential readers instead of a population of 300 million, a sort of natural monopoly on journalism forms. Spec’s virtual hegemony affords it enormous power in shaping discourse, especially in terms of opinion. National publications can lean any particular way, knowing that many others can provide alternative perspectives—in contrast, Spec, as the flagship paper, is responsible for representing the wide range of opinion represented at Columbia.

If one hopes to create this representative discourse, the secret lies in hearing opinions from peers—it is not enough for students to read professional pundits, easy as it is with the internet. When a fellow Columbia student articulates a minority opinion, it probably sounds more convincing than Sean Hannity saying the same thing (although I assure you my personal ideas differ greatly from Sean Hannity’s). It’s easy to write off Hannity as a Fox News blowhard (and, for the most part, you should), but everyone at Columbia had to meet similarly rigorous admissions standards. No one can so easily dismiss the intellect or motives of a peer, and so other students’ ideas carry that much more weight for consideration.

Many students are surprised to learn not only what my views are, but even that I have views different from theirs. I did not aim to necessarily change anyone’s mind. I just hope to have challenged readers on ideas they previously took for granted. And for that reason I am enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute here this semester.

Hey, Spec—your bias is showing. And that’s OK.

No form of media can escape all bias. Even without explicitly endorsing a policy or candidate, publications demonstrate bias through what they cover, how often they cover it, where they position certain articles, and the people in their network who they can interview. That is, if a paper run mostly by liberals were instead run by conservatives, the paper would turn out very differently. However impartial even a paper like the New York Times tries to be in its reporting, it will always be a center-left paper.

This is not an indictment. We need some candor about inextirpable bias so that readers can better contextualize what they are reading. The danger in reading only ostensibly neutral publications is not in gaining a skewed perspective of the world—the world is the unavoidable source of bias in the first place—but rather in forming a skewed perspective unaware that such a skew even exists. In this way, to the consumer of “fair and balanced” media, deviations from personal opinions are not merely different perspectives but perversions of “the truth” and “the facts.” The inability to admit that “maybe I’m wrong” leads to the polarization we see today. To this end, papers like the Times and Spectator need not emblazon “A CENTER-LEFT PUBLICATION” on their nameplates or give up all efforts of impartiality. We just need an implicit understanding of the reality of bias.

Joseph Siegel is a sophomore in Columbia College studying philosophy and economics. If what you read of his today makes you at all angry, please be sure to avoid directing feedback to any Joseph Siegals, Seigels, or Spiegels.

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By JOSEPH SIEGEL
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Alison Li / Discourse and debate

Discourse & Debate: What's the role of campus media?

Should campus media act like the New York Times, or would it be better for it to not take itself seriously? Consider both what is accurate about the current state of campus media, but also what is good for campus as a whole. What are the pros and cons, and how do you—Discourse & Debate contributors—fit into this?

Any topic that is serious is also funny. In fact, this is necessarily the case. To joke is to be profane, and it’s much harder to treat as profane things that simply do not demand our reverence. I have heard few funny jokes about bubble tea or belly dancers, but I have laughed uproariously about marriage, the pope, death, and anti-Semitism. It is little wonder that the Federalist, a satirical paper, was originally a thought magazine—the two genres are intimately related.

Satirical or humorous writing often proves far more persuasive than grave, restrained prose. The stylistic medium through which an individual chooses to express her viewpoint reveals little about the purity of her motivation and the sincerity of her beliefs. If anything, satirical writing can humanize the author in a way that pompous, somber writing dramatically fails to do. The satirist acts with a level of self-awareness that the opinion columnist sadly lacks. Readers want to know that their columnists are actually concerned about the issues they discuss. Does anyone doubt the genuineness of George Bernard Shaw? Yet few are mad enough to argue the case for the sincerity of Thomas Friedman. Perhaps this explains why many people find The Daily Show a more fruitful source of political analysis than a paper like The Washington Post.

Solemnity is also often simply a mask for a weak argument, or worse, censorship; levity is far more transparent and pluralistic. Consider the New York Times’ editorial section. The Gray Lady has her choice of the most talented journalists in the country, and what does she have to show for it? A lineup of ideologically amorphous neoliberal nabobs whose intellectual horizons extend from Wall Street to Hell’s Kitchen. Why the ideological censorship? The New York Times views itself as a “serious” newspaper and it believes that the people it seeks to reach only want to read about “serious” viewpoints. This precludes any consideration of political analyses that buck the mainstream. I would speculate that Bwog possibly generates more interesting, original content because it, unlike Spec, probably feels less of a need to measure itself up the Times. Of course, I am not advocating that Spec become a glorified tabloid, but solely that it should try to incorporate elements of what has made Bwog a popular alternative news source.

And who are the mysterious people for whom the New York Times designs its product? Is the paper meant to be read by the working-class people it claims to care about? Advertisements for Breitling watches with $10,000 price tags juxtapose articles about universal healthcare, and promotions for luxury cruises neighbor critiques of the Republican tax plan. These seem to be unlikely expenditures for the income-disadvantaged. Seriousness simply serves as a façade for elitism.

Campus media like Spec would do itself a great service to disregard the example of the Times. They should not alienate themselves from the student body they are supposed to benefit. Utilizing humor or satire more frequently would do much to humanize Spectator’s mission in the eyes of the student body and engender greater interest in its content.

Many of us have become disillusioned by the Times and disappointed that, in its desire to maintain its reputation as “the paper of record,” it has become aloof and intellectually parochial. This brings me to Discourse & Debate. Unlike other Spectator features, Discourse & Debate was purposed to reflect your everyday Columbian’s thoughts on several disparate topics affecting our community. We had no pretensions; we put on no airs. The panel comprised a ragtag team of well-intentioned students who sought to do the little they could to contribute to campus discourse. Though sharp ideological differences characterized the opinion pieces of the panelists, debate never devolved into dislike. Our discourse never caused discord. We strove to take campus issues seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. Were our columns comedy material? I wish. Nevertheless, we sought to eschew the conventions separating columnist from reader and democratize the journalistic enterprise for all. Serious journalism need not be equated with lifeless, cautious reporting and editorializing. So long as our motivations are sincere, the manner through which we express our ideas matters little.

With the help of the Spectator opinion staff, I was given the opportunity to have a voice on this campus. Throughout the entire publishing process—from brainstorming to editing—they were consummate professionals, performing their roles with unwavering grace and courtesy. It is these virtues—unfortunately often only visible to those working in close contact with the paper’s staff—that reflect the human side of journalism.

Any topic that is serious is also funny. In fact, this is necessarily the case. To joke is to be profane, and it’s much harder to treat as profane things that simply do not demand our reverence. I have heard few funny jokes about bubble tea or belly dancers, but I have laughed uproariously about marriage, the pope, death, and anti-Semitism. It is little wonder that the Federalist, a satirical paper, was originally a thought magazine—the two genres are intimately related.

Satirical or humorous writing often proves far more persuasive than grave, restrained prose. The stylistic medium through which an individual chooses to express her viewpoint reveals little about the purity of her motivation and the sincerity of her beliefs. If anything, satirical writing can humanize the author in a way that pompous, somber writing dramatically fails to do. The satirist acts with a level of self-awareness that the opinion columnist sadly lacks. Readers want to know that their columnists are actually concerned about the issues they discuss. Does anyone doubt the genuineness of George Bernard Shaw? Yet few are mad enough to argue the case for the sincerity of Thomas Friedman. Perhaps this explains why many people find The Daily Show a more fruitful source of political analysis than a paper like The Washington Post.

Solemnity is also often simply a mask for a weak argument, or worse, censorship; levity is far more transparent and pluralistic. Consider the New York Times’ editorial section. The Gray Lady has her choice of the most talented journalists in the country, and what does she have to show for it? A lineup of ideologically amorphous neoliberal nabobs whose intellectual horizons extend from Wall Street to Hell’s Kitchen. Why the ideological censorship? The New York Times views itself as a “serious” newspaper and it believes that the people it seeks to reach only want to read about “serious” viewpoints. This precludes any consideration of political analyses that buck the mainstream. I would speculate that Bwog possibly generates more interesting, original content because it, unlike Spec, probably feels less of a need to measure itself up the Times. Of course, I am not advocating that Spec become a glorified tabloid, but solely that it should try to incorporate elements of what has made Bwog a popular alternative news source.

Benjamin Apfel is a senior studying philosophy at Columbia College. Before arriving at Columbia, he spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem where he studied Talmudic texts in Yiddish.

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By BENJAMIN APFEL
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Since campus media is created, curated, and fueled by students, there is a strong link between the types of information published and the stories that students want told.

The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc. are all publications that serve a national, and sometimes international, audience in hopes of providing pressing information as well as opinions to a plethora of different people. Campus media, on the other hand, works on a much smaller scale and provides information that is most pertinent to college students. Both national and university-wide forms of journalism benefit from having a certain level of accountability in regards to how they handle reports and in their selection of op-eds, but I think that campus publications have a better opportunity to showcase a variety of voices because they target a smaller and more distinct portion of the population. Nevertheless, that does not mean that every publication has to have the same sort of content.

Newspapers like The Federalist are known for offering satirical parodies of the University. They have the freedom to do that because they market themselves as a funny publication. More serious publications like Spectator, Bwog, and the Blue and White should be held to a higher degree of accountability because they often report on issues as they happen on campus, and conduct many interviews. It would be doing the student body a disservice for them to publish false or overly biased information. Granted, there is no way for reporters to be 100 percent unbiased; these publications should still do their best to show all sides of an issue, to a certain degree. Since the University is so large, it would only make sense that they should try to report on as many problems as they can while also sharing a variety of ideas from the student body.

I think that Discourse & Debate is a good example of how campus media allows various voices on campus to be heard. With five contributors from different backgrounds and affiliations on campus, this column opens the door for us to engage in content that affects us directly as students and allows our peers to participate in the discourse, as well. Columbia students tend to stay in their own ideological bubbles, and campus media presents an opportunity for students to interact with ideas that they may not have been aware of, or may disagree with. Having the chance to sit in the discussion room and debate issues like politics in the classroom and the dangers of college football with my fellow columnists has allowed me to see Columbia through several different lenses. I have even had strangers come up to me and strike up a conversation based on what I’ve written for this column.

Campus media serves as a place where the community can come together to tackle issues, vent about injustices, and search for solutions. Not many other national media outlets have that kind of direct impact; national newspapers have to be super broad to encompass topics that interest millions of different people, whereas campus papers have a specific demographic, college students, for whom they are able to provide tangible resolutions to issues that affect readers on a personal level. That is why college publications are so important and should attempt to provide their constituents with the most relevant scope of information.

Since campus media is created, curated, and fueled by students, there is a strong link between the types of information published and the stories that students want told.

The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc. are all publications that serve a national, and sometimes international, audience in hopes of providing pressing information as well as opinions to a plethora of different people. Campus media, on the other hand, works on a much smaller scale and provides information that is most pertinent to college students. Both national and university-wide forms of journalism benefit from having a certain level of accountability in regards to how they handle reports and in their selection of op-eds, but I think that campus publications have a better opportunity to showcase a variety of voices because they target a smaller and more distinct portion of the population. Nevertheless, that does not mean that every publication has to have the same sort of content.

Elise Fuller is a junior in Columbia College majoring in anthropology. She serves as the inclusion and equity representative for Columbia College Student Council and the campus liaison for Black Students’ Organization. You can always find her in Café East discussing the nuances and diversity of bubble tea flavors.

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By ELISE FULLER

Imagine an interface in which all opinions were given perfectly equal weight. There would be no selective amplification, and every statement—no matter what it said or who said it—would be considered with identical authority. It would be a perfectly democratic process; all opinions, articles, and media would be regarded as their own individual source. And that might be super cool—for a while.

Eventually, people would realize that no one would have the ability to verify what was being said; after that realization, there would be no incentive for truth. Authors would be able to construct whatever lies served their individual ideologies. An individual could say that some people are naturally lazy, or violent, based on the color of their skin. They could say that specific religions encourage violence, and that guns are the only way to provide protection. This individual could make people think they were the only ones that could make their country great again, and could convince the populace to elect them to the highest office—all based on these lies. Hypothetically, of course.

Exploring the dichotomy between traditional journalism and social media might seem played out at this point, but it isn’t. It is important to question the nature of the spectrum that exists between transparency and authority. On the first hand, we want to promote our conversations in the most accurate way. But, on the second, we need to be sure our conversations are bringing us closer to the truth.

Balancing these values is the obligation of a journalistic institution. Newspapers are social dialogue distilled. That distillation—from public opinion to published material—needs to be both accurate and representative. Social media favors representation, and social institutions (governments, universities, and the like) are the bearers of authority. Newspapers are the middle ground. They balance the two in order to mediate the most effective form of dialogue.

This obligation has nothing to do with whether or not a publication is “serious.” The idea of a level of “seriousness” implies some paradigm that a group is beholden to; if not for this paradigm, there could be no metric of how serious something is.

But pride and seriousness are different. Of course Spectator should maintain a certain level of pride—pride comes from responsibility, and responsibility is good. Pride makes you hold yourself up to a certain standard—but this pride is only truly justified if we are committed to the truth. Journalism as a field has a collective obligation, an ethical obligation, to the truth. As such, it shouldn’t give privilege to any paradigm or worldview blindly.

That means all views must be given equal weight, so long as they are truthful and important. The benefit of a news agency is that we have an outside source of authority, beholden to neither individuals nor institutions. But this understanding needs to be upheld by reporters themselves. Integrity is the only currency a news source has; if it loses it, it sacrifices its authority as well. Spectator, Bwog, and the Blue and White can only call themselves legitimate news sources if every member of their teams are committed to an accurate distillation of the campus dialogue.

Where does Discourse & Debate fit into all this? If nothing else, it forces ideas to interact even when they may not do so naturally. We all self-segregate; I admit I’m very unlikely to put myself in a conversation with people whose views oppose mine. But Discourse & Debate forced me to match my values and beliefs against others’—and what’s more, the rest of campus had access to that conversation as well. Our contributions, in my view, remind our readers what journalism is truly for: educating conversations that real people have in real situations. It is a reminder that, while exploring theories and ideas on your own is valuable, the most constructive conversations are those you have with your peers. Engaging with peers is different from most of college journalism; we can hold each other personally accountable, fostering authority and accuracy organically. And this is where I leave you, with an imperative to continue this conversation, on campus and in your daily lives, constantly learning to understand others’ points of view, helping to rectify and solidify your own values and beliefs.

Imagine an interface in which all opinions were given perfectly equal weight. There would be no selective amplification, and every statement—no matter what it said or who said it—would be considered with identical authority. It would be a perfectly democratic process; all opinions, articles, and media would be regarded as their own individual source. And that might be super cool—for a while.

Eventually, people would realize that no one would have the ability to verify what was being said; after that realization, there would be no incentive for truth. Authors would be able to construct whatever lies served their individual ideologies. An individual could say that some people are naturally lazy, or violent, based on the color of their skin. They could say that specific religions encourage violence, and that guns are the only way to provide protection. This individual could make people think they were the only ones that could make their country great again, and could convince the populace to elect them to the highest office—all based on these lies. Hypothetically, of course.

Dan Driscoll is a Columbia College sophomore studying philosophy and English. His interests include professional baseball, Kurt Vonnegut, and the use of the semicolon. Message him on Facebook if you’re interested in playing some Four Square.

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By DAN DRISCOLL

As any of my best friends will tell you, I thrive on spouting my opinions about everything. Many of my text conversations are sarcastic and incredulous comments with a link to an article and, full disclosure, Spectator is not immune from my wrath. I wasn’t always a fan of the opinions presented and at times was annoyed that people were expressing opinions that I felt were half-baked. Like many insecure kids who come to Columbia, I was jealous that people whose opinions I didn’t respect had stronger voices than I did. In all honesty, I decided to write for Spectator because I finally worked up enough courage to put into print and stand behind the comments that I make to friends all the time.

There is something incredibly courageous about offering your perspective for consideration. This column has forced me to sit in front of people every week, have an opinion, and directly address people who have strong conviction in ideas I don’t agree with. In my most idealistic (and perhaps slightly narcissistic) moments, I like to believe our column works as a template for the conversations we should be having on campus.

Campus journalism does not only reflect what is going on but has to be a catalyst for conversation. Everything from the straight news articles that work as evidence for opinions to the opinion articles that either make you feel heard or inspire you to argue is important to furthering significant conversations in our community.

While some might scoff at the notion that campus journalism is anything like the New York Times, campus journalism must take the place, on the small scale of the Columbia community, that the Times occupies for broader American society. Doubtless, we have all read an article or two in the student papers that we either find inaccurate or downright ridiculous, but this shouldn’t be the basis for our judgments.

Campus media can be imperfect, a little immature, and at times misguided, but so are all the 18- to 22-year-olds it serves. Like college itself, campus media is a training ground for the sort of skills and habits we hope to master and it should be judged on that sort of scale.

What we can take from the New York Times is the desire to be great and a commitment to maintain a level of argumentation worthy of the student body. We can perhaps even strive to do better than the New York Times and represent more diverging opinions side by side, rather than allowing the campus to devolve into like-minded bubbles that don’t truly interact with one another.

Though Columbia can feel like a relatively liberal campus, there are people on all areas of the political spectrum. Ideally, everyone should feel that they have an equal platform for their ideas, particularly in the opinion sections, with campus media acting as mediators for debate rather than championing a particular political stance. Thus, journalism has the potential to be a conduit to students benefiting from the diverse environment Columbia prides itself in constructing because it can create a space for the interaction of opposing ideas.

As any of my best friends will tell you, I thrive on spouting my opinions about everything. Many of my text conversations are sarcastic and incredulous comments with a link to an article and, full disclosure, Spectator is not immune from my wrath. I wasn’t always a fan of the opinions presented and at times was annoyed that people were expressing opinions that I felt were half-baked. Like many insecure kids who come to Columbia, I was jealous that people whose opinions I didn’t respect had stronger voices than I did. In all honesty, I decided to write for Spectator because I finally worked up enough courage to put into print and stand behind the comments that I make to friends all the time.

There is something incredibly courageous about offering your perspective for consideration. This column has forced me to sit in front of people every week, have an opinion, and directly address people who have strong conviction in ideas I don’t agree with. In my most idealistic (and perhaps slightly narcissistic) moments, I like to believe our column works as a template for the conversations we should be having on campus.

Ayo Osobamiro is a senior in Columbia College disappointing her parents by studying history and French literature. You can usually find her on campus schlepping various items for the student productions she works on, cracking cheesy jokes on her URC tours, or binge-watching reality TV in Butler.

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By AYO OSOBAMIRO

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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