Since it was announced that Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by Liberal Studies Professor Michael Rectenwald to speak for his class on Halloween, WSN has published content about the proposed event and its subsequent backlash. By reporting on Yiannopoulos though, we have found ourselves at a crossroads — do we continue to cover and provide updates on his appearance at the university, or do we refrain from giving him a platform that ultimately fuels his divisiveness?
The dilemma of sensationalism is one that we, as a journalistic publication, consistently grapple with. With a figure as polarizing and disturbing as Yiannopoulos, giving his appearances and speeches even the most minimal coverage plays into his hand of public manipulation — a large part of what Yiannopoulos intends to do is stir publicity and incite reactions from the media. He wants to be talked about. He makes horrifying statements in order to gain attention, such as when he endorsed pedophilia made racist, dehumanizing comments toward Leslie Jones.
And we, as a news publication, are faced with a quandary: to refuse covering him at all, or to provide NYU students with information about what is happening on campus — even if doing so further legitimizes his rhetoric. By covering Yiannopoulos, we operate exactly in a way that empowers him. His relevance requires news outlets like WSN to acknowledge him and even to depict him as a threat. He constantly has the public questioning where the line is when it comes to free speech, and by continually bringing up that issue through Yiannopoulos, we’re adding to the scope of his influence and impact.
Perhaps the only way to acknowledge Yiannopoulos without furthering his platform is to follow New York Senator Brad Hoylman’s example. His official statement was a page “intentionally left blank as to deny [Yiannopoulos] the controversy and attention he craves.”
However, we do feel that as a college newspaper, it is our primary responsibility to keep our student community informed. Yiannopoulos’s proposed arrival on our campus caused a firestorm of outrage, and the timing was in particularly poor taste considering the tragedy that occurred in Pittsburgh the week prior. And perhaps preventing coverage would have actually detracted from the NYU community’s rapid, laudable mobilization. A swift and effective reaction may not have been possible if the community didn’t have the necessary information concerning the planned event.
We are first and foremost dedicated to providing the NYU community with information on what is happening in our community, and by refusing to publish any stories on Yiannopoulos, we would be making a moral declaration. And in a situation like this one, in which Yiannopoulos represents such vitriolic, discriminatory behavior that we find distinctly contradictory to NYU’s fundamentally ethical values, the lines of journalistic bias and editorialization can feel blurred. Considering this, we’ve been self-reflective on our coverage up until this point with the aim of approaching this subject with a strong sense of responsibility
Our reporters were at the ready to provide all the details of Yiannopoulos’s planned talk — but in our initial story that laid out information on his planned visit, we did not emphasize the fact that he was only going to be speaking in front of less than 20 students in a first-year writing class. This might have given the illusion that he was to be speaking in front of the entire student body rather than only in Professor Rectenwald’s classroom. By falling short of placing emphasis on and clarifying the conditions of Yiannopoulos’s invitation, it’s possible that we created more buzz and controversy about the situation than was warranted.
We also did not adequately reiterate that Professor Rectenwald has been known for attempting to stir up controversy on campus — in September 2016, he created the Twitter handle “@antipcnyuprof” and under the veil of anonymity, criticized his liberal students’ political views. In some ways, WSN was reacting exactly how Professor Rectenwald expected and would have wanted. We provided a platform for Rectenwald and Yiannopoulos, which then prompted a lot of conversation both within campus and online. And after we broke the news that Yiannopoulos’s visit would be postponed to uphold Mayor Bill de Blasio’s request, the situation was further scrutinized. Rectenwald’s reaction can be seen in his official statement to WSN after the cancelation of the talk. “While Milo Yiannopoulos is blamed for the threat to public safety, leftist protesters are the ones who pose the actual danger, with their proclivity for violence,” he wrote.
We are aware of — and troubled by the fact that — our coverage of Yiannopoulos has the potential to publicize his infamous hate speech, legitimizing him as a public figure when he should have no power. We acknowledge that sensationalism is an important issue to consider as a news publication. The dilemma of media sensationalism has never felt more pertinent than it does in today’s divisive political environment. Our government is led by a president who has repeatedly manipulated media coverage to his advantage by embracing inflammatory discourse of hate and fear; Yiannopoulos is just a part of this trend of stoking conflict.
What our role as journalists is in this harmful pattern is difficult to define. And it’s important to acknowledge the balancing act between coverage and sensationalizing that publications like ours must keep in mind while choosing what content to publish. While we chose to cover Yiannopoulos to fulfill our duty of providing our community with the necessary information for making informed decisions, we are in no way finished wrestling with how to best be a responsible, effective source of news that doesn’t exacerbate this disturbing trend.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this appeared in the Monday, Nov. 5 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected].
Correction, Nov. 6: A previous version of this article stated that Yiannopolous had endorsed pedophilia within the Catholic Church. Yiannopolous endorsed just pedophilia.