The Intercept Fabricates A College "Censorship" Story
On October 17, an article was published in The Intercept alleging that administrators at Bates College, a small liberal arts school in Maine, had aggressively and shockingly “censored” the campus’s student newspaper. Sounds alarming! Unfortunately, the entire premise of the article would’ve been radically undermined if writer Nathan Bernard, or anyone else at The Intercept, had bothered to engage in the most basic obligation of ethical journalism — namely, to contact the principal figures they declared to be censorship victims. In one of the more bizarre examples of journalistic ineptitude and/or intentional malfeasance in recent memory, Bernard never even tried speaking to his article’s two central subjects — the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and a student reporter — whom he proclaims to have been egregiously censored. Both expressly deny that they were censored!
If I were writing an article which claimed that two people had been egregiously censored, the first thing I’d probably think to do is contact those two people and ask them if they were censored. But strangely, that didn’t happen here — hence a blaring headline at The Intercept which the very people it purports to characterize say is completely false:
I spoke to the “student reporter” referenced by that headline, Elizabeth LaCroix, who told me in plain English: “I do not believe I was censored.” Had she been contacted for comment, LaCroix said, the resulting Intercept article “would’ve been completely different” because she would’ve told Bernard that she... wasn’t censored. “I was surprised that I was not interviewed by The Intercept mostly because their article was centered around an article that I wrote,” LaCroix told me.
Likewise, the editor-in-chief of the Bates College student newspaper, Jackson Elkins, explained to me: “We were never censored or coerced.” After the publication of Bernard’s false article, Elkins and LaCroix released a statement adamantly insisting that contrary to The Intercept’s assertions, the staff of the Bates student newspaper had acted “on its own accord” when they temporarily removed an article by LaCroix last week. It’s true that this was done at the request of a Bates College media relations official, Mary Pols, who sent newspaper staff members an email complaining that LaCroix’s article contained inaccuracies. But both Elkins and LaCroix vehemently insist that it was their autonomous choice to temporarily remove the article in question, and then to republish it a short time later with revisions.
The article dealt with an ongoing unionization drive at Bates College. And while it might be dubious in its own right for a college PR agent to request that an article be taken down — I personally have a hard time imagining ever acceding to such a request — Elkins and LaCroix maintain that they agreed to do it because they also came to view the article as containing inaccuracies.
In the statement the two co-authored following publication of The Intercept article, they reiterated: “The Bates Student [newspaper] was not coerced or censored by any member of the Bates administration, the Bates Communication Office, or any other member of the Bates community in the writing or republishing of Elizabeth LaCroix’s article from Oct. 13… Pols has no authority to require changes or read articles before publishing and did not attempt to exercise such authority.”
Perhaps this rather important information could have been conveyed to Nathan Bernard had he bothered trying to contact LaCroix or Elkins, the people whom The Intercept so boldly declares were victims of censorship. But, as Elkins told me: “I was never reached for comment.” He added, “We’re student journalists. I would be the first one to complain if I felt we were censored in any way, shape, or form.”
“It’s a student-run site,” LaCroix said. “We totally could’ve kept the article up. But we made the decision not to.”
Again, I almost certainly would not have done this, but voluntarily taking down an article after receiving a complaint is not “censorship” in any coherent sense of the word. Both LaCroix and Elkins also adamantly deny that the newspaper’s dependence on the College for funding meant that they had been “coerced” into complying with the PR official’s request. Elkins said the possibility of his funding somehow being compromised as a result of the article staying up “never crossed my mind,” as it would’ve been “insane” to think the College could withdraw funding for its “paper of record” that’s been in operation since 1873. “It was my decision at the end of the day,” Elkins said. LaCroix seconded that assessment. Throughout the journalism industry, it’s not at all uncommon for editors to revise, correct, or even remove an article upon receipt of a complaint about inaccuracies that they deem to be well-founded.
In other words, if Nathan Bernard had done basic due diligence and sought out the two principal subjects he purported to characterize, the entire thrust of the Intercept article — that Bates College administrators had “censored student voices” — would’ve been essentially falsified. Because both those two principals say they would’ve informed Bernard that they were not censored or otherwise coerced. Rather, they would’ve told Bernard that they chose to temporarily remove and revise LaCroix’s article on their own volition as student journalists. But curiously, Bernard chose not to perform this remedially simple task, which would be regarded by most as a “Journalism 101” no-brainer.
So why didn’t Bernard seek out the two main characters of his story for comment, which would have undermined the entire premise of his article? Some clues may be found in Bernard, the snarkily self-described “free speech warrior,” going on a Twitter tirade demanding that online media personalities such as Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald, and myself denounce the “censorship” alleged in his article — otherwise, we’d be totally owning ourselves for hypocrisy or something, supposedly because we’ve covered other campus controversies in the past but ignored this one for sneaky ideological reasons. I probably wouldn’t have even come across this Intercept article in the first place if it wasn’t for the badgering of Bernard and his troll allies:
Well, I did “look into it” as requested, and “it” appears to be largely bullshit. For one thing, the viral promotional tweet issued by Bernard — widely circulated with demands for this or that online media personality to comment, lest they reveal their hypocrisy — contains further demonstrable falsehoods, again according to the two central figures in the story that Bernard never bothered to contact.
Even leaving aside the “censorship” aspect, it’s factually false that Bates College administrators “deleted an article.” This, again, is according to editor-in-chief Jackson Elkins. “I was the one who literally pulled it myself,” he told me, adding that administrators wouldn’t have the capability to “delete” an article on the student newspaper’s website even if they wanted to. “I was literally the one who clicked to reset the article to private so we could take it down and work on it,” Elkins said. It’s also false that Bates administrators subsequently “republished” the article with new edits, Elkins said — again, the students did this themselves. “Jackson and I worked very hard on those edits,” LaCroix told me.
When this story was first brought to my attention (by Nathan Bernard) I was perfectly willing to believe that administrators at a liberal arts school could have censored an article on campus unionization efforts; it seemed entirely within the realm of possibility. But that just didn’t happen, and now “misinformation” has been spread far and wide across the internet thanks to the bizarre journalistic shoddiness of Bernard and The Intercept. I repeatedly asked Bernard to comment for this Substack article, but curiously he’s much less vocal in recent days, and has ignored my requests.
I also sent queries to Intercept editor Ryan Grim, who eventually claimed that it was unnecessary for The Intercept to contact a main subject of their article, LaCroix, because she’d already been cited in an activist press release about the situation at Bates. Another thing Grim and Bernard might have learned if they bothered talking to LaCroix was that the quote she provided for this activist press release was substantially altered to make it look like she was alleging censorship, when she wasn’t.
LaCroix said she gave her contact information for the activist-organized press release to Amelia Keleher, a former Bates student. (Keleher wouldn’t confirm or deny this when I asked her about it.) LaCroix said she thought the idea was that she’d provide her contact information to the activist organizers so that news outlets would be able to get in touch with her, and she could explain what had happened with her own article. She said her supplying the contact information wasn’t intended as an endorsement of the press release, which she never even saw a final draft of before it was published:
LaCroix told me: “I talked to Jackson about it after [the press release] was published, and I saw the title. This makes me look like I believe I’m being censored, and my quote doesn’t say that. I was told that the press release was too long and they didn’t include my whole quote.” Here’s another part of the quote LaCroix said she provided to Keleher, which was absent from the press release:
“I want to be clear that The Bates Student is an independent organization and did not face any coercive tactics from the College or anyone in the Communications Office to correct our initial article.”
It seems Bernard and The Intercept basically just repackaged this activist press release without looking any further into its veracity. I guess parroting a press release is considered acceptable practice if you’re in a rush to slam “free speech warrior” online media personalities and make some sort of convoluted “meta” point about their supposed hypocrisy.
Sadly, Ryan Grim never gave an explanation for why The Intercept didn’t bother to contact Elkins, even though he’s the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Intercept claims was censored. Grim did cover the story on the The Rising YouTube show though, again repeating information flatly rejected as false by the two main subjects of The Intercept’s article. Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed emailed me the following response: “Ryan told me he is in touch with you about this. He is the appropriate person to comment.”
But wait, there’s more. Bernard suggests that in the revised version of her unionization article, LaCroix nefariously altered the quotes of Jon Michael Foley, a campus maintenance worker she had interviewed, and “removed Foley’s fear of exposing his pregnant wife to Covid-19.” LaCroix, who told me she is personally pro-union, said her intent in making these revisions was emphatically not to suppress the worker’s opinion, but rather “to amplify and explain it more” — i.e., the exact opposite of what Bernard alleged. Here’s the quote Bernard suggests was nefariously removed:
LaCroix told me she removed this quote because she didn’t think it was clear what exactly “broke quarantine” meant, and also because the parenthetical paraphrase inserted at the end diminished the clarity. Other quotes from Foley in the revised version of the article, however, clearly continue to convey his “fear” that he could’ve exposed his pregnant wife to COVID:
“I had just figured out my wife was pregnant when I was asked to report for my first day back… It felt so dumb to put my tiny new family’s safety on the line for the benefit of the community, and then get in there only to move air conditioners and playing with my retirement benefits… [I went from] proud of being essential one minute, to feeling silly and used for following orders the next.”
How in the world do those quotes reflect some nefarious swap of pro-administration propaganda, as suggested by The Intercept? Either way, LaCroix had no opportunity to explain this before Bernard published his article impugning her. Same goes for editor-in-chief Elkins, who was also impugned without being given an opportunity to respond.
So there you have it. I’ve now “looked into” the Bates College censorship controversy here on Substack, only to find out that it was largely bullshit. To re-state, I personally would have been highly wary of removing an article at the request of administrators, even if temporarily, and even if I conceded that the article contained inaccuracies; removing an article for any reason is a drastic step. But that doesn’t mean the blaring “CENSORED” headlines at The Intercept, and The Hill, and across Twitter are remotely accurate. In fact, it’s incredibly insulting and patronizing to tell student journalists that they were “censored” — without even asking them to speak for themselves — when for better or worse they insist that they used their own discretion.
I doubt The Intercept will retract their demonstrably false article, or that Nathan Bernard will retract his even-more-false promotional tweet. They’ll probably pretend they never saw this Substack post, and/or they’ll resort to some slippery semantic cop-out about the supposedly multi-layered meaning of the word “censored.” They may even somehow attempt to justify not bothering to contact the two principal subjects of their article — the “Journalism 101” part — even though both subjects would’ve undercut the article’s whole premise. (Both students tell me they’re frustrated at being severely misportrayed by a national media outlet without getting an opportunity to respond — as well they should be!)
What The Intercept will most likely do is continue to seek out examples of “censorship” that have been shoddily engineered to bolster the dumb “meta” point they’re trying to make about the media, even if it results in the promulgation of what they’d almost certainly decry as “misinformation” in other contexts.