Opinion: “A Media Circus”: Faculty and Students Say the Media has “Cynically and Hysterically Misrepresented” Campus Protests

On the heels of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” Columbia’s protests, as well as protests at a number of university campuses, have gained local, national and international media attention. Students and faculty say the coverage has been “mischaracterizing” and “misleading.” Inflammatory media reports make students unsafe, not the protests itself. At times of turmoil on campus it is vital to listen to campus journalists who are on the ground seeing everything that is going on.

On April 24th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the protests on U.S. university campuses “horrific” and referred to the protesters as an “anti-Semitic mob,” comparing it to scenes at universities during Nazi Germany. 

Since the protests began on Columbia’s lawns on April 18th, organizers have made their demands clear: divestment from companies that benefit from the genocide, transparency about the University’s financial investments, and severance of ties to the Tel Aviv Global Center. And yet, national media coverage has largely been focused on the manner of the protests rather than the protest’s goals. 

A Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) spokesperson spoke on upholding nonviolent protest tactics at a press conference on Thursday April 25th, saying “Here inside this encampment, we appreciate love, solidarity, culture—bringing together students from all over the campus. It’s unlike something the campus has seen in decades. We believe it’s a testament to our will, a testament to the beauty of the community we are building here.” 

The spokesperson went on to discuss how protesters feel misrepresented by many national media sources, saying that “the mainstream media has not done a good job. There have, of course, been many outlets who have done a wonderful job in speaking to us and centering our narratives as students and in centering Gaza and the genocide that is ongoing,” the spokesperson says, “but beyond that, many mainstream outlets have failed us and have misrepresented what is going on inside the camp.”

In response to a similar sentiment, a number of Columbia professors from the Policy and Planning Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (PPC) wrote a letter to “members of the news media” on April 23rd, condemning their “reckless conflation” of “the protected speech of our students with the harassing and abusive acts of visitors” and advising the media not to further “inflame the situation by describing Columbia as paralyzed by chaos and conflict.”

Since the encampment was established, Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus has witnessed numerous protests outside its gates, during which the New York Police Department has detained or arrested several individuals who are not affiliated with the University. The University has blocked non-CUID holders from entering the campus and has significantly limited entrance points since the erection of the encampment. 

While there has been increasing worry that the situation will escalate as more prominent politicians call for a larger police presence, Columbia has announced that they do not plan to call NYPD onto campus again. In a joint email from University President Minouche Shafik, board of trustees co-chairs Claire Shipman, CC ’86, SIPA ’94, and David Greenwald, Law ’83, and University Provost Angela Olinto it was announced that while they did call the NYPD to clear the encampment once “We all share the view, based on discussions within our community and with outside experts, that to bring back the NYPD at this time would be counterproductive, further inflaming what is happening on campus, and drawing thousands to our doorstep who would threaten our community”.

Nevertheless, politicians like Donald Trump have called the protests “a disgrace” and called for a larger police presence on Columbia’s campus, garnering massive media attention. 

Other politicians have condemned the use of police force on college campuses. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted on April 23rd, “Calling in police enforcement on nonviolent demonstrations of young students on campus is an escalatory, reckless, and dangerous act.”

PPC spoke to these contrasting, prominent opinions in their letter, stating, “We cannot let the actions of those who do not share our university’s values determine how we are represented in public. We cannot accept that a media circus off campus may shape administration policy on campus. Bad-faith actors, whether on Broadway and 116th Street or in Washington D.C., cannot be allowed to tell our story.”

PPC are not the only members of the Columbia community to express worry about misrepresentation by the media. Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student at Columbia, wrote an article for Zeteo titled “I Am a Jewish Student at Columbia. Don’t Believe What You’re Being Told About ‘Campus Antisemitism.’” 

“I still can’t quite believe how the events on campus over the past few days have been so cynically and hysterically misrepresented by the media and by our elected representatives,” he says, speaking to the claims that “campus has devolved into a hotbed of antisemitic violence…the reality on the ground is very different.”

Likewise, Jewish Voice for Palestine (JVP) put out a statement demanding a public meeting with Columbia University’s Antisemitism task force after many of their members felt ‘isolated, exiled and ignored’. They further criticized the way that antisemitism was being used to “target and silence Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab members of our community.”

There have been instances of violence off campus in response to the tense atmosphere at Columbia since the establishment of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on Butler lawns. On Saturday the 20th, non-student protesters targeted Jewish students with antisemitic vitriol that was captured in video and pictures. This has spurred many to speak out on the increasing worry of violence on campus with people like Rabbi Elie Buechler, director of the Orthodox Union-Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Columbia/Barnard speaking out in warning to Jewish students. Rabbi Buechler wrote “It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.”

On Friday April 26th the Columbia SJP announced that “Muslim and BIPOC students, and students in keffiyehs”were assaulted, having “alcoholic drinks poured on their heads, clothes, and belongings” while attending a Columbia College, Barnard College and SEAS Senior Boat cruise. According to the SJP post, “as incidents of Islamophobic, anti-BIPOC, and anti-Arab violence at campus events remain on the rise, the University response is to continue being silent.” Regarding these and the other instances of violence in the recent weeks, SJP says about the University, “instead of keeping us safe, they have chose to focus on violently shutting down peaceful protests and militarizing our campus.” 

It does not appear that anyone part of the encampment or its affiliated student organizations have contributed to any of these instances of violence. The coalition of organizations that lead the encampment have even established community guidelines for it, which are clearly posted both physically in the encampment and online. These guidelines highlight the importance of privacy, personal boundaries, and “approaching conflict with the goal of addressing and repairing” while protesting. Columbia SJP has made it clear that they do not stand for violent protests, saying “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us” in a recent press release.

Regarding the original encampment, which Columbia President Minouche Shafik authorized to be swept by police, NYPD chief of patrol John Chell told the Columbia Spectator on April 18th that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.” 

Now, on the tenth day of the encampment, protesters on campus continue to be peaceful and on-campus security is at an all-time high. Still, the media has continued to perpetuate worries for the safety of students on campus, instigating calls for further police action. 

Rayna (BC ‘27), a Jewish student on campus, spoke about how many right-wing politicians are “commodifying and weaponizing antisemitism for their own personal gain” and emphasized the importance of being able to hold both perspectives, saying “this isn’t a two-sided issue, although many people seem to think it is; there is a lot of gray area.” 

Maryam Iqbal, a first-year student at Barnard College and student organizer with Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who was arrested and suspended for her participation in the encampment, spoke to Mondoweiss, saying “Right now, looking at the media there’s a lot of mischaracterizing about what the encampment is. They’re making it sound like a battleground, the way they’re describing it. However, when you go there it’s very peaceful.”

The media is “characterizing us as very antisemitic, but we’re celebrating Jewish holidays on the encampment with our Jewish comrades. So it’s just very misleading how they’re portraying the encampment,” says Iqbal.

People have continued to speak out on the media’s portrayal of the protests as a two-sided fight that could turn violent at any moment, imploring people to focus on the protestor’s demands and the reason that so many people have come together to protest – Gaza. 

As protests continue on and around campuses all over the country, concerns about inflammatory and misrepresentative media are only growing. Faculty and students alike have made numerous calls for people to remember that media narratives often serve agendas – the PPC calls for news sources to “substitute clickbait headlines and out-of-context videos for honest reporting.”

For Barnard student Delaney (BC ‘27), “It’s so frustrating seeing the media twist the protests to serve their own agendas, they’re completely missing the point.”