How Fox News Polices the Curriculum

by zunguzungu

When the extremely eminent historian William Cronon was targeted by the Wisconsin Republican Party, academic organizations and the University of Wisconsin carried his water. The New York Times wrote an editorial defending him. All sorts of people stood up to be counted in his defense. That’s all to the good.

In Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik reports that an adjunct professor who was targeted by Andrew Breitbart — one of the least credible journalists out there — has already been fired, even though 

“university officials issued a statement backing the contention of the two instructors of the labor studies course that their comments in the class had been edited to present an “inaccurate and distorted” picture of what was said.”

We’ve heard this story over and over again, because Breitbart is doing the same thing, over and over again: he deceptively edits video footage to make someone look like they are saying something that they are actually not saying, gets them fired, and then, by the time cooler heads (pretend to) prevail, the damage is already done. The “Shirley Sherrod” of the week is already fired. That’s what happened here: even though the university is now saying that the offending video had been deceptively edited to misrepresent reality, they have already fired the offending teacher.

The difference between this story and Cronon’s is obvious: Cronon is important, and has the clout to make himself heard, so his career is safe. Don Giljum, on the other hand, does not have “academic freedom” because he does not have job security.

“Don Giljum said that he was told by a dean that she needed him to resign, and had been told by her higher-ups to get his resignation. Noting that he is an adjunct, Giljum said that “they could care less about me. I am an at-will employee, and they are focused on preserving funding for the university.”

He said that the university sent a message by asking him to resign in the wake of the videos. “Teachers here are no longer going to be able to express comments, theories or counter-positions or make statements to force students to push back and critically challenge the comments and statements of the teacher,” he said.

Teaching in such an environment, he said, “I would be guarded about what I would say, and students would be guarded as well.”

But forget Cronon. Look at the course itself, which was taught by two instructors: an instructor who was an “at will employee” and one who was on a one-year contract:

Ancel, the other instructor, said in an interview that she works on annual contracts and that the university has not taken any action against her. She also released a statement in which she explained the context behind some of the quotes shown in the video.

For example, she noted that one of her quotes in the Breitbart video is: “violence is a tactic and it’s to be used when it’s the appropriate tactic.” Here is what she said really happened: “After students had watched a film on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King, they were discussing nonviolence. I said, ‘One guy in the film … said ‘violence is a tactic, and it’s to be used when it’s the appropriate tactic.’ ” In this instance, she said, “Breitbart’s editing has literally put words in my mouth that were not mine, and they never were mine.”

Both Ancel and Giljum said that a course about the history of the labor movement would of necessity discuss violence. Ancel said in her statement: “Any examination of labor’s past would be incomplete without discussion of violence (which for the most part was directed at workers), and analysis of its roots. At no time did my co-instructor, Don Giljum, nor I advocate violence.”

While Ancel’s statement said that complete review of the tapes would vindicate both instructors, she added that the videos had caused real pain, “ugly” threats and the loss of Giljum’s job. “These videos are no idle prank. They do real harm,” she said.

She also stressed that the invasion of privacy extended to her students — some of whom want to learn about labor without telling their bosses, and who are visible in the videos. “These videos are an attack on higher education and its mission to working adults, putting labor education programs at risk. They create fear and have an enormously chilling effect on freedom of thought and expression,” her statement said. “Sadly, they have already shattered the very positive atmosphere of trust and openness that we worked so hard to create in this class. One of my students told me, with some discomfort, ‘My boss watches Fox News.’ “

It is not coincidence that this is happening to academics teaching labor history:

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox last week, [Breitbart] said that “we’re going to take on education next, and go after the teachers and union organizers.”

 Also, see the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the New Faculty Majority, and Remaking the University.