The conservative media misinformation cycle is increasingly targeting college professors for engaging in what they call anti-white rhetoric. Some conservative advocacy groups and right-wing and conservative media are working together to produce fake news about professors, leading to threats, intimidation, and campus shutdowns.
Several articles published in the past week in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed trace the path of misinformation as it moves through the conservative media ecosystem. The Chronicle notes: “Whether true or trumped up, tales of liberal faculty espousing tone-deaf or noxious views are good business for the network of conservative media outlets that purport to document the leftward drift of higher education.” The process often starts with Campus Reform, a website where conservative college students write about perceived liberal bias on campus.
The Chronicle reports that “Campus Reform’s pieces are often stamped with the hallmarks of nonpartisan journalism” but that they are packaged with sensational headlines and generally fail to place professors’ comments in context. These stories are picked up by right-wing “longstanding industry leaders” such as “The National Review and edgier newcomers like Heat Street and The Blaze,” which then further skew the original stories in ways intended to resonate with their conservative audience. After bouncing around right-wing media, the stories may be picked up by more mainstream conservative media outlets such as Fox News. By this time the story often bears only a superficial resemblance to reality. The result of these right-wing media campaigns has sometimes been an outpouring of abuse and threats against the professors. Recent instances have resulted in one campus closing down, universities asking professors to take a leave from campus, and a professor moving to protect his family.
For instance, one of the many examples the Chronicle documented was the case of Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams. On June 18, Williams published a series of Facebook posts on race and policing. He shared a controversial article titled “Let Them Fucking Die” that referenced the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (LA-R).
Campus Reform quickly wrote an article about Williams’ social network posts with the headline “Prof calls whites ‘inhuman assholes,’ says ‘let them die.’” The Blaze and The Daily Caller picked up the Campus Reform piece and wrote articles titled “College professor to blacks, other minorities: Let white people ‘f***ing die’” and “Professor Calls White People Inhuman,” respectively.
On June 21, The Washington Times followed with an article based on these three pieces titled “Trinity College professor calls white people ‘inhuman’: ‘Let them f-ing die.’” Finally, Fox News published an article the same day titled “Professor’s profane, anti-white messages cause campus controversy.” Williams also issued a statement on June 21, defending his position: “It is evident to anyone who carefully reads my posts on Facebook and Twitter that I did not call for the death of all self-identified ‘whites,’” he said. He called the coverage a “provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasoned, reasonable, and yes angry argument.” But by then, the cycle was complete and the campus was temporarily shut down due to a multitude of violent threats.
Trinity College eventually placed Williams on leave. Williams told the media that this was not his idea; the Hartford Courant quoted him saying, “They said it was in the interest of the college, primarily in their interest, not in my interest.”
Media Matters has documented an extensive network of conservative and right-wing funders, advocacy organizations, and media organizations that work together to generate a toxic culture of harassment and intimidation. Campus Reform plays a critical role in this nexus by providing stories about college campuses. Campus Reform is also intimately connected to Professor Watchlist, another right-wing campus group that targets college professors and asks site visitors to “submit a tip” about professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Campus Reform is the primary documentary source that Professor Watchlist links to to substantiate professors’ purported anti-conservative discrimination. Two of the professors profiled in the recent Chronicle stories, Tommy Curry and Johnny Eric Williams, are also profiled on Professor Watchlist. Professor Watchlist currently lists 216 professors, complete with pictures, brief summaries of their alleged offenses, and links to stories of dubious quality detailing these offenses.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) “is definitely concerned about this trend” of professor intimidation. The article notes that some universities have offered “mixed responses” to professors in the wake of threats and intimidation. Universities have also censored, fired, or put on leave some professors, like Williams, who are targeted by these dishonest campaigns. They have also tried to cancel, or rename controversial courses that draw attention of the far right.
Universities that fail to protect professors against the dishonest misinformation campaigns of conservative media are complicit in the rise in violent right-wing rhetoric on college campuses. A statement from AAUP, reported by the Chronicle, highlights the risk: “Threatening messages are likely to stifle free expression and cause faculty and others on campus to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment.” The conservative media that create the environment for these threats -- and the mainstream media outlets that fail to aggressively counter this misinformation -- are also at fault in creating less safe and less open universities.