(Full disclosure: Alexandra Avvocato is Bwog’s former managing editor.)
Yesterday evening, Bwog’s Features Editor Alexander Pines, Columbia ’16, announced his resignation from the board of Columbia’s primary news blog. His decision immediately followed Bwog’s coverage of a protest held on campus by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). In the 24-hour period after the publication of this post, the actions taken by Bwog’s board in response to a student’s safety concerns prompted Pines to immediately step down from the organization.
In an interview with IvyGate, Pines, formerly one of the four head editors on Bwog, narrated the events that led to his resignation on Friday morning. Regardless of which party is most at fault here, the internal problems of Bwog’s board have, at least on one occasion, affected its day-to-day operations and editorial consistency. (Although, to be fair, this is a blog that never took itself too seriously.)
The breakdown of communications began Thursday afternoon. A member of SJP who was photographed in the post (and has supported Pines coming forward with this story) contacted both the editorial board and Pines personally (the two shared a mutual acquaintance), expressing concerns for their own safety and requesting that the photograph be taken down.
“I looked at the photo and saw that there was no specific need to have this particular person in the photo….if I know that specifically being in this photo could harm [the student], I see no reason to continue to have the photo up,” explained Pines, who made the decision to honor the student’s request. Away from a computer, he emailed Bwog’s staff detailing the situation and asking a fellow staff member to replace the photo with a blurred edit as soon as possible, but no Bwog member replied.
Direct emails to Bwog’s editors also failed to yield a response, and the student in question was growing increasingly anxious. “At no point [over several hours] did any staff member reach out to the student,” a frustrated Pines says. Later in the day, a member of SJP called Pines, stressing that the student was “freaking out” over their continued presence in the post. At that point – still away from a computer – Pines made the editorial decision to remove the photo from the post using his phone, and emailed the board explaining his actions. Somewhere in the confusion of miscommunication, the photo was replaced again, and was again deleted by Pines on his phone. (Update, 3:06 pm: In an email sent to IvyGate, Bwog’s board denies the truth of Pines’ claim, and states that a co-Editor in Chief had indeed responded to Pines’ request within ten minutes of his email, saying that the photo would be kept unblurred.)
Pines explained his judgment call: “I feel that as an editor, when I’ve been alerted to a safety concern, I have a responsibility to address it…I feel that I have the authority to address it in the way I see fit; that is my discretionary power.” In ignoring the student’s complaints throughout the day, he felt that the other members of the board had been “knowingly endangering another student’s safety.”
“[The editors-in-chief] weren’t happy” about his removals of the photo. Still, Pines said that a conversation with co-Editor-in-Chief Maud Rozee, Barnard ’15, led to a compromise in which she agreed to post a blurred photo in replacement. (Update, 3:06 pm: In an email sent to IvyGate, Bwog’s board denies Pines’ claim that he received permission to post a blurred photo; the email goes on to state that Pines had misinterpreted part of the conversation to constitute permission, and later acknowledged this misinterpretation.) That change would only last for a few minutes, though: just after Pines’ blurred photo had been added, the photo was restored to its original version. When he went in to change the photo for a third time, he found that his WordPress access had been revoked. (For those unfamiliar with home-run student blogs: this means that he couldn’t access or edit any articles on Bwog.)
In other words, one of the four editors in charge of running Bwog was barred from the site itself by his fellow editors, without notice or explanation.
“At first I thought it was a browser error,” he says. Immediate emails and texts to other board members produced – yet again – no response. A response wouldn’t come until the next morning, after Pines had emailed his resignation. (His WordPress access was silently restored at around 1 or 2 am on Friday, without comment.) Citing the “disrespect” shown him by the board’s silent punishment, and their apparent disregard for the potential safety of a student, he stepped down from Bwog’s board.
Only after the photo in question had been deleted, re-inserted, deleted again, re-inserted again, blurred, and finally re-inserted for the third time did Bwog’s board respond to the SJP’s student’s email from earlier that day, cc’ing Pines in their reply. Jake Hershman, Bwog’s publisher and GS/JTS’16 student, spoke on behalf of the editorial board denying the student’s request. The board’s reasoning: as the SJP members had protested in a public space, they had forfeited their right to anonymity. (Later, Pines would find out that Hershman had been the one to suspend his WordPress access.)
At 7:30 pm on Thursday, the SJP student emailed the board again, saying:
“I will mention that having my picture on your website is an issue of my personal safety and security being threatened. And while I cannot elaborate on that, I am hoping that you as fellow students in this institution, and as human beings who also have certain private circumstances that cannot always be explained, would take that into consideration as you decide how to reply to my e-mail.”
As of today, the original, unedited photo remains on Bwog’s site, with no notes.
IvyGate reached out to Bwog’s editorial board for comment and received the following statement from the board:
“On September 11, 2014, Bwog published a post entitled “SJP Demonstration On The Sundial” with the intention of making the greater Columbia community aware of the event occurring on campus. As the individuals involved with the demonstration were acting in a public forum, a photograph of the demonstration was included with the post. Citing a personal connection to the individuals involved with the demonstration and forgoing proper editorial judgement, Former Features Editor Alexander Pines replaced the photograph with a blurred version, against the direction of the Publisher and Editorial Board. As the Publisher, acting on behalf of the Editors-in-Chief, attempted to replace the photograph with the original, Alexander repeatedly replaced the photograph with a blurred version, at one point removing the photograph entirely. In an attempt to shield Bwog from Alexander’s poor editorial judgement and unilateral action without consultation of his superiors, the Publisher suspended Alexander’s access to the administration of Bwog to prevent further liability. Alexander acted in violation of Bwog’s Integrity Clause which he had signed earlier in the year, and subsequently resigned from his position as Features Editor, citing irreconcilable differences.”
Bwog’s official statement directly contradicts several of Pines’ claims, including whether or not permission had been granted to post a blurred photo.
During his conversation with IvyGate, Pines shared not just anger for the disrespect he feels he received, but for what that revealed to him about Bwog’s current values — values which, according to him, had become incompatible with his own. He insisted after Thursday that he could not “keep working for something that clearly doesn’t share my beliefs about what kind community we should be living in.” While he acknowledged that Bwog had no legal or ethical obligation to remove the photo — ultimately, SJP had protested in a public venue — this technical right mattered less to him than a more compassionate response for another student’s concerns.
“This is a school that’s so very proud of its history as activists,” Pines says, “and…I think that everyone should be free, regardless of the topic, to express their beliefs in this form without fear of their student blog punishing them for it and knowingly endangering them for it. Of course I believe in holding people accountable for their actions, but when it becomes a safety issue…these are my classmates and I care about my classmates.”