Trouble in Squirrel Paradise: Bwog’s Internal Discord and Messy Journalism

(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.”

17 Responses to “Trouble in Squirrel Paradise: Bwog’s Internal Discord and Messy Journalism”

  1. CU student Says:

    I heard that hershman sent the student whose safety was in question an email saying “you don’t deserve anonymity.” pointedly this article fails to note hershmans association with zionist groups like hillel and lionpac, creating a clear conflict of interest in this case.

  2. Another CU Student Says:

    rabble rabble rabble zionist conspiracy rabble rabble

  3. Jake Hershman Says:

    Hey, this is Jake Hershman (feel free to email jake@bwog.com if you don’t believe me). The student who requested their photograph be removed received an email that said only this: “Hi (name), As your demonstration was in a public space, Bwog will not be removing your photograph.” You may be confusing this with a post I made on my personal Facebook, which reads “When you decide to demonstrate in public at Columbia, you don’t get anonymity” – referring to the decision that was made by the collective executive board sans Mr. Pines who chose to act on his own.

    That being said, the article above does not fail to note any of my associations. I am not and have never been a member of any pro-Israel groups on campus (such as Aryeh, formerly known as LionPAC). I will admit, however, that I AM a dues-paying member of the International Zionist Conspiracy.

    In addition, there is no case for a conflict of interest in this matter. A demonstration in a public forum is in the public domain, regardless of your political or ethnic affiliations.

  4. Person with safety issue Says:

    That never happened.

  5. Former CU Says:

    So an “activist” is upset he is being associated with his public protest? Regardless of Hershman’s potential bias, the student should have thought more about the potential repercussions of public protest.

  6. CU Alum in shame Says:

    If the decision to not honor the SJP student’s request was a collective one with input from members across the e-board, then Hershman’s decision to bar Pine’s WordPress access would indeed be viewed with more lenity. However, considering that Hershman’s decision was an individual one, it must be noted his conflict of interest as a member of a Jewish fraternity as well as Hillel is a significant one in this case. Albeit the SJP student did not have a legal claim to have his photo removed, Pines’ actions and prompt responses were dictated by the privilege of necessity, and thus the Bwog e-board should have respected his decision and collectively promoted the values of the organization rather than an individual e-board member (Hershman).

  7. CU Student Says:

    Thanks Jesse

  8. Jake Hershman Says:

    1) The decision to bar Pine’s WordPress account wasn’t an individual one – it was because he repeatedly changed the photograph after his superior editors had told him not to.

    2) The privilege of necessity is a valid thing, however there was no lapse in communication – the editorial board had collectively and clearly decided to not remove the photograph. Mr. Pines went against this decision and acted out of personal interest.

  9. rnt Says:

    So, Jake…what if the student had actually ended up getting injured because of the photo the editorial board refused to take down? Do you really think you wouldn’t be held liable to some degree–especially since there is electronic record of you guys being asked specifically to remove it? Your right to post the picture was curtailed the moment you were informed that someone’s safety was at risk. Period.

    The funniest part was when you tried to call Alexander out on ‘poor editorial judgement.’ Apparently you get to cherry-pick which journalistic standards that you adhere to. So how about this one: the editorial board is responsible for the repercussions that stem from the material it publishes. If Bwog wants to be edgy and push the envelope fine, but it cannot be at the expense of other people’s safety. I don’t know who the hell you think you are.

  10. rnt' Says:

    Lets discuss liability and morality separately. Jake would not have been held liable, in any court of law, if harm had come to the student. While the student asked to have his picture removed, BWOG was not legally obligated to remove the picture because the student was acting in a public location. As for losing the right to show the picture once they were informed the students safety was at risk, the only one who made such a claim was the student himself. BWOG is not required to accept the validity of that claim, it does seem slightly irrational to fear for ones safety given the facts on the ground.

    HOWEVER, from a moral perspective, given that we are all students on this campus and given that we should all be trying to help foster a safer sense of community BWOG probably should have taken down the picture.

  11. CC student Says:

    Why is it assumed that the student had a legitimate “safety threat”? He probably made that up to save face considering the embarrassing ludicrousness of the SJP stunt under discussion. If he really thought it was endangering, he wouldn’t or shouldn’t have done it in the first place. And if an unforeseen threat came about, there is no reason why he wouldn’t be able to give more details about it.

  12. Guest Says:

    It is “assumed” because that is where you should give the
    benefit of the doubt. The cost side to Bwog is a blurred photo, while to the student
    one cannot exclude – given what is known in the public record – physical
    violence.

    I hope Mr. Hershman and the
    rest of the board know of the actual nature of the (perceived?) threat to the
    student, and genuinely *know* it to be minimal. Students (and people in
    general) may have many reasons for wanting to limit how they are seen on the
    web. There is an assumption in some of these comments that the issue is one of
    the student’s “embarrassment” at being associated with SJP.

    I’m dubious that this is the issue, given
    his/her presence at the protest. It could be, I guess, fears of the reaction of
    some person close to the student if s/he finds out his/her political bent. In
    either case, it seems to me bullying to hold that over a student. It potentially takes
    advantage of the background threat of violence to keep him/her from protesting –
    which I think is pretty crappy given that it’s hard to see what interest is
    actually otherwise served by leaving the face in the picture. It’s legal, yeah,
    but ethical? Not so much.

    The bigger
    issue, though, goes to Bwog’s ethics and other issues circling around the
    campus where victims are supposed to protect themselves (and there is already an
    unlovely history there).

    When I first began teaching at CU a
    decade or so ago, I had a student in one of my classes who, I later learned,
    had transferred away from her previous university to get away from a stalker. She
    was out of school for two years as a result. She was extremely careful to shape
    her web presence, and was already using a different name (she confided in me,
    but I never knew her given name). She was also politicized. Would “CC student” suggest
    that such a student be forced to withdraw from public protest? Or to “give more
    details.”

    Again, I do not know the
    circumstances and nature of the threat here. I know what is in this blog post
    (and the Bwog piece). I can read here that the student claims s/he “cannot
    elaborate.” And I believe it unethical to take such claims blithely. I think one
    should not take advantage of known background threats to bully political
    opponents into silence (and I think “don’t protest in public if you don’t want
    your picture out there” is bullying if such threats are knowable; and I see no legitimate reason not to give the benefit of the doubt here).

    I hope this is not in fact intentional bullying, and that
    the student in question is just collateral damage in a power struggle between the board and Mr Pines (where I, obviously, think the latter seems to have acted most ethically). I also hope the affected student is not harmed.

  13. Mike Conrad Says:

    He’s the “publisher” and can do whatever he wants. Remember the old saw about freedom of the press belonging to the man who owns one.

  14. CUProf Says:

    I hope Mr. Hershman and the rest of the board know of the actual nature of the (perceived?) threat to the student, and genuinely *know* it to be minimal. Students (and people in general) may have many reasons for wanting to limit how they are seen on the web. There is an assumption in some of these comments that the issue is one of the student’s “embarrassment” at being associated with SJP.

    I’m dubious that this is the issue, given his/her presence at the protest. It could
    be, I guess, fears of the reaction of some person close to the student if s/he
    finds out his/her political bent. In either case, it seems to me bullying to
    hold that over a student. It takes advantage of the background threat of
    violence to keep him/her from protesting. I think this is pretty crappy given that
    it’s hard to see what interest is actually otherwise served by leaving the face
    in the picture. It’s legal, yeah, but ethical? Not so much.

    The bigger issue, though, goes to Bwog’s ethics and other issues circling around the campus where victims are supposed to protect themselves (and there is already an unlovely history there).

    When I first began teaching at CU a decade or so ago, I had a student in one of my classes who, I later learned, had transferred away from her previous university to get away from a stalker. She was out of school for two years as a result. She was extremely careful to shape her web presence, and was already using a different name (she confided in me, but I never knew her given name). She was also politicized. Would “CC student” suggest that such a student be forced to withdraw from public protest? Or to “give more details.”

    Again, I do not know the circumstances and nature of the threat here. I know what is in this blog post (and the Bwog piece). I can read here that the student claims s/he “cannot elaborate.” And I believe it unethical to take such claims blithely. I think one should not take advantage of known background threats to bully political opponents into silence (and I think “don’t protest in public if you don’t want your picture out there” is bullying if such threats are knowable).

    I hope this is not in fact bullying, and that the student in question is just collateral damage in a power struggle between the board and Mr Pines (where I think you can guess who I support). I also hope the affected student is not harmed.

  15. CUProf Says:

    And, argh – techology problems. The damn platform kept showing me crazy formatting in my post so deleted and re-posted to clean up…, and now I come off as a crazy multiple poster of the same thing. That’s what I get for preferring to wrtie in Word. If the admin would be so kind as to fix/delete the multiples…

    I blame technology (and its interaction with my age, perhaps). The points stand.

  16. cc Says:

    Lol eff Bwog’s sense of “integrity” or “honor”; since when have they NOT stopped to borderline if not downright unethical behavior if it meant getting the scoop they wanted? With Alex on this stick-up-the-ass, weak-ass lack of compassion here.

  17. cc Says:

    *stooped

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