The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday August 5th

Opinion Editor justifies firing of Tuesday columnist

Might as well get to the point: I fired Jillian Bandes yesterday.

And not because I thought she was a racist or an idiot. She is, in fact, neither - and even if she were, I wouldn't have fired her for those reasons.

I fired her because she strung together quotes out of context. She took sources' words out of context. She misled those sources when she conducted interviews.

In other words, she conducted journalistic malpractice, and that's simply not something I, or The Daily Tar Heel, will tolerate.

By now, all of you have likely read Bandes' Tuesday column, "It's sad, but racial profiling is necessary for our safety."

So you probably know that it's a fiery look at the practice of singling out Arabs and Arab Americans for examination at in public places. And you know it begins with the rather incendiary comment, "I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport."

You also know it contains the line "I want Arabs to get sexed up like nothing else" in reference to an Ann Coulter quote about going through airport security.

Some of you called it racist. Some of you called Bandes' words a fundamental breach of integrity and journalistic standards. Some of you called for my head, not to mention hers.

But that's not why Bandes got fired. It happened because she lied to her sources and readers.

Unlike two DTH alumni who resigned from The Reidsville Review this summer, Bandes didn't inaccurately quote anyone. (I have her notes as proof.)

But you don't necessarily have to make things up to get them wrong or to mislead the reader.

This is the bottom line: Bandes told the three people quoted in her column - students Sherief Khaki and Muhammad Salameh, as well as professor Nasser Isleem - that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world.

That's not what happened; that's a major problem.

Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn't their entire conversation. At no point did Khaki, Salameh or Nasser ever think the only quotes Bandes would use would be their comments on the subject.

I asked Bandes as I read her column whether the quotes were accurate; whether they were fair; whether they truly represented the feelings of the people quoted.

She said yes.

Now, I don't know if Bandes simply misrepresented herself or whether she intentionally fudged things when she talked to her sources. But either way, when I talked to all three of them Wednesday, they told me they felt not only lied to, but betrayed.

None of them support racial profiling. None of them want Arabs to get "sexed up" as they go through the airport. And none of them thought Bandes would use their words the way she did - callously and without regard for their actual meaning.

In other words, their quotes were wrong, even if the words were correct. They were used recklessly and thoughtlessly.

And that's not something we can stand behind.

Let me be clear: As you can tell by visiting my blog (http://apps.dailytarheel.com/blogs/bullhorn.php) and reading a post I made Tuesday morning before the impropriety came to light, I did not choose to fire Bandes because her column was offensive.

In fact, I stood behind her even when most of the campus's Muslim community - and some people in this newsroom - thought I shouldn't have.

(For the Muslim Students Association response to Bandes' column, go to dailytarheel.com and search for the name of the group. It should be the first link.)

I can't disagree more strongly with what Bandes wrote. But I think free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy - even when, as it was in the case of Bandes' column, it is unprofessional and insensitive.

That's because I believe in what journalists and lawyers call the marketplace of ideas: If two ideas collide in the public sphere, the good one will prove itself as such.

Should I have changed Bandes' inflammatory language before it went to print?

To be frank with you, I'm not sure. It offended a lot of people who didn't deserve to be offended, not because of what it said but because of the way it said it. But at the same time, I am not in the business of censoring - it breaks down the marketplace.

It's a tough call, at least for me.

But this one isn't: When any member of the DTH staff abuses the freedom of the press that's crucial to our democracy, that person won't be a member of the DTH staff much longer.

So Bandes isn't - even if she's not the only person to blame here.

"I feel there was a letdown in the editing process," said DTH Editor Ryan Tuck, who ultimately oversees the opinion page (but who, I must say, is very good about letting me make the final decisions).

"Either Chris or I should have seen the obvious red flags from the way the column was worded. - I blame myself (for Bandes' inaccuracy) as much as I blame anyone involved."

Me, too. One look at me Tuesday - unshaven, unkempt, uglier than usual - would have told you that.

So I'm going to try to make it up to you all by doing my best to make sure you get my best.

Today's paper is a start: We've removed the board editorials to run your letters on Bandes' work.

Hopefully, that will get some of your juices flowing - without any of your bile.

 

Contact Chris Coletta at ccoletta@email.unc.edu.

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