The Spectator Accused Me of Libel for Critiquing Their News Bias
*Note: Madison Lazenby, the Editor-In-Chief of The Monitor, also submitted an LTE to Spec critiquing the Martinez piece’s designation as News for the 2/10 publication. Hers was rejected, and she never received a response when she asked the Editors for the specific reasons for the rejection. Though Lazenby’s LTE is not posted here, we wanted to make this recurrence clear.
The below Letters to the Editor about Editorial voice in News pieces were submitted to and subsequently rejected by The Spectator. In the last two weeks, I have attempted to have these pieces published, out of growing concern about the increasingly biased nature of News pieces in Spec, particularly pieces about the College. I decided to write the first LTE after Spec published a News piece about the retirement of Dean Martinez. The second LTE was in response to the rejection of the first. After I sent many emails asking why I was rejected, I eventually learned from the Editors-In-Chief that they believe my pieces are libelous. The issue, of course, is that I have strong evidence to back all of the factual claims that I make (placed at the end), and all other claims are clearly presented as personal critique and opinion. Spec’s Editors-In-Chief’s framing of my criticism as “libelous” indicates, in my view, that they feel they are above public critique. This is especially concerning given that Spec has regularly published LTEs which criticize them in years past.
Further, according to the Media Board Constitution, Editors-In-Chief of all campus papers are required to respond to all complaints and “provide the contact information of the Media Board Chair” to the person who submitted the complaint so that they can reach out to the Chair if they choose to do so. This information was not provided to me when the Editors rejected both of my pieces, and I did not know it was an option available to me until I did my own research. Given what I feel to be the egregious nature of Spec’s response, I have instead decided to go public.
I decided to reach out to The Monitor and publish these LTEs and my evidence instead, as it became clear over the last two weeks that Spec would not only refuse to take the concerns I have brought up seriously and publish my LTEs, but that they are willing to mislead the public about the original placement of the Dean Martinez piece. Then, they argued that my personal critiques and the research I have done on their more recent News pieces are lies unfit for publication.
While Spec’s Editors-in-Chiefs claimed I was “propagating numerous false claims, including but not limited to that The Spectator is biased, unethical, lacks integrity, excludes any perspectives, and is hiding anything from the Hamilton community,” they at no point presented any evidence that disprove my claims, not to mention that my personal opinion that their coverage has at times been biased and excludes certain views cannot be libelous by definition, as it is an opinion.
Below are the two LTEs, and at the bottom is the evidence I’ve collected. My hope in writing this is not only to bring light to my experiences with Spec, but also to encourage change in journalism on campus and as I write in my LTEs, encourage people to ask questions about whose stories and views are being reported.
First LTE, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org 2/7
Dear Editors of The Spectator,
I write in response to last week’s piece about Dean Martinez’s retirement, wherein there’s undue and harmful fusing of the news of her retirement and opinions of Dean Martinez and her time as Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer.
I’m incredibly worried about the ethics of our newspaper publishing what is supposed to be a news piece about the Dean of Students that includes clear opinions about her, such as that she’s “known for her warmth, charisma, and extraordinary commitment to Hamilton students,” and even claims to speak “on behalf of all students” in its expression of “deepest gratitude.” There are more than enough students on campus, especially marginalized ones, who would wholeheartedly disagree with these statements about Dean Martinez. To claim to speak on behalf of all students, to imply by excluding critiques of Dean Martinez that there are no critiques of her, and to do so within a news piece, is an incredibly irresponsible act.
Let me be clear: in a Letter from the Editor or opinion piece, these statements present no conflict of interest or cause for worry. However, that’s not what happened. The Spec decided instead to present these statements and opinions as fact in a news piece, and therefore, it’s the responsibility of the Hamilton community to question why this is the case. These questions are even more important to ask when the piece is written by the Editor in Chief himself, theoretically the person most ethically bound to impartiality and most knowledgeable of journalistic practice.
This is not the first time The Spec has written a news piece concerning Hamilton that has read as an opinion piece, or perhaps even something from the Communications and Marketing Office. In March 2021, The Spec released a piece entitled “Because Hamilton Prevails Amidists Ongoing Pandemic” by the same author; it ends with a call to donate to the Because Hamilton campaign, and argues that “now more than ever…it is vital that we all support the community we call home.” It’s very inappropriate to end a news piece by soliciting donations and to assert that everyone claims Hamilton to be “home,” or more importantly, that everyone feels that they’re part of a larger Hamilton community.
My academic research this past year has included a deep dive into the archives of The Spec, and I have noticed a consistent decrease in the journalistic integrity of the paper, and its willingness to be critical of and inquisitive about the College, its operations, and the folks who are in charge of it (although there have been some wonderful critical pieces in recent semesters). Why is it that our school newspaper, which is supposed to be a place where students can read unbiased news about Hamilton, increasingly acts as another wing of the Communications and Marketing Office of Hamilton College, focused on pushing forward the College’s agenda and making Hamilton seem perfect? What is happening behind the scenes that leads to the publication of these articles?
The Spectator Correction Editorial, 2/10 Issue
Second LTE, sent to email@example.com 2/13
On February 7th, I submitted an LTE about the February 3rd piece on Dean Martinez’s retirement, expressing concern over the biased Editorial voice of that piece, and the growing number of biased News pieces in past semesters, including last spring’s piece on Because Hamilton.
On February 8th, the Editors thanked me for my “feedback,” saying they would issue a “correction.” I requested clarification on whether my LTE would be published; they said no—that Spec policies allow them to reject submissions. Twice I requested specific reasoning, and as of writing this (2/13) I haven’t received a response.
After I submitted, the Martinez piece was moved from the News section of the website to the Editorial section. I assumed this was the “correction.” In the February 10th issue, in only the Editorial of the physical copy, the Editors write that they “have received some feedback concerning the placement of the” Martinez piece, that it was meant “as an announcement” that “carr[ies] an editorial voice,” and was on the front page because they’re “workshopping a new look.” These “corrections” aren’t on the Spec website.
The Editors chose not to mention receipt of an LTE about the issue and, critically, that the Martinez piece was originally under the News part of the website. They imply the piece was always categorized as an Editorial despite strong evidence to the contrary. The Editors inaccurately framed the “feedback” as solely about the placement of the piece on the front page, not the opinionated voice of News pieces in Spec. The “corrections” are buried in the second paragraph of the Editorial, mixed with unrelated messages. The physical copy has a blank final page; there would’ve been enough room to print my original LTE.
The February 3rd paper had no mention of the new layout, had a labeled Editorial section (where the Editors could’ve placed the Martinez article), and if the Martinez piece was always an Editorial, there’s no demarcation of it as such, and again, was placed under “News” on the website until my LTE.
I’m alarmed by the lack of answers I’ve received from the Editors about rejecting a piece critiquing Spec’s Editorial voice in News pieces, and more importantly, that the February 3rd “correction” knowingly misrepresents their actions and my critique, failing to address concerns from my original LTE.
There hasn’t been an LTE in Spec since September, after the Editors stopped accepting LTEs about the admission workers’ union to avoid “prevent[ing] other discussions from being had.”
Historically, Spec has been the core of campus discourse and the primary way to learn about campus issues. Over the last decade there has been a significant reduction in the unbiased nature, community involvement, and vital reporting on issues of student conflict with administration in Spec. Why is this the case? What’s going on behind the scenes and within the culture of Spectator for this to occur?
Students, faculty, and staff should question whose perspectives are being excluded from regular News by Spec’s senior editorial decisions.
Exclusion of News/Perspectives
In my LTEs, I compare the history of Spec to the kinds of News pieces they release now and the growing Editorial voice in these pieces, voice my concern about the fact that my original LTE was rejected with (at the time of writing my second piece) no reasoning given, and voice my concern that there are many critically important campus issues that have not been covered in the News section. These publicly-known events include but are not limited to:
The 2020 BLM protests (both nationally and within the Hamilton community)
Concerns about and protests against the Advisory Council, including a community petition with nearly 1,700 signatures (summer 2020 - spring 2021)
COVID-19 infections this semester with nearly 200 infected students in a month (spring 2022)
All SA elections (5 elections) since fall 2019
The selection of a new Chair of the Board of Trustees in summer 2021
The 2020-2021 Judicial Board, which oversaw COVID-19 sanctions, was not confirmed by Student Assembly and the members’ names were never publicized as required
Much, much more
Hiding Evidence and Lacking Integrity/Ethicality
Everything I stated about Spec misleading readers about the moving of the recent piece on Dean Martinez’s retirement, not having corrections on the website, only placing them on one area of the paper, and never explicitly stating the piece was an Editorial until I sent in my original LTE are all accurate. Below are images of Spec’s website and physical copies proving so.