Top Editor at Rutgers Student Paper Responds to Opinions Editor’s Attack, Censorship Claims
The former opinions editor of The Daily Targum at Rutgers University has unleashed a blistering attack against the student newspaper in an open letter published earlier today on The Huffington Post.
Rutgers student Amani Al-Khatahtbeh described her tenure running the opinions section — which was aimed at enabling the Targum to be “as inclusive and reflective of all campus opinions as possible” — as almost constantly beset by controversies and smear campaigns unfairly labeling both the Targum and her as “biased against Israel.”
She calls the Targum Board of Trustees — the group holding ultimate staff, business and editorial authority for the paper — blatantly censorious. She charges Board members with repeatedly involving themselves in editorial decisions and pushing the Targum to cater to pro-Israel viewpoints and the campus Hillel organization.
One example: In the wake of a campus controversy over a Targum letter to the editor criticizing Hillel, “the foundation for Jewish campus life,” trustees took “the unusual step of requiring the editor-in-chief to submit all letters and commentary [on Israel/Palestine] to the board for approval before they can be published.”
“The Board of Trustees is not only catering to the sole requests of Hillel, but is also exercising an overarching and seemingly limitless power over editorial content — positioning itself for an unchecked exercise of censorship. Not only has the board been a complete enigma to the editorial staff and public and criticized for its lack of transparency, but information about its membership, capabilities and the limits of its editorial discretion are convoluted and not outlined anywhere on the Targum website.”
To gauge the accuracy and significance of Al-Khatahtbeh’s concerns, I reached out to Skylar Frederick, the Targum’s most recent managing editor and prior to that its acting editor-in-chief. (Like Al-Khatahtbeh, her term at the paper ended Friday.)
In a phone interview, Frederick said the Board has much more limited involvement in Targum decision-making than Al-Khatahtbeh purports, but serves a vital role when called upon given the paper’s lack of a formal adviser or student media director.
Frederick also confirms the Board has stepped in during bouts of controversy involving Hillel and a prior Israel-Palestine debate — but did so at the staff’s request.
She also clarified one last key criticism raised by Al-Khatahtbeh. In her HuffPost letter, Al-Khatahtbeh writes it was originally set to be published in the Targum as her goodbye column — until the Board allegedly censored it because it badmouthed the paper.
According to Frederick, the Board did reject the column, but only because of a longstanding policy restricting Targum staff from bashing their own paper. Frederick said other editors agreed with the decision.
Below is a transcript of our conversation.
What do you want people to know more than anything else about Amani’s letter?
What I want people to know the most — and what she doesn’t understand and has never understood and we’ve tried to tell her — is that without the Board of Trustees our paper can’t be independent. It’s required by the bylaws of the university that for us to be an independent paper we must have a Board of Trustees.
The Board of Trustees’ role is to act as an advisory board. Any time there’s any type of issue, editorial or business, we turn to the Board, to the advice. The Board is made up of [Targum] alumni, a couple from the business department, a couple from editorial. The editorial members, one of them still works for a newspaper, so she’s very involved. …
There was a lot that went on with [Al-Khatahtbeh] as an employee, a lot of times I turned to the Board asking them what to do in regards to her. The Board knew all of it. Her saying that we were censoring her was untrue in the fact that the Board has the right to do all of that. … We are students and we need someone to look to, and it just so happens that because we’re independent we don’t have someone directly in the university who we’re forced to talk to.
The Board is allowed to step in and say they don’t want something to run or that something should be run a certain way. It boggles my mind that she doesn’t understand that. The Board was ultimately her boss and my boss when I was in that position [as EIC]. … Everything that happens in editorial [and staff hiring and firing], the Board does get the final say. She doesn’t understand that and has never understood that. That is the biggest thing. The Board has the power, the right. It’s not censorship. It’s the Board’s purpose.
Can you see how it might be considered problematic by many for the so-called adults to be so involved in student media?
[Their increased involvement in recent months] started with the opinions page. A lot of pro-Israel and anti-Israel letters and articles were submitted to the opinions page. There was one instance where a story we ran on the pro-Palestine side was entirely one-sided. As an apology, the Board reached out to the other side, which happened to be the pro-Israel side, and said, ‘If you want to write a letter, we’d be happy to run it on Monday as an apology for the article being so one-sided and clearly biased.’ …
Since then we’ve had an issue with pro-Israel and pro-Palestine letters coming in to the opinions desk. And there was just so much back-and-forth, it got to a point where the Board had to step in. We decided as an editorial board and with the Board of Trustees that we would put a stop to it. Unless someone was adding something new to the debate it just wasn’t worth it to keep it going on each day. …
At that point, I do believe the Board was right to step in — and I still believe they are [right]. The letter she posted on Huffington Post, she wanted to publish in our own paper. It clearly states in our policies you can’t defame the Targum in any way or embarrass the Targum on social media, in the paper or anything. And that’s exactly what she was doing. So of course, once we received the letter, we sent it to the Board of Trustees saying, ‘She wants this to run. We don’t want it to run. What do you think?’ They agreed with us, pointing out the policies we have in place. She sees that as censorship. But we would never have run that in our own paper.
Does the Board review every story prior to publication?
They don’t. As a daily paper, there is absolutely no time to have that happen. And our board consists of volunteers who have their own lives, their own jobs. They really only step in when they’re needed.
In the daily production of the paper, as of late, we’ve been sending them anything that’s pro-Israel, pro-Palestine or [involving] Hillel. The Board has asked us to send anything even mentioning the word ‘Israel’ to them for their approval, just to make sure we as students aren’t going to have to deal with a bunch of backlash. So no, they don’t have a hand in daily production of the paper. They really only step in when there’s a problem and when we ask them to or when they see there’s a problem that might hurt the company and make us in turn lose our funding.
Is there anything in Amani’s letter you agree with?
To be honest, no. I’m very hurt by it. … I don’t want this hurting the paper. I love the Targum and thank them for everything I learned and the experiences I had. I don’t want this to harm us or make us lose our funding or anything else that could happen.