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Screenshot collage by Jason Pramas
Screenshot collage by Jason Pramas



Alternatives for feuding student immigrant advocates and journalists


As someone who has been both a journalist and a left-wing political activist for a long time, I suppose it’s inevitable that I would feel the need to weigh in on a debate currently raging between Harvard immigrant advocates and the independent Harvard student newspaper, the Crimson.


At issue is that paper’s coverage of a Harvard rally calling for the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement held by a coalition of campus activist groups led by Act on a Dream—“the premier immigrants’ rights advocacy group” at the elite university, according to its website.


The action took place on Thursday, Sept 12, and drew about 100 attendees. The Crimson wrote a very straightforward news piece about it the next day. Just like I did dozens of times covering all kinds of left-wing protests over the years. The two student reporters quoted the protesters at length, as I would have. They then asked ICE for a quote, as I myself did for literally every story I ever wrote—and there were many—on protests against the federal agency. ICE didn’t reply. Like its press liaisons refused to reply any of the times I asked them for a quote. Like they refuse to reply to many news outlets that ask them for quotes. Which is disgusting practice for a government agency in a democracy, full stop. 


The immigrant activists and their allies immediately got angry at the Crimson. Not because of any error of fact. Or because they thought they had been slighted in some way. But because the reporters contacted ICE for comment. 


They demanded that the Crimson agree to stop calling ICE for comment going forward.


The activists met with Crimson editors about the matter, and the editors refused to back down. Unsatisfied, the activists organized a petition on entitled “Harvard Crimson: Stop Calling ICE for Comment.”


In the petition text, the activists said, “We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” Following a link to examples of such retaliation, the activists continued, “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”


The activists concluded: “We demand that The Crimson: 1. Apologize for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community. 2. Critically engage with and change their policies that require calling ICE for comment. 3. Declare their commitment to protecting undocumented students on campus.”


Over 900 people, and a number of Harvard student groups, signed the petition. The activists called for Harvard students “to boycott the paper by refusing to return requests for comment,” according to the Washington Post—one of several major news organizations that have covered the dustup.


Two top Crimson editors responded with “A Note To Readers” in which they stated “Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest—a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.”


The editors concluded, “We understand that some readers may disagree with The Crimson’s policies. But our mission is facts, truth, narrative, and understanding. In our view, consistent application of a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards is the best way to fairly report on the campus in a sensitive and thorough manner.”


That statement was published on Oct 22. Since then, the activists have not relented. They have essentially made their campaign against the Crimson a major focus of their activism for this school year. 


On Sunday, the Harvard student government, the Undergraduate Council, narrowly passed a somewhat vaguely worded statement calling on the Crimson to change its policy: “We condemn actions or policies that endanger undocumented and immigrant students on campus, and we encourage the Harvard Crimson to revisit their policies and make adequate changes. It is imperative for the Harvard Crimson to commit to journalistic practices that do not put students at risk. With this stated, we understand that upholding journalistic standards within the Crimson is vital; however, we do not believe that upholding such standards and ensuring the wellbeing of students are mutually exclusive.”


The statement concluded: “The Undergraduate Council commits to exploring methods for continued safety for undocumented students and other student activists in interacting with the Crimson; such methods include but are not limited to reviewing and publicizing Harvard Public Affairs and Communications Crimson trainings, and working to make reporting policies more accessible and public.”


In the student newspaper’s article on the council statement, Crimson President Kristine E. Guillaume responded: “Fundamental journalistic values obligate The Crimson to allow all subjects of a story a chance to comment. … This policy demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the individuals and institutions we write about have an opportunity to respond to criticisms in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”


And that’s where things stand as of this writing.


Having looked over the positions of the parties to this dispute at some length, I’m sympathetic to both. As a journalist, I have to agree that the Crimson not only did nothing wrong in its protest coverage, but also produced a well-written and eminently fair piece of journalism that I’d happily run in DigBoston. Far better than the articles the Daily Free Press—a student newspaper I once worked for—wrote about my fellow Boston University activists and me during the campus anti-apartheid movement in the mid-1980s. Mocking us at every turn… even as its editors threw me off the staff for being too sympathetic to political movements they disagreed with (and, as I was told on the quiet, because the BU administration under John Silber threatened to pull university ads in the paper if I wasn’t removed). 


As a longtime advocate for undocumented immigrants, and immigrant communities in general, I understand implicitly why the Act on a Dream activists want to protect undocumented students involved in calling for the abolition of ICE—a position that I support—from harm.


However, I think that the activists have chosen the wrong target in their just effort to make America safe from a reactionary law enforcement agency created in the wake of the tragic 9/11 attack. An agency whose leaders—that fraction of its employees who do their jobs with unmatched racist and nativist zeal, and the politicians who give it marching orders—I dearly hope to one day see up in the dock on charges of crimes against humanity for its baby concentration camps on our southern border.


The Crimson journalists have literally nothing to do with making undocumented students at Harvard—or anywhere in the US—unsafe. If anything they are helping them with fair coverage of student activist actions in defense of undocumented students. 


So I think the best course for the activists would be to drop their petition drive and boycott, and focus on the real enemy, ICE… and the politicians and nativist movements that make its existence possible.


Though I also think that the Crimson could help diffuse the situation by agreeing to publicly list some ways it is willing to alter its reporting practices to avoid harming article subjects like undocumented immigrants. Practices that I typically list under the rubric of the “compassionate journalism” that we try to follow at Dig when dealing with individuals and communities we adjudge to be oppressed by powerful forces like ICE. Or the Republican Party. Or Democratic Party leadership. Or multinational corporations. Or any of the various mafia organizations. 


Like only publishing photos of designated activist spokespeople at political actions in support of undocumented immigrants. And not publishing photos—purposely blurred or otherwise—that show the faces of rally attendees.


Or not posting updates about political actions involving undocumented immigrants to the social media accounts of the Crimson or any of its staffers while they are still going on.


Or allowing undocumented immigrants to be quoted using a nom de plume or nom de guerre, as long as the Crimson editors know their real names.


Or delaying publication of certain stories if early publication is highly likely to result in harm to undocumented immigrants.


Those are reasonable accommodations that violate neither the Crimson staffers’ First Amendment rights nor their audience’s right to know about important Harvard developments in a timely fashion.


What is not reasonable is telling the Crimson—or any news outlet—that its staffers cannot contact ICE or any party to any story being reported for comment.


Ultimately, if immigrant activists and their allies remain unhappy with the Crimson—for whatever reason—there is one alternative course they can pursue entirely on their own. Perhaps the best option of all. Like my fellow BU left activists and I did over 30 years back with our bu exposure, they can start their own student news outlet. And they can run it however they want. And they can go head to head with the Crimson in covering issues of the day at Harvard and beyond. And readers can decide which publication does a better job of covering one of the most important social movements of our age on that campus.


Which would be great outcome to an unfortunate fracas. In an age when this nation is losing newspapers every week, rather than gaining them.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


RTA bus


Gov. Baker’s proposed cuts throw gasoline on raging policy fire


February 21, 2018



A quarter-century ago, I lived in Lawrence for a few months. Because it was the closest place to Boston that I could find a cheap apartment on short notice. Unfortunately, I had a low-paying job in the city and couldn’t afford a car. So I took the commuter rail over an hour each way back and forth whenever I had a shift. Then at the end of the day, I was faced with getting to my apartment a couple of miles away from the station. Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) bus service ran near my place. But even in the early 1990s with a state budget that looks more humane in retrospect, it was infrequent at best. And my bus dropped me off a few blocks away from where I lived when it was running.


Now that was during rush hour on a weekday. If I got home later than early evening—especially on weekends—MVRTA buses had already stopped running. I moved there in December. And until I moved back to Boston the following March, through what proved to be a very cold winter, I would often get off my train, watch all but a handful of people get into waiting cars and leave, and then begin the long, frozen slog home. Across the Merrimack River, on sidewalks that were mostly unshoveled and roads that were indifferently plowed.

Standing in the middle of Duck Bridge one Sunday night in mid-February during a fierce snowstorm, I experienced a moment of nearly perfect alienation. The scene was completely desolate. No vehicles were on the road. It was pitch black except for the occasional street light with the darker black of largely abandoned textile mills looming in the middle distance. Snow was piling up all around me. The brutal wind off the water cut through my coat. My sneakers were entirely insufficient to the task of keeping me consistently upright—let alone keeping my feet warm and dry. And I remember thinking that if I had slipped and fallen into the river, no one would have the slightest idea of where I’d gone until spring. Because in the era before ubiquitous cell phones or texters, I could not have typed “aaaaaaah” to my girlfriend as I fell. So who would be the wiser?

Fast-forward to this week, and that memory immediately sprang to mind when I read the transportation section of Gov. Charlie Baker’s annual state budget proposal. And discovered that he’s planning to level-fund the 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) for $80.4 million, according to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, while most Bostonians are focusing on the ongoing fight to keep the MBTA solvent. Authorities like the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority… which is already cutting back bus, van, and Boston commuter service and eliminating that Sunday service I kept missing in the early ’90s. Since level-funding means a budget cut, given annual cost increases. And it’s not looking like the legislature is likely to swoop in to save the RTAs later in our now-normalized austerity budget process.

After all, if the legions of working- and middle-class Bostonians that rely on public transit can’t yet force elected state officials to properly fund the MBTA, the smaller numbers of riders in outlying cities like Brockton, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Lawrence are in even worse straits. Especially when many of them are immigrants who can’t vote.

Yet the need for public transit gets more dire the farther you get from Boston. If you don’t have a car in places like Athol, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, literally your only inexpensive transit option is bus service run by your regional transit authority. Which I’ve already made quite clear is of limited usefulness at the best of times. RTAs don’t go everywhere riders need to go and don’t run many of the times riders need to use them. As I experienced during my brief, unpleasant Lawrence sojourn.

People without cars in the many parts of the state that aren’t reached by the MBTA’s main bus and subway lines are already at a major disadvantage in terms of their ability to access jobs, laundry, shopping, education, social services, daycare, and healthcare in the best of times. If RTA service continues to be whittled away year by year, eventually there will be no public transportation left in many locales. And taking an Uber or Lyft won’t be an option for people that can’t even afford a hike in bus fare. Even while those private transportation services are angling to replace public transit for those that can pay their largely unregulated fares.


That is no minor problem—lest readers think that only small numbers of people lack cars in Mass cities outside of the Boston metro area. It’s a major crisis. For example, according to a Governing magazine article looking at car ownership in US cities with a population over 100,000, 19.3 percent of Worcester households and 22.2 percent of Springfield households did not have a car in 2016. Meanwhile, my colleague Bill Shaner at Worcester Magazine just reported that “[t]he Worcester Regional Transit Authority Advisory Board voted to send proposed service cuts to a public hearing after decrying the possible changes as a ‘death spiral’ for the bus system.

He continued, “WRTA officials unveiled several possible measures to bridge a $1.2 million budget gap, due mostly to budget cuts to the RTA system at the state level. The possible measures include routes cut wholesale, cut weekend service, and diminished routes, which would increase wait times between buses.”


Both WRTA Board Chairman William Lehtola and WRTA Administrator Jonathan Church agreed that the system would “cease to exist in a few years” if the funding crisis continues unabated.


Meanwhile, the Republican reported that Springfield RTA “the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has proposed a 25 percent across-the-board increase in fares and pass prices and a slate of service cutbacks, all to take force July 1.”


So make no mistake, this is a significant escalation in the war on Mass working families by Baker and any legislators that back similar cuts to public transit around the state. Cuts that RTAs have already been struggling with for years. As with the battle to save the MBTA and other public services, the RTAs can only be defended with a concerted fight from their riders. Whose goal must be to increase taxes on corporations and the rich in the Commonwealth, and to change state and local budget priorities to better serve the needs of all Mass residents.


Failing that, you’ll see a lot more people walking long distances in inclement weather statewide. And all too many of them won’t be able to escape their “transit desert” like I did. They will simply become more and more isolated. Until they literally disappear. The way I feared doing on a lonely bridge in the depths of a Merrimack Valley winter half a lifetime agone.


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



November 17, 2016


In early November, I wrote the following commentary for the third episode of the Beyond Boston video news digest that my organization produces monthly in collaboration with several Boston area public access TV stations. Given the nature of the political crisis sparked by the victory of President-elect Trump, I think it’s fitting that I run it as my first post-election column.

In contemporary Massachusetts, we don’t typically have as many open attacks on immigrants and refugees as some other states one could name. But we all know that anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and (lately) anti-Muslim sentiments, are always among us. Just a quick glance toward central Mass shows the scale of the problem—lurking beneath the surface of polite discourse like a toxic iceberg. Because in the town of Dudley, a recent effort by the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to purchase a 55 acre abandoned farm to use as a cemetery for its co-religionists, has been stopped cold by local officials fielding a series of excuses that make it clear that deep-seated prejudice is actually at the heart of their protests.

Now it’s understandable, if misguided, that some Americans might feel threatened by more people arriving to our shores as immigrants and refugees every year—given ongoing economic instability. And it’s legitimate to express reasoned critiques of Islam, or indeed any religion, in our democratic society. Although it’s more typical to hear illogical and paranoid ones.

But before the anxiety and the critiques, it’s imperative for citizens to remember a couple of important facts. First, unless you’re Native American—and I mean basically full-blood Native American, Hawaiian, or Alaskan (or an African-American whose ancestors were enslaved and dragged here in chains)—then your family crashed a country that used to belong to someone else. The United States was stolen from those original inhabitants by a combination of pandemic disease, broken treaties, forced removal, and outright genocide. So the idea that you have some inviolable moral or legal claim to this land is laughable.

Second, unless you’re a white anglo-saxon protestant—a WASP whose ancestors arrived here prior to the American Revolution—then your family was once a bunch of immigrants or refugees who were considered just as suspect and dangerous as far too many immigrants and refugees, especially Muslims, are considered by far too many Americans today. And since those old line WASPs controlled politics in the US well into the 20th century, guess what some of them did from time to time? They banned or attempted to ban immigration from most nations on the planet, and also led vicious riots against many people that did not fit into their narrow vision for this land of opportunity. Sadly, they were eventually joined in that series of unfortunate crusades by members of other ethnic groups who had gradually managed to establish themselves as American over time.

By way of example, let’s take a look at my family. We’re Greek. Both my mother’s and father’s sides came here over a century ago. Now today, when people think about Greek-Americans, media stars like Maria Menounos and Zach Galifianakis pop to mind. The associations are generally positive, and no one would ever think to question our credentials as good Americans. But in my grandparents’ day, in many parts of the US, Greeks were literally compared to vermin and contagious diseases. Newspapers of the time talked about our strange ways and inherent criminality and said we would never fit in with “Anglo-Saxon civilization.” They called for our expulsion and worse. Greeks were the victims of nativist riots that drove us out of cities like South Omaha, Nebraska on more than one occasion. Yet, despite all that, today I have relatives that would be more than happy to let Donald Trump ban all Muslims from entering the US.

Sound familiar?! If not, then you need to take closer look at your family history. And after you’ve done that, you need to do your level best to stop yourself from tarring entire nationalities and religious groups—especially people fleeing wars and tyranny at least partially caused by American foreign policy—with the broad brush of the bigot. Every society in history has had its share of zealots, criminals, and terrorists. Including ours. So the mere fact of their presence in any group of immigrants or refugees doesn’t negate that group’s humanity. If you don’t want to turn into one of those big bads yourself in defense of an American purity that never existed, then you need to treat everyone seeking shelter on our shores as a human being worthy of basic respect—and afford them a chance to become a part of our messy yet still vital democratic experiment.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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