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February 11, 2018 2:02 pm

The Truth Does Not Matter at UMass Amherst

avatar by Dexter Van Zile

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A student tour at UMass Amherst. Photo: UMass website.

If you’re a lazy and dishonest high school student looking for a college where you can cheat on research papers without consequence, UMass Amherst is the place to be.

In particular, you should attend classes in the school’s Department of Communication, where filmmaker Sut Jhally is a professor. In Jhally’s classes, you can hand in papers that falsify what other people have said. But instead of being punished, you’ll probably get a higher grade — and maybe even an internship at Jhally’s non-profit — the Media Education Foundation, which is located in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts.

Moreover, if Jhally or anyone else does complain about you altering quotes in your research, the administrators at the school will probably let it pass — just as they have with Jhally himself. At most colleges, deceptive acts like this will get you in real trouble, but not at UMass Amherst.

In 2016, the Media Education Foundation, where Jhally serves as executive director, released a film titled The Occupation of The American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the US. In this film (which lists Jhally as its executive producer), the filmmaker accuses Israel and its supporters in the United States of “practicing some kind of mass mind control” to promote a pro-Israel narrative in the US media.

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To highlight what good coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict looks like, Jhally shows a portion of a segment of 60 Minutes, which was aired in 2012. This segment dealt with Palestinian Christians. In the report, Bob Simon falsely declared that the security barrier Israel built to stop terror attacks “completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the little town where Christ was born into what its residents call ‘an open-air prison.’”

In fact, the security barrier, which Simon refers to as a “wall,” does not completely surround Bethlehem. This error seriously undermined the credibility of 60 Minutes’ coverage, which Jhally described as an example of “exceptional reporting.”

But Jhally’s documentary obscured Simon’s error by taking words he said elsewhere in the 60 Minutes segment, and deceptively placing them onto the phrase about Bethlehem being an open-air prison. The result is that in Jhally’s movie, Simon is heard to say, “Israel has occupied the West Bank for 45 years, turning the little town where Christ was born into what its residents call ‘an open air prison.’”

It is a deceptive change that removes any reference to the CBS network’s false assertion that the security fence completely surrounds Bethlehem, thereby protecting Jhally’s characterization of Simon’s reporting as “exceptional.” Such an edit merging two quotes to give the appearance that they are one would not get past any news editor worthy of the name, but there it is in Jhally’s film.

After discovering this deceptive edit late last year, CAMERA filed a complaint with UMass Amherst (where Jhally is presumably expected to model ethical behavior for his students). The school’s Provost, John McCarthy, and Michael F. Malone, the vice chancellor for research at UMass, both gave Jhally a pass. Relying on a recommendation from the school’s research dean, John A. Hird, the two men concluded that while Jhally had in fact altered what Simon said in the 60 Minutes report, this blatant lie did “not at all distort the segment’s overall meaning.”

In another segment of the film, Jhally shows a group of Palestinians carrying a victim of an Israeli rocket attack into a hospital, on a stretcher. Narrating the harrowing scene is a reporter from NBC News, who is quoted as saying: “Israeli helicopter gunships deliberately fired a missile into a crowd of civilians last night, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 70 more.”

But here is what the reporter actually said in an October 21, 2003 segment of NBC Nightly News: “Palestinians charged that Israeli helicopter gunships deliberately fired a missile into a crowd of civilians last night, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 70 more.”

By deleting three crucial words — “Palestinians charged that” — from the NBC story, Jhally took an unproven allegation made by Palestinians — that Israel intentionally fired a rocket into a crowd — and presented it as fact to the viewers of his movie.

Jhally’s significant distortion of the NBC News segment — and the truth — is a violation of basic academic and journalistic ethics.

On January 29, 2018, CAMERA filed another complaint with Mass Amherst. And once again, the administrators at UMass protected Jhally, rejecting the complaint — stating it was of the same substance as our first complaint, and that he did not have the requisite intent to mislead to justify a finding of misconduct.

So there you have it. If you are interested in going to college, but are indifferent to the ethics of journalism and research — which by any reasonable reckoning prohibits changing the journalistic or historical record the way that Jhally did — a communications degree at UMass Amherst is the place for you.

But if you want to be taken seriously as a journalist or communications professional, going to this school might not be such a good idea.

A word to the wise.

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