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Column: Why I love the press

I love the press. Oh sure, it's biased, relies on sensational muckraking, and produces a lot of crap. But when a good story comes out, nailing some crook with cold hard evidence--man that's great. Not that these moments excuse the press for the status quo, but they reveal the enormous and particular good that well-done investigative journalism can serve. The press is also one of our only cultural and political mediums through which we can hold sustained conversations among many people. Articles, followed by editorials and letters to the editor, enable a mass of people to witness and contemplate an unfolding conversation. This conversation is, of course, often impoverished; and that the press is one of our best sources of conversation serves as a further indication of the poverty of ongoing communal debates in our times. Nevertheless, we deal with what we have, and what we had last week were two of the best Duke exposes I have ever witnessed.

First, consider the case of Sami Al-Arian, the father of Abdullah Al-Arian, Trinity '02, who was recently arrested for his alleged role in militant Islamic terrorist conspiracies. Reports The Washington Post last Thursday: "The Justice Department today accused a former university professor in Florida of conspiracy to murder more than 100 Israelis and Americans in overseas suicide attacks and said he has secretly been a top leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization for years." Al-Arian's indictment, which listed 50 counts, was based on a slew of evidence, including telephone calls and faxes between him and supposed leaders of the violent terrorist organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

For many this news came as no surprise. As The Weekly Standard had reported back in Oct. 2001, Al-Arian had actually hosted public pep rallies for Islamic Jihad founder Abdel Aziz-Odeh and Sheikh Abdul Rahman, the chief planner of the first World Trade Center bombing. Film from one of those rallies documents Al-Arian shouting, "Jihad is our path! Victory to Islam! Death to Israel! Revolution! Revolution until victory! Rolling into Jerusalem!" However, last year when Duke alumnus Jeff Greene wrote a letter, which The Chronicle printed, pointing out Sami Al-Arian's publicly known links to terrorist organizations, he was roundly denounced by subsequent letters. Eventually, The Chronicle issued a public apology, dripping with politically-correct self-flagellation, which concluded that, "The Chronicle fell down on the job. For example, there is no evidence that Abdullah Al-Arian's father, Sami Al-Arian, heads a known Hamas front."

Greene wrote a subsequent letter protesting this apology and asked for a retraction, citing additional evidence in support of his well-grounded claims. The Chronicle never issued a retraction, and Greene was pegged as a dishonest person with anti-Arab prejudices. With the latest news, however, it now appears that The Chronicle's apology itself lacked firm ground; there is, in fact, substantial evidence of Al-Arian's relationship with terrorist groups, enough evidence to compile a 50 count indictment. The courts will ultimately determine precisely how robust this evidence is, but if one thing is certain, Jeff Greene has been effectively vindicated and Al-Arian's attempts at indignantly dismissing his critics appear more disingenuous. The second irony of this turn of events is that Sami Al-Arian spoke at Duke last year, and, if convicted, this will mean that Laura Whitehorn is not the first terrorist to lecture on campus.

The Chronicle's mistake, though provoked by politically-correct hysteria, may have been honest. However, the other Duke story of last week has nothing whatsoever to do with honesty. On the same day that President Nan Keohane went in front of the Academic Council to present findings of the Gender Initiative, which supposedly aims to makes Duke a more equitable place, The Wall Street Journal ran a incredible article detailing the way Duke admissions works for students with rich parents. Duke University's admissions office statistics suggest that 3 to 5 percent of the student body were probably uncomfortable with this article, because it implied that 3 to 5 percent of students bought their way into Duke. What was most shocking, as the details emerged, was the degree to which Duke administrators and benefiting parents, far from being uncomfortable, found nothing wrong with the situation.

In the article, Duke admitted that, particularly in recent years, it relaxed its admissions standards to admit 100 to 125 students annually "as a result of family wealth or connections." These statistics do not include alumni children, and represent students who were rejected or waitlisted through the regular admissions process. The administration's assurance that there were no quid pro quo arrangements was about as transparent a lie as one is likely to see in print. One Duke parent, admitting that her daughter may have taken the place of a truly qualified applicant able to accomplish more extraordinary service to mankind, assured the Wall Street Journal that she is not losing sleep over it. She was just happy. What was even more perverse was the fact that Nan pointed to such privileged admissions, which have flourished under her presidency, as a case for more affirmative action preferences. That is to say that rather than undo what many would call unjust and corrupt preferences for wealth, she thinks we need to construct further layers of unjust preferences. What is that saying about two wrongs and a right? Suppose you are poor, white and not from an underrepresented Midwestern state? Then, I suppose, you just have to be really smart. Hmm--academic merit as a criterion for university admission! What a bizarre idea; good thing it doesn't apply across the board.

As I said, the press isn't always on, but when it is, boy can it turn the tables--and that generally entails putting dishonest people in a very awkward position. Duke's admission policy of selling spaces to the rich is a wonderfully ironic reality for an institution that bathes itself in disingenuous platitudes about equality and the importance of intellect. How refreshing too, that the final record on Al-Arian may be set straight, and years of politically-correct-incubated deception put to rest. Isn't the press great?

Bill English is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


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