Video of Cornell Dean Discussing ISIS Overblown

By | May 2nd, 2015 | News & Views, Web Exclusive, web-featured

Creators of video sink to low standards of journalistic integrity

Cornell University came under fire after Project Veritas — a non-profit organization that claims to function as an investigative journalism outlet — posted a video alleging a Cornell dean supports ISIS, an extremist Islamic terrorist group known for committing human rights abuses in its efforts to establish an Islamic state.

Project Veritas was founded by James O’Keefe, a “journalist” who is often criticized by other media outlets and journalists for the integrity of the work he publishes. O’Keefe was accused of intentionally misrepresenting information in his videos.

“What [O’Keefe] does isn’t journalism,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center, a program at the University of Southern California Annenberg dedicated to researching media’s impact on society. “It’s agitpop, politi-punking, entrapment-entertainment. There is no responsible definition of journalism that includes what he does or how he does it.”

The latest controversy involving O’Keefe was the Project Veritas video featuring Joseph Scaffido, assistant dean of students for student activities at Cornell University. The video was released on March 25 and alleged the Cornell dean supported terrorist groups like ISIS and Hamas.

In the video, a “journalist” posed as a prospective student interested in starting a new club on campus and asked Scaffido questions about creating a humanitarian club. The journalist said the club would send aid to communities in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but the journalist never actually uses the acronym ISIS in the video.

The questions posed by the journalist in the video are phrased to be misleading: He asks about inviting a “freedom fighter” to speak at Cornell and focuses on providing humanitarian aid to people within the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He is careful not to use words like “ISIS” and “terrorist” in the interview and Scaffido’s answers were geared toward explaining what Cornell’s student organizations are allowed to do.

“There are a lot of our student organizations that do things like that all over the world,” Scaffido said when asked if the university permitted clubs to send humanitarian aid.

The video, which is poorly edited and visibly misleading, gained traction as a national story, after being reported by “reliable” outlets like the New York Post. In addition to the misleading questions asked during the course of the interview, the video was sliced up and edited to include images of ISIS terrorists. Including these images misleads the viewer into thinking that Cornell is a breeding ground for ISIS, which is not the case.

There has been a wide variety of responses to the video. Cornell’s president, David Skorton, released a statement the same day the video was published referring to the Project Veritas video as “ludicrous and absolutely offensive.” Skorton went on to state he had spoken with Scaffido and believed Scaffido had not been aware of the true nature of what he had been asked in the video.

“Let me be clear: Cornell has an unwavering commitment to the free and responsible exchange of ideas,” Skorton said. “However, we remain vigilant in maintaining an appropriate balance of freedom of expression within accepted boundaries. Of course, incitement to violence is not protected and would never be tolerated on our campus.”

O’Keefe responded to Skorton’s statement online by stating that he stood by Project Veritas’s reporting.

“If your assistant dean of students has never heard of Hamas or the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,’ Project Veritas should be the least of your concerns,” O’Keefe said in his response to Skorton’s statement.

Cornell is not the only college Project Veritas has accused of being in cahoots with terrorists. The organization posted a video March 30 accusing Barry University of supporting ISIS terrorists. A student spoke with an administrator about starting a humanitarian group to help people who have suffered due to the fighting with ISIS.

The “journalist” in the video focused on how she wanted to help the women and children who live in ISIS-controlled areas and how she wanted to send monetary aid and flashlights due to infrastructural damage caused by fighting in the region.

Similarly to how Scaffido responded in the Cornell video, Derek Bley, the coordinator for leadership development and student organizations at Barry University, instructed the individual on how the process of forming an on campus organization works.

The Project Veritas video followed the process of establishing a club on campus and featured different Barry staff members providing the student with advice on starting an organization and having the college approve the club. The video includes footage of Barry University approving the “pro-ISIS” organization, Students in Support of the Middle East. Barry University received negative press coverage as a result of the video’s allegations. Following that attention, the university’s president, Sister Linda Bevilacqua, released a statement about the video.

“It is reprehensible to think that any organization would acquire video and edit it in such way as to denigrate the reputation of Barry University or its staff,” Bevilacqua said.

Laura Loomer, the Barry University student who filmed the video for Project Veritas, has been suspended.

“Your alleged actions were the cause root (sic) of disruption of the University community and the creation of a hostile environment for members of the University staff,” Maria Alvarez, the university’s associate vice president and dean of students, said in a notice to Loomer.

Currently, Loomer is not allowed to attend class or be on Barry University’s campus.

The Project Veritas videos highlight the climate of fear surrounding extremist groups like ISIS and perpetuate misinformation about Islam and the Middle East. In the Cornell video, the journalist asks about creating an organization to send aid to communities within Northern Iraq and Syria.

Project Veritas then assumed that all of those communities actually support ISIS through their allegations against Scaffido. Project Veritas tries to make the claim that people living within that particular region support ISIS just because they happen to live in a territory that has been associated with ISIS.

Project Veritas made a similar allegation in the Barry video. The approved club was called Students in Support of the Middle East and Project Veritas alleges that it is pro-ISIS, which suggests that supporting a community anywhere within the Middle East is actually supporting ISIS. Are all residents of the Middle East associated with ISIS? It would be grossly negligent to refer to these videos as anything but extremely misrepresentative.

Replaying snippets of dialogue out of context to craft an inaccurate account of a conversation is not news. Generating viral content doesn’t make an organization a media outlet. Project Veritas produces editing hack jobs instead of journalistic accounts. The Cornell video is little more than a malicious attempt to slander an institution.


TinaMarie Craven is a senior journalism major who would not recommend admitting James O’Keefe to the Park School. You can email her at tcraven1@ithaca.edu.

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