Why the Claremont Independent Fired Me
Ross Steinberg | Sept. 26, 2017, 10:06 a.m.
Some articles linked in this story contain explicit references to rape, genocide, and Islamophobia.
On Monday, Sept. 18, I was invited into a secret Facebook group called “U PC BREAUX” that peddled in memes making light of rape, genocide, and acts of terror.
On Tuesday, I archived six months’ worth of posts on the site and reached out to the site administrator for comment. On Wednesday, I broke the story of the group in a forceful exposé written for the Claremont Independent, of which I was the managing editor.
On the same day, Pomona College informed me that the college’s Incident Response Team was gathering information related to the group. And by Friday morning, I was fired from my position with the Independent.
My first article for the Independent was published on May 8, 2016. With a friend, I co-authored a piece that made the case for why both Democrats and Republicans should vote for Hillary Clinton.
Currently, the Independent’s Facebook page has 46,188 likes – and looking at its comments section, it seems that the Independent shares an audience with Breitbart. I believed, and still do believe, that as a liberal, the best way to affect change is to present ideas to and open dialogues with conservatives.
The next fall, I began attending the Independent’s meetings. During this time, I published two more political op-eds, an interview with then-incoming Pomona College president G. Gabrielle Starr, and along with my friend Matthew Reade, broke the story of how Pomona College may have violated its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status by funding transportation to an anti-Trump rally.
Frankly, I didn’t have much success in influencing the Independent’s readership. It’s hard to create a dialogue with people who believe that a sinister cabal of globalists is seeking to take over America and destroy democracy. Instead, the great benefit of my joining the Independent was getting to know its staff and editorial board.
In theory, the Claremont Independent is a non-partisan publication with a focus on free speech. But in practice, it is a right-wing publication with a motto of “Always Right.” As someone who identifies as being center-left, I was initially wary of the staff’s reaction towards me. But my preconceptions were wrong: the students who were a part of the publication welcomed me with open arms.
As we became friends, I gained insight into life as a conservative at the Claremont Colleges. Obviously, their beliefs weren’t very popular on campus. However, less talked about are the daily affronts, and at times, overt prejudice these students face.
My friends say they have been verbally berated by peers, falsely accused of policy violations, and have even overheard admissions officers talking about trying to admit fewer conservatives to Pomona. Due to this intolerance, there was an acute sense of victimhood and a fear of the campus administration that permeated the Independent’s culture.
It was and is an insular group of people, but one whose members are extremely loyal to one another and who are capable of incredible warmth and intellectual argument, despite holding a number of views with which I strongly disagreed.
On May 19, a year after my first article was published, I was officially made managing editor of the Independent. Although the publication was known for heavily editorializing its news pieces, I was confident in the new editor-in-chief, Matthew Reade—a friend with whom I’d previously co-wrote articles and co-hosted a weekly political talk show on the KSPC Claremont radio station.
I am extraordinarily proud of much of what we have published since then: a report unearthing controversial tweets by Pomona’s now-fired Queer Resource Center director, an exposé on accusations that Pitzer College’s new dean of students improperly concealed evidence during a Title IX investigation at her previous job, and many more.
Of course, the piece I am proudest of is the one that led to my firing: “The Dark Underbelly of Claremont’s Meme Culture.”
Prior to that piece’s publication, two other members of the editorial board had collaborated with me on it. One helped me obtain a comment from the meme group's administrator. One editor was simply not involved, and one was kept out of the loop at my request because of what I perceived to be conflicts of interest.
My editors wanted a nuanced analysis of the meme group that condemned both the meme group and the minor censorship in a different, mainstream meme group that had led to the creation of “U PC BREAUX” in the first place. I refused. I said that they were suggesting I do exactly what Trump did when he conflated Antifa and white supremacy.
I told my editors they could focus on this in future think pieces of their own, and if they felt uncomfortable publishing it I would go to TSL – but that I would rather publish with the Independent due to my existing relationship with them and their larger audience.
The only concession I made to the Independent was to release the name of the group administrator personally, rather than in the article. Apparently, following a previous scandal in which the Independent leaked the names of students posting innocuous content in a secret group, the editorial board changed their policy on releasing names in articles. Although I welcomed the change, which I first heard about last week, I believe that releasing the administrator’s name was newsworthy and in the best interests of the community.
The Independent published my piece.
The response to the piece has been incredible. Pomona's Incident Response Team is looking into the group, I’m hoping to talk to Pomona’s student government about the general aspects of what I found in the group, and Milo Yiannopoulos – a loathsome personality of note – condemned my article. It seems that the only negative response came from the Independent itself.
Before being fired, Reade sent this text to me: “There are a lot of folks on the staff who are feeling betrayed by this story – reasonable or not – so I think it might be best if you parted ways with us for a couple weeks while I try to sort things out. No hard feelings; I just need time to manage all this chaos.”
Shortly thereafter he told me that I was fired. Reade said to me that this decision was unanimous among the editorial board, with the exception of the member I previously described as having a significant conflict of interest, who I was told was not a part of that decision. Apparently, many members threatened to quit if I wasn’t fired.
According to Reade, the board dismissed me because of my failure to take a more nuanced stance with the article and my alleged coercive tactics – my supposedly “extortionate” offer to go to TSL – in publishing the piece.
This is a ridiculous reason for dismissal. Essentially, the board fired me for expressing my opinion instead of modulating my views to more closely match their own. Publishing my piece in TSL would not have been illogical – if they really thought the piece was poorly written or had conflicts of interest, they should have been happy to allow a rival publication to print it. Besides, the choice to publish the article was not mine, but my editor’s.
Sadly, the Independent’s editorial board gave in to their worst insular impulses. After the story broke, many of the meme group’s members were angry and afraid. I believe the editorial board was unable to personally distance themselves from this anger and this fear.
In the end, they fired me not for a violation of journalistic principles, but because my article had portrayed the conservative community – of which they were a part – in a negative light. In the past, they had never shied away from publishing op-eds that unabashedly criticized liberals and centrists on campus, but they are unable to publish a piece that directly affected and criticized Claremont conservatives and the alt-right.
I’ve said there is a deep sense of victimhood at the Claremont Independent. It is evident in their visceral reaction to an article they view as threatening to members of their tribe as well as in their lack of accountability. Not only did the Independent fail to justify or publicize changes in editorial policy, but the Independent’s reasoning for my dismissal, given in a largely erroneous statement, contradicted records of texts and Facebook chats which I have in my possession.
And, although my article currently remains on their site, they have taken down the Facebook post promoting it. The Independent gave in to their own sense of victimhood at the expense of their journalistic integrity.
But I have hope.
I hope that I can remain friends with the people I’ve become close to through the Independent. I hope that the students affiliated with the Independent will overcome their worst impulses and find the strength to hold themselves accountable for their actions, both towards me and the larger Claremont community.
And I hope that when members of the Claremont community encounter someone with whom they disagree with, they will open dialogue with them, consider their unique circumstances, and be willing to forgive them if ever they do wrong.