When Christopher G. Colby ’20 left Eliot House and climbed into the limousine that awaited him outside, not a single other person on Harvard’s campus knew where he was going.
Colby sat quietly in the backseat as the dimly-lit limousine made its way through downtown Boston’s evening traffic.
Soon, some 2.5 million Americans would hear his voice and see his face on Fox News.
Dressed in a gray suit, Colby smiled tightly at the camera. An image of the Boston skyline glittered behind him and below him, a banner read “Harvard sued over single sex-clubs.” Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum announced, “Here now, Christopher Colby, a senior at Harvard University, and a Campus Reform Correspondent.”
Campus Reform is a media website operated by The Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that, in its own words, “teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media.” The Institute’s top donors include the Charles Koch Foundation and the anonymous conservative groups Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust. Billing itself as “America’s leading site for college news,” CampusReform.org employs college students — “Campus Correspondents” — to write articles about perceived ‘liberal bias’ on college campuses.
Campus Reform also acts as a middleman that places college students on television networks like Fox News for short media segments — college students like Colby. According to Media Matters, in March 2018 alone, Fox News ran at least 53 segments about controversies on college campuses, 40 of which were previously reported by Campus Reform. 15 of those 40 segments either cited Campus Reform explicitly, or contained an appearance from a Campus Reform correspondent.
When the limousine arrived at the television studio, Colby sat down, put his ear piece on, and stared at the wall. He was alone, far away from the main Fox studio in New York City.
“It’s just you in a dark room,” he recalls. “How oddly metaphorical.” The dark room was a good metaphor, he explains, for the absence of political disagreement on Harvard’s campus. At once, no one was listening and everyone was listening.
“Unfortunately, it led me to believe that I could just moonlight as a Fox News commentator, you know, without any repercussions,” Colby says. “I know nobody here watches Fox News,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Nobody’s ever going to find out about this.’” For Colby, the limo, the dark room, and the media segment were perhaps all just one big inside joke — with himself. “It’s just going to be kind of funny, you know?”
The first two times he appeared on Fox, this proved true. It was a reasonable assumption — despite its massive size, the audience of Fox News has little overlap with the people on Harvard’s campus. These two groups exist in separate information and media spheres, with little to no contact between them.
But Campus Reform correspondents like Colby seem to have one foot in both worlds.
Unbeknownst to most college students, groups like Campus Reform have for the past few years worked to craft an alternative reality about their campuses — an ecosystem that reaches directly through the gates of Harvard Yard. Campus Reform reports on many aspects of life at Harvard deemed normal by most students, including implicit bias training, Black commencement, and divestment activism.
Another conservative group, Turning Point USA — a national campus organization founded in 2012 by conservative ‘boy wonder’ Charlie Kirk — publishes a “Professor Watchlist,” a collection of “specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” It is published in conjunction with Campus Reform, and its listings are often sourced solely from Campus Reform articles.
In 2017, Danielle S. Allen, a prominent Harvard professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, started receiving racist death threats over phone and email. It was only then that she realized her name had been published on the Professor Watchlist.
If not for those messages, she likely never would have known about the alternative reality in which she had suddenly been cast a villain.
In order to create this reality, media outlets need testimony from real college students. Campus Reform acts as a third party broker, bringing those college students from their campus realities to the living rooms of millions of Americans through a prolific media stream: articles shared widely online, and Fox News segments. The way Campus Reform functions, however, means that the narratives these students tell about their schools — the stories that shape the perceptions of millions of Americans — perhaps represent a reality distorted to confirm a pre-existing bias.
Campus Reform correspondents described a preparation process that made their Fox News appearances closer to performances than journalistic reports: The ideas in the scene are determined before it is filmed. The questions students receive on Fox are crafted around the answers they have been prepared to give, rather than the other way around.
Irena Briganti, executive vice president for corporate communications at Fox, and Caley Cronin, a Fox spokesperson, declined to comment on the record on how Fox and Campus Reform prepare Campus Correspondents for their media appearances. Cabot Phillips, the editor-in-chief of Campus Reform, and Jon Street, its managing editor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the same concerns.
In print, Campus Reform correspondents are conditioned to pitch and write articles about an amorphous conception of ‘liberal bias,’ typically yielding stories centered largely around identity: race, sexuality, and immigration status. These articles are then widely proliferated on social media — but only within specific circles.
Phillips and Street also did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Campus Reform’s pitch selection process.
Like a drumbeat, college conservatives report being marginalized and silenced on campus. Many say Campus Reform presents a unique opportunity for them to speak out. But given the largely distinct spheres of their campuses and the audiences Campus Reform targets, their articles and media appearances serve only to fortify the existing echo chamber among those who had bought into it from the start. Rather than speaking out, these students are speaking in — on behalf of larger conservative interests.
Taken together, this system leads to a warped media narrative about college campuses in which the majority of students live in one reality, and a select few are deployed by a sprawling media empire to help create a divergent, parallel reality.
When those two realities collide, rarely is it pretty.
When Campus Reform found Arik C. Schneider, he never imagined his face would soon appear on Fox News.
A Campus Reform correspondent interviewed Schneider for an article about an expansion of the University’s “Diversity Peer Leaders” program when he was a sophomore at UCLA. Schneider considered the program a waste of Department of Education money and condemned it. In the article, he quips, “On the plus side, this shows Trump’s administration is creating jobs.”
A few days after the article was published, Schneider received an email from Campus Reform offering him a “unique media experience.” At first, Schneider assumed the organization wanted him to go on the radio. But as he emailed back-and-forth with Campus Reform over the next 24 hours, Schneider saw he had underestimated the group: The unique experience they meant was Fox News.
Schneider would soon appear on Fox during a segment regarding “UCLA Spending to Combat Social Injustices” — the same topic on which he had voiced his opposition in the Campus Reform article.
When Schneider was tapped to appear on Fox, the people who tapped him already knew his opinion on the subject.
For Colby, this is an essential part of how the process works.
In his case, a Harvard friend who was connected to Campus Reform — and who knew his politics — recommended him as a correspondent. As with Schneider, when Campus Reform reached out to Colby, it did so sure of his conservative bona fides.
Soon after Colby agreed to discuss the lawsuit regarding Harvard’s single-gender social organizations on Fox, he received a call meant to prepare and vet him for an appearance before an audience of three million.
“It’s like a rehearsal, basically,” Colby says.
Colby and Schneider both explain that during the preparatory phone call, they went through the content of what they would say on air. Colby is unsure whether the people he spoke with on these phone calls were from Campus Reform, Fox, or both. Schneider says that he spoke with a person from Campus Reform.
“I ended up being in a phone call with one of the senior staff members for about an hour as he went over talking points and such,” Schneider recalls. “Refining them so there’s no verbal slip ups — just so I knew exactly what to say.”
The preparation for Schneider’s Fox appearance was atypical for someone meant to serve as a source in a piece of journalism: Rather than preparing for questions, Schneider prepared answers. “I was able to write talking points, things I wanted them to talk about, and then from that, they then generated the questions,” he explains. “They didn’t tell me those ahead of time, but they mostly generated them in accordance with the talking points I submitted.”
Colby describes a similar process. “It was like: ‘Here are the talking points that we are pitching to the news network. And then the host will take those points and generate their own questions.’”
Emily M. Hall ’18, who worked as a Campus Reform correspondent while an undergraduate at Harvard and continues to do so at Yale Law School, declined to comment on the preparation process for her six Fox appearances.
Students work with the Campus Reform staff members to refine their talking points, chiseling them into punchy soundbites designed to present Fox News viewers a specific narrative of college campuses.
By his third appearance on Fox News, which followed the divestment protest that took place amidst this year’s Harvard-Yale game, Colby felt he had become an expert.
“Harvard-Yale protesters on their way back to Cambridge and Yale — on buses: Ooh, isn’t that cool?” he says, explaining his thought process. “‘Don't you see how they’re arguing against fossil fuels, but they’re using fossil fuels?’ This is catchy stuff — and they liked it,” he says.
Colby said something nearly identical when he appeared on Fox.
Colby and Schneider’s experiences demonstrate that Campus Reform works with the students to prepare for a journalistic report on Fox News that is in fact closer to theater — the segment shows a narrative that has been carefully vetted, rehearsed, and predetermined. Despite the appearance of a back-and-forth, both inquiry and rejoinder are in fact cut from a single block of stone.
Briganti and Cronin declined to comment on behalf of Fox. Phillips and Street did not respond to multiple requests for comment on behalf of Campus Reform.
Colby compares the process to car advertising: “People don’t sell car ads to networks to get them to buy cars,” he reflects. “They sell car ads to networks in order for people that have bought cars to feel better about buying a car.”
During his first Fox appearance, Colby sat in the dark studio, a smile on his face as he strained to hear the anchor through a scratchy earpiece.
Anchor Martha MacCallum went through the prompts about the University’s sanctions on unrecognized single-gender social organizations. But then Colby heard a question unrelated to the answers he had prepared.
MacCallum glanced towards her notes and then stared directly at the camera: “Now, it’s interesting because there are groups at Harvard that are ethnically-based,” she said. “Do those groups exclude people who are not of that ethnicity?”
Colby remembers this, the final question of the segment, well: “They threw me this horrible race-bait question,” he says. Colby says that he felt caught off guard. In the clip, he continues to smile and hesitates only slightly before answering.
“You can’t just be like, ‘You’re racist,’ and hang up the phone — because that’s not good dialogue,” he says. “But you also can’t just look at them and be like, ‘Oh, I completely agree.”
In the moment, he decided to settle on “Yeah, to a certain extent,” and referenced a 2017 Campus Reform article written by Emily Hall about Harvard’s first Black Commencement ceremony.
“Black graduate students at Harvard University are planning a first-of-its-kind graduation ceremony for black students,” the article’s teaser reads. “There is no ‘White Graduation’ scheduled, but Harvard will hold its third-annual ‘Latinx Graduation Ceremony’ the same day, and last month offered a ‘Lavender Graduation’ for LGBTQ students.”
“A very interesting battle,” MacCallum says in the clip. “Christopher Colby, thank you very much for coming on tonight — good to have you with us.”
In theory, Campus Reform correspondents are looking for articles that align with Campus Reform’s amorphous mission of exposing ‘liberal bias.’
In practice, sources reveal a pitch process that trains, conditions, and encourages Campus Reform correspondents to attune themselves to key words, topics, and trends that focus on political correctness and identity. Campus Reform correspondents must develop and hone their own sense of what ‘stories’ will please their editors — and their audiences.
Natalie B.T. Le, a masters student at the Harvard Extension School, first encountered Campus Reform at a libertarian conference she attended as an undergraduate. She quickly applied to become a Campus Correspondent.
Eventually, though, her relationship with Campus Reform soured. As Le got further into the organization, she grew less comfortable with their pitching and writing practices.
“There’s a reason why I stopped writing for Campus Reform,” she says.
But for a year, Le published articles with Campus Reform while an undergraduate at College of Charleston and later at Harvard.
“When you get accepted, you get a call with [Campus Reform] to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Le explains. “Because you don’t want people to be confused, and then pitch the wrong things.”
To avoid this, Le explains, “They give you tips on how to find the stories.”
As per Campus Reform’s suggestion, Le set Google Alerts for “Free Speech,” and “Social Justice.” From there, it was up to her to comb through the stream of results that poured into her inbox each day and select stories to pursue further.
Schneider also published written articles for Campus Reform.
After his first Fox News appearance, he said he was enamored. He wanted more, so he applied to become a Campus Reform Correspondent. In February, Schneider published an article in Campus Reform with the headline: “Harvard group for ‘anti-Zionist’ Jewish students fights ‘oppression,’ like ‘capitalism.’” Though he is a Campus Reform Correspondent at UCLA, Schneider’s jurisdiction is not limited to any one school.
He says he has two ways of coming up with pitches for Campus Reform.
The first is rather tedious: About once a week, Schneider systematically scrolls through the homepages of different college newspaper websites — including The Harvard Crimson — and scans the headlines. He’s looking for something specific, though sometimes, it can be hard to articulate what that is.
The second is Google Alerts — the same strategy that Campus Reform taught Le.
“I look for very specific search terms like ‘College Protest,’ ‘College Israel, Palestine,’ ‘College Chinese,’” — Schneider pauses, and tries again. “You know, ‘China,’” he explains. “I’m throwing a giant net into the ocean and seeing what happens.”
“A lot of it is just trial and error,” he says. “Learning how to separate the good stories from the bad, figuring out what they will and will not accept.”
Internalizing those skills is lucrative, since Le reports that Campus Reform’s compensation structure rewards the prolific. The group ranks Campus Correspondents by precious metals: Beginning as Bronze-level correspondents, Le explains, students can advance to the next level — first Silver, then Gold — by writing more articles.
Le says that bronze-level correspondents are paid $50 per article, while gold-level correspondents — who attain their elite designation after publishing 15 articles — can receive up to $100 per piece.
Eventually, though, Le realized that the subjects the outlet was interested in covering — specifically articles regarding transgender and gender non-binary people — conflicted with her values. As her reservations grew, Le began to distance herself from the group. Campus Reform emails would sit unread in her inbox. Le’s articles remain on the website, but her author link redirects to a Campus Reform home page, her profile erased.
After a year of writing articles, Le got a phone call. Campus Reform had an offer for her. It told her it wanted her to appear on Fox News to discuss the ongoing lawsuit challenging Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies, which some critics claim discriminate against Asian Americans.
Le claims that Campus Reform wanted her to “say certain things” about Harvard and the lawsuit — things that she disagreed with, phrased in ways that made her uncomfortable. Le declined the appearance.
Over the subsequent months, Campus Reform called Le on at least two additional occasions to ask her to appear on Fox News. Each time, she recalls, they wanted her to discuss the admissions lawsuit with specific, predetermined talking points, asking Le to paint Asian Americans like herself as victims of discrimination. Each time, she declined.
Unlike with Schneider and Colby, Campus Reform and Fox’s interest in Le had little to do with her willingness to promote specific talking points about a controversy — in fact, Le repeatedly expressed that she was uncomfortable with the script they suggested. Le had never been outspoken on the admissions lawsuit: It was her race, Le claims, and not her political views, that recommended her to Campus Reform for an appearance on Fox.
Eventually, Le redirected Hannah Blair, her contact at Campus Reform, to Romil A. Sirohi ’21, an acquaintance from the Harvard Republican Club. In a Facebook Messenger chat from Nov. 21 2017, Le introduces Sirohi to Blair and explains that he may be better suited than her to appear on Fox.
“Hi Romii! (sic)” Blair writes. “Can you tell me your overall thoughts on the story?”
Before Sirohi responds, Blair sends two more texts in succession. “I also believe that affirmative action should be based on socioeconomics rather than race.”
“Whoops I’m sorry I copied and pasted the wrong text,” she explains. “meant to send this” She sends a FOX opinion editorial with the headline: “Is Harvard racist? If you’re Asian-American, their admission policies just might be.”
“I oppose racial affirmative action,” Sirohi replies. “I support holistic admissions, including economic affirmative action.” (Sirohi notes that his opinions on race-based affirmative action have changed since 2017; he now supports the practice.)
“Thanks! I’ll be in touch when I hear back from Fox,” Blair writes back.
Two hours pass before Sirohi types “Lmk.”
Four hours after the initial text, Blair replies with Fox’s answer. “They moved forward with another students (sic),” she informs Sirohi. “I’m sorry it didnt work out!”
Blair’s messages suggest that Campus Reform cleared potential guests’ opinions with Fox prior to their appearances on air.
Blair could not be reached for comment on her exchange with Le and Sirohi. Briganti and Cronin declined to comment on this apparent practice on behalf of Fox. Phillips and Street did not respond to multiple requests for comment on behalf of Campus Reform.
I ask Le why she believes Campus Reform was so persistent with her specifically — despite her saying no over and over again.
“Oh, I was one of the few Asians,” she says.
The first two times Colby appeared on Fox News via Campus Reform, almost nobody at Harvard noticed. The third time, however, that changed. The world of Campus Reform and Fox crossed into his life at Harvard.
When Colby attended the Harvard-Yale game in New Haven this November, he watched as students stormed the field during half time to demand that Harvard and Yale divest their endowments from fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt. The following Monday, he appeared on Fox News to talk about it.
Fox and Friends airs at six a.m., so it was still early in the morning when Colby returned to campus after his appearance. Soon, strange messages began to appear on his phone and computer, texts and emails about his TV appearance hours earlier. The messages were from Harvard students, not the national audience of Fox viewers, and Colby knew many of them.
For the first time, Colby’s secret life as a Fox correspondent became widely known at Harvard. As the segment spread across campus via social media that morning, the two divergent realities collided.
As he waited in line for lunch, Colby says he felt people staring at him. “It was like everybody knew me all of a sudden,” he remembers. “Not the good kind of know.” From Colby’s perspective, it seemed as if Harvard had turned against him.
When people at Harvard got an insight into the parallel media sphere their classmates inhabited — and saw how Campus Reform, Fox News, and Colby himself were portraying Harvard, many were infuriated.
That same day, Colby also received multiple texts from his contacts at Campus Reform asking if he would discuss the protest again on different segments airing throughout the afternoon and evening. He repeatedly turned them down: He had class, and he was exhausted and wary.
Eventually, however, Colby agreed.
He had made a calculation: Perhaps a second, more measured appearance could help him reclaim the narrative. “Some of the things I said in the first one were pretty callous,” he admits. “I stand by what I said, but it was pretty brutal.” He pauses. “It doesn’t help that you know, you have to smile the whole time.” If Harvard saw a tamer version of his position, perhaps the campus would forgive him.
Colby told the same story about Harvard on Fox News twice that day — but he attempted to address two very different audiences. In the morning, he performed for a national audience of Fox News viewers. In the evening, he spoke with Harvard’s campus in mind.
This time, he hadn’t gone through the same preparation process with Campus Reform as he had for his previous three appearances on Fox. “There was no planning whatsoever for the second one,” he recalls. He was permitted to come up with his own talking points, phrase things how he wished. Colby repeats the word “reasonable” again and again.
“It tells a different story,” Colby explains. Without oversight from Campus Reform, he hoped to win back Harvard.
When his two worlds collided, Colby faced a swift backlash.
When Professor Danielle Allen emerged as a threat to the conservative agenda, she was vilified in the media sphere created by Fox, Campus Reform, and Professor Watch List. That world crossed into her own in the form of racist, sexist threats.
“Hey, you f*****g c**t, you. Professor Watchlist b***h,” one anonymous voicemail said. As a barrage of similar messages poured into her email and Twitter accounts, the strange phrase “Professor Watchlist” appeared repeatedly. This was how Allen found out she had been “watchlisted.”
Launched in November 2016 by Charlie Kirk, “Professor Watchlist” is a website run by Turning Point USA — whose mission is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” According to the TPUSA website, as of 2019 Charlie Kirk had appeared on Fox News, CNBC, and Fox Business News over 600 times.
As of 2016, the site listed 143 professors by name. Campus Reform served as the singular source for 75 of those.
Allen’s listing on Professor Watchlist references an article she published in February 2016 as a Washington Post contributing columnist. In it, she cites Hannah Arendt and draws a parallel between the rise of Donald J. Trump and Adolf Hitler to illustrate, in her words, “how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.” That nuance was lost in the Professor Watchlist posting, which claims that “said that the rise of Donald Trump is just like the rise of Hitler.”
On the evening of April 1, 2017, Kirk appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson’s evening show on Fox News. Carlson begins by introducing Professor Watchlist, and together he and Kirk work through a list of professors they have deemed worthy of watchlisting, the names and photos of these academics flashing across the screen. Then Allen’s face appears.
Kirk and Carlson do not click past her profile — and with each second that her face flickers on the screen, each second that Kirk continues to rant about her Washington Post article, lamenting that “She teaches this in class,” Allen’s national profile among Fox viewers grows.
Charlie Kirk could not be reached for comment.
Allen was unaware that she had been pilloried on Fox, her name and face appearing on televisions across America. She remained unaware until the anonymous phone calls began.
Something else must have happened, Allen reasoned, to prompt this new wave of negative attention. This was how she learned of the Carlson segment. “Once something’s amplified on TV,” she explains, “it’s just a different level than when things are only circulating as text on a newspaper or a website.”
As with the Professor Watchlist profile, Allen had unknowingly become a prominent villain in the alternative media narrative — only finding out through the pernicious consequences for her emotional and physical safety.
Another voicemail said: “Yeah, yeah, Danielle. You’re a lowlife f*****g n****r motherf*****g c**t, you know that? Saying what you say about Trump. You f*****g n****r b***h. F*****g scum. I hope he pisses on your grave some day. Ah, you’ll outlive him but maybe his kid will piss on your f*****g grave and shit on it.”
Allen reported the voicemails to the Harvard University Police Department.
Kirk’s allegations on the Carlson segment are inaccurate — he claims repeatedly on Fox that Allen ‘teaches this in class,’ but Allen maintains that she does not. Neither Kirk nor Carlson offer any evidence to support the claim.
Allen soon attempted to correct the record.
On May 1, 2017, she wrote to Fox News to record a complaint about the segment, writing that her photo was broadcast next to inaccurate commentary about her by Kirk.
On July 6, after two further inquiries from Allen, Tucker Carlson responded.
In correspondences between Allen and Carlson, Carlson repeatedly asks Allen how he could have verified that she does not teach the comparison in class. In her replies, Allen holds that without any evidence or sources to support Kirk’s claim, the burden of proof does not fall upon her.
Carlson responds, “I hear that a lot, unfortunately.”
Briganti and Cronin declined to comment on Carlson’s behalf.
The second time Colby appeared on Fox to discuss the Harvard-Yale protests, he had also hoped to span the two spheres — to little avail. The “more reasonable” segment seemed to fall on deaf ears at Harvard. “I’m sure nobody watched it,” he says.
Allen’s attempt to bridge separate media spheres was equally unsuccessful. Carlson declined to apologize or correct the record, letting the unsubstantiated and contested claim stand.
“And I have clarified my evaluation of your character,” Allen wrote. They had no further correspondence.
—Magazine staff writer Malaika K. Tapper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @malaika_tapper.