The most viewed video on Youtube from the last year involving a UChicago student is a Fox & Friends interview which racked up over 3.5 million views in the last four months. The subject of the interview is Evita Duffy, one of the founders of the Chicago Thinker, a conservative student publication on this campus. This video is by no means an outlier, as Thinker representatives have appeared on cable news dozens of times in the last year, not to mention their numerous appearances on conservative podcast and radio shows such as the Ben Shapiro Show, the Brian Nichols Show, and the Larry Elder Show, among others.
The Chicago Thinker was formally launched in October 2020 and has since found frequent success promoting conservative content and airing grievances with UChicago administrative policy through social media and cable news. Throughout the 2021–22 academic year so far, odds were that if you heard a UChicago student on the news, it was a member of the Thinker cohort. Compared to other student publications and political organizations, the Thinker has experienced remarkable growth and mainstream news coverage, part of which must be credited to the hard work and social media savvy of its members. However, it is evident that the right-wing news media's enormous appetite for conservative college students has also contributed to their rise in the mainstream.
The articles and interviews in the Thinker often begin with a ritualistic appropriation of the foundational liberties our university defends, as if the Thinker, and only the Thinker, still upholds the Chicago Principles. The Thinker uses the UChicago name as both a badge of honor and a symbol of the encroaching “woke mob.” The storied legacy of our university as a bastion of free expression provides immediate validation in conservative circles, yet the university’s student body and faculty members are primarily Democratic, a nearly universal fact of any highly educated subset of urban America. In the tension between these two realities, those representing the Thinker conjure up a tragic tale of the once free university, a true marketplace of ideas, which has barred its gates and retreated to an elite ivory tower.
After the release of the Chicago Principles in 2014, UChicago gained a reputation for its stand on free expression which we all benefit from as students. The Thinker is well aware of this reputation and uses it to appeal to those on the right. Consider this tweet by Thinker staff writer and social media manager Chris Phillips: “[Senator Ted Cruz], at Yale, left-wing activists refuse to respectfully debate non-wokeists. at UChicago, we value free discourse! that’s why [Daniel Schmidt] and i confronted [Anne Applebaum] and [Brian Stelter] with hard-hitting questions. we’d love to have you!”
However, when speaking to Tucker Carlson, Chris said, “There’s a lot of social pressure to conform to the leftist narrative—to conform to the radical agenda at college campuses, just working for the Chicago Thinker really is kind of inviting you to be ‘canceled’ in a sense.” But if, as he said, “at UChicago, we value free discourse,” why would he get canceled? It seems, according to these statements, that most of our university has turned away from free discourse except the members of the Thinker, who have co-opted the fundamental principles of the university and now consider themselves black sheep in an increasingly liberal herd.
In that light, we should ask, what are the Chicago Principles, anyway? At the heart of this three-page statement issued by University officials in 2014 is a strong commitment to free expression:
“In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”
These are lofty and noble ideals, and UChicago students should be concerned when their peers call them out for not living up to the fundamental principles of free expression upon which our university was built. Too often when students discuss their stance on politics and campus issues, they do so without the openness and vigor demanded by the Chicago Principles. A lack of tolerance and passion for the free exchange of ideas leaves the door open for publications like the Thinker to gain a near-monopoly on speech and representation in the media. To their credit, they are not afraid to loudly and passionately state their point of view, which they demonstrated in early April 2022.
At the recent Disinformation Conference hosted by The Atlantic and the UChicago Institute of Politics (IOP), members of the Thinker leveraged pointed questions to create viral sound-bites and videos that quickly gained traction among right-wing social media and news circles. Their clips from the conference have been shared by Ben Shapiro, Newsmax, Fox News, and others. During the controversy, the Thinker’s social media following exploded by an order of magnitude, with their Twitter followers jumping from around 4k pre-conference to over 35k at the time of writing. For context, the IOP boasts only 15k Twitter followers, and the Maroon has just 7.5k.
The Thinker called their participation in the event a “Media Regime Takedown,” but what stands out about the viral video clips from the Disinformation Conference is the banality of the whole affair. The questions asked by members of the Thinker, while clearly designed to expose supposed flaws in the panelists’ arguments, were not entirely unreasonable and were generally asked in a respectful manner. The two clips that have garnered the most attention both boil down to a straightforward exchange about whether left-wing media coverage of the Hunter Biden laptop incident and other recent stories were biased. Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic said she did not find the laptop scandal “interesting,” and Brian Stelter, a CNN anchor, quipped that the student asking the question was “describing a different channel from the one I watch.” Stelter said that the question spoke to the failure of journalism “to show our work” and also spoke more in depth with the student questioner after the panel concluded. All in all, the questions were not the disruptive sort that some on the left—both on and off campus—claimed them to be, and the answers certainly did not represent the dismantling of the mainstream media.
Very little of the drama surrounding the conference seems even to have happened at the conference itself. Instead, much of it took place in the volatile online miasma of Twitter. Journalists on the right and center-right became embroiled in arguments about the imaginary scandal. Meanwhile, most of the panelists who were asked questions attempted to ignore the chaos unfolding on their Twitter feeds while the conservative wing of Twitter reveled in the supposed humiliation of their pompous political rivals. However, echoes of the social media buzz did ultimately infiltrate the conference, with Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic remarking that “[o]ne darkly humorous but inevitable measurement of our success is that our disinformation conference has been the subject of disinformation campaigns on social media already.” His reaction to the overreaction of the internet only produced more fodder for the Twitter feedback loop.
Those paying careful attention to the Thinker’s rhetoric may have picked up on the irony that the very students who accused CNN, The Atlantic, and other news organizations of gatekeeping a fake news media hegemony appeared just days later on the most-watched cable news network in the United States. On Fox & Friends, Thinker cofounder Evita Duffy recently said of mainstream media and big tech that “they’re interested in taking back power … and shutting people down by taking algorithmic control over social media platforms.” It is difficult for the students of the Thinker to maintain their status as victims of the mainstream media given that they are the only students at our university with seemingly unfettered access to cable news. The Maroon has not been making waves for appearing on MSNBC recently (or any mainstream news organization for that matter). For better or for worse, the Thinker controls a considerable portion of the narrative around students at our school. Given the amount of airtime this relatively small political group on campus has received, it is fair to consider how UChicago students should feel about this tiny subset of the student body receiving a disproportionate amount of media coverage.
According to their mission statement, “[t]he Chicago Thinker challenges the mob’s crusade against free speech by publishing thoughtful conservative and libertarian commentary, in addition to fact-driven reporting.” It is clear that whatever the “mob’s crusade” is, it has not yet compelled UChicago students other than those at the Thinker to voice their opinions loudly and think strategically about using modern media to make their message heard. Students who feel the urge to play the role of armchair critic next time the Thinker appears on cable television or drops a particularly controversial article should stand up and play a more active role in the campus- and nation-wide discussion of political issues instead. If you don’t like the fact that the Thinker is representing this university, redouble your commitment to working on what you care about. Not solely for the sake of presenting a balanced image of our university and its students to the media, but also to have a meaningful impact on society throughout your lifetime. There is enormous value in exercising your right to free speech beyond Twitter clicks.
Give the Thinker the debate it so desperately begs for. Despite what they claim in their mission statement, members of the Thinker seem a lot more interested in producing content for outside media sources than in stimulating real debate within the UChicago student body. A strong counterbalance and political dialogue on campus would force their hand, revealing whether they consider their peers, faculty, and university to be worthy partners in discourse or simply props in a one-sided love affair with conservative media. The Chicago Principles belong to us all.