How Julia Vargas Jones Went Live on CNN During the Columbia University Protests

By Ethan Alter 

As student-led protests over the ongoing Israel-Hamas War roil college campuses across America, the major news networks have largely been prevented from broadcasting from the epicenter of events. In their absence, student journalists are stepping up to be the eyes and ears for outlets otherwise blocked from filing on-the-ground reports.

That was the case at New York’s Columbia University this past week as graduate student Julia Vargas Jones made regular appearances on CNN as the NYPD descended on the Upper West Side institution to clear groups of pro-Palestinian supporters that had occupied Hamilton Hall, as well as an encampment on the main lawn. Anderson Cooper 360 viewers saw Jones narrating the chaotic clash between police and protestors on Tuesday night. The next morning, she posted images of the now-empty lawn on X, formerly known as Twitter, with an evocative note: “What encampment?”

“Thinking about that photo, those marks [on the lawn] look like scars,” Jones tells TVNewser. “Seeing the NYPD on campus is something we’re going to have to get used to for the next few weeks.”

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To be clear, this wasn’t Jones’ CNN debut. Prior to enrolling in the year-long Master of Arts in Journalism program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism last fall, the Brazilian-American reporter spent eight years at the network in various roles, from editorial researcher to field producer. In the latter role, Jones covered the protests over the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and says that she drew on that experience when broadcasting on-air from Columbia.

“All of my CNN University training came into play,” she noted. “I was in the right place at the right time, which is how people get launched into moments like that.”

Being part of a mid-career graduate program means that Jones had a different relationship with campus life prior to this week’s events. “I felt a little removed … I’d look around and think, ‘These kids are so young!'” she confesses, adding that some undergraduate students considered her to be their “journalism mom.” But Jones says that covering the protests “pushed her all the way back in” to feeling like an active part of the institution.

“Now it’s my classes. It’s my graduation. It’s my thesis—all of the elements of Columbia life that touched me,” she notes. “I was [on CNN] showing the perspective of someone who is inside Columbia. All I hope for is that’s helpful and informative to the public.”

Still, Jones is well-aware that her limited time at Columbia means that she won’t necessarily experience the long tail of the week’s events in the same way undergraduates will. “I wonder what this means for the freshman who I interviewed right before the police came,” she says. “I really feel for them—this is the end of their first year, and they already had a very chaotic Covid high school experience. And I will say that the majority of students I talked to were not upset with the encampment; they got upset when the NYPD was called onto campus and people were arrested. That escalated things.”

“Something that I tried to make clear in my coverage is that everyone needs to feel safe on campus, and this is a private institution,” Jones continues. “This is private property and [Columbia] has the right to do what they want. But the students do have a voice, and I don’t think that Columbia should ignore that. Whether or not this is a tactic that works, it doesn’t change the fact that they can still protest and ask for what they want from their institution. I think that’s something that has been a little lost in the past couple of days.”

Jones credits the leaders of Columbia’s journalism school—including Dean Jelani Cobb, who penned a memo praising student journalists—supporting their reporting and allowing Pulitzer Hall to become an impromptu newsroom. “For many students, that was their first newsroom,” she says. “It was beautiful to see people of all different experience levels learning from each other and learning together.”

Jones also says that the school’s deans were instrumental in getting reporters back onto campus and into that newsroom after police pushed them out. “My battery was running low, and we had a light, a phone and AirPods—that’s all we had. I watched as the deans and associate deans were talking to the NYPD, and then, magically, we were escorted back in. Dean Cobb was around the whole time trying to make sure we had what we needed.”

Julia Vargas Jones broadcasting live from Columbia University on CNN on Tuesday night. (Courtesy CNN/X)

As far as the next beat in the story, Jones expects that the focus will turn to the so-called “outside agitators” who were arrested on Tuesday night and whether or not they had ties to Columbia—off-campus narratives that the networks will be able to cover without student journalists. “What kind of charges are they going to face? Will the district attorney actually bring charges that are significant? Will they crack down and make an example of them or let them go? I think that’s where things are going next.”

Meanwhile, similar scenes from other campuses are playing out on the news, most notably at UCLA where the LAPD cleared out a student encampment on Thursday morning. Not long after, President Joe Biden delivered unscheduled remarks on the recent wave of college protests, saying, “There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.”

Jones says she hasn’t seen very many images from the UCLA incident but has heard a few firsthand accounts. “I spoke with a friend who is a professor there and it sounded much more brutal than New York. I’m interested in seeing more of those images to get a sense of how it was.”

“It’s undeniable that there’s a movement spreading to different universities,” Jones continues. “At Columbia, it’s been interesting to be able to look at what happened in 1968 in that same building. There’s a history of protesting on campuses across the world. It’s naturally a place where there will be dissent. I think it’s to be expected that if students are not the people speaking up than there’s a small chance that anyone else will be.”

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