Best of AP — Second Winner


AP reporter tells real story behind woman NYC’s mayor accused of radicalizing Columbia students

Nahla Al-Arian visits the pro-Palestinian protesters encampment on the campus of Columbia University, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in New York. LAILA AL-ARIAN VIA AP

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After New York City’s mayor repeatedly claimed that student protesters at Columbia University had been radicalized by a woman whose husband was “convicted for terrorism,” New York City bureau reporter Jake Offenhartz did an exclusive interview with the alleged agitator, revealing that she was a retired schoolteacher who wasn’t actually on campus the week demonstrators seized an administration building.

The day after cops stormed into Columbia University to clear pro-Palestinian protesters from an occupied school building, New York City Mayor Eric Adams repeatedly justified the police intervention by saying he had learned that a woman whose husband was “convicted for terrorism” was among the demonstrators. He referred to her and others as “outside agitators” — language long used by law enforcement officials to discredit protests, dating back to the Civil Rights movement.

While Adams’ description conjured up images of, perhaps, the wife of a Hamas gunman, Offenhartz quickly debunked the mayor’s narrative. Nahla Al-Arian was a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher. She had not been on campus the week that Columbia’s Hamilton Hall was seized. And her husband’s story was more complicated than Adams had let on.

Al-Arian gave Offenhartz an exclusive interview in which she disputed the mayor’s characterization of both her and her husband. She had, in fact, visited Columbia’s protest encampment, but only briefly during a family trip to the city. Offenhartz’s story — still unmatched by other news organizations — also included vital context about her husband, Sami Al-Arian.

He was a former computer engineering professor in Florida who had been prosecuted, starting in 2003, on charges that he had given banned support in the 1980s and 1990s to a sanctioned Palestinian group. At the time, Al-Arian’s case had been covered extensively by the AP and other news organizations, partly because of criticism that it was an overreach enabled by the Patriot Act. Offenhartz was able to land the interview and persuade the family to share a photo of Nahla Al-Arian sitting on the lawn at Columbia partly because of his work cultivating a reputation as a reporter eager to hold public officials accountable for mistruths.

Offenhartz reported and wrote his story on deadline — it ran in the same cycle as Adams first began making his allegations — ensuring that the AP’s reporting was factual and put the accusations on the proper context right from the start.

NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed Offenhartz about what the story, which was cited by The Guardian. Additionally, the story was a strong performer on AP digital platforms.

For quickly debunking a narrative that was being widely circulated, Offenhartz is Best of AP — Second Winner.

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