An Arizona State University student journalist has admitted that a controversial column in which she claimed to have witnessed Orthodox Jews stoning a paraplegic to death at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, was a fabrication, according to two ASU journalism professors.
The State Press the ASU student newspapers in which the column appeared, printed a retraction in a Nov. 29 editorial titled “State Press Repentance.”
The student, Mary Leigh Summerton, now faces disciplinary action that could include expulsion from the journalism school or from the university.
The incident, which has attracted widespread media attention here, began Nov. 15, when the “State Press” printed a guest column in which Summerton, a senior journalism student and former managing editor of the paper, claimed to have witnessed Orthodox Jews, who were praying at the Western Wall, stone and kill a paraplegic in an electric wheelchair.
She said the Jews were angry because the man was using electricity on the Sabbath.
She wrote that the incident occurred while she was on a “United Nations- sponsored trip to the Middle East.”
Summerton participated in an Anti-Defamation League mission for student journalists last summer.
Members of the ASU Jewish community, including David Don, president of the Jewish Law Students Association, and Barton Lee, director of Hillel at ASU, challenged the story.
In letters to the school newspaper and in meetings with members of the paper’s staff, the Jewish students said that the article contained numerous internal inconsistencies, and that they could find no record of the incident in other news media.
They also checked with the ADL, where officials said that the student group had not witnessed any such incident and that the group had visited the Western Wall on a Thursday rather than on Shabbat.
Summerton originally claimed, in conversations with the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix last week, that she did not write the article, but simply turned in a column written by members of an Israeli feminist group.
However, one of her journalism professors, Bruce Itule, said she had submitted the column as a class assignment before turning it in to the newspaper.
Summoned to a meeting earlier this week with Doug Anderson, director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and Itule, the director of student publications, a weeping Summerton “admitted that she wrote fiction, fabricated the whole story,” according to Itule.
“She feels very guilty and is very sorry,” he said, adding that Summerton gave no motive for her actions.
Summerton did not return calls from the Jewish News after her meeting this week.
Anderson and Itule said she has not been going to her classes for the past two weeks.
Anderson said the journalism school has made a recommendation for disciplinary action against Summerton. He said that academic privacy rules forbid him from disclosing what action was recommended. The recommendation now goes to either the dean of student life or to an academic dishonesty committee.
Art Carter, dean of student life at the university, said it could take weeks or months for the university to decide on appropriate discipline.
Meanwhile, Anderson, Itule and State Press staff members met with Lee, the Hillel director, and representatives of other Jewish organizations to discuss the incident.
Lee said the meeting, which included representatives from ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the local Jewish Community Relations Council, was designed to “develop mechanisms to educate the (newspaper) staff about Middle East issues, and to alert them as to what should make the red flags go up.”
Lee called it “a productive meeting.”
Itule, who also has apologized publicly for his role in the incident, said, “I am going to be absolutely aggressive in the future about becoming more educated about Middle Eastern issues and make students more aware as well.”