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January 31, 2012

Media "Watchdogs" Foul Up the Mess at Yale

In an ideal world, Richard Perez-Pena and the New York Times would have been subjected to widespread condemnation, even shame, for the character-assassination frame the paper gave to the Patrick Witt story. Kathleen Parker, most prominently, has spoken with moral clarity on the issue, translating the Times argument as, "We don't know anything, but we're smearing this guy anyway." But far more common have been defenses of the Times--or even claims that the Times should have done more to portray Witt in a negative light.

Predictable defenses of Pérez-Peña have come from publications who would be expected to attack a male college athlete, especially one perceived (whether correctly or not) as "elite." In Jezebel, Anna North presumed Witt's guilt, twice designating his accuser a "victim" and also referring to her as a "survivor." Washington Monthly's Daniel Luzer, meanwhile, termed the affair "another college football disgrace," and hailed the Times for exposing it.

In a sad commentary, however, not all of the Times' defenders, however, have come from the ranks of the ideologically sympathetic media. In Forbes.com, John McQuaid (who says he writes "about dysfunctional America") claimed that Times critics such as Parker have missed the point. "This is," stated McQuaid, "not a story about sexual assault. It is a story about misleading the public," regarding the reason for which Witt withdrew his Rhodes candidacy.

McQuaid did not explain why a story that's "about misleading the public" would have devoted considerable space to such items as Witt's "minor arrests" and his membership in a fraternity where other members have been  accused of sexual harassment. Nor did McQuaid offer a theory why Pérez-Peña would have structured his story in such a way to leave the (false) insinuation that Witt was no longer enrolled at Yale. A story portraying Witt as potential rapist, on the other hand, would have had good reason to have included such material.

And while McQuaid dismissed Witt's version of events--that he had already decided to play in The Game, and that he had informed Athletic Department officials of his decision--as relying "on a tortuous parsing of events," Witt's claim, which includes assertions that he had spoken to Athletic Department officials and has a paper trail of his decision-making process, is verifiable. (Perhaps Pérez-Peña could have asked one of his anonymous sources about the conversations, even if he couldn't have obtained from Witt the e-mails.) Witt's statement could be untruthful. But if, in fact, Witt's timeline is correct, there was no "story about misleading the public," since the decision to withdraw was made for the reasons that Yale and Witt suggested at the time. And given McQuaid's stated concern with ensuring that the public isn't misled, perhaps he'll call on the Rhodes Trust to reveal the name of the person who passed along information about the "informal" complaint, thus violating Yale procedures. While the Rhodes application process is confidential, surely there was no presumption of confidentiality to this matter, since the person or persons informed the Trust outside the parameters of the application process.

But the most surprising--and most disappointing--responses to the story have come from the ranks of self-styled journalistic watchdogs. The normally temperate Jim Romenesko posted a piece on his website by former Yale Daily News opinion editor Alex Klein accusing the student paper of having sat on the story, "for reasons personal, social, or political -- who can ever tell on a college campus?" Indeed, Klein wildly asserted, "The paper and its editor are also complicit in Yale's culture of secrecy surrounding sexual assault." For good measure, Klein also included an anecdote in which, he suggested, Witt had been too brusque to him in an e-mail.

Yet, in fact, the Yale paper did not know--as the Times story revealed--that the existence of the "informal complaint" had, in violation of Yale procedures, been leaked to the Rhodes Trust. The paper knew only of the existence of the "informal" complaint--a complaint that can be filed on the basis of an accuser's "worry," in which "limited or no investigation" occurs, and in which, the Yale website implies, the accuser retains all but complete control over whatever investigatory process takes place. Klein (and, it seems, Romenesko) believe that the paper nonetheless had a journalistic obligation to report the "informal" complaint.

Given the extraordinarily low threshold for filing an "informal complaint" of sexual assault at Yale, given the breach of the process by the person (presumably linked to the accuser) who leaked the complaint to the Daily News, and given the lasting reputational damage publication of a sexual assault complaint can cause, a strong case can be made for the approach to the story that the Yale Daily News adopted. Regardless, it's absurd to suggest that the Daily News is "complicit in Yale's culture of secrecy surrounding sexual assault."

The most outrageous take on the Times article came from Poynter's Kelly McBride. Fresh off a laughable "ombudsman" column that issued a blanket defense of how ESPN covered (or wildly over-covered) Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, McBride decided to fault Pérez-Peña for being too sympathetic to Witt. By not presenting the accuser's side of the story, she lamented, the Times article "feeds into a two commonly mistaken lines of thought about sexual assault: That rape is invisible, faceless and a possible pathway for scorned women seeking revenge."

Even more incredibly, McBride turned to adjunct law professor Wendy Murphy--who, she revealed, "has taught in  Poynter seminars" on the topic of sexual assault--for suggestions on how the Yale Daily News should have approached the story. That's the same Wendy Murphy who embarrassed herself and any journalist who spoke to her in the Duke lacrosse case, repeatedly making false statements of facts, culminating with an evidence-free suggestion that one of the accused Duke lacrosse players was molested as a child. (Salon's Alex Pareene has correctly branded Murphy as Exhibit A of the proposition that "there are, in the mass media, absolutely no consequences for blatant, constant lying.")  As for Murphy's more general approach to the presumption of innocence in sexual assault claims: she told CNN that "I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth."

The idea that a journalistic watchdog group would turn to such a figure for guidance on a question of journalistic ethics is beyond belief. But it's Patrick Witt who has been held up to widespread scorn.

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KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of "Until Proven Innocent."

Comments (2)

Gregory:

You can look at another high-profile false rape accusation to see how far you can trust the New York Times. In the Crystal Mangum Hoax, she accused members of the Duke lacrosse team of rape, and the NYT ran with that story as if Jesus whispered it in their ears. It was a complete hoax, but how do you unwrite the many slanderous Times articles?

The people with anti-athlete, anti-fraternity, anti-"elite" or anti-male agendas have turned their venom on a person based on gossip, speculation and the absence of credible evidence of any kind (Do you really think Yale is going to out-right dismiss a sexual assault claim that had any kind of merit?), and it reflects poorly on those with the biases.

Alex Bensky:

As to Murphy's claim that she never met a false rape accusation, my guess is that in fact like most leftists who say that, she makes exceptions. If the accuser is someone like Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, or Juanita Broadrick, then either the accusation is false or the accuser may be dismissed as "trailer trash."

I don't know who Murphy's legal guiding lights are, but I'd guess that Andrei Vyshinsky is one of them.

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