January 29, 2012

Will The NY Times Apologize to Patrick Witt?

The denouement of the Times' coverage of Duke lacrosse came when then-sports editor Tom Jolly apologized for the paper's guilt-presuming, error-ridden articles on the case. Will the paper ever get around to giving former Yale quarterback Patrick Witt an apology? With a few days perspective, it's become clear that the Times' mishandling of the Witt story was, in two specific ways, even worse than originally believed.

First, Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña strongly implied (though he carefully avoided ever coming out and saying so specifically) that Witt had withdrawn from Yale. In fact, according to a statement issued by a representative of the student, Witt has finished all academic requirements except for his senior thesis, and is off-campus this semester training for the NFL draft, as are many talented college football seniors.

Second, in what could only be deemed a deliberate attempt to smear Witt's character, Pérez-Peña devoted more than eight percent of his article (163 of 1956 words) to discussing what he termed "two minor arrests" in Witt's past. But the paper didn't even attempt to claim that these matters had any bearing on the article's ostensible topic--the suspension of Witt's Rhodes application. Negative insinuations, it seems, were all the news that was fit to print.

Beyond engaging in character assassination against a college student, the Times story did have a scoop: that the Rhodes Trust temporarily suspended Witt's candidacy because it learned that an accuser (whose identity the Times admitted its reporter didn't know) filed an "informal complaint" against Witt. Whether Witt withdrew his Rhodes candidacy because of this development is in dispute.

In any case, by doing everything he could to construct a guilt-presuming frame against Witt, Pérez-Peña buried the lede: that on today's college campuses, the filing of an informal complaint "intended to address an ongoing problem or worry," leading to "limited or no investigation" by the university, sufficed to persuade the Rhodes Trust to suspend an otherwise qualified finalist's application. In his article, Pérez-Peña did not quote these words from Yale's own Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center, nor did the Times online version provide a link to Yale's "informal complaint" policy.

Would anyone have come away from the Times article believing the Witt was subjected to a process characterized by "limited or no investigation," which could have been triggered by a ... "worry"? Pérez-Peña, alas, was too busy explaining about Witt's "minor arrests" to mention Yale's worrying language.

While Pérez-Peña didn't see fit to identify the almost comically loose definition of sexual assault in Yale's "informal complaint" policy, his article did discuss Yale's formal disciplinary process--but solely, it seems, to cast negative aspersions on Witt. The Times reporter explained that Witt belonged to a fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, "whose members and pledges had engaged in highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment." But no one, including the Times, suggested that Witt had any involvement in these "episodes," nor did the Times disclose that Yale's response to these "highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment" had, in fact, generated widespread condemnation from civil libertarians.

Rather than diving into Witt's "minor arrests," Pérez-Peña might have explored the formal complaint policy that Witt's accuser spurned. Under that policy, not only does a finding of guilt now (thanks to the Obama administration) come from a preponderance of evidence, but Yale promises that "the student bringing the complaint retains considerable control, although not total, as the process unfolds."

What sort of truth-seeking process promises to an accuser "considerable control . . . as the process unfolds"?

The Witt affair also raises a troubling question, which the Times unsurprisingly ignored, for Yale's administration. In a comment on the Witt case, the editors of the Yale Daily News noted that Yale's procedures require absolute confidentiality in the sexual harassment/assault informal complaint process. They added, "All parties involved observed that route of discretion. The complainant, the alleged perpetrator and all those who heard the case honored the discreet process."

With due respect to the student newspaper, which handled the story far more responsibly than did the Times, this description isn't true. Someone did not honor the "discreet process." Indeed, that breach of confidentiality had disastrous results for Witt, since it set the stage for the Times' character assassination. Will the university, therefore, conduct an investigation to determine if any Yale employee leaked information about the "informal complaint" to the Rhodes Trust? If not, why not?
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 (7)

John Fembup:

I agree that Mr. Perez-Pena is responsible for the unprofessional article he wrote but disagree that he is responsible for the article that the Times actually published.

Sure, Perez-Pena wrote a hit piece. But he doesn't own the newspaper. He has an editor.

Once upon a time, even the Times had responsible editors.

There is no excuse for the Times to have published this shoddy article - and its editors bear that responsibility.

Bill M:

If Witt does well in the draft and gets a good contract, he should call Yale and propose a large gift and then call them the next day and say, "After what you did to me? You'll never see a dime."


Why won't Yale conduct an investigation to see if an employee leaked information?

Because if you are God or man at Yale, you are guilty, even if you are innocent of a specific charge.


Thanks for the update.

I have a question to follow up on the information leak.

The link states that documentation for the informal [limited or no investigation] complaint is "preserved in confidential university records."

Documentation for a formal complaint is "preserved in confidential university records; may be stored in respondent’s file"

Either way, unless the accused released the information, does this not open Yale up to a lawsuit? And/or perhaps the accuser?

Another observation is that I don't see anything on the Yale "SHARE" (not a good acronym in this case) site which tells someone who is being accused what resources the university has for them.

Is that a separate page over on the Law School site?

Tim Johnson:

His own representative, at the link you provide, says the guy withdrew from Yale, before graduating.
I don't know what point you are trying to make about that, but you imply more false info about it than you are attributing to the NYTimes reporter.
The guy withdrew from Yale; to work out for NFL combine.
So why write as if the NYTimes writer was sneaky in implying that the guy withdrew??? The kid's own lawyer says he did.

The player obviously also has problem behaviors in his past, including an arrest for disorderly type stuff at Nebraska...
You end up attacking the NYTimes reporter for being diffident about a college athlete with a history of behavior problems, and act like it's the Times' reporter's fault??
The kid made his own bed, then apparently assaulted a coed in it...
It sounds like there was a payoff from Witt's family to the girl, in exchange for no further action. Maybe that was the fair way to go: who knows what happened; there's lots of gray areas in such reported sexual "assaults" or "encounters" that, it turns out, one party didn't think was consented to...It seems reasonable to assume of the co-ed thought it should have been taken to a higher level, or even criminal charges, she would have done that... she's a Yalie, too, after all, not a dumb bunny.
But gads, find a real problem to solve; it's not the NYTimes reporter here, who did pretty fair and balanced work ferreting out this story... Yea, ferreting... it ain't pretty, but it's journalism, like it or lump it.
It didn't have to be reported. They could have left it alone.
But I think we're all better off knowing this QB was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student, but that no disciplinary action was taken, after it was reviewed. Most adults can read that with some wisdom and take it for what it's worth.
Life is complicated. Get over it.
And let's face it, being a Rhodes scholar is no measure of great character....


As the saying goes, discovery is hell.

Bill Williams:

Innuendo and irrelevant past actions hardly pass for real journalism. Only someone who has not been similarly smeared would suggest that the real job of the journalist is to collect all the damaging information, present it in a damaging way and then let people make up their own minds about the lack of a formal response.

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