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Pérez-Peña strongly implied (though he carefully avoided ever coming out and saying so specifically) that Witt had withdrawn from Yale.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."