In a column posted Saturday, New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane concluded that the paper had gotten it wrong when it went after Yale quarterback Patrick Witt. Brisbane wrote "that reporting a claim of sexual assault based on anonymous sourcing, without Mr. Witt's and the woman's side of it, was unfair to Mr. Witt. The Times thought it was a necessary part in its exposé of the feel-good sports story. But the impact of the 'sexual assault' label on Mr. Witt is substantial and out of proportion for a case that went uninvestigated and unadjudicated."
But Brisbane's intervention came much too late: the original article by Richard Pérez-Peña cannot be undone; replete with extraneous information about Witt's "minor arrests" and framed in such a way that a fair-minded reader would conclude that Witt's probably a rapist, the Times savaged Witt's reputation. A February 5 Google search for "Patrick Witt" "sexual assault" yielded 37,800 results. And, as espn.com's Jemele Hill pointed out, the Times' publication of the article probably ended any chance that Witt had of being drafted by the NFL.
Moreover, and most importantly, Brisbane's repudiation of the Times' printing the smear came in the 24th paragraph of a 26-paragraph story, buried after a lengthy attempt to reconstruct the timeline of what Witt knew about the Rhodes Trust's decision-making process, and when he knew it; and whether he withdrew his Rhodes candidacy because he wanted to play in The Game, or because Yale refused to re-endorse his candidacy. This kind of detailed timeline-style reporting should have occurred before the Times ever went to print, not days after an article appeared. Brisbane's decision to focus on the weeds of original reporting ensured that while his column might have exposed the shoddy skills of a Times reporter, it would fail to come to grips with the enormity of what was done to Witt.
At least Brisbane, unlike Pérez-Peña, spoke to some sources on the record. He obtained a (limited) statement from the Rhodes Trust, a (very limited) statement from a Yale official, a statement from Witt's agent, and some e-mails sent between Witt and Yale administrators. From that information, he (correctly) concluded that "I haven't seen proof that Mr. Witt was no longer a contender when he bowed out." In an unintentional commentary on the bankruptcy of the Times' reporting, Pérez-Peña--who incredibly hasn't been pulled from the Witt story--used much of the same material to come to a radically different conclusion, in an article that appeared shortly before Brisbane's went to press: "The timeline offered by Rhodes officials, and confirmed Friday by a Yale spokesman, differs from Witt's account."
Both Brisbane and Pérez-Peña relied in part on a
statement from the Rhodes Trust. (Pérez-Peña also interviewed the Trust's U.S.
director.) Yet neither man appears to have asked Rhodes for the critical piece
of information in reporting on Witt--who at Yale violated university procedures
and improperly leaked existence of the "informal complaint" against one of the
school's students. The improper leaker no longer has any tenable claim to
confidentiality. So why did the Times
not press for the person's identity?
Then Why Have an Ombudsman?
The Times has come under searing criticism for its handling of the Witt story--from sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to major sports sites such as Deadspin and Yahoo (which aptly deemed the paper's reporting "scandalous"). In summarizing the indictment, Peter Berkowitz observed, "The Times reported the existence of a confidential accusation of sexual assault despite not knowing the name of the accuser or the content of the complaint. It relied on a half-dozen anonymous sources, all of whom were violating institutional confidentiality policies. And it highlighted a couple of minor infractions by Mr. Witt earlier in his college years, slyly suggesting that he had a propensity for lawbreaking."
The most recent articles by Pérez-Peña and Brisbane (focused on the weeds of the Witt timeline issue) seem almost oblivious to this criticism--and therefore deeply reluctant to explore the real issue raised by the Times' decision to publish its original article. Pérez-Peña's chief focus, alas, seems to be preserving his journalistic credibility, and so little if anything could be expected of him. But if a public editor won't directly confront the ethical questions behind the Times' decision to publish, then what's the purpose of having an ombudsman?
Is there any justification for the nation's paper of record to publicize an unsubstantiated, uninvestigated allegation of sexual assault against a college student, solely to produce an "exposé of [a] feel-good sports story"--when the paper, as even the public editor conceded, didn't have (and likely couldn't have) clear evidence that its "exposé" was even correct?
And if Times editors did concoct a justification for so publishing, didn't the nation's paper of record have an obligation, in its original article, to explain the "informal complaint" scheme (Orwellian both in terms of how Yale defines "sexual assault" and in terms of a procedure that doesn't even make a pretense of finding the truth) to which Witt was subjected?
These questions of journalistic ethics, it seems, do
not trouble the Times. Witt's
reputation has been permanently tarnished--thanks to an unholy alliance between
an improper leaker, a Yale "disciplinary" procedure that has no interest in
seeking truth, and a newspaper eager to publish a story whose underlying
premise (sexual assault by a star athlete) was too good to be false.
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."