By Charlotte Allen
The mainstream media seem to be studiously ignoring Naomi Schaefer Riley's summary banishment on May 7 as a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She had written a post severely criticizing black studies programs at universities and suggesting that they be eliminated. But some media people who cover the media online, though they are political liberals out of sync with Riley, are just as outraged at the firing as Riley's supporters. Betsy Rothstein, editor of Fishbowl DC, a widely read media-news website, and Brad Phillips, who writes the MrMediaTraining blog, excoriated the Chronicle's editor, Liz McMillen, for caving to pressure from--and apologizing profusely to--Chronicle's college-professor readers who had been screaming racism and demanding Riley's head for several days. This despite the fact that Riley's 500-word post for the Chronicle blog Brainstorm, had contained nothing that could be construed as a personal attack, libelous, or factually incorrect.
In a May 8 article, Rothstein asked: "Was the outcry of online observers--and there are a lot of them these days with loud, shrill, threatening voices--so great that McMillen collapsed under her own lack of direction and standards that were never conveyed to Riley in the first place?" In her May 7 post on Brainstorm informing Chronicle readers that she had fired Riley, McMillen declared that Riley's post "did not meet The Chronicle's basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles"--even though in fact neither McMillen nor anyone else at the Chronicle had ever spelled out to Riley exactly what those standards were supposed to be.
Furthermore, Rothstein noted that McMillen had publicly stood behind Riley's post for nearly a week before she lowered the axe. By May 2, the only reaction she had gotten from the Chronicle was a request for a response to her critics, which she posted on Brainstorm on May 3. That same day McMillen put up a message conceding that Riley's post had indeed stirred up controversy but merely urging readers "to view this posting as an opportunity--to debate Riley's views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit." It was not until four days later, after more than 6,000 Chronicle readers had signed a petition calling for Riley's dismissal, that, in Rothstein's words, "McMillen threw herself and Riley to the pack of wolves."
Rothstein concluded: "In most newsrooms editors fiercely protect their reporters. Most editors don't let strangers in the door and watch as the reporter gets bloodied. Maybe McMillen could be a real editor, hold strong and 'improve' their ways instead of letting a wild flash mob determine Riley's fate."
Digging in Their Heels?
Brad Phillips thought Riley "was unfair and cherry picked examples" in dismissing three dissertations in black studies at Northwestern as "a collection of left-wing victimization clap." But he added: "Given my dim view of her work, it may surprise you that I'm on her side. But I am. And that's due to the Chronicle's lousy response." Of McMillen's statement, Phillips wrote: "It appears to me that the Chronicle had little in the way of guidelines for its bloggers. But they still found it appropriate to fire Ms. Riley, despite not being able to point to any specific rule that she had violated. So much for selling the blog as having 'a range of intellectual and political views.'"
The silver lining in the Chronicle's cloud of journalistic cowardice is that through use of ridicule, Rothstein provoked McMillen into responding to some tough questions about Riley's post and McMillen's apparent capitulation "to a group of strangers who are calling Naomi every disgusting name out there." I myself was greeted with a McMillen wall of silence when I e-mailed her seeking an interview just an hour after she fired Riley. Later McMillen opened up and wrote this to me: "Criticizing a black-studies program is not grounds for dismissing a Brainstorm blogger....We have published numerous pieces critical of affirmative action. Some time ago, when the culture wars were raging, we published a piece on how race was misused in black-studies programs....The question of politicization of any discipline can be a legitimate matter of debate, but people have to do some degree of homework and not dig in their heels when they are called on their intellectual laziness."
"Dig in their heels"? This changes the issue of exactly why Riley was fired. Was Riley dismissed because she failed to meet the Chronicle's "basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness" or because she didn't provide a satisfactory response to an editor's query a few days later? McMillen's response to me doesn't do much to dissipate my feeling that her panic at having offended a large segment of her militantly progressive and often overtly nasty professorial readership outweighed her obligation as an editor to treat one of own writers with a requisite degree of professionalism and justice.
I'm not helped by McMillen's response to another of my questions: Why did McMillen, while citing Riley for lack of fairness in her May 1 post, give a free pass to this May 5 attack-limerick posted on May 5 by another Brainstorm blogger, Gina Barreca, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Connecticut?
A certain white chick-Schaefer Riley-
Decided to do something wily:
Knowing her blogs
Were going to the dogs,
She got all gnarly and smiley.
"I'll get readers, by God!"
She cried to the Quad
(Where no one paid her any attention).
"I'll get 'em all back by writing about blacks
And that way have reader retention!"
This is pretty ugly and personal, and its implication that Riley wrote her post as an attention-getting ploy to boost a sagging readership raises at least the issue of defamation (McMillen's e-mail to me maintained that Riley's "posts were in the middle of the pack, traffic-wise"). But McMillen's overall response to me was: "We give our bloggers leeway to take each other on and argue with each other."
Trumpeting Radical Family Backgrounds
Now for my disclaimer: Naomi Riley edited several of the op-ed articles I've written for the Wall Street Journal over the years, and I wrote a blurb for her 2004 book, "God on the Quad." And in all truth, I think she might have saved herself some grief if she had made it clearer in her May 1 post for the Chronicle that Patton's April 12 profile of the five Northwestern Ph.D. candidates and their dissertations was a sidebar to a longer Chronicle piece by Patton asserting that today's doctoral candidates in black studies are a different breed from their radical forebears of the 1960s, since they haven't been "baptized in the fire of racial politics." The descriptions of the five dissertations in Patton's sidebar--taken from their authors' own characterizations of them in interviews with Patton--give the lie to that assertion. All five candidates--not just the three that Riley supposedly cherry-picked--either trumpeted their radical family backgrounds to Patton or openly discussed the "racism" and hostility to civil rights they saw in American society. Riley didn't need to "do...homework" and read the dissertations themselves--because Patton's interviews with their authors were enough to support Riley's point that this supposedly forward-thinking new breed of black-studies scholars is actually mired in the mindset of "1963," as she put it. That was her point: that black studies hasn't changed much from the naked and racially charged advocacy that it was nearly half a century ago.
Perhaps Riley wasn't entirely successful in getting her point across. The article may not have been her best work. But getting fired over a single 500-word blog post? That says a lot about what the pressure to toe a certain ideological line has done to the American academy and American journalism.