Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.  For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

The Rolling Stone Retraction

Yesterday Rolling Stone formally retracted its now-notorious story about a gang rape that supposedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The retraction followed the release of a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that concluded that the publication of the story in the first place was the product of a devastating series of failures by Rolling Stone, its reporter, and its editorial staff.

It’s to Rolling Stone‘s credit that it commissioned the CSJ report in the first place, but the report itself, and Rolling Stone‘s response to it, make me wonder whether I will ever fully credit one of its stories again.  The report documents a breakdown in basic journalism — relying primarily on one source, accepting stories at face value without sufficient fact-checking, failing to confirm quotes and facts with multiple sources, and allowing sensitivity for the alleged victim to trump the skepticism that should be an essential part of every reporter’s tool kit. It is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone‘s entire editorial process.

In response to the report, Rolling Stone‘s long-time publisher, Jann Wenner, said that the reporter who wrote the piece would continue to write for the magazine and that the managing editor of the magazine and the editor of the story itself would keep their jobs.  It’s a show of loyalty on Rolling Stone‘s part, I suppose, but it’s astonishing that people who utterly failed in the basics of reporting are not being fired for their role in a piece that ruined the magazine’s reputation for credible journalism — and, of course, maligned the University of Virginia, its fraternity system, and its students as well.

One other thing about Rolling Stone‘s response, as reported by the New York Times, seems a bit too pat:  the explanations for their failures, from the reporter to the editors, all come back to the notion that they wanted to be sensitive to the claimed rape victim.  I suspect that back story is a bit of a dodge.  I expect that someone along the line concluded that Rolling Stone had a sensational and sordid story in hand, and the basics of reporting were sacrificed in the rush to make a big splash.  It would have been nice if someone at Rolling Stone had admitted that sensationalism, too, played a role.

Black Eye For Reporting

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism back in the ’70s, I bought a book called The Rolling Stone Guide To Journalism — or something similar.  It was a great collection of pieces authored by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and other terrific reporters in the ’60s and ’70s, when Rolling Stone was forging new frontiers in journalism.  I loved it, and I still have it.

How the mighty have fallen!  The apparent failure of the Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat a devastating blow for journalism that hurts just about everyone involved — the University, the fraternity, other victims of sexual assault who want to tell their stories, and the credibility of the reporter and Rolling Stone itself.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of publishing a significant story — and a claim that frat pledges committed a heinous criminal act certainly qualifies — expects that such stories have been carefully vetted, scrutinized by lawyers, fact-checked to the smallest detail, and read, re-read, and considered top to bottom before going to press.  When the publisher itself says it has doubts about a story, as Rolling Stone did today, it gives journalism a black eye and hurts the cause of everyone who hopes to us the press to focus attention on injustice or wrongdoing.

I think Rolling Stone owes it to reporters and readers alike to explain how this article saw print, what fact-checking processes were followed, and where the systems failed. How in the world did this happen?  There’s a real story there.