Media “Watchdogs” Foul Up the Mess at Yale

In an ideal world, Richard Perez-Pena and the New York Times would have been subjected
to widespread condemnation, even shame, for the character-assassination frame
the paper gave to the Patrick Witt story. Kathleen Parker, most prominently, has
spoken with moral clarity
on the issue, translating the Times argument as, “We don’t know
anything, but we’re smearing this guy anyway.” But far more common have been
defenses of the Times–or even claims
that the Times should have done more
to portray Witt in a negative light.

Predictable defenses of Pérez-Peña have come from
publications who would be expected to attack a male college athlete, especially
one perceived (whether correctly or not) as “elite.” In Jezebel, Anna North presumed
Witt’s guilt
, twice designating his accuser a “victim” and also referring
to her as a “survivor.” Washington
‘s Daniel Luzer, meanwhile, termed
the affair
“another college football disgrace,” and hailed the Times for exposing it.

In a sad commentary, however, not all of the Times’ defenders, however, have come
from the ranks of the ideologically sympathetic media. In, John
McQuaid (who says he writes “about dysfunctional America”) claimed that Times critics such as Parker have missed
the point. “This is,” stated
, “not a story about sexual assault. It is a story about misleading
the public,” regarding the reason for which Witt withdrew his Rhodes

McQuaid did not explain why a story that’s “about misleading
the public” would have devoted considerable space to such items as Witt’s
“minor arrests” and his membership in a fraternity where other members have
been  accused of sexual harassment. Nor
did McQuaid offer a theory why Pérez-Peña would have structured his story in
such a way to leave the (false) insinuation that Witt was no longer enrolled at
Yale. A story portraying Witt as potential rapist, on the other hand, would
have had good reason to have included such material.

And while McQuaid dismissed Witt’s version of events–that he
had already decided to play in The Game, and that he had informed Athletic
Department officials of his decision–as relying “on a tortuous parsing of
events,” Witt’s claim, which includes assertions that he had spoken to Athletic
Department officials and has a paper trail of his decision-making process, is
verifiable. (Perhaps Pérez-Peña could have asked one of his anonymous sources
about the conversations, even if he couldn’t have obtained from Witt the
e-mails.) Witt’s statement could be untruthful. But if, in fact, Witt’s
timeline is correct
, there was no “story about misleading the public,”
since the decision to withdraw was made for the reasons that Yale and Witt
suggested at the time. And given McQuaid’s stated concern with ensuring that
the public isn’t misled, perhaps he’ll call on the Rhodes Trust to reveal the
name of the person who passed along information about the “informal” complaint,
thus violating Yale procedures. While the Rhodes
application process is confidential, surely there was no presumption of
confidentiality to this matter, since the person or persons informed the Trust
outside the parameters of the application process.

But the most surprising–and most disappointing–responses to
the story have come from the ranks of self-styled journalistic watchdogs. The
normally temperate Jim Romenesko posted
a piece on his website
by former Yale
Daily News
opinion editor Alex Klein accusing the student paper of having
sat on the story, “for reasons personal, social,
or political — who can ever tell on a college campus?” Indeed, Klein wildly
asserted, “The paper and its editor are also complicit in Yale’s culture of
secrecy surrounding sexual assault.” For good measure, Klein also included an
anecdote in which, he suggested, Witt had been too brusque to him in an e-mail.

Yet, in fact, the Yale paper
did not know–as the Times story
revealed–that the existence of the “informal complaint” had, in violation of
Yale procedures, been leaked to the Rhodes Trust. The paper knew only of the
existence of the “informal” complaint–a complaint that can be filed on the
basis of an accuser’s “worry,” in which “limited or no investigation” occurs,
and in which, the Yale website implies, the accuser retains all but complete
control over whatever investigatory process takes place. Klein (and, it seems,
Romenesko) believe that the paper nonetheless had a journalistic obligation to
report the “informal” complaint.

Given the extraordinarily low
threshold for filing an “informal complaint” of sexual assault at Yale, given
the breach of the process by the person (presumably linked to the accuser) who
leaked the complaint to the Daily News,
and given the lasting reputational damage publication of a sexual assault
complaint can cause, a strong case can be made for the approach to the story
that the Yale Daily News adopted.
Regardless, it’s absurd to suggest that the Daily
is “complicit in Yale’s culture of secrecy surrounding sexual

The most outrageous take on the Times article came from Poynter’s Kelly McBride. Fresh off a
laughable “ombudsman” column that issued a blanket defense of how ESPN
(or wildly over-covered) Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow,
McBride decided to fault Pérez-Peña for being too sympathetic to Witt. By not presenting the accuser’s side of the
story, she lamented, the Times article
feeds into a two commonly mistaken lines of
thought about sexual assault: That rape is invisible, faceless and a possible pathway
for scorned women seeking revenge.”

Even more incredibly, McBride
turned to adjunct law professor Wendy Murphy–who, she revealed, “has taught in  Poynter seminars” on the topic of sexual
assault–for suggestions on how the Yale
Daily News
should have approached the story. That’s the same Wendy Murphy
who embarrassed herself and any journalist who spoke to her in the Duke
lacrosse case, repeatedly making false
statements of facts
, culminating with an evidence-free suggestion that one of the accused Duke lacrosse
players was molested as a child. (Salon‘s
has correctly branded Murphy as Exhibit A of the proposition
that “there are, in the mass media, absolutely no consequences for blatant,
constant lying.”)  As for Murphy’s more general approach to the
presumption of innocence in sexual assault claims: she told CNN that
I never,
ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth.”

The idea that a journalistic
watchdog group would turn to such a figure for guidance on a question of
journalistic ethics is beyond belief. But it’s Patrick Witt who has been held
up to widespread scorn.

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.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “Media “Watchdogs” Foul Up the Mess at Yale

  1. As to Murphy’s claim that she never met a false rape accusation, my guess is that in fact like most leftists who say that, she makes exceptions. If the accuser is someone like Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, or Juanita Broadrick, then either the accusation is false or the accuser may be dismissed as “trailer trash.”
    I don’t know who Murphy’s legal guiding lights are, but I’d guess that Andrei Vyshinsky is one of them.

  2. You can look at another high-profile false rape accusation to see how far you can trust the New York Times. In the Crystal Mangum Hoax, she accused members of the Duke lacrosse team of rape, and the NYT ran with that story as if Jesus whispered it in their ears. It was a complete hoax, but how do you unwrite the many slanderous Times articles?
    The people with anti-athlete, anti-fraternity, anti-“elite” or anti-male agendas have turned their venom on a person based on gossip, speculation and the absence of credible evidence of any kind (Do you really think Yale is going to out-right dismiss a sexual assault claim that had any kind of merit?), and it reflects poorly on those with the biases.

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