The Chronicle Can’t Seem to Get its Story Straight

Philip W. Semas, president and editor in chief of the Chronicle of Higher Education, is irritated at the Wall Street Journal. On May 9, the Journal ran an editorial castigating the Chronicle for “craven-ness” in firing conservative blogger (and former Wall Street Journal editor) Naomi Schaefer Riley. She had argued in the Chronicle that college black-studies programs are little more than 60′-style radical advocacy and ought to be eliminated. What is fascinating about Semas’s complaint, expressed in a four-paragraph letter published yesterday in the Journal, is that it continues a process of quietly shifting the reason for the firing away from Riley’s supposed failure to meet “the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” (as a statement by Chronicle editor Liz McMillen declared). The likely reason for this shift: the Chronicle had never communicated any standards to its bloggers, as several media reporters have pointed out.

Now, the new reason for Riley’s dismissal is that she wasn’t nice enough or thorough enough in her dealings with yet another Chronicle editor who asked her on May 2 for a response to the hundreds of nasty comments that the professoriate had already posted in response to her May 1 blog.

Here is the key paragraph in Semas’s letter to the Wall Street Journal:

“Contrary to your assertion, Ms. Riley was not dropped because she criticized black studies. She was dropped because she damned an entire academic discipline based on the titles and short descriptions of three dissertations. More importantly, when she was asked to respond, the response she provided did not offer any additional support for her glib assertion. That is a basic journalistic failing.”

Now for a few facts: First of all, in an interview I had with Riley on May 7, about an hour after her firing, she explained to me that the posts she had been expected to post about twice a week for the Chronicle’s blog Brainstorm “were supposed to be about 400 words long”–that is, pretty short and succinct. “They didn’t hire me as a reporter, and they had no expectations that I was supposed to do any reporting,” she said. “I was hired basically as a conservative commentator.” As far as the rules for Brainstorm were concerned, it was the understanding of Riley, who had been blogging for the site for about a year before her dismissal, that as long as a post “didn’t have anything libelous or any personal attacks,” the blogger’s targets were fair game for criticism either positive or negative.

It goes without saying that when your length is supposed to be 400 words, the titles and descriptions of three doctoral dissertations will quickly get you up to the limit. But here is another key fact: Riley, as she admitted forthrightly in her May 1 Brainstorm post that came in at just under 500 words, was commenting on an April 12 story for the Chronicle, headlined “A New Generation of Black Ph.D.s” and written by one of the Chronicle’s own reporters, Stacey Patton. Patton’s story retailed the titles and descriptions–according to interviews with their authors, all graduate students in black studies at Northwestern Universities–of just five doctoral dissertations. In other words, Riley, far from cherry-picking dissertation topics from Patton’s article, covered a full 60 percent of its contents in her post. There is no indication in Patton’s story that Patton herself had read any of the dissertations in question, which might have been impossible in any event, as all still had yet to be published.

Furthermore, Patton’s story was actually a sidebar to a longer story, also by Patton and also published in the Chronicle on April 12 headlined: “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering into the Future’: A New Generation of Ph.D.s Advances the Discipline.” Patton wrote: “Northwestern University’s first cohort of black-studies Ph.D.s was not baptized in the fire of racial politics. They are members of a younger generation of scholars who bring 21st-century perspectives to the study of race and new approaches to the field of black studies. The struggle for civil rights and racial integration is not part of their lived experience. They grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, often attended the best colleges, and typically escaped at least some of the racial injustices their elders knew. Raised by parents who have provided more educational opportunities than the generation before, they are scholars who tend not to get hung up on victimization and alienation.” This main story was accompanied by a photograph of two of the Northwestern grad students whose dissertations and interview material were featured in Patton’s sidebar.

But the dissertation titles and summaries that Patton provided in her sidebar–and that Riley critiqued–gave the lie to Patton’s cheery assessment that 21st-century black-studies scholars are bringing “new approaches to the field of black studies.” All five authors seemed to be “hung up” on exactly the “victimization and alienation” that they were supposedly getting away from. Here are the three authors out of Patton’s five to whom Riley drew attention:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 39, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Her dissertation–as she told Patton–argues that the federal government’s recent promotion of single-family home-ownership for minorities “highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing markets.”
  • La TaSha B. Levy, 33, author of “Strange Bedfellows: The Rise of the New (Black) Right in Post Civil Rights America.” Her dissertation accuses Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and of all people, John McWhorter (a contributor to the liberal New Republic as well as the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal), of playing “one of the most significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”
  • Ruth R. Hayes, 27, author of “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” Hayes told Patton that she “got really politicized about birth politics” after reading a “scathing exposé of the American maternity system” before starting graduate school.

And these are the two dissertation authors interviewed by Patton whom Riley did not mention in her post:

  • Zinga A. Fraser, 35, author of “Catalysts for Change: A Comparative Study of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan.” Fraser told Patton: “We need to look at the issues impacting black women: the aggressive politics of poverty and reproductive health and how the demonization of black women still operates today.”
  • Dwayne Nash, 35, author of “Stop and Frisk Police Policy on Trial: Testimonies of Racial Profiling in New York City’s Local Courts.” According to Patton, “[h]is dissertation looks at the history of how New York City’s police officers and courts have used stop-and-frisk laws as a form of legalized racial profiling.”

In short, all five authors described their own dissertations in their own words to the Chronicle’s own reporter as exactly the “left-wing victimization claptrap” produced by scholars who “might as well leave their calendars in 1963” that Riley described them as. The notion that Riley was supposed to have read the dissertations themselves, rather than relied on what their own authors said about them, is preposterous.

If Naomi Riley “damned an entire academic discipline based on the titles and short descriptions of three dissertations,” as Semas avers, what about his reporter’s puff piece that gushed over an entire academic discipline based on the titles and short descriptions of five dissertations? It’s is no wonder that Semas and McMillen have tried to shift the issue in Riley’s firing away from inadequate reporting and research–which was certainly not the case–to vague questions of fairness and a supposedly inadequate response to an editor’s query hours after Riley’s post went up. The fact remains–and Semas’s letter makes it crystal-clear–that the Chronicle censored Riley solely on the basis of the opinions that she expressed about black studies and other ideologically dominated academic fields, opinions that do not sit well with a professoriate that pays lip service to free speech but in fact demands its suppression.

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Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

2 thoughts on “The Chronicle Can’t Seem to Get its Story Straight

  1. Damned? Damned?!
    I thought these people didn’t believe in God, and Satan, and sin, and eternal punishment and eternal rewards!
    Their language clearly shows that deep down, they know what the ultimate punishment is, and Who can deliver it, though they’d rather vote Republican than admit it.

  2. Also, I’m not sure when it became irresponsible to form opinions (harsh though they may be) about academic work based on short summaries of that work. We academics do it every day. That’s why abstracts were invented, and that’s why we PhD students are asked to learn to summarize our research in two minutes for networking purposes.

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