The Atlantic Fails Journalism, Again

Perpetuating the journalistic debacle of its hit job on CUNY, The Atlantic has made major corrections to its “article”—yet it refuses to formally withdraw the piece.

I had previously critiqued the article, which argued that CUNY’s (allegedly) excessively high admissions standards threatened the university’s central mission and harmed students of color. The thesis was fatally flawed, in that it treated one group of students whose role at CUNY directly fulfills the university’s mission (Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants) as both victims and beneficiaries of the same allegedly racialized policy, solely depending on whether the student of color in question gained admission to CUNY.

The spine of the article (at least when the piece was entitled, “When Being a Valedictorian Isn’t Enough”) was the sad tale of Kenneth Rosario (mentioned at least 20 times), who abandoned his business career after what the piece framed as CUNY’s two elite colleges, Baruch and Hunter, rejected his admission. Authors LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner devoted the first eight paragraphs of their article to the student they labeled the “powerfully built Puerto Rican.” They subsequently termed Rosario’s experience as emblematic of a “demographic shift” in the CUNY-New York City relationship. The article returned to describe the plight of “valedictorians like Rosario,” and later in the piece analyzed Rosario and his “fellow high achievers.” And then Rosario’s story got four more paragraphs toward the end of the article.

Yet, as CUNY revealed, everything about the Rosario-CUNY relationship was wrong: he was admitted to his first four choices at CUNY, and he never indicated any interest in studying business at his sixth choice, Baruch.

After a day of tinkering with the article and including an ever-longer string of corrections (by Thursday night, the corrections note totaled 313 words), The Atlantic sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning “significantly revised” the article—to eliminate all mention of Rosario altogether. Why? Because the editors or the authors (we aren’t told who) determined Rosario’s story “to be insufficiently relevant to the remainder of the article.” Insufficiently relevant?! The “personal college-admissions story” went from 12 paragraphs plus multiple framing missions to “insufficiently relevant,” and yet the article is still allowed to stand?

The Atlantic made one other “significant” revision. The original version of the article concluded with the four paragraphs about Rosario, followed by five paragraphs of policy recommendations (lowering admissions standards, euphemistically put) framed by three quotes from David Jones, “from the Community Service Society.” It turns out that Jones has another title: chairman of the board of the Nation Institute. Hancock and Kolodner didn’t include that title in their original article, perhaps because the investigative fund at the Nation Institute had helped fund their “research.” And, as with the myriad inaccuracies in Rosario’s tale, whoever edited the piece for The Atlantic didn’t catch the obvious conflict of interest.

Jones has now been significantly revised out of the article.

So, to sum up: the first eight and last nine paragraphs of The Atlantic’s original article were hopelessly compromised, on either ethical or journalistic grounds. The key CUNY-oriented facts relating to the article’s central protagonist were wrong. The key policy recommendations from the article came from the chairman of the board of the group that funded the article, without the authors or the magazine ever revealing this.

And yet The Atlantic has refused to pull the article. Why? Because, the latest editor’s note informs us, Hancock and Kolodner still have an important tale to tell about (some) students of color allegedly having “difficulty in gaining entry to the top five CUNY colleges: Baruch, Queens, Brooklyn, City, and Hunter.” [emphasis added]

Yet an editor’s note, attached to an earlier version of the same article in the same magazine, had previously described at least two of these colleges (Brooklyn and City) as among the “less-competitive schools in the CUNY system.”

So in just one day, Brooklyn and City went from less competitive schools in the system to among the CUNY elite!

The article was, and remains, an embarrassment. The Atlantic should pull the article from its website and include an editor’s note apologizing to readers and explaining how such a substandard piece ever could have been published.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Atlantic Fails Journalism, Again

  1. It is a shame that a old and honorable name like The Atlantic has been ruined by the biased reporting and shallow thinking of people pushing a “progressive” agenda. I would think, and hope, that writers for the paper version of The Atlantic are embarrassed by their electronic counterparts. Between declining quality on paper side, and one-sided advocacy on the web, I’m letting my paper subscription (and the several gift subscriptions I’ve given) run out.

  2. Winston Smith has rewritten this so many times the original title didn’t even make sense. In a few weeks I expect it will be about solar power in Utah.

  3. Ah, The Atlantic does its own version of Rolling Stone’s UVA piece, keeping alive an embarrassing piece merely because it supposedly helps to advance a “bigger truth.”

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