Tag Archives: journalism

Duke Goes After a Critic in the Lacrosse Case

Six years ago, Duke University suffered a high-profile humiliation from which it is still struggling to recover. Students on Duke’s lacrosse team were accused of a brutal sexual assault on a local stripper who had been hired to perform at a party.

The charges were false. But in the interval between the initial headlines and the students’ eventual vindication, credulous faculty and others in the university community applied a presumption of guilt, denouncing the students as rapists.

A university steeped in traditions of free speech and the pursuit of truth was exposed as blinded by its own dogma, unwilling to acknowledge inconvenient facts that undercut the credibility of the students’ accuser, and indifferent to the students’ civil liberties.

Given this sordid history, one would expect Duke to be taking steps to demonstrate its renewed commitment to due process and first amendment principles. On the contrary, the university, which has been sued by the former lacrosse team players and their parents, recently served a subpoena on Robert “KC” Johnson, an outspoken critic of Duke’s handling of the (non-)rape scandal and co-author of the leading book on the subject.

Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, is co-author (with journalist and legal scholar Stuart Taylor) of “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustice of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.” (Disclosure: Taylor is a friend of mine). Duke’s subpoena demands Johnson’s disclosure of confidential information he received from sources for the book, including the former Duke students and their lawyers.

Duke’s subpoena, which is being contested in federal district court in Maine, is an offense to journalistic independence and academic freedom. Historians and journalists can’t perform their truth-telling function if their sources have reason to fear that their role, and the information they agree to provide, will later be exposed and scrutinized in court.

This is obviously true if the sources’ identity or information are confidential. This is also true in the fairly common situation in which a source, although named in a book as a source for one statement or fact, provides additional information to the authors, on a confidential basis, for still other statements or facts that are published unattributed. The process of conducting original research for a journalistic or historical work is crippled if lawyers are free to depose authors about these matters.

The legal privilege protecting the work of historians and journalists is not absolute, to be sure. The university’s claim to the subpoenaed information would be more convincing if Duke had exhausted all alternative sources and the information were truly essential to its ability to defend itself in litigation. But Duke hasn’t come close to meeting these standards.

Duke’s leaders should think hard about how much the school is willing to lose. If they insist on enforcing their subpoena, what will they say the next time a Duke professor receives an intrusive court order to turn over confidential research or communications?


Peter Scheer is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in California. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Coalitions Board of Directors.

Muslims, NYPD and Dubious Journalism Awards

The Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School has weighed in on the long Associated Press series of articles attacking the New York Police Department for its surveillance of Muslims. This series has won a Polk Award, a White House Correspondents Association award, a Pulitzer Prize and now $25,000 from the Shorenstein Center for excellence in investigative reporting. The series reported that the NYPD conducted surveillance of mosques, universities and Muslim groups, reaching into New Jersey (irritating Gov. Chris Christie), and onto the Yale campus (incensing the president of the university).

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Should Journalism Schools Be Doing This?


Back in 2009 the Medill Innocence Project, a program administered by Northwestern University’s highly regarded Medill Journalism School, looked like a victim of a vindictive and over-zealous prosecutor at the Illinois state’s attorney’s office  Students enrolled from 2003-2006 in an undergraduate investigative reporting class at the journalism school that tied into the Innocence Project–which is aimed at overturning wrongful convictions–claimed to have uncovered evidence that could free Anthony McKinney, convicted of first-degree murder and serving a life sentence without parole in the shooting of a security guard near Chicago in 1978. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez issued subpoenas demanding the students’ memos, notes and tapes from their off-the-record and unpublished interviews with witnesses to the 1978 events–and also their grades in the class and e-mail communications with their professor, veteran journalist David Protess, founder and director of the Innocence Project. Journalists across America expressed outrage at the subpoena, arguing that an Illinois “shield law” that protects reporters from having to divulge their sources and the confidential information they learn from them should apply even to students in a journalism class. A Washington Post editorial accused Alvarez of “overreach and pique.” Northwestern hired the prestigious Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin to fight the subpoena on behalf of the students and Protess.

Now, nearly two years later, the situation at Medill doesn’t look so journalistically black and white. Northwestern’s claim to the protection of the Illinois shield law is in shambles, Protess’s investigative reporting class has been turned over to another professor, and Protess himself has been accused by Northwestern in an official statement of “repeatedly” providing “false and misleading information” and “knowingly” misrepresenting “the facts and the actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions.” Sidley & Austin abruptly withdrew its representation of Protess. The problem was that the Illinois shield law protects reporters only if they do not share the information they have gathered with third parties outside their news-gathering organization. But according to Medill, Protess had in fact turned over his students’ notes and memos to lawyers representing McKinney–and then lied about it. Protess went so far, according to Medill’s statement, as to doctor a 2007 e-mail that had stated, “[W]e share everything with the legal team” (Protess had omitted those words from a copy of the e-mail that he turned over to Medill Dean John Lavine). Sidley & Austin had built its case in fighting the subpoena on the assertion that Protess and his students had not “waived” their claim to the protection of the Illinois shield law by sharing their documents outside Medill. Then, in a court hearing in connection with the subpoena, McKinney’s lawyers produced student memos that they said had been given them either by Protess himself or by the Innocence Project at his direction. It must have been an embarrassing courtroom moment for the Sidley firm.

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Should J-Students Work For The Defense?

In May the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office issued a stunningly unusual subpoena. It asked for the student grades, grading criteria, class syllabi, expense reports, and even e-mail messages of undergraduates taking an investigative reporting class at Northwestern University. The class tied into the Medill Innocence Project, a program administered by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism that gathers evidence aimed at overturning wrongful criminal convictions. Over the following months the journalistic world has seethed with outrage at what seemed to be a best a fishing expedition and at worst an act of retaliation against the students for coming up with evidence that could free 49-year-old Anthony McKinney, convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and serving a life sentence without parole for shooting a security guard named Donald Lundahl in the face during the course of a 1978 armed robbery in Harvey, Ill., a Chicago suburb. An Oct. 31 editorial in the Washington Post stated: “These subpoenas — and the stunning overreach they represent — should be quashed.”
Perhaps they should—although on Nov. 10 the state’s attorney’s office filed a 54-page document, complete with signed investigative reports, in which the office alleged that the Northwestern students gave money to two of the witnesses they interviewed (for a reporter to pay sources is regarded as highly unprofessional), including $40 to buy crack cocaine to a man named Tony Drakes in exchange for a videotaped confession to the murder in 2004. The reports also stated that students had flirted with several male witnesses (including Drakes) who then gladly told them what they wanted to hear; and that the Medill school refused to give prosecutors access to much of the students’ notes and tapes, including all records pertaining to student interviews with a second man, Robert Magruder. According to Drakes’s videotape, Magruder was supposed to have fired the fatal shot at Lundahl. (Both Drakes and Magruder denied involvement with the murder in more recent interviews with state’s attorney’s investigators.) The state’s attorneys argue that the students enrolled in the course weren’t functioning as reporters gathering news but as investigators for their professor, David Protess, who also happens to run the Medill Innocence Project. The tapes and notes they produced didn’t result in the students’ writing any news stories, even for Northwestern’s student paper, the state’s attorneys say, but rather, went straight to lawyers affiliated with Northwestern’s law school who are representing McKinney in his quest for a reopening of his conviction.
Furthermore, accompanying the students during the 2004 interview with Drakes (and apparently in charge of the interview, according to the state’s attorney’s office) was a private detective, Sergio Serritella, whose LinkedIn page describes him as the CEO of Tactical Solutions Group, a private-investigations firm in Chicago specializing in criminal cases. (The Medill school says that Serritella, who works on and off for the institution, was along only to provide security, as Drakes had served time for a different murder.) In short, says the state’s attorney’s office, the students, even though they were enrolled in a journalism class, weren’t entitled to invoke the protection of Illinois’s shield law, which allows reporters to keep their notes and sources confidential.

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J-Schools Struggle To Cope

Newspapers are folding right and left—the Rocky Mountain News in February, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March, the Boston Globe any day now, it would seem—and, according to the American Journalism Review, some 15 percent of the newsroom jobs, about 5,000 of them, last year (with another 7,500 vanishing so far this year) at newspapers across the country assaulted by an Internet that has gobbled up not only their readers but their advertisers.

Still, until just recently—this year, to be exact—at many of the nation’s journalism schools you’d think it was still 1973. That was the year the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post helped topple a sitting president. Back then every college English major in the country wanted to work for a big-city print newspaper like the Post and become a celebrity investigative reporter like Woodward and Bernstein, nemeses of Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. Now, however, even Rick Redfern, the bearded, insufferable Woodward-Bernstein clone in “Doonesbury,” has lost his job, the movie State of Play, starring Russell Crowe as yet another old-school investigative reporter doing homage to Woodward and Bernstein, tanked at the box office, and newspapers are hoping for a government bailout (so far resisted by the Obama administration) on the theory that they perform a public service that taxpayers ought to subsidize. Journalism schools, which once cultivated the mystique of the pure-of-heart reporter speaking truth to power, are hastily revamping their antiquated curricula to conform to a completely different business model—part of which seems to be recognizing for the first time that journalism is a business, not a priest-like calling.

It’s amazing how long it took for the changes to come. At the Columbia School of Journalism, the nation’s flagship J-school, Reporting and Writing 1, the entry level course required of everyone who goes through Columbia’s graduate-level program, has scarcely changed its intensively print-focused content since Columbia instituted the course in 1971, around the time that Woodward and Bernstein went to work for the Washington Post. Only this coming fall term, under Bill Grueskin, a former managing editor at WSJ.com who is new dean of academic affairs, will Columbia be completely overhauling Reporting and Writing to emphasize blogging, slideshows, and other multimedia skills. According to a New York magazine blog, Columbia underwent an “existential crisis” when the Times announced last winter that its New York City-focused blog “The Local” would be assisted primarily by journalism students from the City University of New York (which has an intensive new-media curriculum and no longer requires its students to specialize in any particular journalistic format), not the venerable Columbia.

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Money For Even Preachier J-Schools?

In 2003 Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, decided that the one-year curriculum at the university’s historic Graduate School of Journalism wasn’t intellectual enough, because it focused on the acquisition of practical skills such as reporting, editing, and broadcast techniques rather than training fledgling journos for what many of them would rather be: public intellectuals. Bollinger proposed scrapping the craft-based curriculum that led to a master of science degree in journalism in favor of a two-year master of arts program that would focus on the theory of journalism instead and require students to take classes in liberal arts, economics, and other disciplines taught outside the journalism school at Columbia.

Bollinger’s vision followed on the heels of the “public journalism” movement of the 1990s, in which writers such as the Atlantic’s James Fallows proposed that reporters re-imagine themselves as educators of the citizenry, alerting newspaper readers to the weighty issues that they ought to care about (usually viewed from a politically liberal perspective, whether they actually cared about those issues or not.
The public journalism movement came to naught. Circulation and ad sales for daily papers were already declining thanks to Internet competition, and publishers preferred to sell what papers they could rather than try to uplift their readers into appropriately liberal attitudes. Bollinger’s grand idea for reforming the Columbia J-school, which, under new dean Nicholas Lemann, would have reduced the skills component of the program to three months of summer courses, did not fare well, either. Students, alumni, and faculty went into revolt, partly because the tuition and fees alone for the one-year program were already hefty enough (they currently approach $47,000 for ten months of schooling) without their being doubled, and partly because treating journalism as a craft and a profession rather than as a vocation to pontificate had served them fine in the real world, where an M.S. from Columbia at least guarantees job interviews at media outlets. The M.S. program remained intact, while the M.A. program was trimmed to a single optional extra year available to M.S. graduates and mid-career journalists.

Now, however, what Bollinger and Lemann could not get into the Columbia J-School via the front door has arrived at that university and 11 other journalism schools via the back door. Two major foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation—have pledged $11 million for a project described on a Carnegie-Knight web page as “revitalizing journalism education.” The web page describes the “initiative,” as Carnegie-Knight calls it, as “preparing future media leaders to be analytic thinkers, clear writers and communicators armed with an in-depth understanding of the context and complexity of issues facing the modern world.” The money—to go to Columbia amd prestigious journalism programs at Northwestern, the University of Missouri, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and elsewhere—is supposed to help the schools broaden their curricula with liberal-arts courses taught elsewhere on campus that will presumably train students in specialized beats in say, economics, science, or medicine. Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation, described the goal of the cash transfusion as an effort to create a brand of journalism that “bestirs the people” and resurrects the classic newspaper goal of helping “define the communities we lived in by sharing events that happened to neighbors, by defining the problems and possibilities and by connecting people with a shared language and a sense of place.”

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J-School Propaganda

Nestled away in the heart of one of the most conservative Midwestern states is a publicly funded university radically at odds with its surroundings.

Universities are in theory, marketplaces for ideas and ideologies; centers for free expression as well as vigorous and informed debate; refuges for free and independent thought. But if the taxpayers who help fund this institution heard what certain professors in its school of journalism are teaching students, they might ask for their money back. To some extent, this is no surprise. Most universities and their journalism schools are notoriously left leaning in nature. However, the sheer ferocity of the indoctrination is astonishing. I know first hand. I spent much of the past year at this institution.

It was not a surprise that as a conservative, I was ideologically alone in journalism school. However, it did not seem like a gigantic leap to think that no matter their leanings, professors would keep their politics out of the curriculum and fellow students would be open to and accepting of dissenting voices.


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