To borrow a phrase from author and former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, there was a lot of week in this week, particularly in regard to journalism. Let’s dive right in and look at some of the best, worst and weirdest moments in the week that was:
AND I THOUGHT DEAN WORMER WAS BAD…
The student newspaper at Arizona State University published an incredibly detailed and damning story last week about the incoming dean of its journalism school. Using interviews with more than 20 former students at Loyola University New Orleans, The State Press outlined dozens of cases of racist behavior by Sonya Forte Duhe. The paper also got a copy of a formal bias complaint a student filed against Duhe, outlining similar allegations.
This story is an amazing read and is a much stronger overall piece than those published in other media outlets for a number of reasons that are worth examining:
1) The reporting is incredible. If you look at the stories in the Phoenix New Times, the Arizona Republic and other places that covered this story, they relied heavily on Whitney Woods as a source but didn’t go much beyond that. Woods’ Twitter thread did jump start this entire process, but when these publications relied primarily (or only) on her, it sounded a lot like a “she said/she said” story: One disgruntled student against one former professor. The State News story shows that this goes WAY beyond that.
2) The allegations are specific. I remember once reading a story about a small-town mayor who was under pressure to resign after he made a “racist statement” during a town board meeting. The city manager, who was leading the charge, called it a horrifying statement that demanded the mayor immediately leave office. The mayor responded by saying he had no idea what the problem was. His statement was just an old turn of phrase people had said for years and was in no way racist.
The problem for the readers? The journalist didn’t tell us WHAT that statement was, or even give us a clue about it, so that we could judge for ourselves.
In the State Press story, the journalists got specific and detailed on what happened. It wasn’t a case of “She just kind of seemed kind of racist toward me” or some mealy mouthed guesswork. It was damning. Here are some of the “greatest hits” from the story in terms of specificity:
- In a classroom setting and privately, Woods said Duhé told her that her hair was messy and admitted after years of schooling, she didn’t know Woods was Black because Woods didn’t act like it.
- Andrew Ketcham attended Loyola in 2015, but did not complete his degree at the school because of the loss of a grant. Ketcham, a gay student, said Duhé was very critical about the sound of his voice.
“I’ll never forget her advice to me that my voice was too theatrical and that I should stick with print,” Ketcham said.
- Bonner said Duhé’s comments included telling a student they should have their mole removed to be more presentable for television and that during events Black students should not have “natural hair.”
- Hutchinson said that when she told Duhé her problems, she responded that Hutchinson had gained a lot of weight, and she thought it would help if she lost weight.
- Outside of the School of Mass Communication building before a school break, 2017 graduate Caroline Gonzalez was with her dad and Duhé who was giving guidance on how she could improve for the upcoming year.
Gonzalez said the conversation shifted to one about makeup and clothes and Duhé even suggested Gonzalez “do something” about her nose.
- In addition to a conversation about a nose job, Gonzalez said Duhé suggested she straighten her “curly, thick hair” before class and undergo a boob job.
- That student, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, said that during a meeting to discuss a project, Duhé said no one would want to hire them because they may have a heart attack at work due to their weight.
That level of specificity gives this piece the kind of traction that most others don’t have and it makes it an astonishing piece of quality journalism.
A quick postscript: Arizona State University announced Sunday that the college pulled its offer to Duhe and she will not take over as the dean of the school on July 1. This was less than a week after Woods’ tweet was posted and the subsequent story ran in the State Press. Never doubt the power of media outlets to shine a light on important topics and instigate change.
I’ve frequently written here about the word “allegedly” and why it makes me break into hives whenever I see it. As a legal scholar once told me, “allegedly” and its many variations will offer you no legal protection and is “why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”
As godawful as it normally is, the use of “allegedly” in the Duhe coverage had some specific problems that bear digging into. Consider the headline on the State Press piece:
The reason “alleged” isn’t a great idea here is because it hides the source of the complaints and operates from a position of weakness that belies the strength of the piece. When I first read that head, I thought, “Oh boy… here comes a ‘Simone story‘ on how this person might have sort of, kind of done something… maybe.” Instead, it was a rock-solid piece that was packed with reporting. A headline that makes that case in a noun-verb-object form would do a better job here:
More than 20 students say incoming Cronkite dean has history of racist, homophobic behavior
This has almost the same number of characters (78 vs. 79) and tells the story from a position of strength.
A more problematic version of an “allegedly” headline ran in the Phoenix New Times:
We talk a lot about misplaced modifiers here on the blog, and this is a case where the placement of the modifier changes the meaning of the head. What the article says is that there are allegations of racism, but that’s not what the head says. What the head says is that statements are “allegedly racist.” That means that the racism of the statements is up for debate. Here’s the difference:
Allegations of making racist statements: Smith said Jones used racial slurs to describe a black student, a charge Jones denies.
Allegedly racist statements: Smith said Jones told him to “call a spade, a spade,” which Smith said is racist. Jones said the statement is not about race and actually dates back to ancient Greece, directing someone to “tell it like it is.”
However, the winner in the “What The Hell?” Sweepstakes this week is the Philadelphia Inquirer for its “unique angle” on the damage demonstrators have caused while protesting the death of George Floyd:
A couple things to ponder after you finish reading that headline and while you pick your jaw up off the floor:
- Anyone who has been alive lately has probably already seen explanations as to why the response of “All Lives Matter” to the statement “Black Lives Matter” is insulting and infuriating. Taking that into account, I have no idea what someone thought the reaction was going to be to a headline that seemed to say, “Yes, black people have the right to live, but WHAT ABOUT MY WALGREEN’S?”
- I get the idea that in the middle of a major story, every publication is looking for an approach to make its coverage unique. That said, I’m not sure an “architecture-centric” viewpoint (to borrow a term from the piece’s writer) is the way to go. Not since Rand Paul essentially blamed a tobacco tax for the death of Eric Garner have I seen a worse angle on a story.
- Stan Wischnowski, the paper’s top editor, resigned late last week in the wake of this, but it isn’t the only reason for his departure. After a Zoom call to discuss issues of race, 50 journalists of color at the paper signed a letter, pressing the paper to do more and work harder to address these and other similar concerns.
I CALL “SOLID, MALE-BOVINE EXCREMENT” ON THIS
Journalists are always held to a higher standard when it comes to accuracy because we craft the first version of history. If we’re wrong, the error gets perpetuated and warped over time to the point in which the truth itself is in question.
That said, there are limits to the semantic contortions we should be forced to make.
Law enforcement officials drove protesters out of Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. last week so President Donald Trump could walk to a church for a photo op. To disperse the crowd, the officials used a series of “less lethal” weapons that left protesters “coughing and limping, their eyes burning amid clouds of smoke.” However, the White House and federal officials disputed reports that these officers used rubber bullets or tear gas on the protester:
What the White House did acknowledge was that it used “‘pepper balls,’ a projectile munition that lofts irritant powder into the air, and “smoke canisters” to scatter the crowd Monday.” “How is that different?” you might ask. Well, according to the CDC, it really isn’t:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, riot-control agents are “chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”
Several compounds fall under this category, according to the CDC. Among others, they include chloroacetophenone (CN), more commonly referred to as mace or pepper spray. Such compounds are all typically referred to as “tear gas” because their most prominent effect is to irritate mucus membranes, including the eyes, which secrete tears as a protective response.
This reminded me of a story I did about 25 years ago (Crap… I’m getting old…) when a giant block party got out of hand and police had to come in and clear the streets. Drunks lit giant bonfires in the middle of the road and caused $60,000 damage to a fire truck when firefighters arrived to put it out. They set a car on fire and they fought the police with rocks, cans, bottles and more. Several people were injured and several people were arrested.
I got on the phone with the officer in charge that next morning and I wanted to know if they called out a 10-33: Riot in progress.
“Don’t you dare call this a riot!” he told me.
I outlined all of the above information, also noting that police donned riot gear for the first time since the Vietnam War protests on the campus decades earlier. If this wasn’t a riot, what the hell was it?
“It was a large, prolonged disturbance,” he said, before hanging up on me.
AND I’M STILL NOT CURT LENZ, BUT I’M GLAD HE’S OK
Finally, a shout-out to a friend in the field in this scary time for journalists.
Way back in college, I had half of a notion that I might want to be a broadcaster, so I took all the broadcast classes and even got the “broadcast sequence” in my journalism major. In my very first radio news broadcast, I was anchoring the news with Curt Lenz and we had prepared like crazy to do this perfectly. Eight minutes of stellar journalism, ready to hit the airwaves.
Curt was to lead off the news cast, introduce himself and then throw it to me so I could introduce myself and hit the first story. We go live to tape and Curt intones:
“Welcome to Campus Update. I’m Curt Lenz and I’m Vince Filak and here is the news…”
It was pretty much all downhill from there for both of us that day.
Curt stuck with broadcast and became an amazing broadcast reporter and photographer, while I decided I had a face for writing books.
Curt and his reporter, Amelia Jones, were covering the aftermath of protests in downtown Madison. A man who had previously yelled at them not to film him, crossed the street and attacked them while they tried to do their jobs. The man was arrested a short time later and booked into the jail on suspicion of battery, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and a probation violation.
Journalists know that every time they go into the field, something unexpected can happen. However, you can only prepare for so much or worry about so many things without getting paralyzed by fear. It can be tough to go back out there after something like this, kind of like it’s tough to step back in the batter’s box after getting beaned in a previous at bat.
Although they were a bit shaken, Curt and Amelia were unhurt and back on the job later that day, recounting the story for the viewers.