A Chronicle of Journalistic Malfeasance

Eric Alterman explains how a recent blog post in The Chronicle of Higher Education reflects the incompetence of conservative journalists.

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Earlier this week The Chronicle of Higher Education fired its blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley over a post in which, after mocking the titles of “black studies” dissertations listed in a Chronicle story, she called for the dissolution of the entire field. The post in question inspired, according to Chronicle editor Liz McMillen, “several thousand” responses voicing “outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us.”

As a result, Riley got the boot. McMillen’s explanation: “We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said. … we now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle‘s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.” She then “sincerely apologize[d] for the distress these incidents have caused” and thanked readers for making their feelings known.

Among the thousands of responses to Riley’s blog was one signed by 16 members of the black studies faculty at Northwestern University, upon which both the original article and the blog post focused. The faculty members objected to the “amateurish attack by Ms. Riley on our graduate students, and, by extension, on the black-studies academic enterprise, including those in other disciplines who contribute to black-studies scholarship,” and termed the post to be “cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education.” They added:

We are barely one generation removed from when African-American students were completely denied entry into many colleges and universities in this country. This kind of distasteful attack on the current generation of black students represents the unfortunate and unacceptable manifestation of contemporary forms of exclusion. We strongly and righteously condemn such regressive tactics to stifle young people’s educational pursuits.

Other commenters were less measured in their responses. The words “racist” and “hate speech” turned up frequently as did even less kind epithets.

So what did Riley write that was so offensive? The post was titled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” In it she insisted that the Chronicle article that celebrated the Northwestern students actually provided evidence for the intellectual bankruptcy of the entire field. Her argument went like this:

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

… topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?

In the right-wing blogosophere, the reaction to Riley’s dismissal was as swift as it was uniform. Writing on the website of The Wall Street Journal, columnist James Taranto attacked the Chronicle editors for exhibiting what he termed “the intellectual corruption of academia, a profession that ought to encourage intellectual adventurousness, not pander to those who are unable to withstand the ‘distress’ of having their ideas challenged,” adding that he “recoil[ed] at [this] display of perfidy.” Writing on the website of the libertarian magazine Reason, editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie complained of a “politically correct response to a thug’s veto and should be owned up to as such.”

And on the website for Commentary magazine, online editor Jonathan Tobin wrote, “It must be asserted from the outset that nothing Riley wrote was offensive or lacking in civility.” Rather, he says, she merely pointed out that “Black Studies is an academic discipline rooted in and consumed by the politics of victimization with little scholarly value. … [the graduate students’] dissertation topics are trivial and motivated solely by what she aptly calls ‘left-wing victimization claptrap’ in which racism is the answer to every conceivable question.” Riley’s firing, he concludes, was done merely “to appease an unreasoning pack of academic jackals howling for the blood of anyone with the temerity to point out their shortcomings.”

In light of the extreme reaction on both sides, first to Riley’s post and second to her firing, it is worth taking a step back and asking a few questions. First, the easiest of all of them: Did the criticism constitute “racism” or “hate speech?” No, not at all. Criticizing black studies programs is not the same thing as attacking black people generally, nor should it be construed as such. And should the Northwestern faculty have brought up the fact that black students were denied entry to most universities not so long ago? Well, again, this is a weak argument, implying as it does that the field itself is deserving of special treatment owing to past treatment of some of its students’ forbearers. (Many students and faculty of African American studies are in fact white.)

There would appear to be some nervousness among some scholars about the worthiness of black studies as a topic separate from more traditional studies—just as there is for Latino studies, women’s studies, Asian American studies, queer studies—and at least some of the emotionalism of the reaction might be attributable to that. Indeed, it is unlikely that the Chronicle would have assigned so boosterish an article lest its editors believed that it needed a hand up. As Reason’s Mark Bauerlein wrote before the firing:

The most significant element in the controversy surrounding Naomi Riley’s blog posting is the disproportionate nature of the responses. … the reason why, I think, lies in the nature of black studies itself. If black studies were only another academic discipline, then a call to end it would excite a stern defense on grounds of substance, not charges such as “a stain on any respectful discourse.”

Indeed, the real problem with Riley’s post was not that it was racist or hateful but that it was lazy and stupid. A former editor at The Wall Street Journal (whose husband, Jason, is a member of the Journal‘s editorial board), Riley was apparently accustomed to an atmosphere where know-nothing hackery not only goes unpunished but is actually celebrated.

In the first place, attacking graduate students is cowardly from the get-go. But leave that aside. Riley not only sought to mock the dissertation topics of these young scholars, but she went as far as to call for the dissolution of the entire field, although she gave no evidence of having read a single dissertation. Neither, as it happens, did any of her defenders. She simply didn’t like their titles.

Keep in mind that not only is Riley not a scholar herself, but she has no training whatever in fields related to the topics about which these students chose to write. And yet she felt empowered, somehow, to undermine the entire enterprise of literally thousands of people who are far more knowledgeable about this topic than she is, all over a few dissertation titles. As any scholar of history, sociology, anthropology, etc., is well aware, the work produced by people such as Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, William Julius Wilson, and Cornel West—to name just four out of hundreds—requires no justification whatever to anyone, much less to someone with habits as sloppy as those on display in Riley’s work.

I don’t profess to be familiar with Riley’s oeuvre, such as it is—though I see that in a previous Wall Street Journal editorial, she sought to blame women who dressed provocatively for “moronic behavior” that allegedly invited rape. But it strikes me that the likely explanation for the combination of nastiness and ignorance that her editorial displayed is a combination of two factors.

First, conservatives are suspicious of knowledge in general, and academia in particular, because they have committed themselves so deeply to an ideology that denies truth when it conflicts with their beliefs. Take, for instance, the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists believe in the reality of manmade global warming. Conservatives treat this as some sort of a conspiracy so instead of dealing with reality they prefer to question the motives of the scholars who produce it.

Second, and related to the first point, is the fact that conservative journalists specialize in attacks that ignore traditional standards of fairness and professional competence. The idea of attacking dissertations that one has never seen on the basis of their respective titles is bad enough, but calling for the dissolution of an entire field on a foundation of admitted—actually boastful—ignorance actually takes one’s breath away. And yet not one conservative journalist or blogger has taken her to task for this—or even apparently noticed it.

It’s true that the Chronicle’s editors must share in the blame for this debacle. They probably hired Riley as a sop to right-wing “working of the refs” and were forced to relax their standards to do so. (That is standard practice among nonconservative publications these days. See under: Post, Washington.”) But by appearing to cave into the complaints of the commenters and petitioners, rather than taking a stand on standards, they have only added more fuel to the fire of phony conservative victimization. (See under: “Williams, Juan.”)

A great deal of trouble on all sides could have been prevented if only everyone involved had done his or her homework in the first place.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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