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Mainstream manipulation

When local media took the bait offered by a coordinated conservative campaign, they missed the story--and endangered free speech


The local media are onto the new culture wars raging at North Carolina universities like white on rice. "Let the debate begin," cheers one Durham Herald-Sun headline. "Students have right to ideas," a News & Observer headline sanctimoniously proclaims.

And now we have a federal probe of UNC-Chapel Hill. Hooray! More headlines. Front page in The Herald-Sun. Metro page front in The N&O. And if you don't believe the local media played an Oscar-worthy supporting role in this most recent turn of events, then you were just too riveted by the stars of this drama: the deeply injured student-victim, "Tim"; the vigilant and outraged U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones; the villainous liberal Elyse Crystall.

Of course, when the local media accept their prize, it would be nice of them to gratefully acknowledge all the groups and people who helped write the script for this weird little passion play: Students for Academic Freedom, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the Heritage Foundation, and other ultra-conservative activists too numerous to thank.

But the local media won't be thanking or even acknowledging the importance of these behind-the-scenes players anytime soon. That would take the kind of reporting and thoughtfulness that has been absent in these debates. It might expose the weakness of the entire structure of this story.

I can't advocate a news blackout on these issues; the term "marketplace of ideas" is engraved on each cell in my body. But I'd like the marketplace to be a real one: complex, thoughtful, diverse. And right now, the coverage is being increasingly circumscribed by the agenda of conservative groups bent on shutting conversation down, quelling dissent and the free exchange of ideas--while they simultaneously and hypocritically claim that their moves are based on the twin pillars of free speech and fairness. It's a clever argument the local media seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker.

We know the troika of local events that prompted much of this most recent coverage--Crystall castigating a student in an email sent to the class; Duke students cleverly correlating databases to get the political affiliations of professors; this year's choice of freshman reading at UNC. But what incitement did The News & Observer contribute to those wars when it gave morally outraged front-page play to Crystall's misstep? That story should have played, at most, on an inside page in the local news section, if at all. What fuel did it add, when, just a few days later, once a freshman reading book at UNC was added, the story morphed from a single-issue story to a lengthy Sunday front-page story? We've got a trend, folks! Read all about it! The Herald-Sun did a similar Texas two-step on its front page, using the Duke controversy combined with Crystall's case.

So, now that the feds have stepped in, we do have a trend and a national story, thanks in no small part to local media coverage that managed to incite and provoke and still miss a key chunk of the real story--that this is a well-orchestrated, right-wing campaign that's making disturbing inroads into the college classroom. As a result, the local media is helping clear the way for them. The local stories that have played in The N&O and The Herald-Sun have all had the same frame: Intrepid conservative students are "breaking through" the liberal orthodoxy that had held sway at universities, finally speaking out despite their fears of liberal professors punishing them for their views. They are achieving "more political balance" on campuses as a result. Their claim that they are a repressed and deeply injured minority seems to have the legs of a super-model--despite any concrete evidence for that claim. The news coverage sets the tone, and the editorials and columns obediently follow.

I shouldn't be surprised by the spawn of this problematic coverage. But if they're not like a bunch of barracuda juveniles, then I'm not the daughter of a fish biologist. If you fertilize barracuda eggs, you shouldn't be surprised to get barracuda babies.

The Herald-Sun, for instance, has been spilling over with insightful editorial rage over the Duke controversy, castigating two administrators for their tongue-in-cheek remarks because "they mocked and stereotyped a minority on campus--conservative Republicans. Substitute any other minority and imagine the outcry."

As UNC-Wilmington Professor Mike S. Adams, who writes a column for Heritage Foundation, happily told Indy reporter Barbara Solow: "The beauty is, instead of lawsuits and firing, it's just using the good ol' freedom of the press!"

I wish I could laugh. But right now, liberal feminists aren't supposed to demonstrate a sense of humor. Or are they? I can't remember. Besides, I'm simultaneously embarrassed and frightened--mostly for the local mainstream media, but also for universities. The media, are clearly, although maybe unconsciously, pandering to conservative readers in their coverage and commentary about these recent issues. Usually concerned about being manipulated by political sides, usually careful of anything that smacks of orchestrated media coverage, the local media have, in this case, not understood that conservatives have beautifully manipulated this story--and the media.

Listen to this recent related story: The anti-abortion group, Carolina Students for Life, recently found a sympathetic ear in both The Herald-Sun and especially from N&O columnist Ruth Sheehan. Their demands to be put on the Women's Center Web site and to force the center to work with them on sponsoring pro-life speakers for a forum on reproductive rights were successful. Sheehan writes that its new "high-energy" president, Stephanie Evans, "thinks recent flaps over such issues as the university's choice of freshman reading material strengthened her position. 'We think this is very significant,' Evans told me after the meeting. 'We are very pleased.'

"She should be," concludes Sheehan self-righteously. "After all, a university is a marketplace of ideas, right? Why is that sometimes so hard to remember?"

A marketplace of ideas is exactly what we should have at our universities and in our local media. But that's not exactly what this case was about. The Students for Academic Freedom triumphantly posted Evans' memo addressed to Chancellor James Moeser (and, surprise, surprise, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones and the Pope Center) on its Web site. So Evans should be pleased. Ruth Sheehan simply provided more of the standard, morally outraged, this-is-an-issue-of-free-speech coverage that has dominated in the past. Don't get me wrong: I'm an advocate of free speech. Encourage Carolina Students for Life to link their glossy, state-of-the-art site off the student organizations' page; provide space and time for students to host their own panels and speakers. Let free speech reign. What Sheehan seems to have forgotten in her haste to promote Stephanie Evans, who "had worked so hard" on this issue, is that anti-abortion groups fight against the clearly stated mission of the women's center: women's equality. Reproductive choice has been at the core of the fight for women's equality worldwide. Should the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke be forced to allow a group of Holocaust deniers to link off their Web site? Using Sheehan's framework, of course it should. After all, who isn't for free speech?

One only has to trace backward from the commentaries to see where the good ol' free press, and its revered "objectivity," has utterly failed its readers. I do have some nostalgic fondness for the concept of objectivity, although I haven't seen it practiced much of late in this controversy. The good kind of objectivity is still capable of doing the job. But this is the bad kind of objectivity where "balance" replaces hard thinking and careful reporting. This is the stuff that the news biz falls back on far too often in a simplistic formula that pretends the job is done when if you take quotes from "both sides" and slap them into the paper. Then, since "both sides" (only two ever exist in this formula) are mad at the newspaper coverage and the letters to the editor prove it, mainstream media's job is done. See? Everyone hates us. We must be right. And meanwhile, look at all this wonderful reader feedback! Who says newspapers are dead!

I would argue that the only slightly retracted claw-and-tooth nature of the seemingly balanced coverage in the mainstream media plays a major role in this escalation. Because there's a larger narrative about professors and universities that's disquieting and a vaguely hostile and anti-intellectual undertone that runs underneath it. Barracuda eggs getting laid, gently washed over by sperm, dispersed by the warm currents of controversy.... Media reproduction is not always beautiful. This tone is both local and national, and it shows up, not only in the culture war pieces, but also linked to stories about state funding and tuition increases. (No wonder administrators are being careful. Too much of the wrong kind of attention will bring the gods of fiscal punishment further down upon us at the very moment that the bad economy is creating an untenable situation at public universities.)

Here are the overall themes of the coverage, just to review (and because the media repeat these constantly, you'll have plenty of chances to review):

  • Academics are spoiled and overpaid.
  • Academics are leftist (which makes the pay issue even more outrageous!).
  • Academics, because they are leftist, spoiled and overpaid, are out of touch with hard-working, ordinary Americans.
  • Academics silence conservative dissent in the classroom, creating a brand-new and heretofore unacknowledged but clearly powerless protected class: the white conservative.
  • Academics--who should be the protectors of free speech--are squelching it.

    I believe that one healthy dose of this hostility comes from the mainstream media being ever-so-conscious of their own status--whether accurate or not--as part of the "liberal elite." So, what a propitious moment for them to shift emphasis and aggressively overplay coverage of academic culture wars--especially since the far right has been so clever at framing the entire issue as a matter of free speech, a concept that jerks the media's knee more quickly than a physician's rubber mallet. And after all, what's the harm? Professors are good at defending themselves. The art of deflection is subtle, but it has worked beautifully in this case: See? We cover conservative issues sympathetically. We stomp on powerful liberal "professors" like Elyse Crystall (even if, in reality, she's a poorly paid, not-very-powerful lecturer; The News & Observer called her a professor, The Herald-Sun did, too, and as a result, of course, the local TV stations did it, and then the Web did it). We give airtime and news space to conservative students, portraying them as innocent victims, without bothering to lay out the terms of engagement, to consider what injury has actually been inflicted, or ask the more difficult questions about this story--like where it came from.

    As a former newspaper reporter, I know some of mainstream media's secrets. I realize that working on deadline inevitably forces much plonk into the paper well before it's properly aged. But I also know what squirmy fun it can be to bring the mighty low, to poke fun at the powerful, and to deflate the privileged. Especially when they deserved it. I used to be a master at the art of appearing blandly objective, while underneath I occasionally allowed scorn to peek demurely through for the astute reader's pleasure.

    As a current academic, I'm scared and a little ashamed at the developments over the past few months. Okay, since 9-11. I'm scared because this all fits into a familiar pattern, and it's having a chilling effect. The people complaining the loudest don't just want to share their opinions: They are actually hoping to silence and actively punish people they don't agree with. And they're doing all this by framing themselves as victims. And it's working.

    The result has been ugly, and the media, having helped start the war, don't seem to be paying attention where the vast majority of the shooting is coming from. Happily, in this particular war, one lone craggy gunman seems to have reserved a few bullets. In dozens of past N&O articles, he's illuminatingly dubbed, "the controversial" Stanley Fish. He can't, or won't, keep his mouth shut:

    "The folks who gave us the Political Correctness scare in the '90s (and that was one of the best PR campaigns ever mounted) are once again in high gear and their message is simple: Higher education is too important to be left to the educators, who are wasting your money, teaching your children to be unpatriotic and irreligious (when they are teaching at all), and running a closed shop that is hostile to the values of mainstream America," he noted in a Chronicle of Higher Education editorial late last year.

    But the local press has mostly played the stooge to this virtuoso PR ploy. The level of vitriol has increased. My fellow faculty are worried and censoring themselves carefully inside and outside the classroom. University administrators, forced to respond because this is, after all, about public and parental money, are using prefabricated meaningless sound bites in the hopes of escaping the worst depredations. J. Peder Zane, in his Sunday books column in The N&O (one of the few notable exceptions in this coverage), got it just right: "...[I]t is hard not to be struck by the pinched and false nature of this debate."

    I agree. But let's face it, pinched and false is all you're going to get right now--especially at public universities. I agree that it is beyond a pity that professors and administrators can't be more forthcoming. I'm embarrassed that anyone thought that placing a faculty monitor in a lecturer's classroom was the best way to deal with the controversy. Or choosing a book as bland as Absolutely American as a freshman summer reading assignment, as UNC-Chapel Hill did. Or letting Students for Life run rampant over the mission of the women's center. I'd rather we didn't sound as though we'd been all coached by public relations teams, mouthing nonsense about looking forward to "healthy debate" and "invigorating discussion." Because there's nothing healthy about this debate.

    And many academics are not just scared of this current cadre of hard-core conservatives--they're scared of what lefty media critic Eric Alterman calls "The So-Called Liberal Media." Are we right to be? Or are we just spineless wusses? Well, let's face it; we're a little spineless. On the other hand, we don't want to be the next person clamped into the 21st-century version of the pillory--media coverage. And in these days of multiplying media, you can count on getting pilloried several times--first in the local newspaper, and then on local television once they've lazily picked up the story from the local newspaper. Then again in the local newspaper, first with the newspaper's official unsigned editorials that manage to pontificate and irritate, but not illuminate. Then columnists start the attack, then the increasingly mean-spirited letters to the editor if you've said anything more than pinched and false. And then, you get virulent hate mail or even death threats. Then, whether it's related or not to the hate mail, you show up, reviled, on dozens and dozens of sites in the Blogosphere. Or if things get even worse than that, you find yourself face-to-face with Bill O'Reilly on Fox, which, if Dante were writing today, would constitute its own designated circle.

    Former Chapel Hill Professor Robert Kirkpatrick, sadly recently deceased, underwent that full gauntlet as chair of the selection committee for the 2002 freshman reading selection, Approaching the Qur'an. Elyse Crystall escaped Bill O'Reilly but not Fox News. And Fox upped her e-mail ante by reporting she singled out the student as a "monger of hate speech." Well, no, she didn't. But it does sound much worse, doesn't it? Or at least, archaic and academic. Which is worse.

    The erudite culture critic Adam Gopnik devastatingly described mainstream journalism in The New Yorker nearly a decade ago. It hasn't changed in kind, only in degree. It's gotten a lot worse:

    "Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy. In a grim paradox, the media in America, because their aggression has been kept quarantined from good ideas, have become surprisingly vulnerable to bad ideas... the jaded tone and the prosecutorial tone are masks, switched quickly enough so that you can appear active and neutral at the same time."

    But it's too late to move on. The local media has already written their boilerplate on this story, and all they have to do is copy and paste it--ad infinitum.

    Jane Stancill quotes a conservative activist in her long N&O Sunday piece: "[Michael] McKnight said conservatives often feel intimidated in class, and they fear their grades will suffer if they're outspoken."

    In news coverage, where getting sources to talk is tantamount to getting your story, it sometimes doesn't matter whether there's any particular truth to what sources say, and this coverage is no exception. I fear that an asteroid may destroy earth in the next year, but I try to separate out my fears from what is--oh, god, here comes that word--objectively true.

    The next paragraph, in this story, however, is a standard reportorial move that cements feelings into objective reality. "Such complaints received new credence with the recent case of English lecturer Elyse Crystall."

    One case, new credence. Cystall now enters the grand narrative where she gets to stand in for an entire liberal faculty bent on victimizing conservative students. Crystall is "sorry," according to an N&O front-page headline. She gets to make a formal apology that gets as much play as Japan would if it finally apologized for the Bataan Death March. (Let me stipulate that I believe that Crystall overreacted in her e-mail, and that simply restating the rules for discussion in the classroom the next time the class met would have been a better way to handle it. But I also believe that it's always easy to second guess, and that Crystall made an error in pedagogical judgment that could and probably would have been best dealt with by a civil discussion between three parties: the department head, the teacher and the student. Period. We've all made errors on more than one occasion--those of us who are reporters and editors, and those of us who are in the classroom. It's called learning.)

    But aggression, remember, is best practiced in a void of ideas or even of ordinary sympathy. Aggression, however, is not equally spread among sources. The local press went beyond ordinary sympathy for the student who managed to become a national martyr. In news coverage, protecting a source by identifying them only by their first name is tantamount to acknowledging their victim status, and agreeing that they need protection. Here, Crystall's accuser, "Tim," like a rape victim, is only referred to by his first name--to show that he is a protected class, and that indeed, he was truly victimized. The News & Observer puts it this way, repeatedly: "The student, identified only as 'Tim'...," and later notes, "Tim asked that his name not be used."

    The Chapel Hill edition of The Herald-Sun was more honest about their non-naming: "Tim asked not to be identified for this article because he fears the repercussions and doesn't want to become the center of a politically charged controversy." Let's take Tim at his word that he doesn't want to be the center of a controversy (see main story on how the email was originally leaked), although he did keep talking and talking to reporters, didn't he? He also used his name on radio on the Jerry Agar Show, so his stance wasn't perfectly consistent. But was The Herald-Sun really being honest? The same reporter who covered the controversy (and used Mertes' first name only), Eric Ferreri, knew perfectly well that Tim wasn't exactly a perfectly ideal powerless victim. Only months before, Ferreri had written a laudatory front-page story on Mertes' luctrative used-luxury car business, portraying him as a highly successful entrepreneur, "wise beyond his years" and wealthy as well. This year, Mertes is hoping to have "$3 million in total sales, from which he'll surely pocket a tidy sum."

    How is this related to "Tim's" story of martyrdom? It's related because The Herald-Sun knew full well that identifying Tim Mertes fully would have made less of a story--that ol' narrative of helpless-young-student-against-powerful-professor frame.

    I can accept the fact that "Tim" might have had fears about repercussions. But so far, let's be honest: Crystall, and in turn, the university, has gotten all the repercussions.

    So what do I want? It's going to sound naive and simple in the face of what has already occurred--and especially with the start of a U.S. Department of Education investigation. I don't know why I lack confidence in that particular outcome, unless it's because its head, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, recently called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization." Nonetheless, I'll forge ahead with my wish list: I want a real marketplace of ideas. I want what Chancellor James Moeser says he wants: "to maintain an open atmosphere, one in which unpopular or controversial ideas may be expressed, heard, but also challenged without any fear of retribution."

    I want a real conversation on these issues--not the one-sided one the local media and extreme conservatives are pretending to have with universities. I don't ask that we all just get along. But could we cut back on the hate mail? Could university administrators think carefully about what territory they want to cede before they cede it? Could the mainstream press not be quite so gullible?

    Summer is coming, but there's a definite chill in the air. And the local media helped put it there. EndBlock

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