The Chronicle of Higher Education Owes Readers an Apology

“It’s like Christmas!” my roommate exclaimed with mock excitement, as she dumped a veritable boatload of mail onto the table this past Friday night. The day’s haul was mostly junk: the PennySaver, catalogues nobody asked for, and credit card offers galore. But lo! The most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education had arrived! Christmas indeed!

Side note: yes, I get the paper version of CHE. It’s not my fault; it was a gift. Don’t judge me.

Now, it was a Friday night, and I’m twenty seven… so naturally I ran straight to my room, put on my pajamas, and tore off the plastic wrapper. “‘The Biggest Jobs Issue of the Year!?’ This is going to be a wild night!”

And then I saw the cover.

“Accused of Sexual Assault, Men Fight Back.”

This article had popped up on one of my newsfeeds once already that week, and it made me angry then. But seeing the article in print—seeing in on the cover, above the fold–dialed that anger up to eleven.

I don’t want to give this article, written by Robin Wilson, any more traffic than it’s already received, so I will not be linking to it in this post. Below is an extended quote that more or less sums the whole thing up:

“Many young men who feel unfairly accused recognize that campus sexual assault is a serious issue, and that some students are truly responsible. But in the current climate, they say, the gender-equity law known as Title IX is allowing women to allege rape after alcohol-fueled sexual encounters in which the facts are often murky. An increasing number of undergraduate men are now fighting back—with the help of parents, lawyers, and a new national advocacy group.”

Blood not curdled enough yet? Here are a couple quotes that will put you over the top:

“Fundamental fairness has become a pawn in the gender wars.”

“[I]n their rush to judgment, colleges are now substituting one class of victims for another.”

Those gems are courtesy of Judith E. Grossman, whose son was accused of rape by a former girlfriend. Her son was found “not responsible” for the incident after a campus hearing, so her argument that colleges are “rushing to judgment” is especially galling. Despite the fact that her son wasn’t punished by his school, much less a criminal court, Grossman still decided to help found Families Advocating for Campus Equality, an organization that—as best I can tell—is committed to maintaining the status quo on American college campuses.

The status quo on American college campuses—for those of you who don’t know—is this: approximately one out of every four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted, only a tiny percentage of those violations are reported, and colleges then do everything in their power to protect the accused—and their own reputation—at the expense of the accuser, who has now been violated twice: once by the man who assaulted her, and again by the educational institution that’s supposed to be keeping its students safe.

Looking at the cover of CHE, I was inarticulate with rage. So much so that I had to set the paper aside for a couple days. Now that I’ve had a little time to let my anger congeal into something manageable, I want to take an extended look at the September 5, 2014 print issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and explain why I think the CEO and Editor in Chief of CHE, Michael G. Riley, needs to apologize to his readers.

THE POLITICS OF FORM

One of my more brilliant professors in the History Department here at UC Irvine frequently discusses what she calls “the politics of form,” a phrase so good I wish I’d thought it up myself. After all, one can learn an awful lot about a text without even reading it.

Next time you pick up a book, ask yourself: “What do the chapter layout, the primary source base, the choice of illustration, and the narrative arc communicate—however subtly—about this author’s politics and priorities?” Of course, you’re learning about the publisher in this process too, but nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise that I try to employ in my day-to-day life.

As I mentioned before, I’d already read the article in question on a feed, and yes, it rankled… but seeing how the Chronicle of Higher Education decided to PRINT the story—and the politics that those decisions imply—sent me into the “full-on rage-induced rant”[1] you’re reading now. Those choices, choices made by the folks at the tippy top of CHE’s editorial staff, turn an already offensive article into something far more egregious.

Let’s examine the politics of form at work in this article, shall we?

THE COVER

Just look at this picture. Really look at it.

Joshua Strange, a college student accused of rape, graces the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Ed looking positively smug… like a man who just got away with murder. Everything about his posture indicates the opposite of victimhood.

A friend of mine characterized the portrait in one powerful word: “aggressive.” A picture says a thousand words, but the word choice in the headline drives the point home still further.

Let’s look past Strange’s far-from-sympathetic countenance, though. Had I handed this photo to the freshman I TAed this past spring in in Film and Media studies, they would’ve had a field day. They’d point out that the low angle shot makes Strange look more imposing and powerful, and renders the accused quite literally larger than the what appears to be his campus’s administrative building.

The relationship between student and administration in this photo is especially problematic considering “the climate” that Grossman mentions. The way she describes it, you’d think administrators were on a witch hunt to find and destroy the careers of virtuous young men everywhere; in fact, fifty five college campuses are currently under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations regarding campus sexual assault. If there’s a witch hunt afoot, the angry mob is sleeping in.

The power dynamics this cover image suggests are so blatant—so hyperbolic—that, to quote yet another friend of mine, “For a second I thought this was The Onion.”

Would that it were.

The Pseudo-Centerspread

The decision to put Joshua Strange above the fold on the front cover of The Chronicle of Higher Education is reason enough for Editor in Chief Michael G. Riley to issue an apology to readers, but unfortunately, he and his team made still more reprehensible decisions with regard to this article.

If you look at the cover picture again, you’ll notice that the text of the article does not begin on the cover. This is not unusual. The problem is where readers are directed next.

Now, it’s been a while since I laid out a newspaper, but here’s what I remember: the most important stories get the centerspread. It’s the most natural place to open the paper, and is laid out in a manner that suggests the article to be worthy of attention.

With a paper as large as CHE, one could have a reasonable argument about whether or not the five-page article in question constitutes the centerspread, but I would argue the layout tells us all we need to know.

The men in this article—men that are “Presumed Guilty,” according to the headline on page A38—didn’t just get prime real estate, they got white space. Perhaps most telling, the five page-long article only shares space with one advertisement.

If that’s not a centerspread, it’s the spitting image.

BUT, BUT… OBJECTIVITY!

If I was the Editor in Chief of the CHE, and needed to try and defend this cover story, I would do so by claiming that the paper—by offering up the perspective of accused rapists—was acting in the interests of objectivity. Of course, after I made that argument, I’d put myself in time out, because it’s a terrible argument.

Judith Grossman, because nothing says objectivity like interviewing a mother about her son.

Judith Grossman, because nothing says objectivity like interviewing a mother about her son.

While American news media writ large is drifting ever closer into the realm of yellow journalism, we still place a tremendous amount of value on the concept of objectivity (hence FOX proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” when even a lot of its viewers are aware it’s anything but). Of course, being an historian, I find the whole concept of objectivity rather laughable, but—as the former Editor in Chief of my college newspaper—I also recognize it as a worthy goal for journalists to pursue.

So, what’s the problem with the CHE cover story? The premise of the cover/centerspread, one might assume, is that—since The Chronicle has reported extensively on campus rape culture—it’s time to examine the issue from the opposite perspective. That’s only fair, right?

No. No it is not.

While we place a high value on objectivity in American culture, we also don’t fully understand what it means.

Let’s look at the statistics.

Perhaps a diagram will help!

  • One in every four women will be sexually assaulted during the course of her life.
  • Rape is the most prevalent form of violent crime committed on college campuses in the United States today.
  • The vast majority of sexual assaults—against both men and women alike—go unreported. In fact, the reporting rate is somewhere in the vicinity of 10%.
  • The percentage of false accusations against men, on and off campus, then, is necessarily still lower, around 2%. You can check out all of these stats for yourself at The Enliven Project.

You can get recent stats about campus rape via Al Jazeera America here.

For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that Joshua Strange and the other “Men Fighting Back” are among the two or so percent of men falsely accused of assaulting their fellow students. Even if the Chronicle of Higher Education somehow managed to find and cover only the falsely accused, devoting a cover story and a centerspread to them suggests that their struggle is equal to that of 20-25% of ALL women in college.

Put in a less math-y way, this article—and it’s positioning within the print version of the paper—perpetuates a false equivalency between the plight of rape survivors and alleged rapists. That isn’t objectivity. That’s spin. That’s headline trolling at its worst.

It suggests, to paraphrase Ms. Grossman, that efforts to eradicate campus rape culture are merely exchanging one class of victims for another.

THE LARGER IMPLICATIONS

The Chronicle of Higher Education, despite doing a great job in the past reporting on rape culture on American college campuses, really stepped in it with this article. It does a tremendous disservice in a moment where the world is finally beginning to realize that we have a major problem on our college campuses. It also adds fuel to the MRM’s (Men’s Rights Movement) fire. If you’re unfamiliar with the MRM… you’re lucky. I’ll quote Jezebel blogger Lindy West here, because I’d rather somebody else do the icky work of explaining who they are and what they do.

The latest men’s rights exposé comes from Emily Matchar at the New Republic. Matchar offers a decent overview of the latest antics of the Men’s Rights Movement (or MRM), from spamming. Occidental College’s anonymous rape reporting form with false reports to plastering Edmonton with posters explaining, “Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.” Their point is to cement in the public consciousness the myth that false rape accusations are a problem approaching or even on par with actual rapes; and that the culture is rigged to support women unconditionally and vilify men, not the other way around. It’s unsurprising that one of the MRM’s tactics is to fabricate hundreds of false false reports themselves (they’re reportedly planning a similar campaign with Dartmouth’s online reporting form)—almost as though, perhaps, the real numbers don’t reflect quite the dire epidemic they’ve been squalling about.

This in a time when women are being sold “rape prevention nail polish.”  Because lord forbid we drink anything in a public place without assuming it’s laced.

So, no, CHE, deciding that your already problematic article was front cover, above the fold, AND centerspread material is not an excusable offense. At the level of journalistic principle, it represents a total bastardization of the meaning of objectivity. At a social level, it gives yet another platform to those out to dismantle the shockingly little progress we’ve made so far in turning college campuses into safer spaces for women.

But, you know, feel free to run articles like this again when the percentage of women facing sexual assault on college campuses is equal to the percentage of men falsely accused of committing said assaults (2%). Until then, get your priorities straight.

I expect better of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I demand better of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

You owe me and the rest of your readers an apology.

We’re waiting…

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

[1] This is a turn of phrase used in a podcast I listen to called “One Bad Mother.” It’s a comedy show about parenting. I listen to it despite having no children of my own. The more you know.

31 thoughts on “The Chronicle of Higher Education Owes Readers an Apology

  1. Wow, Andrea–this story is worthy of a Daily Show or Colbert parody of “Fair’n’Balanced” journalism. “Rape on campus: some say rapists are the problem; others say bitches should shut the eff up. It’s all just a matter of opinion!” The Chronicle is just in line with campus culture and rape more broadly on this in that campuses treat victims and accused offenders as parties in civil mediation (with the goal of keeping them both on campus) rather than in a criminal investigation and prosecution.

    If you haven’t seen this already, go read Dr. Cleveland at Dagblog as to why colleges are neither police departments nor effective DAs: http://dagblog.com/politics/why-colleges-mishandle-sexual-assault-18529

    Also: what kind of a nerd are you that you get the Chronicle delivered in hard copy? Even if it is a gift subscription. . . I don’t know anyone under the age of 60 and/or not an administrator who does this! (Maybe that also helps explain the tone of this article, as though it was written 40 years ago?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you were anybody else, I’d use the “I went to Bryn Mawr” line to explain my nerdiness. Honestly though, I just haven’t found the time to switch the subscription to digital. I do enjoy the feel of newsprint though… you can take the girl out of the newsroom, and all that jazz.

      Will definitely checkout Dablog today! Thanks for the recommendation! And thanks for reading. Really glad to see that other people are as shocked as I was by the article.

      Like

  2. You nailed it—thank you! As a communications major, I found it extremely refreshing to see someone address issues like layout, photo angle and pose, position on page, position in the paper, etc… far too many people in the general public are unaware of how those things affect perceptions. This was a terrific teaching moment of how all that works, along with a great analysis of content.

    Like

  3. Chris M says:

    Most people are able to simultaneously realize that the September 11 attacks were horrible, but also that imprisoning innocent people in Guantanamo Bay is a problem. Similarly, most people are able to simultaneouly acknowledge that campus rapists are a problem, and that convicting innocent men of rape is also a problem.

    If you think 2% is such a small percentage that no one should care about these innocent men, then you’re entitled to that opinion, but you’re not entitled to an apology.

    Like

    • I am indeed entitled to my opinion, as are you. I would point out, though, that none of the men profiled in this article were found “innocent” in a court of law. Their school exonerated them. College campuses have no business “trying” cases of a criminal nature. The system is broken. The only people benefiting from the status quo are rapists. If these men are innocent and want justice, the answer lies in changing the system… not trying to get college campuses to be more lenient than they already are. Regardless, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to read my argument, even if you disagree with it.

      Like

      • Andrea, If the criminal justice system is as broken as the statistics suggest, who should handle these cases if you want college campuses not to? Furthermore, should we change Title IX to relieve campuses of that obligation?

        It also seems if you intend to condemn the Chronicle’s coverage of the issue of sexual assault, you might look beyond a single article to one of the other more than 75 articles the Chronicle has published in the past year including at least 1 other story featuring a cover photo.

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      • Thanks for visiting SDMS Dr. Lowery, and for taking the time to comment. I’m going to address your concerns in reverse order.

        I think characterizing my post as an indictment of all CHE reporting around issues of sexual assault on campus is inaccurate. At the risk of being a “self-quoter,” I did explicitly say that “The Chronicle of Higher Education, despite doing a great job in the past reporting on rape culture on American college campuses, really stepped in it with this article.” My argument is that this *specific* article added poison—entirely unnecessarily—to an already toxic well, and did so in a way for which it must be called to account.

        As for the issue of how sexual assault should be handled on college campuses, that is, of course, a much larger issue. My last comment was very unclear, and for that I apologize. I will echo Historiann’s glowing review of Dr. Cleveland’s post on DagBlog, which I think hits the nail on the head. The problem here isn’t Title IX. Far from it. The problem is a lack of compliance, and a lack of interest in compliance on the part of far too many schools.

        Instead of using the ““preponderance of the evidence” standard as a way to make campuses safer—to protect women who might not be able to meet the standard of proof in a criminal court, for example—schools are all too frequently using their authority as a means of convincing young, traumatized women that no crime actually occurred, and that it would be in the best interest of BOTH parties to keep the police out of the equation. Dr. Cleveland is far more eloquent than I on this topic; you can read his thoughts at http://dagblog.com/politics/why-colleges-mishandle-sexual-assault-18529.

        Thank you again for your comment, and for caring enough about this issue to read my lengthy post on the topic.

        Like

      • Chris M says:

        Regardless of whether colleges campuses have any business trying criminal cases, they are in fact doing so at the moment, which makes this article relevant. Changing an entire system is beyond the scope of any one person, so I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect any of these men to have taken that route.

        In any system, regardless of whether it’s civil or criminal, you will have both misses (unarrested guilty people) and false positives (false arrests). Both types of people are worth considering.

        Like

      • I think you and I are simply going to have to agree to disagree on this issue. It would appear that you fundamentally disagree with the entire premise of my post, and I somehow doubt another 2,000 words on the subject will change your mind.

        I do, however, appreciate your reading, and the respectful tone of your critique. Carla María Thomas’ Letter to the Editor—a letter that quotes me extensively—is not being accorded the same respect. So thank you.

        You can read her letter at: http://chronicle.com/blogs/letters/presumed-guilty-is-offensive-and-requires-an-apology/.

        Like

  4. Andrea,

    I read Dr. Cleveland’s article twice and it is long on generalized indictments of the current system, but lacks any real alternatives. Dr. Cleveland’s solution seems to be colleges should not handle cases of this type which is not an option left to colleges under Title IX.

    Like

    • Dr. Lowery,

      I disagree with that assessment. I think all one needs to do to find concrete directives for changing the current campus climate is look to the recent White House task force report (https://www.notalone.gov/assets/report.pdf). I think you’ll find that–if not as specific, and , yes, more focused on the problem–Dr. Cleveland’s post does indeed hit the nail on the head. The CDC has also offered up a series of recommendations aimed at prevention.

      My point is that compliance–both with regard to the letter AND the spirit of Title IX–is the first and most important step in changing rape culture on college campuses. Title IX isn’t the reason that colleges are failing to protect their female students… they are failing *despite* Title IX.

      Thanks again,
      Andrea

      Like

  5. I wish I could write as well as you. Nice job. Good read. Feeding the false equivalency belief/error is a problem. It is right to call it out forcefully.

    On a constructive note, I believe their article helps us understand how widespread the misunderstanding is about non-stranger rape and assault, and the realities about the trauma experienced on a mass scale. I believe something like a “War on Ignorance” might work to transcend some of the political polarization around this issue and other factors that inhibit decent people from understanding it. Statistics feed the energy of the choir, but we need to help the uninformed better understand how real trauma happens when an otherwise regular person (usually a male) violates another, even if the way it happened does not sound like stereotypical violence.

    Their article reminds us that perhaps the lack of understanding reaches high in higher education circles. We knew that it does, and this is a great reminder that it might even exist within the ranks of learned and bright people at The Chronicle.

    Thank you.
    Aaron

    Like

    • Beautifully said, Aaron. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      I think you are right that personal stories are ultimately more compelling than statistics. It’s, of course, far easier to argue with abstractions than it is to argue with lived experience.

      Thankfully, I have no experiences of my own to share, and I would never discuss anybody else’s situation without their express permission.

      I am glad that so many young women are going public with their stories. I’m especially blown away by Emma Sulkowicz of Columbia University. You can see a video of her discussing her amazing work at http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/09/columbia_university_mattress_student_rapist_help.htm.
      That said, entirely too much pressure is being put on survivors to share their story with the world. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that survivors need to do what’s best for them, and sometimes that means “carrying the weight” in private. I’m not suggesting you disagree… just making a point I feel needs to be emphasized for the survivors reading this post.

      Like

  6. Jeana Jorgensen, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m sharing it far and wide. I’d also be curious about your thoughts on the Chronicle’s reporting on the past week, which touches on this issue and contains this gem:

    “As legislators, deans, parents, and students debate what to do about the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses—many of them all but awash in alcohol—maybe it’s time to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Maybe it’s time for Americans to start teaching their teenagers to drink responsibly (if they want to drink), and time to rethink our drinking-age laws—which, let’s face it, seem to have done little more than create a thriving fake-ID industry.”

    Not, you know, maybe it’s time for Americans to start teaching their teenagers that it’s not okay to rape people.

    Source: http://chronicle.com/article/What-You-Need-to-Know-About/148771/?cid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en

    Like

    • Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and (of course) sharing! The response to this post has been far greater than I’d anticipated… a testament to just how important this issue is. As I said to a colleague via Twitter, “Feels good to be heard.”

      I actually haven’t read this week’s Chronicle yet–I’m under both a grading and a dissertation deadline right now–but it’s great to see that the tradition of victim-blaming continues!

      Here’s the most coherent thought I can offer at this moment: conflating these two important issues does a disservice to both. We need to change campus drinking culture, yes, and we need to completely *eradicate* campus rape culture, but (a) addressing one of these problems is not a means to solving the other, and (b) it’s actually possible to change drinking culture on campuses without shaming rape survivors in the process!

      …I think I’m going to take my time getting to this article. My blood pressure demands it.

      Thanks again for reading SMDS!

      Like

  7. I wonder if you could ever acknowledge that a woman could ever be the aggressor, in any capacity? I also wonder if there is ever a picture of a man that doesn’t represent aggression, power, intent to harm, etc? Consider how a man could review one of your pictures and read into it things that were not intended, or simply wandered through his mind. I wish you well on your trip though life and learning. An old man sends.

    Like

  8. Due process does not imply nor does it contribute to this notion of rape culture. If rape is a serious crime – which assuredly it is – then prosecution requires serious consideration. We aren’t talking about cheating on a test here…we are talking about rape. Let the courts decide guilt … not some “disciplinary board.”

    I applaud CHE for taking on this issue in an egalitarian manner (as we all should – if our goal is an egalitarian society of course).

    Like

  9. Considering that this article is about an overpowering illustration, it’s ironic that your biggest picture is a statistic. Not only are most rapes unreported, it isn’t even well established what rape is. So these statistics are unmeasurable and meaningless.

    Furthermore, I think your characterization of the Chronicle article is missing the point. The man signified in the photo is not being admirably displayed. He is not an industrious Paul Bunyan, a militant Nimrod, an intelligent Gandalf, etc. He is a proud and oafish Goliath.

    I suggest you seriously reconsider what your own motives were in writing this essay.

    Like

  10. JT says:

    I’m shocked – shocked I tell you – that someone dares have an alternative opinion. How could they not conclude, as many feminists who have never considered otherwise concluded, that only 2% of rape accusations are false? Don’t they know that the incredible amount of evidence to the contrary goes against the kind of zero-sum game we’re trying to set up in the name of gender equality? Don’t they understand that men and boys don’t matter?

    Jesus, why can’t everyone be as progressive and egalitarian as we are.

    Like

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