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.

What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.