News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

At the Chronicle of Higher Ed, A Tale of Journalistic Malfeasance

Eric Alterman explains how a blog post calling for the dissolution of black studies reflects the incompetence of conservative journalists.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


[Last] 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.”