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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Further Thoughts on the Little White Lie about a Little Read Book
posted by Bathus

[01/05/2006 NOTE by Bathus: There's an important update of this item at the end of this post.]

On further reflection I have realized that my last post on this subject was too hard on the UMass Dartmouth student and too easy on the newspaper that published his lie.

I still believe that the student's name should be disclosed for the public good and for the good of journalism, and that the student himself will be better off in the long run if he steps forward to take personal responsibility for his lie.

So if and when I discover his name, I still intend to publish it in this space.

However, after looking more closely at the way the New Bedford Standard-Times handled this story, especially how that newspaper's editors and its reporter have slyly sought to deflect the major responsibility for their journalistic sin from themselves onto the student, I have come to the conclusion that the Standard-Times, not the student, is the real villain of this piece.

My thinking about all this is set forth in full in the following email I dashed off to the Standard-Times editor, Robert Unger. (I've edited the text of my email a bit to spruce up sloppy grammar and to clarify especially awkward phrasing.)

From: Bathus
To: Robert Unger
Date: Wednsday, January 04, 2006 12:40 AM
Subject: Further Thoughts on the Little Red Hoax


I am an attorney and blogger who operates under the nom de blog "Bathus" at Adeimantus Blog, where I have recently written on the subject of the now infamous UMass Dartmouth Little Red Book hoax.

In its apologia for publishing this false story, the New Bedford Standard-Times has put forward three rationales for withholding the hoaxer's identity:
[W]e didn't name the student, at the request of the university. We also worried about the student's mental state and about the careers of professors Williams and Pontbriand.
(In his follow-up story, your reporter Aaron Nicodemus had similarly stated, "At the request of the two professors and the university, The Standard-Times has agreed to withhold his name.")

Your paper's stated rationales for refusing to disclose the identity of the UMass Dartmouth hoaxer are not plausible. Let's look at them one by one:

I. "We didn't name the student at the request of the university."

This rationale standing by itself is worthless. No responsible newspaper would ever withhold newsworthy facts from the public merely because some entity, even a beloved local institution of higher education, so requested. If the information is newsworthy (and in the course of reading this email it should become clear to you why the student's identity is indeed newsworthy), then the newspaper should publish it notwithstanding the university's understandable desire to protect its students--unless the university offered some very weighty reasons not to publish. Such reasons have not been forthcoming.

II. "We also worried about the student's mental state."

This rationale, while somewhat compelling emotionally, is not otherwise persuasive. Editors and reporters are not qualified to make a psychologist's judgment that publishing the student's name would do him significant emotional harm beyond that which he has already suffered. One wonders whether--except for the inapplicable rationales for withholding the names of minors and victims of sex offenses--the Standard-Times has ever before worried whether publishing the name of a person at the very center of a story would affect that person's mental state. In a similar context, would the Standard-Times hesitate to publish the name of a 22 year-old factory worker whose false statements were at the center of a nationally significant story reported in its pages? Notwithstanding the sympathies one might feel toward students as a class, does a student deserve milder treatment than a factory worker?

One must evaluate the credibility of the Standard-Times' purported concern for the student's frail emotional state in light of an editorial column titled "Sizing up [the] week of news" in which the Standard-Times published the following post hoc analysis:
Student should be ashamed

Thumbs down for the UMass student who lied to professors and The Standard-Times about being visited by federal agents after he ordered a copy of Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book through the inter-library loan system. This bogus story went around the nation and gave the public a false impression of our government at a time when our government is under intense pressure to defend the homeland from terrorism and does not need the public to turn against it. (emphasis added)
The above statement elicits the following observations:

Firstly, with the above statement, the Standard-Times appears to be attempting unfairly to place the bulk of the blame on this student in order to deflect responsibility away from itself, when (as I explain more fully below) it was the Standard-Times' extremely shoddy reporting that transformed what otherwise would have remained a thoroughly unremarkable "private lie" between a student and his professors into a source of massive public embarrassment for all the involved parties.

Secondly, the Standard-Times' assertion that the student deserves shame is not consistent with its statement that the Standard-Times is worried about the student's mental health. If the Standard-Times were truly concerned about the student's purportedly fragile mental health, it would not have published the above statement asserting that the student deserves to have shame heaped upon him. (On the other hand, you can call me old-fashioned, but I personally believe that this student would emerge from this episode with greater integrity, both emotional integrity and ethical integrity, if he were required publicly to take personal responsibility for his role in this fiasco.) The Standard-Times inflicts more public shame on the student (whose identity is already known among a large segment of the UMass Dartmouth community) while at the same time using the student's supposed mental frailty as an excuse for withholding his name.

Thirdly, the Standard-Times' statement correctly points out that this story "gave a false impression of our government at a time when our government is under intense pressure to defend the homeland from terrorism and does not need the public to turn against it." Because that is true, the Standard-Times editor has a journalistic duty to the public, to his own paper, and to his profession to reveal the name of the hoaxer so as to discourage others from using the media to disseminate information they know to be false. This duty to protect the integrity of your profession, and to serve the public's right to the full truth on a story that has corrupted the public debate in a matter of national interest, outweighs any speculative concerns the Standard-Times might have about private harm that might redound to the person who originated the lie.

III. We also worried about . . . the careers of professors Williams and Pontbriand.

All of the considerations that apply to discredit your concern for protecting the mental health of the student apply equally to your concern for protecting the careers of the professors. Since when did tenured university professors become a specially protected class under the First Amendment?

More particularly, I am unable to see how disclosing the name of this student could do further harm to the careers of these two professors--unless that disclosure might lead to discovery of additional facts indicating the professors had reason to know, before the story was first published, that this student and his story did not merit the defense that they attempted to provide. In either case, the story remains unfinished, and the Standard-Times has a journalistic duty to complete the story that it started.

The implicit suggestion that disclosure of the student's name would cause harm to the professors' careers leaves one with precisely the impression that the professors do have something to hide. If you really do care about the professors' careers, assuming their careers deserve journalistic protection, you would serve them better by publishing the student's name. But your duty is not to protect reputations and careers. Your duty is to get all the facts out so your readers, including those who happen to be in a position to make judgments about the two professors' careers, can determine for themselves what judgments are fitting.

In that regard, one notes Professor Williams' positively glowing statement--that this student, whom he claimed to "know well" was "the real thing . . . mature, honest, reliable, hard-working and genuinely interested in getting to the truth"--an evaluation that simply does not match up with the picture of this student that emerges from the Standard-Times later reporting, wherein the student comes across as self-centered:
When I came back, like wow, there's this circus coming on. I saw my cell phone, and I see like, wow, I have something like 75 messages and like something like 87 missed calls. Wow, I was popular.
and not quite the budding scholar the professor described, if the above sample of his thinking and the following sample of his writing are fairly illustrative:
The fact is that my being panicked about this hole (sic) event led me to unfortunately prop up my story (i.e., fabricate it), for that I have to apologize to you and to my professors. I have spoken to my family about the whole issue and the fact is that they were understandibly (sic) angry. My name has been dishonored within my family and so I will spend the rest of the winter trying to restore even a little bit of it back, at least.
One finds it difficult to believe that Professor Williams could be so utterly deceived about the character of a student he claimed to know so well. Thus, one is left to wonder whether the incongruity between the character of the student Professor Williams described and the character of the student who made the above statements should be otherwise, or at least further, explained. Several persons, including myself, have speculated whether the unidentified student might have originated as a creation of professor's imagination. Many others have speculated that the student's story was seeded by the government to embarrass Bush's critics, and that the two professors were in on it the whole time. The plausibility of such speculations confirms that the story remains incomplete and cannot be wrapped up until this student's identity is known.

Having gone through the reasons that the Standard-Times' rationales for withholding this student's name are implausible, let me offer my opinion as to the real reason, for your reticence, a reason which I hinted at above and which can be summed up in single word:

Guilt

(Pardon me here if I indulge in the same sort of psychological analysis for which I have faulted the Standard-Times. We lawyers grant ourselves wide latitude.)

The Standard-Times, or should I say its editors and reporter, feel downright guilty, as well they should, that their sloppy journalism had the effect of tempting and aiding an otherwise fairly decent young man to persist in what was an otherwise mildly blameworthy private lie until that private lie was transformed into what now seems to threaten to become a public humiliation.

Let me explain how I reached that judgment about your motives for withholding this student's name, motives of which you yourselves might not yet be fully conscious. Based on the Standard-Times' own reporting and editorializing, it seems clear that events unfolded thusly:

In the course of a conversation Nicodemus initiated to obtain a comment from Professor Williams, the professor let drop, "almost as an aside," that he'd heard tell from a fellow professor that a student had been interrogated by government agents for attempting to get his hands on a copy of the Little Red Book. Had Professor Williams known that Nicodemus would want to make a full-blown story out of that yarn, he probably would never have mentioned that seemingly harmless little anecdote in the first place,even if he did believe at the time it was true. But Nicodemus seized on the juicy tidbit, and--based on a second piece of second-hand hearsay "corroboration" (which was just as worthless as the first piece of second-hand hearsay "corroboration")--put the story into print without first making direct contact with the student himself.

Let me here point out with special emphasis the important fact that, although the student had lied privately to his professor, he did not lie to the Standard-Times reporter until after the Standard-Times had already put the story into print. The Standard-Times got the story wrong without ever talking to the student. Therefore, it is quite false, unethical, and grossly unfair to the student (about whom the Standard-Times now claims to worry so much), for the Standard-Times to have left its readers with the impression that the paper got the story wrong because the student purposefully misled the Standard-Times reporter. That is exactly the impression you tried to create when you wrote, "We must be as sure as we can that a source is telling us the truth," which leaves the impression that you got the story wrong only because the student lied to you. Yes, the student misled his professors. But the Standard-Times misled itself. And then the Standard-Times slyly tried to nudge the bulk of the blame for its own mistake onto the student. For that journalistic sin, you deserve every bit of the guilt you now feel.

That failure to speak with the student before printing the story was the fatal error. And that failure to speak with the student remains the source of the Standard-Times' abiding feelings of guilt. That sense of guilt prevents the Standard-Times editors from perceiving their journalistic duty.

If, oh if, the reporter Nicodemus had just made contact with the student, and if, oh if, Nicodemus had then pressed him as he should have, it is entirely probable either that the student would have backed off his fish story or that Nicodemus would have smelled something fishy that would have warned him off the story.

But once the story was in print, once the student's favorite professors had publicly placed their own reputations on the line in defense of the student's tale, the stakes became just to high for the student to pull back. By unilaterally upping the ante (with some help from the gullible professors), the Standard-Times made the game too rich for the student to fold. That's the kind of thing that can happen when newspapers gamble with the truth. Lots of people lose.

So the Standard-Times feels especially guilty toward the student for taking what should have remained an entirely private matter (a student's private lie to his professors) and transforming it into a major public humiliation for the student. The Standard-Times then magnified its guilt by suggesting that the student had misled its reporter into filing a false story, when the Standard-Times, by its own admission, never spoke to the student before printing the false story.

So guilt, that good old fashioned emotion, is the real reason the Standard-Times won't finish reporting this story. And it seems that, by apparently promising the professors and the university not disclose the student's name, the Standard-Times has made things worse by painting itself into a journalistic corner. One journalistic sin just keeps leading to another, until it seems the Standard-Times only option is to clam up entirely.

Let me suggest a way out for the Standard-Times to escape from its dark and silent corner.

First, come clean. All the way clean. Admit explicitly that you screwed up completely. Not a little. Completely. Off the charts. Off the scale screw up. Don't offer explanations that sound like excuses. Don't give us these half-apologies about how Nicodemus "corroborated" the story with a second source. (Pontbriand's "corroboration" was confirmation of what the student said; it was not confirmation of the truth of what the student said. Don't you see the difference? If Pontbriand had said that a student had said the moon is made of green cheese, would you claim to have a second reliable corroboration that the moon is made of green cheese?)

Second, apologize publicly and profusely to the student, whom you have unfairly cast as the main villain. Explain explicitly that although the student's private lie was certainly blameworthy, it was worthy only of private blame, to be negotiated between him and his professors. Explain that, although the student was clearly wrong to lie to his professor, that private act did not the merit the public humiliation that the Standard-Times' sloppy reporting lead to. Explain that once the Standard-Times published the story without giving the student a chance to confirm or to retract his private lie, and without proper corroboration, the damage was already done. Explain that by the time your reporter got around to speaking with the student, the die had already been cast by the Standard-Times, and nothing the student could have said once the story was already in print could undo much of the damage the Standard-Times had done. Explain that it is certainly understandable that after the Standard-Times rashly raised the stakes by making this private lie public, it would have been extremely difficult for any young student to come clean right away when his apparently harmless private peccadillo suddenly threatened to compromise the public reputations of his favorite professors. Explain and admit to your readers over and over that, although it was a private wrong for the student to lie to his professors, it was a much worse public wrong for the Standard-Times to rely on a second-hand story that made that private lie into public humiliation. Retract and apologize profusely for your editorial heaping blame on the student, when the vast bulk of the blame belongs to the Standard-Times for blowing this private lie completely out of proportion. Remind yourselves and your readers over and over again that although the student had lied privately to his professors, he didn't lie to the Standard-Times until after the Standard-Times had already published this false story. Remind your readers that the Standard-Times never published a single word that was based on a lie the student told directly to the Standard-Times, and that it was therefore terribly wrong for the Standard-Times for try to blame lies, to which it was not a party, for its own sloppy reporting.

Third, publish the student's name. But before you do so, explain to him that, although his private lie deserves private blame, the Standard-Times will acknowledge that its own sloppy reporting--by exploding a private lie into a public matter--placed him into what for almost any young person would be an untenable position. Explain to him that you must now publish his name because one journalistic sin cannot serve as the justification for a second journalistic sin. And give the student another chance to make a fuller public statement, in a separate piece to be published prominently on your editorial page, concurrent with the publication of his name. (And this time, have your editors clean up his grammar, spelling, and diction so he won't look like an idiot.) If you approach this student honestly, if you explain to him that you will now deal with him fairly, I believe that he will agree to have his name disclosed.

There's an honorable and honest path open to you if you have the guts to take it.

Or alternatively you can dig yourselves deeper into your dark and silent corner and hope to weather the storm. But (God bless the internet!) some blogger (maybe me) will soon come up with this student's name and will disclose it. Several of us are working on it already, and it is just a matter of time. No, my site traffic is not on the scale of Instapundit or Kos, but I suspect that if I come up with this student's name before you disclose it, Instapundit and Kos and dozens of other bloggers large and small (and perhaps a few MSM outlets) will link to my post. When that day arrives, you can rest assured that I will be fairer to this student than you have been thus far. Indeed, on further contemplation, I have come to realize that my recent blog post was far too hard on the student and much too soft on the Standard-Times editors and reporter, who to my mind were and remain the real culprits here. So now I can assure you that if the Standard-Times doesn't come clean, if and when I get this student's name, I will use that occasion to give the Standard-Times the public blistering it will by then most richly deserve.

Respectfully,

Bathus
If you have information that might lead to the identity of theUMass Dartmouth Little Red Book hoaxer, email me at bathus@houston.rr.com.

01/05/2006 UPDATE

Standard-Times editor Robert Unger replied to the above email. I wrote him back, and he replied a second time:
From: Robert Unger
To: Bathus
Date: Wed, 4 Jan 2006
Subject: Re: Further Thoughts on the Little Red Hoax

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

Whether or not you decide to publish the name of the student is your business. We made our decision based on what we believed to be right and fair. You disagree, as is your right. You also are free to criticize us in any way you choose.

With best regards,

Bob Unger
Editor, The Standard-Times

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

From: Bathus
To: Robert Unger
Date: Wed, 4 Jan 2006
Subject: Re: Further Thoughts on the Little Red Hoax

Dear Mr. Unger,

Thank you for reminding me that I am free to criticize the Standard-Times in any way I choose. We agree about that much.

But with respect to those matters where agreement is less easy to come by, I had hoped that your reply might substantively address at least a few of the points raised in my email.

I believe the Standard-Times has an obligation, not to me, but to its readers, to provide a fuller explanation of its decision to withhold this student's name. Can't you expand further on the reasonings that led you to believe it was "right and fair" to withhold the student's name? One assumes there was a thought process involving a weighing of interests, a consideration of consequences, etc. Or was it just a gut feeling that prompted you to make a promise to the university and the two professors without really thinking things through? If you aren't going to publish the student's name, you should at least explain the reasoning that brought you to that decision. The account you've given so far is simply not persuasive or even plausible, for all the reasons I've pointed out [in my last email].

I am still hoping for a fuller reply.

Respectfully,

Bathus

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

From: Robert Unger
To: Bathus
Date: Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Subject: Re: Further Thoughts on the Little Red Hoax

Hello, Mr. Jacobs,

I didn't mean to blow you off in any way, and I hope you'll forgive me if that's how it sounded. It's just that I have heard from a lot of non-readers (mostly bloggers, talk radio hosts and people with strong pro- and anti-Bush perspectives all wanting to talk about this case) and I do have a fulltime job here that keeps me plenty busy. My two reasons for not ID'ing the student truly was as I said.

The two professors we quoted [Pontbriand and Williams] both were facing possible disciplinary action because they divulged to our reporter private information about a particular student. In that it was our reporter [Aaron Nicodemus] seeking comment from them on the Times story about the eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, which we do from time to time in seeking reaction to significant national or international events, we believed that they would pay an unfairly heavy price for talking to us.

In addition, it was our belief (along with our other sources) that the student who told this tale -- which as I said we should not have reported without evaluating his story directly ourselves -- was emotionally unstable and we feared for him. We believed that revealing his name, therefore, was likely to do more harm than good. At no point did we promise anyone -- either the student or the university -- that we would not name him; we made that determination ourselves after long discussion. I believe it was the right thing to do. I hope that answers your questions, and I respectfully acknowledge that you disagree with that decision.

With best regards,
Bob Unger
I do appreciate Unger's willingness to respond to a highly critical email from an obscure blogger. His second email--by abandoning the dismissive tone of his first email--represents at least a stylistic improvement. However, inasmuch as neither of Unger's replies succeeds in meeting the points I had raised in my long and detailed email, there's nothing to be gained by my rehashing arguments to which he has failed to respond. Without doing much to address my points, Unger's reply does create new questions and new contradictions:

1. To support the rationale that the Standard-Times withheld the student's name to protect the professors' careers, Unger writes:
The two professors we quoted both were facing possible disciplinary action because they divulged to our reporter private information about a particular student. In that it was our reporter seeking comment from them on the Times story . . . , we believed that they would pay an unfairly heavy price for talking to us.[emphasis added]
So far as I know, there had not been--until now--any public allegation that the professors had improperly divulged private information about the as-yet anonymous student. While I have no idea under what circumstances a professor's disclosure of such information would violate UMass Dartmouth policies, and while I have no knowledge about precisely what private information the professors disclosed, it seems to me that, with his startling admission that the professors had "divulged to our reporter private information about a particular student," Unger has provided evidence that now substantially increases the risk that the professors could be subjected to discipline by their university.

So much for the Standard-Times' concern about protecting the professors' careers!

And there's a larger point here. For reasons that I discussed in my long email above, the Standard-Times' concern about the professors' careers is misplaced. Instead of sending me an email disclosing potentially damaging facts about acts these professors might have committed in furtherance of the hoax, the fact that these professors, possibly wrongfully, disclosed private information about their student should have been published several days ago in the pages of the Standard-Times. That fact, along with the identity of the student hoaxer, is necessary for the public to evaluate exactly how and why it came to be that, at a crucial moment in a vitally important public debate, the Standard-Times published a false story that corrupted the debate.

2. If indeed the professors are candidates for university discipline, either for divulging a student's private information to a reporter or for some other act, it is not clear to me that by withholding the name of the student, the Standard-Times thereby reduces the professors' risk of being disciplined. If the UMass Dartmouth disciplinary system is administered fairly, the professors liability for academic discipline will depend solely upon the acts the professors themselves committed, not upon acts committed by a third party. If the professors violated university policy by divulging a student's private information to a reporter, the act deserving discipline was complete the moment the information was passed to the reporter. Whether or not the reporter then further disseminates the information is irrelevant to the question of the wrongfulness of the professors' disclosure. If the professors were wrong to disclose a student's private information to a reporter, that act does not become less wrong because the reporter chose not to publish the information.

3. In my original email to Runger I had speculated that perhaps the Standard-Times had bound itself to silence by rashly promising either the student, the professors, or the university not to disclose the hoaxer's name. In his second email to me Unger contends that, "At no point did we promise anyone--either the student or the university-- that we would not name him; we made that determination ourselves after long discussion." However, in his follow-up article reporting that the student's tale was a hoax, Standard-Times reporter Nicodemus wrote, "At the request of the two professors and the university, The Standard-Times has agreed to withhold his name." Does The Standard-Times' agreement, made at the request of the university and the professors, constitute a promise? Other lawyers can split hairs over that one, but from a common sense perspective--and probably from the perspective of an expert in journalism ethics--it sure looks an awful lot like a promise to me. If so, it was a promise rashly given, a promise prompted, as I have already suggested, not by an evaluation of journalistic duty, but by a sense of guilt.

And so one journalistic sin leads to another and another and another.

It's time for the Standard-Times to come clean.

posted by Bathus | 1/04/2006 01:59:00 AM
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Blogger P-BS-Watcher said...

"one or both of the professors were potentially subject to disciplinary action by UMass Dartmouth for disclosing to the Standard-Times reporter confidential information about the student."

Fabricating a story to advance the leftist cause is not an offense, it is a service to society meriting reward. But woe unto him that breaks administrative rules. No whistleblower protection applies.

1:49 PM, January 05, 2006  

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