I was quoted in last Sunday’s New York Times in an article about UNC’s ongoing athletics scandal. This article was specifically about the relationship between UNC and Dan Kane, the reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer assigned to cover the scandal. Predictably, the article amounted to one reporter fawning over another for just how important and groundbreaking the latter’s work has been, with my quote pretty much the only countervailing position offered. Later in the post I’ll paste in the full extent of what I told Sarah Lyall (the reporter on the story), and later this week or next I’m planning a much longer post about the state of the scandal. But here I want to think a little about my experiences with the media’s miserable coverage of this set of stories in relief with what we know, and I appreciate, about the current sociology of the media.
I’m a big fan of a couple of recent books on the state of the media: Jacobs and Townsley’s The Space of Opinion and, even more, Berry and Sobieraj’s The Outrage Industry. Both of these books pay specific attention to the development of new forms of opinion media, particularly electronic media. And in a certain sense I think they’re both right in their own ways: Jacobs and Townsley in showing the ways in which new electronic spaces for opinion exchange serve sometimes to open up dialogue to more points of view than might otherwise have been available, but Berry and Sobieraj in demonstrating the extent to which extremism is, in itself, a business model for many such shows. The outrage expressed, that is, has relatively little authentic in its origins; more of it is about the value of outrage for outrage’s sake.
Meanwhile, though, there are lots of other dynamics playing into this world, including the overall decline in newspaper readership and the enormous reduction in newsroom staffs for state government matters. Most of the country doesn’t live in major metropolises like New York, LA, and Chicago, and most states don’t have such metropolises in them. Which means that most state government issues have to be covered by relatively small newspapers with relatively local focus. Even North Carolina–the 10th most populous state and one blessed with several historically strong newspapers–has relatively few reporters covering the state government beat (a few years ago I interviewed, I think, every single one of them for a different project. Only took a week or two of on and off meetings.).
Two of those traditionally strong newspapers–the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer–merged newsrooms a couple of years ago, further reducing the number of distinct angles from which state government is covered. The style of coverage they’ve worked on has focused–excessively, in my view–on claims and insinuations of corruption, payoffs, inside deals, and the like. To put it bluntly: the policies of the McCrory administration and the Republican state legislature would be awful for the state even if no money changed hands and no lies were told. As I argue in my recent book, I believe focusing too much on issues like this (corruption, factual accuracy, etc.) prevents us from focusing on the substantive issues: the values and priorities each citizen, party, movement, etc., puts forward. I think this tendency is also tied to the Outrage Industry point because it’s easier to be outraged at individuals’ lies and corruption than at substantive differences in value and emphasis.
So back to Dan Kane. Ms. Lyall asked me to comment on the N&O‘s work reporting on UNC’s athletics scandals, and in particular whether “the paper’s work has been helpful to the university, or a hindernace,” among other questions. Here’s what I wrote in response:
As you probably know even better than I do, the relationship between any newspaper and the institutions it covers is complicated. The relationship between the N&O and UNC is certainly no exception.
Early on in the scandal, the paper — mostly through the work of Dan Kane, who is the main journalist working on this set of stories — has developed a viewpoint that believes the University is monolithic, defensive, and evasive. This viewpoint isn’t particularly amenable to evidence; rather, it seems to structure the way Kane approaches each element of the story, assuming and expecting malfeasance. This is facilitated by the active work of Jay Smith and Mary Willingham, who are fostering that narrative and viewpoint.
I don’t believe that viewpoint is accurate; in fact, I think that the university administration has been remarkably methodical and transparent in its approach to the situation, has provided lots of information, and has been unusually open to involving faculty in the processes of investigation and reform. Despite there being ample information available on these processes, the N&O has not reported on any of that, preferring instead to focus on sensationalism. Examples include the focus on Ms. Willingham instead of investigating the substance of her claims; the recent article essentially reprinting an evidence-free claim of “bullying” by the Government Accountability Project; and a news story in yesterday’s paper about the fact that a group of retired faculty wrote an op-ed in the same paper. In each of these cases, there is no serious attempt to assess the situation.
Now, as a scholar who studies the media, I don’t particularly think it’s the role of a newspaper to be either helpful or a hindrance to the university. But I do think that its role is to be fair and thoughtful, and to add useful information to the public record, and it has not played that role well in this case.
I hope this is helpful. Happy to talk more next week if that’s useful. And feel free to clarify by email.
This basic pattern holds for other media outlets as well. CNN has gleefully reprinted, with no skepticism whatsoever, claims that have turned out to be either factually untrue or highly questionable, such as the content of Mary Willingham’s MA thesis, the number of very-underprepared student-athletes at UNC, and the actual character of a now-famous “paper” she insinuated was a final paper that received an A- grade (it wasn’t, and it didn’t). Paul Barrett of Business Week has written a series of columns like this one, taking the Fox News playbook of phrasing everything as a question in order to avoid actually having to do the work of examining the substance of the claim. (Paraphrase: which interpretation of the data is correct? I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to find out, so I’ll just keep pushing the UNC-is-bad narrative. It’s easier and lends better to outrage anyway.)
At the end of the NYT article, Dan Kane is quoted as saying that “They [UNC] have done all kinds of things to prevent this from ever happening again.” I believe that is the first time he has acknowledged the extraordinary amount of work that’s gone into reforms to ensure athletics never again undermines academic integrity here. I guess documenting major policy reform is less likely to lend itself to outrage.