Journalism, Campus Procedure, and Biases

KC Johnson
December 19, 2013

While Richard Pérez-Peña and the New York Times continue to ignore the issue, Bloomberg’s John Lauerman penned a lengthy article on the wave of Title IX lawsuits filed by male students victimized by biased college sexual assault procedures. Unlike the Times’ coverage of the Title IX/sexual assault procedures, Lauerman offered a balanced perspective, combining several quotes from FIRE’s Robert Shibley with quotes from anti-due process figures such as Daniel Carter of “32 National Campus Safety Initiative.”

Yet the article fell short in one critical respect. Here’s how Lauerman described the 2011 Dear Colleague letter: “In April, 2011, the Obama administration published the ‘Dear Colleague letter,’ which emphasized that schools would be in violation of Title IX’s anti-gender discrimination rules by failing to address sexual assaults . . . The legislation requires colleges to investigate sexual assaults so that campuses are safe places to learn for both men and women. Education Department guidelines call for probes, which are usually conducted by a small panel of school officials, that should take less than 60 days. Penalties can be appealed by both sides, and colleges can be sued for imposing sanctions, such as expulsion.”

The description makes the document almost seem benign–act to “that campuses are safe places to learn for both men and women.” (It’s not clear to me how procedures that are wildly tilted against accused students make the campus safer for men.) Not only did Lauerman fail to mention the letter’s demand for a lower threshold for guilt in sexual assault/harassment cases but only in those cases, at another point in the article he implied that the OCR had mandated such a standard since 1995. (That would be news to all the universities who scrambled to change their policies.) And the final line in the description is odd–nothing in the “Dear Colleague” letter gave students a new right to sue colleges. Indeed, the letter has already been cited as grounds to dismiss lawsuits in cases involving Holy Cross, Xavier, and St. Joe’s.

It’s obviously difficult for reporters to cover complicated procedural disputes. But for the vast majority of Bloomberg readers, for whom this article likely would be their first exposure to the “Dear Colleague” letter, Lauerman could have done much better.

To get a sense of the often unconscious biases through which mainstream journalists can interpret this issue, take a look at the twitter feed of a person who teaches future journalists, Bloomberg Chair Andrea Gabor, of Baruch College’s journalism department.

Responding to James Taranto’s exposé of Auburn’s due process failures, Gabor–writing, she said, as both a journalist and a “mom”–fired off a series of furious tweets. (It’s not clear to me why mothers should oppose campus due process, given that most accused students do, in fact, also have mothers.) Taranto’s story, she reasoned, was an “anecdote” that doesn’t suggest a broader problem, and therefore failed to rise to “the level of ‘importance.'” (Gabor evidently couldn’t be troubled to look through FIRE’s archives; hopefully her students, as future journalists, will do better in undertaking basic research before spouting off opinions.) With “so much injustice,” Gabor wondered, “why [are you] focusing on this”? (Injustice in some places, it seems, isn’t worth journalistic inquiry.) “Pity the poor men,” she mocked.

And, wildly misrepresenting Taranto’s thesis, Gabor wondered whether his “point is rapists sh[ou]ld NOT get expelled.” After several correspondents pointed out otherwise, Gabor tossed in a backhanded tweet commending someone who mentioned the role of due process, without saying whether she actually favored the concept.

Judged according to the Gabor Standard of journalistic fairness, perhaps Lauerman’s piece, even with its flawed description of the “Dear Colleague” letter, deserves unqualified praise.