Michigan State University's president has published a 900-word defense of the school's decision to host George Will as a commencement speaker this weekend in response to widespread outrage from students who object to his past remarks on campus sexual assault.
President Lou Anna K. Simon stated that the university did not endorse Will's controversial June 6 Washington Post syndicated column suggesting that attempts to curb campus assaults have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." She wrote in part:
I'll leave it to Mr. Will to defend his comments and values, because this isn't about George Will. This is about us. And it is about the role of universities in a democratic society.
Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault.
What it does mean is this: Great universities are committed to serving the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs. There is no mandate to agree, only to serve society by allowing learning to take place. If universities do not hold onto this, we do not serve the greater good. Because next time it will be a different speaker and a different issue, and the dividing lines will not be the same.
Contrary to Simon's suggestion, Will is not participating in an open "exchange of ideas" in which students can engage with or question his remarks. Instead, his December 13 address will reportedly be a commencement speech to graduates from several MSU programs, who will have the option of either listening to his remarks or skipping their own graduations. Moreover, the "ideas" critics are objecting to are Will's comments about his audience, college students.
Additionally, the Post columnist will not only be addressing students but will be celebrated by the school, receiving an honorary doctorate for what Simon terms his "long and distinguished journalistic career."
Emily Gillingham, an MSU law school student and co-organizer of a protest against Will's involvement, highlighted the destructive nature of Will's participation, telling Media Matters last week,"I feel so bad for the people who are there who have survived sexual assault who George Will thinks are lying or it was some sort of pleasant experience."
Simon's statement comes in response to substantial criticism from the student body. More than 700 have already signed up for a protest the day of the speech, and MSU's Council of Graduate Students has passed a resolution calling on the administration to withdraw their invitation to Will.
From the December 8 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume downplayed the prevalence of campus sexual assaults by misleadingly pointing to a Justice Department study which only surveyed respondents on assaults which occurred per year. Hume's analysis ignored that studies on campus sexual assault consistently find that nearly 20 percent of college-aged women report that they have been assaulted in their lifetime -- a completely different unit of measurement than the Justice Department's study.
During the December 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier, Hume highlighted a 2013 study from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found that "the annual rate of sexual assaults on women in America declined by 58%," using the report to refute the the often-cited Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) survey used by "activists and President Obama who have been claiming for years that one in every five women will be sexually assaulted while at college," mocking it for including categories such as "forced kissing."
But Hume's comparison is flawed. The DOJ report only cites "the estimated annual rate of female rape or sexual assault victimizations," that occur per year and includes all females age 12 or older. The CSA study specifically surveyed women in college and asked women if they had been assaulted in their lifetime, reporting that "one out of five undergraduate women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault" since entering college.
And studies consistently echoed CSA's findings. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly 20 percent of women have been raped in their lifetime:
Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.
From the December 8 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Several of Cleveland.com's editorial board members misrepresented a proposed non-discrimination ordinance that would prohibit discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations - including the use of restrooms and locker rooms - by peddling the myth that sexual predators will be allowed to sneak into women's bathrooms.
Cleveland City Council is considering an ordinance that would prohibit places of public accommodation from denying transgender people access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. The ordinance would remove a loophole in existing civil rights law, which explicitly allowed businesses to deny access to restrooms based on a person's gender identity.
On December 4, Cleveland.com - the news portal for the Northeast Ohio Media Group and Cleveland's Plain Dealer - published an editorial board roundtable several writers criticized the ordinance, claiming it would give "both genders... access to all bathrooms and locker rooms." Many of the editorial comments warned that the measure would allow male sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms:
Sharon Broussard, editorial writer, Northeast Ohio Media Group:
I am not comfortable with a broad, gender-neutral bathroom ordinance that would make it easier for heterosexual men with criminal intent or just kinky habits to gain access to bathrooms used by women and children. And they are out there.
Peter Krouse, editorial writer, Northeast Ohio Media Group:
I don't think opening up all bathrooms to both sexes is the answer. That would deny people, males and females, the privacy they deserve and possibly put them in uncomfortable or compromising situations. It could also create a fertile environment for predators to strike.
Kevin O'Brien, deputy editorial page editor, The Plain Dealer:
Just go by the external appearance of the plumbing the good Lord gave you and keep your "expressions" to yourself.
National Review personalities exploited questions surrounding Rolling Stone's high-profile account of a rape at the University of Virginia (UVA) in order to deny the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and suggested that women should do more to protect themselves, a response in keeping with the outlet's history of denialist, victim-blaming sexual assault coverage.
Radio host and ABC News contributor Laura Ingraham accused President Obama of "play[ing] to the sentiment" of the audience when responding to a question on race relations from Black Entertainment Television (BET), arguing that Obama made different remarks during an ABC interview on the same subject. In fact, Obama's answers during the interviews were similar, emphasizing the progress made in the United States on race since the Civil Rights era.
From the December 7 edition of ABC's This Week:
From the December 5 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Conservative media parroted Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) claim that cigarette taxes were partly to blame in the choking death of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer following a grand jury decision not to indict the officer accused in the incident. Mainstream media outlets criticized the "fanciful" assertion, explaining Garner died due to excessive police force.
From the December 4 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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From the December 4 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
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A Rolling Stone article about campus rape and how universities respond to sexual assault has raised an important debate about what the proper standards for reporting on sexual assault should be -- but it's crucial that whatever standards are ultimately chosen, they don't make it impossible to tell these stories.
A University of Virginia student named Jackie told Rolling Stone that she was gang raped in 2012 by members of a campus fraternity, and that campus administrators failed to investigate her story when she reported it. Jackie was one of several students in the piece who criticized UVA's response to sexual assaults, and the school is currently under federal investigation for its handling of such cases.
The Rolling Stone article initially received widespread acclaim and triggered swift action from UVA. But it has since come under fire from critics who say that the magazine violated journalism best practices, particularly with regard to its handling of the alleged assailants. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, and Rolling Stone, have since explained that they corroborated Jackie's story by talking to dozens of her friends, in part to ensure that she had consistently told the same story for years, but were unable to reach the accused rapists (one of whom is identified with the pseudonym "Drew" and others who are not identified at all) for comment -- a fact which was omitted in the article. (UPDATE: After the publication of this post NPR's David Folkenflik brought to our attention that in an interview with him, Erdely said she had not contacted the alleged assailant at the request of Jackie. Her editor Sean Woods made similar statements to The New Republic. These comments appear to contradict other statements Erdely gave to Slate and Woods gave to The Washington Post, on which the criticisms referenced in this post were based.)
A number of journalists have criticized Erdely for this omission. Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote that the "basic rules of reporting a story like this" include doing everything possible to reach the alleged assailant, and, if one is unable to do so, including a sentence "explaining that you tried -- and explaining how you tried." They criticize Rolling Stone for failing to include such a sentence, writing that this is "absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story."
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple took this critique a step further, saying that Rolling Stone had "whiff[ed]" with the article and suggesting they should have held the piece until they were able to name the accused in print (Erdely says she had agreed to Jackie's request "not to name the individuals because she's so fearful of them"), or find some other "solid" evidence:
The publication says it didn't name the perpetrators because Jackie is "so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on," Erdely commented. That's a compelling reason -- to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged.
In voicing these concerns about Erdely's journalistic practices, these reporters are proposing that there is a standard these types of stories should meet -- perhaps before they can even be published -- which includes a high bar for finding of proof, including doing everything in the reporter's power to identify and contact the accused, informing the reader of those attempts, and possibly going as far as to include their name and perspective in the piece.
Reporters may find such standards appropriate. Sexual assault, and particularly gang rape, is a terrible crime, and it is logical that journalists would want to tread carefully when assessing the validity of accusations. Rosin's and Benedikt's argument that it would at the very least have been simple for Erdely to include a sentence noting she had attempted to reach out seems reasonable.
However, previous reports on sexual assaults -- including from the Post and Slate -- have not met these standards, and have not come under similar scrutiny or criticism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, who has said he was not involved in the editing of this particular piece, tweeted several examples of reporting on sexual assault in which publications did not include any mention of ever attempting to contact the accused for comment and did not name the alleged perpetrator.
Fox News aired less than 30 seconds of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's press conference following a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer for the choking death of Eric Garner. The speech ran nearly 17 minutes and was aired in full by CNN and MSNBC.
On December 3, a New York City grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against a police officer accused in the choking death of Garner who died after being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. An earlier autopsy by New York City's medical examiner ruled that Garner's death "was a homicide resulting from the chokehold and the compression of his chest by police officers."
Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the decision during a press conference in Staten Island on December 3. The Mayor's speech, which lasted nearly 17 minutes, attempted to calm racial tensions in the city.