Last fall, Patrick Witt, the quarterback of the Yale University football team, was “lionized as the hero” of the college sports world for his supposedly stellar combination of athletic prowess, academic aptitude and decent character. His achievements earned him a Rhodes Scholarship finalist interview, which he famously turned down to lead Yale in a rivalry game against Harvard.
Yet, late last week, The New York Times reported this Disney-ish story arc may have been a farce. Witt had allegedly already been removed from Rhodes consideration due to a sexual assault complaint made against him, something Yale officials may have hid even as they continued publicizing his heroic image.
From the beginning, editors of The Yale Daily News, the Ivy League university’s student newspaper, apparently also knew about the sexual assault situation and decided to not pursue a story about it.
In an email posted on a popular media blog, former Yale Daily News opinion editor Alex Klein wrote, “Multiple current and past members of the newspaper’s managing board, all deeply involved in the day-to-day work of the paper, have confirmed that the News has had the story for over two months. . . . The paper even knew that the sexual assault claim had lost [Witt] an offer to join the Boston Consulting Group after graduation. Even then, they wrote nothing. For reasons personal, social or political — who can ever tell on a college campus? — the News‘ management chose to ignore the bombshell, protecting [Witt's] reputation.”
Subsequent criticisms began pouring in from the public and media. For example, a tag on a related IvyGate blog post judged the student editors’ decision to not report on the assault complaint with a two-word summary: “Terrible Journalism.”
Then, Witt released a statement through legal representatives proclaiming innocence and criticizing media innuendo. The Yale Daily News published an explanatory blog post, mentioning at one point “to be fair to all those involved and the process they had adhered to, and because the nature of the complaint meant that all its details remain allegations, the News chose not to print a story.” These have been followed by a second wave of stories and public reactions changing the larger narrative arc — criticizing the New York Times article as slight and one-sided and applauding the Yale Daily News for restraint.
For example, in a Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker excoriates the Times for what she describes as pitchfork journalism. In her words, “[N]o one seems to know much of anything, and no one in an official capacity is talking [about the assault allegations]. The only people advancing this devastating and sordid tale are ‘a half-dozen [anonymous] people with knowledge of all or part of the story.’ All or part? Which part? As in, ‘Heard any good gossip lately?’ . . . It’s not until the 11th paragraph that readers even learn about the half-dozen anonymous sources. Not until the 14th paragraph does the Times tell us that ‘many aspects of the situation remain unknown’ . . . Translation: We don’t know anything, but we’re smearing this guy anyway.”
Without exaggeration, this incident is ethically dizzying and deserves further inspection and debate. Questions, big questions, still abound.
Among the main ones: Did the Yale Daily News abdicate its journalistic responsibility by failing to follow up on the complaint against Witt when first learning about it last fall? Or did YDN staff act with the utmost integrity, declining to smear a public figure based on the slightest of charges and with no apparent corroborating information available?
Separately, did the New York Times publish a story that deserves to be told, placing a proper spotlight on a small lie (why the Rhodes finalist interview didn’t happen) and a larger one (any sort of cover-up by Yale while it continued to promote Witt’s golden boy reputation)? Or has the paper unethically tarred and feathered a good guy based on scant sourcing and a ton of unknown facts?
Lastly, is a massive overhaul needed in the way sexual assault complaints are reported on college campuses and within the press?
What do you think?
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