The Ethics of Protecting the Powerful

You know, I’m really tired of journalistsequating “ethics” with cowardice:

At the time of my email, there was no heroic choice to be made: Pat was no longer a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship. Days before, the Rhodes committee had suspended his candidacy after discovering that an anonymous woman had accused him of sexual assault. Yale officials knew about the complaint as early as September. It’s unclear if those directly responsible for endorsing Pat’s Rhodes application knew about the assault claim — or if the Yale administration decided to re-endorse Pat after being contacted by the Rhodes committee. Regardless, Pat was no longer a candidate on November 13, when he announced he would play in the Game, earning hero-worship at Yale and in the national media.


As current Science and Technology editor Eli Markham told me, the News’ editor-in-chief, Max de la Bruyere, decided to sit on the story in mid-November. “It’s more complicated than that,” he told a leader on last year’s editorial board, who asked to remain anonymous. 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. In fact, the Times story that broke last night featured reporting from last year’s editor-in-chief, Vivian Yee. She too approached the paper with a tip-off, but its editorschose not to follow the story. The paper even knew that the sexual assault claim had lost Pat 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 Pat’s reputation.

The Yale Daily News editorresponds:

Soon after Patrick Witt ’12 announced his decision to play in The Game, the News received a tip that a Yale student had filed an informal complaint alleging sexual assault against the quarterback.

The student who had filed the complaint against Witt chose to make it informal. This meant that no disciplinary measures would be taken against Witt and that the complaint would be kept confidential. All parties involved observed that route of discretion. The complainant, the alleged perpetrator and all those who heard the case honored the discreet process. In order 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.

Is it your job to be fair to the process, though? To exercise discretion? To honor the system in place?

(And what in the blue hell is an “informal” complaint of sexual assault? Maybe a larger story is the messed-up-sounding “process” being followed here, in which someone can be accused of sexual assault but not, you know, seriously or anything. Not to mention what, if any, pressure was brought to bear on the accuser to make such a complaint “informal.”)

I wouldn’t bring this up just to join the pile-on on this student editor, who’s already facing an impressive amount of recrimination by everyone, except that I think there’s something in here that really needs addressing, something I’ve heard not only in the realm of student media but so-called professional journalism as well: That “ethics” demand that you hold off on a story because it’s going to piss a lot of sensitive people off at some kind of critical time and it would be so much more “ethical” not to do that.

We heard this in the 2004 election over theillegal wiretapping story, that the Times held onto it until it wouldn’t be quite so “inflammatory.” Until it wouldn’t matter, actually, all that much in the context of being able to affect the people in power, and thus no one would yell and scream and call them traitors. Except that everybody did anyway, and so there was really no point.

There is something ethical about seeking out a response from all possible actors in a system about which you are reporting. There isnothing “ethical” about withholding information that you know to be true in order to protect the powerful. Look, I am the most conflict-averse person on the planet. I don’t go looking for stories about things that are screwed up because it’s fun when people call me an ugly whore and make weird phone calls to my house. And I’d never judge you if you don’t like doing that either. But if you’ve appointed yourself to lead discourse in your community (or on your campus) and you’d just rathernot, okay, because it’s hard Mommy, I politely suggest that you find a job just as noble and worthwhile doing almost anything else.

Because if you are saying that you want to describe the world around you, and despite every attempt to mystify and professionalize it that ‘s all journalism is, then you’d better do it right and damn the torpedoes and damn who it upsets and damn respecting the process because none of that is your job.

Now that the Times broke the story, the Yale Daily News is all over it, andevery single story raises more questions than it answers:

The Times reported that the Rhodes Trust had learned of the accusation several days before Witt announced he would play in the Game and notified Yale that he would be ineligible for the scholarship unless University administrators re-endorsed his candidacy. According to Magazu, the Trust requested an additional letter of reference from Yale for Witt, though the scholarship was never “suspended.” But when asked to specify when Witt first learned that the Trust had been informed of the complaint, Magazu, who began representing Witt on Jan. 1, said he did not know. Magazu added that Witt did not ask University administrators for an additional letter of reference because he had already decided to withdraw his candidacy.


One thought on “The Ethics of Protecting the Powerful

  1. So, apparently, on the Yale campus an administrator can have knowledge of an alleged felony and have no legal obligation to report it to law enforcement. As the father of a daughter interested in Yale, I find that good to know.

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