Yale University Patrick Witt Scandal: 10 Questions About the Yale Daily News & New York Times Decisions

The Yale University-Patrick Witt scandal debate is an absolute inferno at the moment in the lands of college and media.  It has the public in an online commenting tizzy.  It has pitted current and former members of The Yale Daily News against one another in a very public, cringe-worthy way.  And it has sharply divided journalists at the country’s top two professional newspapers.

The 90-second recap: Patrick Witt, the quarterback of the Yale University football team, had been hailed as a hero this past fall for an all-around awesome pedigree that included stellar athletics and top-notch academic work.  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 this week, The New York Times reported this Disney-ish story arc may have been a farce.  He had allegedly already been removed from Rhodes consideration due to a sexual assault complaint made against him, something the school may have hid even as it continued publicizing his heroic image.  From the beginning, Yale Daily News editors also knew about the sexual assault situation and decided to not report it.

In an email posted on Romenesko, former Yale Daily News opinion editor Alex Klein took the paper’s leadership to task for sitting on the allegations.  He called the story hold disappointing and “complicit in Yale’s culture of secrecy surrounding sexual assault.”  Subsequent criticisms began pouring in from the public and within the media community.  For example, among the tags labeling a related blog post on IvyGate is two words: “Terrible Journalism.

Then, Witt released a statement 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:

“[I]n fact, no one seems to know much of anything, and no one in an official capacity is talking.  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?’ . . . The Times apparently didn’t know [various important] facts, but shouldn’t it have known them before publishing the story?  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.  The 10 currently fighting for attention in my headspace:

1) Did the Yale Daily News abdicate its journalistic responsibility by failing to follow up on the charge when first learning about it last fall?

2) Did the paper in any way kowtow to the school or the student body’s love of its star quarterback in its decision to refrain from publishing a story?

3) 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?

4) Is Klein, the former YDN opinion editor, a hero for calling out what he sees as an ethical lapse of enormous proportions, even when it involves members of an organization he had dedicated himself to serving?

5) Or is his email to Romenesko the epitome of unprofessional, a rush to judgment, and an airing of grievances that are not backed up by facts or a suitably stringent effort to first speak privately with his former YDN colleagues?

6) Should all of us have trusted Klein as blindly as we did when reporting on his accusations, considering he is not a current staffer; admits only learning of the paper’s decision hours before he wrote the accusatory email; and does not know many of the details that led to the paper’s decision, including the editors’ motivation?

7) Is this incident simply further proof of a news culture that spotlights those who speak first and loudest versus those who may be most helpful and in the know?

8) 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 interview was turned down) and a larger one (any sort of cover-up by the school to continue burnishing Witt’s heroic image)?

9) Or has the paper unethically tarred and feathered a guy based on scant sourcing and a ton of unknown facts?

10) Is a massive overhaul needed in the way sexual assault complaints are reported, on college campuses and within the press?

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