Straight Up … Or On The Rocks?

May 10, 2012 | Blog

In his Education Week blog “Straight Up”, Rick Hess comes to the defense of fellow traveler Naomi Schaefer Riley following her dismissal as a Chronicle of Higher Education blogger. The boom was lowered as a result of NSR’s hatchet job, published on the Chronicle‘s “Brainstorm” blog, of three up-and-coming black-studies scholars. She paints their unpublished dissertations broadly as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”

Hess’s mounting of the barricades is no surprise as the Right is framing this as a crucifixion driven by political correctness. Ms. Riley’s husband, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, is quoted by Hess as saying of his wife’s sacking, “The mob rules.” Well, there’s an independent source. (Also see Mona Charen and Checker Finn for similar takes.)

Sara, my wife, a former Chronicle blogger herself, called for NSR’s firing on this very blog. She described NSR’s piece as “emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color.” Indeed. As a non-higher education expert and non-journalist, but amateur blogger, I perceived NSR’s blog post as a screed better suited for a stream-of-consciousness, verbal diatribe on right-wing talk radio or the Sean Hannity show than the virtual pages of The Chronicle.

Hess’s defense of NSR is wobbly, or “on the rocks,” if you will. First, Hess equates NSR’s attacks on junior academics with political protests against an elected official — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Second, Hess conflates NSR’s blog post with scholarly work protected by academic freedom. There is a critical difference between rhetorical flourishes directed at public figures and similar ones directed at private citizens. Such instances are, in fact, treated differently in libel case law, with public figures having a greater burden of proof. “Scholarly concerns for academic freedom” are not incompatible, as Hess suggests, with an opinion that a scathing, personal critique such as NSR’s doesn’t belong on the pages of a respected media-sponsored blog. Agreeing or disagreeing with her isn’t relevant. As the Chronicle editors noted, her post simply did not conform to “journalistic standards and civil tone.” Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the right or privilege to publish a blog or column on a given web site or publication are each very different things.

Conservative blogger and UW-Madison law school professor Ann Althouse offers a refreshingly nuanced take on the NSR affair. She points out that NSR “mocked individual graduate students…. [C]ombining that blogging style with an attack on named, individual students, where you are speaking from a high platform in the established media… that’s the problem, and I don’t see Riley stepping up and acknowledging it.”

That’s right. This dust-up isn’t much about ideas at all, or freedom of speech, as some have contended. The dispute is fundamentally about journalistic standards in the realm of social media and about the specific personal attacks lobbed by NSR through the Brainstorm blog. The Chronicle and other media outlets should have a higher standard for such blogs — and if commentators like NSR can’t or refuse to meet that standard, they should be replaced by someone that can. If political or philosophic balance is of concern, there are plenty of conservative scholars and thinkers, Hess included, that even on a bad day could more than fill the vacancy created by NSR.

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