The New York Times adores race: The New York Times loves race.
That was our reaction yesterday morning when we turned to the paper’s hard-copy National section. Underneath a large color photo, this report topped the section’s first page:
PEREZ-PENA AND GABRIEL (3/5/13): Racist Incidents Stun Campus and Halt Classes at OberlinShould this report have been given such prominence? As the report continued, it became clear that the possible sighting of “a person dressed in a white robe and hood” seemed to be rather shaky. Today, in a much less prominent follow-up report, the Times suggests that Oberlin police may have concluded that this sighting was made in error.
Oberlin College, known as much for ardent liberalism as for academic excellence, canceled classes on Monday and convened a “day of solidarity” after the latest in a monthlong string of what it called hate-related incidents and vandalism.
At an emotional gathering in the packed 1,200-seat campus chapel, the college president, Marvin Krislov, apologized on behalf of the college to students who felt threatened by the incidents and said classes were canceled for “a different type of educational exercise,” one intended to hold “an honest discussion, even a difficult discussion.”
In the last month, racist, anti-Semitic and antigay messages have been left around campus, a jarring incongruity in a place with the liberal political leanings and traditions of Oberlin, a school of 2,800 students in Ohio, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Guides to colleges routinely list it as among the most progressive, activist and gay-friendly schools in the country.
The incidents included slurs written on Black History Month posters, drawings of swastikas and the message “Whites Only” scrawled above a water fountain. After midnight on Sunday, someone reported seeing a person dressed in a white robe and hood near the Afrikan Heritage House. Mr. Krislov and three deans announced the sighting in a community-wide e-mail early Monday morning.
Should this report have been given such prominence? The New York Times loves stories like this; over the years, such stories have almost seemed to define one part of the paper’s culture. That said, the problems which can arise from such love seem to appear at the very end of today’s follow-up report.
This is the way today’s report ends. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, we think this passage constitutes extremely strange reporting:
GABRIEL (3/6/13): Lieutenant McCloskey [of the Oberlin police] said the college had identified two students behind the fliers and had suspended them. He said the episodes had been reported to the Oberlin prosecutor’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [University spokesman Scott] Wargo declined to confirm the suspensions or the involvement of federal law enforcement.Say what? The college has “identified two students behind the fliers and has suspended them?” When did these suspensions occur? Why weren’t these suspensions reported yesterday? Did these suspensions occur in the past 24 hours? Why is this tossed away like a minor point in today’s final paragraph?
Why did these students engage in this conduct? The Times doesn’t ask, doesn’t say.
Incredibly, Gabriel treats this like a minor piece of throw-away news. To us, it seems like a very major part of a very poorly-reported story.
Before printing yesterday’s large report, had the Times even spoken to Oberlin police? From reading yesterday’s report, we can’t tell. That said, this passage from yesterday’s report was hard to decipher. Can anyone here play this game?
PEREZ-PENA AND GARBRIEL (3/5/13): “From what we have seen we believe these actions are the work of a very small number of cowardly people,” Mr. Krislov told students, declining to give further details because the campus security department and the Oberlin city police are investigating.“The suspect or suspects?” What suspect or suspects? Did that passage mean that the police or the college had actually identified some suspects? You simply couldn’t tell from yesterday’s inept reporting.
A college spokesman, Scott Wargo, said investigators had not determined whether the suspect or suspects were students or from off-campus.
In yesterday’s report, the Times got busy airing the feelings of half the people on Oberlin’s campus. But it failed to present these basic facts in a coherent way.
We’re going to state an unfortunate fact. The Times loves stories of this type; we don’t think well of them for it. Yesterday, it seemed to us that the Times might be getting out over its skies on this matter. The newspaper published a prominent report, but it didn’t try very hard to define the extent of the incidents in question. Today, it treats the apparent suspension of two students in a very strange, throw-away manner.
Why didn’t the suspension of those students lead today’s follow-up report? Why wasn’t it even mentioned in yesterday’s lazy effort?
Race is the most important element in the whole American fabric. In our view, the reporting here has been extremely careless and very strange. But the New York Times has long adored feel-bad race stories of this type.
The Times is lazy in many ways. This is the Times at its laziest. Everyone gets to be very upset.
The facts get handled quite strangely.
Update last night from the AP: Oof. Last night, the AP reported this:
SHEERAN (3/5/13): Two students are being investigated for possible involvement in the graffiti and are facing discipline by the college, but no criminal charges have been filed, said Oberlin city Police Chief Thomas Miller. It wasn't clear, he said, whether the culprits were pranksters or genuinely motivated by bigotry.Yesterday morning, we wondered about the possibility that "pranksters" might have conducted a hoax. We marveled at the fact that the New York Times didn't seem to have wondered about this.
We still don't know what happened, of course. But the Times' reporting of this matter has been a (familiar) joke.