Part 4—The question which won't be asked: Is John Eligon sharp enough to be a constructive journalist? Are his editors sharp enough to create an instructive discussion?
Concerning Eligon, we can't answer your question. Since his editors work for the New York Times, we'll assume the answer to your second question may turn out to be no.
Last Thursday, Eligon wrote a 1500-word, front page report about student life at the University of Missouri. For the fourth consecutive day, the Times had Missouri on its front page.
Eligon's report dealt with an important topic, as could be seen from its front-page headline:
"Black Students See a University Riven by Race"
Inside the paper, the continuation of Eligon's report was accompanied by three large photographs. The internal headline made the subject of his report even clearer:
"Black Students at Missouri Describe University Campus Riven by Race"
Plainly, that's an important claim. Eligon's report concerned a second charge, which he described in this manner: "The university has been criticized for being slow or ineffective in addressing racial tensions."
Today, we ask you to ponder this question: Are Eligon, and his editors, sharp enough to rise to the challenge of reporting such important issues? Based on Eligon's performance that day, we wouldn't rush to say yes.
We'd mention some of the flotsam with which he wasted space in his piece, along with some basic facts he didn't include. Along the way, we'd suggest you might ask a second question:
Was Eligon shaping a bit of a novel, upon which a basic question wasn't allowed to intrude We'll flesh that out at the end of our piece, after we consider the heart of Eligon's report.
Eligon's report concerned the important claim, by Missouri's black students, that the Missouri campus is "riven by race." In one way, that claim might seem a bit odd.
For more than a year, Missouri's student body president has been Payton Head, a highly impressive black gay man who was elected in an election which reportedly set records for voter turnout.
Last year, Head was also elected Missouri's homecoming king. Meanwhile, Missouri's football team made news in 2014 for its enlightened support of defensive star Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL.
When a major collegiate football team is on the cutting edge of social change, a person might think its campus must be a model of enlightened outlook. In last Thursday's front-page piece, Eligon was reporting important claims to the contrary.
Because young people are very important, this is a very important topic. How well did Eligon do in reporting this important concern?
We don't think he did super well. It isn't that he didn't find and report complaints by black students. He started with this example from 2012:
ELIGON (11/12/15): At first, Briana Gray just chalked up the comments and questions from her new roommate at the University of Missouri to innocent ignorance: How do you style your hair? What do you put in it?Assuming the event occurred as described, it sounds like Briana Gray may have gotten stuck with a lousy roommate. At the very least, it sounds like the roommate's friend showed extremely poor judgment in the incident that is described.
But then her white roommate from rural Missouri started playing a rap song with a racial slur and singing the slur loudly, recalled Ms. Gray, a black senior from suburban Chicago. Another time, the roommate wondered whether black people had greasy skin because slaves were forced to sweat a lot.
Then one day, Ms. Gray said, she found a picture tacked to her door of what appeared to be a black woman being lynched. When her roommate said a friend had done it as a joke, Ms. Gray said she attacked the girl and her friends. The police broke up the fight and no one was arrested. But Ms. Gray said her view on race relations had been indelibly changed.
Eligon's account is sufficiently fuzzy that it's hard to take matters from there. (Which "girl" did Gray attack? Where did the plural "friends" come from?) That said, Eligon has written a story straight outta Hell about an (at least) insensitive freshman roommate.
Eligon tells a familiar story; in some ways, that's the problem. Especially in a lengthy report about alleged administrative indifference, basic questions go unasked and therefore go unanswered.
Was this incident reported to the administration? Should it have been? If it was, what was the response? And by the way, how common are incidents of this (somewhat fuzzy) type on the Missouri campus? If incidents like this are common, why are we hearing about an event which happened three years ago?
In fairness, it isn't easy to create a report about the frequency of such incidents. That said, Eligon doesn't seem to have tried very hard to get past the anecdotal.
He hasn't interviewed student leaders (including the very impressive Head) about the frequency of such incidents. If relevant statistics exist, he hasn't presented any.
Might we be cynical, just for a minute, about the intellectual laziness of the New York Times? A cynic might cynically say that Eligon has lazed his way through this front-page report—that he has offered familiar anecdotes designed to appeal to the sympathies of New York Times readers, while making no substantial effort to engage in serious journalism about the important claims at issue in his piece.
Whatever the truth may be about Missouri, that cynic might say that Eligon's piece is really a bit of a novel. In fairness to Eligon, let's note his other attempts to describe the racial problems on that allegedly "riven" campus.
Eligon starts with Gray's account of her freshman year. He doesn't ask her if she has had similar experience in the three years since that time.
Instead, he offers the account shown below of life on campus for black students. In the process, he quotes an extremely important statement about campus life from the perspective of one senior.
The statements made here are extremely important. Statements like these should be addressed through the tools of real journalism:
ELIGON (continuing directly): A handful of racially charged episodes on the Missouri campus this fall, including someone smearing a swastika on a wall with feces, have touched off protests, a hunger strike, the threat of a boycott by the football team and, on Monday, the resignation of the university system's president and the chancellor of this campus. Similar protests erupted Wednesday at other colleges across the country.Symone Lenoir is an important person. The exhaustion she describes sounds a bit like outright depression. Because Lenoir's an important person, that's an important state of affairs.
But well before that cascade of events here, many black students say that racial tensions were already woven into the fabric of everyday life at this, the state system's flagship campus.
Some black students say they are greeted with piercing stares when they walk by white-dominated fraternity and sorority houses. Others mention feeling awkward when other students turn to them in class when discussion turns to black issues. And then there are the tenser moments when white students talk disparagingly about the neighborhoods where many black students come from, whether the South Side of Chicago or the North Side of St. Louis.
''It can be exhausting when people are making assumptions about you based on your skin color,'' said Symone Lenoir, a 23-year-old black senior in interdisciplinary studies. ''It can be exhausting feeling like you're speaking for your entire race.''
So exhausting, she said, that some mornings she asks herself, ''Do I even want to go to class and sit with people?''
That state of affairs deserves serious journalism. We're not sure Eligon provides it.
At Missouri, are black students "greeted with piercing stares" when they walk past fraternity and sorority houses? According to Eligon, some black students say that's the case, but unless we're simply enjoying our novel, basic questions may arise.
Were other black students asked about that? What did those black students say?
Was Payton Head asked about this claim? What would his judgment have been?
Has anyone ever complained about this to the administration? To black student groups on campus? Why or why not?
Lenoir describes a state of exhaustion based on perceived racial experience. Because Lenoir is an important person, that's an important state of affairs.
That said, do other black students at Missouri feel exhausted or depressed? Does the number of such students exceed the expected norm? Did Eligon speak to the student counseling service? If he did, what did they say? If he didn't, why not?
A cynic might make some cynical claims about Eligon's piece. That cynic might be especially cynical if he was familiar with the intellectually lazy work routinely performed by the Times.
That cynic might say that Jayson Blair could have written Eligon's piece right from his Brooklyn apartment, so familiar are the complaints being offered to sympathetic Times readers.
In fairness, when Eligon completes the rule of three by interviewing a third black student, the complaint he records is unique. On the other hand, our cynic might say that this third complaint borders on the absurd.
Eligon speaks here of Chris Williams, a black student from Chicago:
ELIGON: Like several other black students, Mr. Williams said he decided to attend Missouri because he had received a university scholarship for minority students. He said he came to campus hoping to make friends of other races. But students, black and white, said that the campus was very segregated. In the student center, people refer to an area where mostly black students sit as ''the black hole.''For better or worse, the kind of "segregation" Williams describes has been common on college campuses for a very long time. We recall being surprised and disappointed by this type of separation in the freshman dining hall during our own first year in college, in the fall of 1965.
Racial divisions were sometimes unwittingly reinforced in conversations with white friends, Mr. Williams said. He recalled a conversation freshman year when three dormmates talked about the houseboats their families owned. Another time, he said his white friends dismissed some of the reasons he gave for the poor academic performance of his high school, including segregation and underfunding.
As a matter of theory and novelized dreams, it would be better if that "segregation" didn't occur. It might also be better if journalists didn't choose the most exciting word with which to describe that separation for sympathetic tribal readers.
That said, Williams is the third and final student Eligon profiles for his piece. For whatever reason, we've now been reduced to the complaint that three dormmates once discussed the fact that their families own houseboats!
Is that the way the Missouri campus is currently "riven by race?" Editors at a serious newspaper would be embarrassed to see their report dissolve into such an absurd example. That said, the New York Times isn't an especially serious newspaper when it comes to topics like this. It's barely a paper at all.
Is the Missouri campus "riven by race?" For ourselves, we have no idea, in part because of the lazy, formulaic way Eligon composed this lazy piece.
A cynic would ask you to consider the possibility that this piece is largely a novel. It hands you very familiar complaints without making any real attempt to evaluate the frequency of such events at a campus whose students seem, in various ways, to be strongly interested in admirable themes of diversity and inclusion.
What is it like at Missouri? Like you, we have no idea. That said, let's consider a possibility Eligon's novel tends to avoid.
In his passage about Chris Williams, Eligon discusses an experience Williams had last year, before the recent unrest. This is Eligon's account of Williams' meeting with R. Bowen Loftin, the recently-deposed chancellor:
ELIGON: Chris Williams, a black student from Chicago, said he confronted Mr. Loftin at one of the forums last year after the chancellor made what he believed was a racially insensitive comment. The chancellor later invited him to a private meeting at his office, Mr. Williams said.In that anecdote, Loftin displays his disinterest in racial matters by 1) holding a forum on race with some students, then 2) by inviting one of the students to his office for a further private discussion.
''In the meeting, he's telling me how his experiences as a white male in the South are essentially the same as my experiences in the inner city of the South Side of Chicago as a black male,'' Mr. Williams recalled. ''I remember leaving that meeting, thinking, like, there is no recourse with administration if the guy in charge doesn't get it and in his attempts to be well-meaning he's just propagating that we're the same.''
Mr. Loftin said Mr. Williams had mischaracterized the exchange. ''I did share my experiences growing up only as a means of reciprocating for his telling me his story,'' Mr. Loftin said in an email. ''I recall the conversation as one of my listening to him primarily and his offer to help me do things at Mizzou that would improve our climate.''
Loftin may be completely clueless about race. There's no way to tell from that anecdote. Obviously, though, it's one of the possibilities.
Here's what that cynic might tell you:
That cynic might suggest that you consider another possibility—the possibility that Williams, who is a college student, may be offering an imperfect assessment of a meeting he had. That Williams, an important young person, may have imperfect judgment at this point in his life.
There's no way to know what that meeting was like, that cynic would helpfully tell you. But he'd ask you to consider the possibility that you're reading an extended novel by a pseudo-journalist in which the possibility of imperfect judgment on the part of students is rarely allowed to intrude on the pleasure you derive from your reading experience.
Consider this last point:
As noted above, Briana Gray is an important person. At age 21, she's also fairly young, we're all imperfect, and these are highly fraught times.
Eligon started his report with Gray's account of behavior by her freshman roommate in 2012. We've already shown you that passage. We haven't told you this:
In the middle of his report, Eligon quotes Gray again. She describes the way her thinking has changed because of that freshman experience.
Here's the question novelists like Eligon will typically avoid:
Is it possible that Gray has reacted unwisely to that freshman experience? Is it possible the campus might seem less "riven" to her if she was getting better guidance and advice from older authority figures, including major journalists?
In the case of Gray and Missouri, we can't answer those questions. We can tell you that Eligon's report isn't a real piece of journalism. You simply can't learn what Missouri is like by reading such novelized work.
Tomorrow, we'll show you work we think is worse, penned by Professor Cobb. In our view, our important black students will all be exhausted if left to the novels of Cobb.
Tomorrow: The dean and the journalist at Yale
Also tomorrow: We don't know what life at Missouri is like. We don't know what Chancellor Loftin and President Wolfe were like concerning matters of race. That said:
In our view, Eligon omitted some basic facts from his lengthy front-page report. These basic facts have been widely omitted from mainstream reports. Whatever is true about Missouri, this is where novels come from.
Tomorrow, we'll start with those facts. Those facts belong in news reports, though they'll tend to get dropped from novels.