Part 3—The corps' standard list of events: During times which are fraught and increasingly tribal, competing tribes will often accept the task of dumbing their own members down.
Certain events will be broadcast to one tribe, often in inflammatory ways. Members of the other tribe will never hear about these events.
Consider one such event. It concerns Payton Head, 21, the impressive, energetic student body president at the University of Missouri.
Payton Head is black and gay; he grew up in Chicago. According to a news report in the September16 Washington Post, "There was record high turnout when he was elected president of the Missouri Students Association, he said, on a platform that called on 'Mizzou to embrace students who are different. I think it was because the student body recognized that change needs to happen.'"
Does change need to happen at Mizzou? In part because we live in Maryland, we have no particular way of knowing. In part, we also have no way of knowing because we read the mainstream press.
The Post ran that news report in September because of an event Head had reported. In a widely-forwarded Facebook post, he had said, in the words of the Post, that he'd been "walking with a friend to get cookies Friday night when a red pickup truck slowed and young people screamed the n-word at him."
There was no sign that anyone knew who accosted Head, or if they were students. According to the Post, "A spokesperson for the campus police said that the incident was reported to have happened near campus, not on it."
To state the obvious, people shouldn't ride around in trucks screaming racial insults at people. In our view, people ought to "pity the fools"—the people Dylan described as "poor immigrants"—who persist in such hopeless behavior.
Other people, perhaps especially the accosted, may have different feelings about behavior of this type.
The Post seemed to say that this was the second time Head had been accosted in this fashion in his three-plus years at Missouri. In his Facebook post, Head described an array of experiences he and other students have had in and around the Missouri campus.
Head, who is an impressive person, is highly ecumenical in his view of the way people deserve to be treated. In his Facebook post, he encouraged people to understand the types of experiences black and gay students may face. But he also described the experiences of people from other groups.
Payton Head is energetic, impressive. He's also a fairly young person in a time which is highly fraught.
Everyone can show imperfect judgment at times which are highly fraught. In theory and according to tradition, people who are fairly young may be more susceptible than their elders, who are traditionally presumed to be somewhat wiser.
Payton Head's Facebook post has been widely discussed and reported. When major news orgs list the events which precipitated the recent unrest on the Missouri campus, the September incident typically starts the list, as we'll note below.
Major news orgs have written, again and again, about the name-calling incident. But if you read the Washington Post or the New York Times, you haven't heard about a second, more recent incident, where Head, as everyone on the planet has done, showed imperfect judgment and a lack of perfect wisdom.
Uh-oh! The incident occurred last week, a highly fraught time at Mizzou. CNN reported the incident in an on-line report which, as a matter of course, was perhaps a bit jumbled:
YAN AND STAPLETON (11/11/15): A day after protests brought down two University of Missouri officials, reports of racially charged threats permeated social media—as well as a rumor the Ku Klux Klan had arrived on campus.Especially at highly fraught times, everyone is prone to making mistakes. In this case, the inevitable KKK sighting began to be bruited on campus. Head spread the rumor, including an apparent embellishment of his own role in the pursuit of the Klan. He apologized for spreading the rumor in a later post.
University police said they investigated and determined the reports Tuesday night were false. But the rumors had already spread far and wide.
[A police spokesperson] said officers went to where the KKK was reported to be—and found nothing. "We have found no evidence of anything related to the KKK on campus," he said.
Student Body President Payton Head had already posted about it on Facebook.
"Students please take precaution. Stay away from the windows in residence halls. The KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus," Head wrote in a post that has since been deleted. "I'm working with the MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard."
The police spokesman said the National Guard was not on campus, "nor have they been called to assist."
Head quickly apologized for spreading the rumor. "I'm sorry about the misinformation that I have shared through social media," he posted on Facebook.
"I received and shared information from multiple incorrect sources, which I deeply regret. The last thing needed is to incite more fear in the hearts of our community."
Everybody makes mistakes! In this instance, Head's bruiting of the mistaken Klan sighting has been almost wholly ignored by the mainstream press.
Elsewhere, things have been different. Within the conservative world, his error has been widely pimped by the usual suspects, who have used it as a way to claim that Head surely must have "lied" about the racial epithet itself.
Should major newspapers have reported Head's error? The answer isn't obvious. That said, the racial epithet event has been widely reported, in a way which has possibly been a bit odd on a journalistic basis.
Here's the start of why we say that:
The Missouri events hit the New York Times on Monday morning, November 9. On that day and on November 10, the Times published front-page reports about the "racial tensions" at Missouri.
On November 9, Marc Tracy began his report with this synopsis, which is basically accurate, perhaps completely so. Four other reporters contributed to the front-page report:
TRACY (11/9/15): Students at the University of Missouri have been demonstrating for weeks for the ouster of the university president, protesting the school's handling of racial tensions. But their movement received a boost over the weekend when dozens of black football players issued a blunt ultimatum: Resign or they won't play.As it turned out, Tracy only described three in the "series of on-campus incidents" to which he referred. According to Tracy's report, these events had spawned demands that Wolfe resign. They'd even spawned "a decision by a black graduate student, Jonathan Butler, to go on a hunger strike over what he said in a letter to the Board of Curators were 'a slew of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., incidents that have dynamically disrupted the learning experience' of minority groups at Missouri."
Fueling the anger were a series of on-campus incidents: racial slurs hurled at black students and feces smeared into the shape of a swastika on a wall in a residence hall. What many students viewed as a sluggish response from the administration gave rise to calls for the removal of the president, Timothy M. Wolfe.
The Legion of Black Collegians, which administers campus groups that primarily serve black students, posted a photograph to Twitter on Saturday night of more than 30 football players linked in arms with a graduate student who is staging a hunger strike.
What were the slew of events in question? Near the end of his lengthy report, Tracy offered this account:
TRACY (11/9/15): Frustrations have mounted since September when Payton Head, the president of the Missouri Students Association, who is black, said a man had called him a racial slur as he walked on campus. Students protested for a week before Mr. Loftin, the chancellor, responded to the incident.As far as we know, everything Tracy wrote was accurate, except for the possibility that the racial slur was yelled at Head near the campus, not on it. That said, we'll have to make an admission:
In October, members of the Legion of Black Collegians reported that someone had yelled a racial slur as they rehearsed for a play in a campus plaza. Later that month, someone used feces to draw a swastika in a bathroom in a new dormitory. At the homecoming parade last month, students formed a human chain to block Mr. Wolfe's car in an attempt to speak with him after officials did not respond to earlier requests to talk to him, the students said. Mr. Wolfe, who did not get out of the car, later apologized.
This list of events quickly became the press corps' standard list of precipitating events. That said, the list left us somewhat puzzled.
Obviously, people shouldn't yell racial slurs at people, whether on or near a college campus. This goes for the racial slur yelled at Head and for the racial slur directed at the Legion of Black Collegians.
The sickness of the swastika incident would seem to speak for itself. That said:
According to Tracy, students, including the football team, were calling for the resignation of the college president in connection with these events. The football team was refusing to play its upcoming game. A graduate student was even conducting a hunger strike.
People shouldn't direct racial slurs at people. That said, Tracy never quite explained what students thought the university president should be doing about these events, or why they thought his failure to act reached this level of concern.
By the way, did any students commit any of the offenses in question? That question went unexplained in Tracy's front-page report. You'll find an answer in this October 5 report by the student newspaper, which seems to say that the student who insulted the Black Collegians had already been identified and removed from campus.
Let's be fair! You can't necessarily expect a journalist to answer every question about a set of events in his first report on the subject. In the next day's front-page report, the Times provided more information about the nature of the complaints about Wolfe.
That said, a basic question has been lurking in all the reporting about the recent racial events at Missouri and Yale: Is it possible that students are over-reacting in some way to the events in question?
To state the obvious, there is no final, objective way to answer a question like that. In the end, different people will reach different judgments concerning any such question.
That said, at highly fraught times, we humans will be inclined to split into tribal groups. One tribe will hear about false reports of KKK sightings and about students being removed from campus. The other tribe will not.
The tribe which hears about the false sighting will be encouraged to think the worst about the people who reported the sighting. The tribe which doesn't hear about such events will be free to assume the best about the overall judgment of those with whom they're inclined to sympathize and agree.
Neither tribe is well served by this division of information. Increasingly, it's the way our tribalized systems work.
Why are students upset at Missouri and Yale? In our view, our big newspapers have done a rather shaky job reporting the nature of their complaints. On a journalistic basis, we think the commentary which has been published has been substantially worse.
Why are students so upset? What kind of advice are these students receiving from adults at their universities?
Most importantly from our perspective, what kind of journalism has been offered about these important events? We think the reporting has been rather weak, the commentary much worse.
Tomorrow: The New York Times goes to Mizzou