Writer fired by Chronicle of Higher Ed: ‘The vitriolic reaction is kind of surprising’

The editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education has apologized and severed the publication’s relationship with the writer of a blog post about Black Studies that “did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.”

The post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” was written by former Wall Street Journal journalist and author Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Riley was responding to a recent Chronicle story profiling “A New Generation of Black-Studies PhD.’s,” which highlighted a group of scholars in the discipline.

Riley lit into some of the dissertations being produced, and questioned the academic focus of scholars mentioned in the piece.

Here’s the final paragraph of her post:

Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.

The post did not go over well.

A petition — now with nearly 6,500 signatures — called for Riley’s dismissal, and the article attracted a lot of negative attention on Twitter (view this Storify for a sample).

In a phone interview, I asked Riley if she expected her post to provoke such outrage.

“This will sound so naive, but I didn’t,” she said. “I’ve been writing about higher education for a long time … but I had no sense this was going to cause this much of a backlash, let alone my firing.”

As criticism mounted last week, The Chronicle’s initial reaction was to publish the response to Riley’s post along with a note urging readers “to view this posting as an opportunity — to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.”

One of the main criticisms of Riley’s piece was that it didn’t include any analysis of the content of the dissertations she ripped apart.

A story in The Root said the headline of Riley’s blog post “should actually be ‘Just Read the Titles of the Dissertations,’ because that’s all Riley did. Yes, she argued for the elimination of an entire discipline because the titles didn’t resonate with her worldview (one that includes things like ‘left-wing victimization claptrap,’ a phrase that sounds like it came from the Glenn Beck Dictionary).”

Riley also published a follow-up post responding to her critics.

She told me it wasn’t necessary for her to read the dissertations in order to write her post.

“It would never have occurred to me to read the dissertations,” she said. “The Chronicle published a front page piece about these exciting new scholars in Black studies and … I wrote my post based on the lengthy descriptions of their topics and their responses to questions that the reporter asked. I do do reporting regularly, but my role as a blogger was not to go do reporting myself.”

The publication stood behind her work until yesterday, when Chronicle editor Liz McMillen announced Riley had been dismissed as a contributor to the blog in question. (I emailed and left a phone message for McMillen, but have not heard back. I’ll update with any comments from her.)

“We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles,” she wrote. “As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.”

Riley said she wasn’t offered a specific reason as to why she was fired, or a description of how her post did not meet the publications’ standards.

“It’s a new standard for a 500-word blog post if you have to read the dissertations in order to comment on their topics,” she said. “That seems to me a little absurd.”

Riley also said that “the immaturity and childishness of the reaction [by commenters on the website] is all the more surprising” given The Chronicle’s well-educated readership.

“This to me was kind of a not particularly big news flash of a blog post so I think the vitriolic reaction is kind of surprising,” she said.

McMillen’s editor’s note announcing the firing also made mention of the way the publication reacted to critics on Twitter, noting that “our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.”

She also expanded a bit on reader reaction to Riley’s piece:

One theme many of you have sounded is that you felt betrayed by what we published; that you welcome healthy informed debate, but that in this case, we did not live up to the expectations of the community of readers we serve.

You told us we can do better, and we agree.

I hope to add more from McMillen. Meanwhile, The Chronicle needs to update the offending post so it includes links to the related content, most critically, to the editor’s note declaring the post does not meet “basic editorial standards.”

That’s the kind of thing you need to highlight for readers.

Update: In an interview about why Riley was fired, McMillen told me the original post was updated Tuesday with a link to the editor’s note.

Related: Jay Rosen’s four steps the Chronicle (and others) can take to handle situations like this

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  • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

    I’d say it’s beyond the height of arrogance. The Chronicle of Higher Education is supposed to represent the Academy’s ethos. Her post showed a complete lack of scholarship or deep thinking. It’s exactly the kind of writing and work that the Chronicle doesn’t support.

    It was lazy and stupid. 

    Regardless of what the topic is, the Chronicle cannot have writers that put that let thought into what they are writing about.

  • http://twitter.com/studentactivism Angus Johnston

    For me, the problem isn’t that she didn’t read the dissertations. It’s that she didn’t read ANY PORTION of the dissertations. She didn’t read sample chapters, or passages. She didn’t read the abstracts. She didn’t read the proposals. She didn’t talk to the authors. 

    And it showed. It showed in her dismissal of not just the dissertations, but the subjects of the dissertations. In her claim that no academic research project on (for instance) the subject of black midwifery could possibly have scholarly value. 

  • http://twitter.com/retius Tad Suiter

    How she wrote it is the problem, for a lot of people. The race issue just ensured– and I can guarantee you she knew it would– that a lot of people would read it critically. (Critically does not mean negatively, mind you– it means engaging your ability to evaluate information in a systematic, rational manner, keeping in mind issues of sources, argument, and outcomes.)

    She did not demonstrate enough familiarity with the wide bodies of literature across the disciplines in housing policy, childbirth, or even the history of conservatism post-Reagan to evaluate these students’ contributions to the field, nor did she look at even a small slice of their writing or research. THAT was the key problem, here. 

    (And re: your comments, I would point out that scholars in Black Studies programs are interdisciplinary, and a good deal of the work in that inter-discipline ends up being relevant and used by scholars in multiple disciplines. The analysis of race and 1970s housing policy, for instance, if done well, would be quite relevant for historians, sociologists, people in public policy and political science programs– or are all those disciplines invalid as well?)

    Look, I’ll concede that there was a kneejerk reaction. But it actually simpler than you’re making it out to be. It’s not a vast PC conspiracy against free thought. It’s the kneejerk reaction that comes from years of writing articles and books, and from training students how to read and write critically. You expect a writer worth their salt to do three things:

    1) Research
    2) Think deeply about the topic
    3) Write about it, and then edit. Repeatedly.

    Schaeffer’s response article dismissed number 1 as irrelevant. Her writing on both pieces suggested she had failed to do number 2– no big surprise, as it’s basically impossible to do without step 1. And her dismissive, snarky tone suggested to many that after she wrote, she wasn’t editing much.

    She never cited a single other author’s work to support her assertions until the WSJ article after she was fired.

    I wouldn’t accept this behavior in myself, I would not accept it from a colleague, and a student in my class wouldn’t get a passing grade on it. Not because what she TRIED to argue, but because she failed to argue well. The way she wrote the article betrayed her ideas, whatever their merit.

    Arguing that a paper dedicated to higher education shouldn’t have an author who doesn’t do these things under their masthead isn’t censorship– it’s brand management. Her dismissal was not an attack on intelectual freedom– it was capitalism and the marketplace of ideas at work.

  • Anonymous

    Frankly I am not sure what she was qualified or
    unqualified to write about. As far as I could tell the wheels of academic
    discourse and debate ground to a halt when everyone screamed racist and nobody
    debated her OpEd based on what she wrote. Seems like everyone decided to dismiss
    it and concentrate on how she wrote it. You even just wrote “The
    “question” of whether Black Studies departments deserve to exist or
    not aside” which indicates you still are not focusing on the point raised
    by her writing but on her method of delivery.

    Academics have an obligation to stand up for this person
    who was abandoned due to mob tactics based on unfounded perceptions or racial
    bias. For gosh sakes the lady is married to a black man. She calls into
    question the legitimacy of an evolving and troubling expansion of made to order
    PhD programs that are very narrowly defined and whose students graduate having contributed
    little to nothing to a field that is arguably little to nothing. After which
    there can be no debate because they already know the answers and if you don’t
    agree you are racist.

  • http://twitter.com/retius Tad Suiter

    NSR has every right to her (by her own admission uninformed) opinions. 

    NSR has no guaranteed right to a particular venue. The idea that a publication like the Chronicle– which really only has a market among educators and educational institutions– would not want to associate their brand with someone whose defense of an article was that she couldn’t be bothered to do research is not surprising. It’s the free market acting logically within the marketplace of ideas.Similarly, if I wrote an Opinion piece in a blog for a fishing magazine that demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of, you know, how fishing works– and then I doubled down by saying that I didn’t have time to learn to fish– you can bet I’d be out of there quickly.

    It’s not a free speech issue. Reilly can self-publish, publish elsewhere, shout her opinions in the town square. But a news outlet has no obligation to continue to publish someone who tarnishes their reputation. (And no, what tarnished it wasn’t making an “unpopular stand” on something related to race. It was making a very strong stand on something she knew almost nothing about.)

  • http://twitter.com/retius Tad Suiter

    NSR has every right to her (by her own admission uninformed) opinions. 

    NSR has no guaranteed right to a particular venue. The idea that a publication like the Chronicle– which really only has a market among educators and educational institutions– would not want to associate their brand with someone whose defense of an article was that she couldn’t be bothered to do research is not surprising. It’s the free market acting logically within the marketplace of ideas.Similarly, if I wrote an Opinion piece in a blog for a fishing magazine that demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of, you know, how fishing works– and then I doubled down by saying that I didn’t have time to learn to fish– you can bet I’d be out of there quickly.

    It’s not a free speech issue. Reilly can self-publish, publish elsewhere, shout her opinions in the town square. But a news outlet has no obligation to continue to publish someone who tarnishes their reputation. (And no, what tarnished it wasn’t making an “unpopular stand” on something related to race. It was making a very strong stand on something she knew almost nothing about.)

  • http://twitter.com/retius Tad Suiter

    She didn’t read the abstracts. She was going on a few sentences’ description. Moreover, in her (somewhat overblown and dismissive) reactions, she demonstrated an ignorance of entire fields of scholarship. The “question” of whether Black Studies departments deserve to exist or not aside, writing with (feigned or authentic) surprise at the notion that there’s a body of scholarly literature on natural childbirth, for example, is just ridiculous. 

    You needn’t read the entire dissertation to engage with it– and most scholars don’t read every book from cover to cover– but you should be basically conversant with the general body of literature and have SOME idea of the particulars of an academic’s argument before you attack them. Because if you don’t, you only end up putting a spotlight on your own gaps in knowledge. Which is what NSR did– she did so little reading or research on a topic she was writing about that she proved she was unqualified to write about it. 

    This fails fundamental tests of academic and journalistic standards.

  • http://twitter.com/retius Tad Suiter

    She didn’t read the abstracts. She was going on a few sentences’ description. Moreover, in her (somewhat overblown and dismissive) reactions, she demonstrated an ignorance of entire fields of scholarship. The “question” of whether Black Studies departments deserve to exist or not aside, writing with (feigned or authentic) surprise at the notion that there’s a body of scholarly literature on natural childbirth, for example, is just ridiculous. 

    You needn’t read the entire dissertation to engage with it– and most scholars don’t read every book from cover to cover– but you should be basically conversant with the general body of literature and have SOME idea of the particulars of an academic’s argument before you attack them. Because if you don’t, you only end up putting a spotlight on your own gaps in knowledge. Which is what NSR did– she did so little reading or research on a topic she was writing about that she proved she was unqualified to write about it. 

    This fails fundamental tests of academic and journalistic standards.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting comments. Since the blog post dealt with topics of study it makes perfect sense to me that that she surmised the content of the dissertations from the topics (titles/abstracts). I am very often selective of the presentations and articles I read base on the titles first and abstracts second. Does everyone here read an entire research publication to discriminate its content or more likely read the title as a first indication of the content. Did anyone here read her blog post? I to think that awarding a PhD based on mundane topics geared toward uni-cultural discourse is a waste of effort.

  • Anonymous

    You really believe in equal time for unpopular views? Where are the (uncloseted) gay voices, the atheist voices, the black voices on Fox News, then? Are you in favor of that? You want equal time for conservatives in every medium–why? Just because? What’s the principle you’re arguing for?

  • Anonymous

    I wonder: Does Riley think her vitriol should not be surprising, or does she think it isn’t vitriol?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TBADC24DZSQITEA3DGHIGICNBU jon daly

    this is sad. she wrote an OPINION piece that challenged liberal orthodoxy and — surprise – got canned as a result. She is entitled to her OPINIONS and if you don’t like her OPINIONS, you can write an OPINION piece yourself.
    or you could just launch a boycott of Riley, which seems to be the standard reaction nowadays to conservatives who dare express themselves. (See Glenn Beck, Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly.)
    Free speech for everyone! except republicans, conservatives, business people, soldiers, evangelicals…you know, the wrong crowd.

  • http://lincolnparishnewsonline.wordpress.com/ Walter Abbott

    The Witch Burning in context…

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/rileys-arrow/32467?sid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en

    Riley’s Arrow
    By Peter Wood

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    IMust one read all 2700 pages of Obamacare to have an opinion about it?  

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    IMust one read all 2700 pages of Obamacare to have an opinion about it?  

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    Must one read all 2700 pages of Obamacare to have an opinion about it?  

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    Typical liberal double standards. Had Riley used the same method of just reading the dissertation titles but had concluded that black studies programs are great, then there would be no controversy.

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    Should a journalist who writes on Obamacare be required to read all 2700 pages of it?

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    Romney care is not the law of the land. Thinking is only hard for you.

  • Anonymous

    Only for liberals. Don’t let the facts get in your way. Just sayin.

  • Anonymous

    If we are waiting for scholars and people employed by the public education system to fix the very serious problems in the black community, I for one won’t be holding my breath,,,,,,,

  • Anonymous

    WHOA

    Engage brain first. How does one obtain a copy to read? Did that policy change in 2008? Are summaries posted?

    Fact: If everyone got a Jackson for every goofy A&L dissertation (see the MLA site) — there’d be no poverty.

    I might have toned it down a bit, and take out the names. Then again, the old saying — “politics in academia are so small because the stakes are so small” — is controlling here.

  • Jay Rosen

    It’s worse than that, Ted. It was a 500 word blog post dismissing and ridiculing an entire field based on three unread dissertations in that field. And then it was shock that anyone would have a question about that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6721 Ted Gideonse

    I wouldn’t read three dissertations for a 500 word blog post. Which is why I’d never write a blog post about the quality of three dissertations. But if you decided to do something like write a blog post about the quality of three dissertations, you have to read them.

    Even more importantly, if you decide to have an opinion about three dissertations — in a blog post, a journal article, a dinner table conversation, or even a tweet — you have to read them to have any justification for that that opinion. That Riley doesn’t think she has to know anything about a topic to comment on it is the height of arrogance.

  • Anonymous

    NSR seems incredibly ignorant and I’m curious as to why anyone would hire someone so hopelessly incompetent. Everyone knows what the first embers of a flamewar looks like. She claims to have 15 years of journalistic experience. Where? The Pennysaver?

  • Anonymous

    You mean Romney care. That’s the model for “Obamacare”. Thinking is hard, huh?

  • Anonymous

    Opinion is typically not fact based. Anyone who attempts to cover the subject she tried to cover in the allotted words without reading her subject material shows the blogger had a definite inability or motivation to do a good job. Rather, she settled on a bigoted position. She got what she deserved. And then to state that one doesn’t need to read the dissertation to comment on it’s topic? Well, no, not if you aren’t concerned about being factual. That pretty much summed it up for me, and I for one now know that the name Naomi Schaefer Riley is synonymous with poor attitude, lack of judgment, and poor writing skills.

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    I’m curious how many op-eds written in favor of Obamacare were written by journalists who had read all 2700 pages of the law.

  • Anonymous

    Being white makes your uninformed, unsupported opinions magically count for more than decades of scholarship by blacks. Claiming otherwise is victimizing the white person. Didn’t you know that?

  • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

    She’s right that reading dissertations is absurd for a 500-wrod blog post. But s is calling for the abolition of an academic area of study in a 500-word blog post.

  • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

    She’s right that reading dissertations is absurd for a 500-wrod blog post. But s is calling for the abolition of an academic area of study in a 500-word blog post.

  • http://profiles.google.com/clockworkringmaster Louisa Smith

    Where does it come from, this idea that blogging is not real journalism? This is 2012. The online world IS the real world now. An opinion piece published in a newspaper or magazine and one published online are the same thing, and need to be held to the same standards. If you can’t imagine writing an opinion piece on a particular subject for dead tree publishing, then you shouldn’t be putting it up as a blog post. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668687596 Craig Burley

    Interesting that Riley talks about the immaturity and childishness of the reaction by commenters, without looking critically at her own post, which was a proud and flag-waving declaration of her own ignorance and poor reading ability. She should have been savaged and she was.

  • http://twitter.com/historianess Rebecca Goetz

    “She told me it wasn’t necessary for her to read the dissertations in order to write her post.

    “It would never have occurred to me to read the dissertations,” she
    said. “The Chronicle published a front page piece about these exciting
    new scholars in Black studies and … I wrote my post based on the lengthy
    descriptions of their topics and their responses to questions that the
    reporter asked. I do do reporting regularly, but my role as a blogger
    was not to go do reporting myself.”

    And this: “It’s a new standard for a 500-word blog post if you have to read the
    dissertations in order to comment on their topics,” she said. “That
    seems to me a little absurd.”

    How could anyone write something as vitriolic and ridiculous as this woman did WITHOUT reading the relevant dissertations? It is the standard in both journalism and academia not to write an attack piece without reading the work one is attacking. For this alone the Chronicle was correct to fire her.