Chronicle of Higher Ed editor says writer was fired because she failed to do research for blog post

The editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education says she fired contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley for her blog post about Black Studies scholarship due to the writer’s failure to back up her assertions with “even the most cursory research.”

Liz McMillen initially defended Riley when her controversial post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” was first published on Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog.

But on Monday she announced Riley had been fired, and apologized to readers. I asked McMillen what changed her mind. Was it, for example, the petition that garnered over 6,000 signatures and/or the many critical reactions on Twitter and elsewhere?

“Naomi did not appear to understand the need for doing even the most cursory research for writing an opinion piece, as she explained in her response to critics,” McMillen said by email.

She said the final straw was Riley’s “insistence that she didn’t have to do anything to support her claim, other than look at the titles.”

Riley’s post was a reaction to a recent Chronicle story that profiled promising scholars in Black Studies programs.

“What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” Riley wrote of their dissertation topics. “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”

Riley later responded to her critics, many of whom had objected to the fact that she criticized Black Studies as a whole based on her having read a few dissertation titles and topics and not any of the actual papers. She admitted to not reading the dissertations for her blog post, and defended that fact.

“It would never have occurred to me to read the dissertations,” she told me. “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.”

McMillen told me she now objects to Riley’s approach, even though she initially defended the blog post.

“She was dismissing an entire discipline based on the titles and short summaries of three dissertations,” McMillen said. “The length and format of a piece do not negate the responsibility of the writer to offer informed opinion. Criticism of any discipline, including black studies, is legitimate, as long as it’s not sloppy, overgeneralized, and badly argued.”

She continued:

She did not have to read dissertations before writing this blog post — in fact she couldn’t, since they are still in progress. But she could have done other things. As I said, we are open to publishing critiques of black studies that have more evidence to them than citing dissertation titles.

Riley said posts for the Chronicle blog in question are published first and later read by editors. Her editor read the controversial post and told her it was fine, she said.

“He said they looked at [the] post when it first when up and it included no ad hominem attacks and nothing libelous in it — I think that was the word he used — and so they decided to leave it up,” she said.

But the publication eventually changed its mind. I asked McMillen if this incident would lead the Chronicle to change the way it would handle posts on the Brainstorm blog.

“Yes,” she said “We are reviewing our policies for all blogs, talking to editors about best practices, and strengthening our blogging guidelines.”

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  • CraigSilverman

    Both of my posts on this story included prominent links to Riley’s first and second posts. (My initially story also quoted from her second post. ) 

    The above follow up story also has a paragraph dedicated to the second post from Riley, with a link and explanation that she defended her decision to not read the dissertations:”Riley later responded to her critics, many of whom had objected to the fact that she criticized Black Studies as a whole based on her having read a few dissertation titles and topics and not any of the actual papers. She admitted to not reading the dissertations for her blog post, and defended that fact.”

    That graph is followed by a couple of sections wherein McMillan explains her decision to fire Riley. My reading of her comments is that it’s not just because of the second post, but I agree it played a major role. Cheers.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, there were two posts by Riley, not one. The Chronicle’s reaction was to the second post, not the first, in which Riley defiantly refused the concept that she had to do even a modicum of research on what she was dismissing (an entire field of study) before dismissing it. Silverman’s report is sloppy on that point and leads one to believe that the CHE reversed itself on a single post. Riley posted something that a lot of people hated, but then her refusal to engage in anything that could be called reasoned argument in the second post marked her as unfit for a position as blogger for CHE. A number of people have written about this persuasively, including Ta-Neishi Coates at Even Andrew Sullivan has walked back from his earlier outrage. I suggest you look at those posts before jumping to conclusions.

  • Riya V Anandwala

    I’m surprised how the editor is getting away with this incredibly ridiculous mistake. This post was not entirely the writer’s fault. One of the editors at Chronicle did see the post before it went up, so why is the writer being fired? The final call is the editor’s. Didn’t the editors know the blog post is poorly researched after reading it? I want to question the editor’s skills as a responsible newsperson along with the writer’s. This is also a slap on the face for many journalists who think a blog can be casual and is the “new form” of journalism. Anything that is published under the name of a news brand can never be casual.