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

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon