Post #5: Circling the Wagons

A few days after the Gibson family   filed their lawsuit against the College , The Oberlin Review  responded with an  editorial that read –in part –as follows :

“News of the lawsuit — which is meant to bully and intimidate College students, faculty, and staff — was relayed to the College community almost exactly one year after students initiated a protest against Gibson’s Bakery following a violent altercation at the store involving College students….In reading the legal documents filed by the Gibson family, it is clear that their intention is to provoke an explosive, emotional response from students. Many of the claims they make are …meant to be generally incendiary rather than substantive. The documents also have racist undertones that further expose the core reasons for the lawsuit. The Gibsons have no interest in finding any resolution to this conflict — instead, they seek to assert their prideful moral superiority over the College…”

To which I could respond “How can the editors claim to know ‘the intentions’ of the Gibson family ?” “And how can they state with such  confidence that the bakery made no effort to reach an out-of-court settlement —given that such negotiations would have been conducted entirely in private? But,  for the purposes of today’s blog post, I want to focus on the vituperative “tone” of the essay rather than merely enumerating its many factual errors and lapses of logic.  The editorial team’s attack on the bakery was so  venomous that it began to sound suspiciously personal, as if one or more of the writers had some skin in the game, perhaps a grudge to settle. 

In any event, the moment I finished reading the Review’s harangue, my eyes drifted up  the page to the newspaper’s masthead which lists the names of the individual members of the Editorial Board. I recognized  two of them — the co-editors of the Opinion section–because they had jointly edited an essay of mine about the Gibson controversy which The Review had  published earlier in the semester.

By contrast, the names of the Managing Editor and  the two Editors-in-Chief were new to me. But… one of those  names Melissa Harris, kept nagging at me like a an earworm, a catchy tune that –try as one might—refused to get out of my  head. “Melissa Harris. …Melissa Harris. Melissa Harris…. ““Where, oh where, have I heard that name before?”  

And then it dawned on me. “Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no! Please Dear God, don’t let this turn out to be true!” Feeling sick to my stomach,  I scrambled for a file of news clippings that I had consulted two months earlier while fact-checking my “Opinion” essay about the Gibson affair.

 And there it was: an article  about the incident from Elyria’s Chronicle-Telegram published on Nov. 12, 2016. Titled  Oberlin Protesters Return For Second Day, it contained the following tell-tale  sentence “ The incident was the third instance reported to police this week in which someone allegedly attempted to shoplift from Gibson’s. Melissa Harris, 20, was arrested and charged Sunday, and Davis Sawyer, 22, was arrested and charged Monday. “

My heart sank; I didn’t want to deal with the painful possibility that one of the Review’s two editors-in-chief– the writers who were  ultimately responsible for the poisonous attack on the Gibsons’ cited above– had herself been arrested for shoplifting three days before the incident that triggered the protests. And no less reprehensible , if true: She had failed to disclose this fact to her readers. 

I cast about  for alternative explanations…. plausible rationalizations… “Maybe it’s a different  Melissa Harris,” I thought to myself. “It’s not that unusual a name, after all.” And I tried my best to forget about it. But I couldn’t. Months later,  ever so gingerly… I sought out Professor Jan Cooper, whom I had reason to believe was the faculty advisor to The Oberlin Review.  

Here, in full, is my initial e-mail to her :

May 5, 2018 

Dear Jan,

Are you still the faculty advisor to The Review?  If so, I could really use some advice. In fact, I’d value your advice on this delicate matter even  if you’re no longer serving in that capacity. 

Maybe I’m making too much of the fact that The. Review calls itself a “newspaper.”  It is , after all, a student newspaper ; and no reasonable person would hold it to the same standards  of “accountability” that apply to The New York Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, or even, for that matter,  The Elyria Chronicle.  

Then again — even if its ethical bar isn’t nearly as high– there must surely be some bar or threshold below which even student  journalists cannot be allowed to  lower themselves. 

Deep breath. Here goes : I can’t confirm this; but I have good reason to believe that one of the current editors of The Review has engaged in misconduct so egregious that it  may well generate serious repercussions  not only for  The Review itself;  but also  for the legal standing and financial well- being of the College- at -large.

I know. I know. This sounds preposterously melodramatic. But I’ve weighed my words carefully and after much soul -searching , I’ve concluded that it would be unconscionable of me  not to report these suspicions to someone.   Is there a national organization that sets enforceable standards and norms for undergraduate journalism (the way  the NCAA Division III  does for Oberlin varsity sports?)  If so, perhaps my  concerns   should be communicated to  them. 

I apologize for not being more forthcoming about the specific misconduct that worries me.  But I want to make certain   there’s a mechanism and a protocol in place for dealing with these allegations  before I share them with  anyone else. Any advice you can offer will be greatly appreciated. 

She responded a day later as follows :

May 6, 2019

Roger, I am the advisor for the Review, and there is not a national organization that governs student newspapers like NCAA does collegiate sports.

If the misconduct you’re concerned about violates Oberlin College’s Rules & Regulations, then I would advise you to report it to Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students (who I am copying on this email), who can direct you to the proper campus office for investigation.  If it is an issue of journalism ethics, I would like to talk to you about it, in my capacity as publication faculty advisor.

I should be free to talk to you by phone from 8-10pm tonight or 2-3pm or 8:30-10pm tomorrow, and other times later in the week. In any case thank you for contacting me.  —Jan

Jan Cooper  (pronouns: she, her, hers)
John C. Reid Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition
Department of Rhetoric and Composition

And indeed,  the next day,  over the phone, I confessed my worst fears to Professor Cooper — who  seemed …..utterly unfazed.   She assured me that Ms. Harris had probably recused herself from the editorial board conversations that ultimately took the form of the anti-Gibson screed I  cited at the beginning of this post. “But,”  I demurred, “given that Ms. Harris is not, to the best of my knowledge, African-American, wouldn’t that suggest to her co-editors that the Gibsons were not singling out African Americans? And regardless of whether this revelation had any effect  on the Review’s official “position” with regard to the controversy, weren’t they still ethically obligated to reveal that one of their two editors- in -chief was deeply implicated in the very story  her staff was covering?” 

So,….best case scenario: even if Ms. Harris had no hand  in crafting the venomous editorial, wouldn’t she still be guilty of a classic conflict of interest? Sounding entirely untroubled,  Professor Cooper promised to discuss this matter with Ms. Harris and “get back to me.” Several weeks later, I was still awaiting her response. So  I sent her an e-mail that spelled out my deepest, darkest fears. It concluded with the following warning: 

“…given that  (Ms. Harris’)   conflict  of interest pertains to a very big story with very big legal consequences for the College, it would behoove Ms. Harris to —as they say—“get ahead” of the story rather than waiting for this sordid matter to become public in some other way.  I find it hard to believe  that I’m the only person who read about Ms. Harris’ arrest. Also, I have no idea what her career plans are, but if they include journalism, all the more reason to get this matter behind her. 

Eventually, Professor Cooper  phoned to tell me that she had indeed met with Ms. Harris;  and all was well. The student editor assured her that she had no conflict of interest. And that was the last I heard about this matter from Professor Cooper. 

But, as I suspected (and Jan, I more or less warned you that this might happen) , The Gibson’s legal team did a thorough search of the Oberlin Police Department’s arrest records around the time of “the incident.” And sure enough, they were quick to find that Ms. Harris had not only been arrested for shoplifting from Gibson’s, but had pleaded guilty to the charge. And—just as foreseeably–the College’s lawyers fought tooth and nail to prevent this information  from being shared with the jury. 

And who can blame them? Here was proof positive that Oberlin’s  official student newspaper had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the College administration. So much for journalistic integrity and independence. Incidentally, I might add that today’s Oberlin Review is almost entirely dependent on funding from the College administration (whereas, thirty years ago, it ran advertisements from local merchants that provided a revenue stream independent of administrative “largesse.”) 

The vitriol directed  toward Gibson’s by the editorial staff of student publications is rivalled only by the unctuousness  they lavish on Dean Raimondo. Consider the way the Review concluded the editorial I cited earlier. After encouraging members of the College community “to support each other during this difficult time….” the editors added 


“We should also lend our support to Dean Raimondo, who works tirelessly to support students. Even when students do not agree with her, her compassion and commitment to us never wavers. It can sometimes be difficult to remember that administrators are human too, but now is as good a time as any to return that compassion to her.”

Nearly two years have passed since the Review reminded its readers of how tirelessly Dean Raimondo works on their behalf. But this was written before a jury had rendered its verdict on the behavior of Raimondo and the College.  Following that judgement, one might have  expected a less  obsequious attitude toward the current administration from those who truly care about the future of this institution. One might have expected a call  for “accountability,” perhaps even a mandate to clean the Augean Stables.

But if anything, the bond between The Review and  Dean Raimondo has tightened over the past twenty-one months. Case in point:  In mid-June, the review did something unprecedented: it ran an on-line editorial well after the academic semester had ended. That diatribe, which you can find here, https://oberlinreview.org/18975/opinions/media-coverage-of-gibsons-verdict-misses-the-mark/ is the Review’s most sycophantic effort to date. It is—and I’m not exaggerating—virtually indistinguishable from the post-verdict babble that has been freely flowing from Oberlin’s Office of “Communications.” 

What follows is a letter I sent to the current editors of the Review when it became apparent that they had become nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy  for the Oberlin administration. 

June 20, 2019  

To the editors :

I was surprised to see that the Review is continuing to publish (at least editorials) into the summer months, well beyond  the conclusion of the  2018-2019 academic year. * It would therefore  stand to reason  that you’ll be publishing readers’ comments as well, right?  Over the entire two and a half year course of the dispute between Gibsons Bakery and Oberlin College, the Review has made no attempt to conceal its sympathies. It has consistently editorialized on behalf of the College and against the Gibsons. And it has every right to do so. But what if it could be proved that one of the Reviews’ “editors in chief” had herself been arrested for shoplifting from Gibsons just a few days before the more widely publicized arrests of  three Oberlin students on November 9th, 2016?   Wouldn’t her failure to disclose this fact amount to a monumental conflict of interest and a violation of one of the most basic standards of journalistic fairness?  If what I’m alleging is true, then The Review can no longer in good conscience continue to call itself  a newspaper. It will have to admit that it has degenerated into a propaganda-spouting puppet for  the  College’s so-called Office of  Communications. So… which is it? Inquiring minds want to know.

Yours,

Roger Copeland,  Emeritus Professor of Theater and Dance

P.S. I’ve been submitting letters and/or opinion pieces to The Review  for more than forty years; and The Review has, without fail, published everything I’ve submitted , no matter how controversial the topic. It would be more than a little  ironic if this short letter proved to be the sole exception to that (otherwise Golden) rule…

Three days later, I received the following response: 

June 23, 2019

Prof. Copeland

We have received your submission. Due to staff constraints over the summer, we do not plan to publish letters until the fall semester begins, barring extraordinary circumstances. However, after careful discussion with the Editorial Board and our faculty advisor, Prof. Jan Cooper (copied on this email), we also do not plan to publish this letter at that time. (emphasis added)
Prof. Cooper previously communicated with you about this issue in May 2018. At that time, she expressed via email her informed opinion that Review editors had exercised proper ethical judgement in their coverage of the Nov. 2016 altercation at Gibson’s and ensuing lawsuit.

Further, the student in question graduated in May 2018 and has not been involved with the Review since that time. As Prof. Cooper will attest, the Review has consistently maintained the same high standard of ethical judgement in its coverage of Gibson’s. For these reasons, we feel it would be inappropriate to publish your submission.

Sincerely,
Nathan and Katherine
Nathan Carpenter (he/him)
Katherine MacPhail (she/her)
Editors-in-Chief, The Oberlin Review

Well, guys. I have to concede your point. Throughout the entirely of this sorry saga, the Oberlin Review has —without question– “ consistently maintained the same high standards of ethical judgement in its coverage of Gibson’s.”

  • The same day the Review editors responded to my e-mail, they added the following addendum to their on-line editorial, conveniently backdating it to June 18th:

Editor’s note: Due to the scope of national media attention, the Review took the extraordinary step of covering the Gibson’s verdict outside of normal publication dates. Because of limited staff capacity, the Review does not moderate comments during the summer, and letters to the editors in response to any article will be reviewed for publication in the fall. Please direct any questions to edsinchief@oberlinreview.org.

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