An Editor’s Dangerous Mea Culpa

In a most unusual editor’s note on the Chronicle of Higher Education website last night, Editor Liz McMillen apologizes profusely for what turned out to be a controversial post written by now fired “Brainstorm” blogger, former WSJ editor and Harvard graduate Naomi Schaefer Riley. Like most anything that goes viral, Riley tells Poynter she didn’t see it coming. The topic: Riley asserted the reasons why she believes Black Studies ought to be eliminated.

And the crowd went wild. Racism. Prejudice. So much for brainstorming.

McMillen, meanwhile, all but embarrassingly opens a vein for readers. She writes, “We’ve heard you, we’ve taken to heart what you’ve said.” She goes on to say that they let Riley go and they will “review” their editorial practices.

“It’s obvious they caved to the pressure,” Riley told FishbowlDC this afternoon.

Were these so-called practices ever thought out or spelled out in the first place? Was Riley ever told what she could or couldn’t write? Or was the outcry of online observers — and there are a lot of them these days with loud, shrill, threatening voices — so great that McMillen collapsed under her own lack of direction and standards that were never conveyed to Riley in the first place?

Last Monday Riley posted her story. On Wednesday night she received an email and on Thursday a call from her editor asking her to respond to critics, which she did. Last Thursday her bosses at least found that acceptable as well as her post, which they did not remove. But by last night, just before McMillen threw herself and Riley to the pack of wolves, she had a conversation with McMillen during which she was fired.

“They claim I didn’t live up to standards, but I’d like to see where these standards are that I didn’t live up to,” Riley said, explaining that her bosses knew she had unconventional views. She thought that’s why they hired her. “I don’t really think the standards are being universally applied, let’s just say that.”

She also said that at any other publication she has ever worked, the behavior of her bosses would never fly.

Riley says she will undoubtedly continue writing. “I’m not some anti-intellectual we should get rid of college tomorrow [type], but I have made critiques,” she said. “This was not my full-time job, I will go on with my writing.”

Brad Phillips, who writes the Mr. Media Training Blog, points a damning finger at The Chronicle of Higher Education, calling it the “worst of both worlds.” He told FBDC, “Although I don’t agree with Naomi Schaefer Riley’s viewpoint, it appears that she’s the victim of an editor who buckled under public pressure. Just a few days ago, the blog’s editor was encouraging vigorous debate about Riley’s article; the editor did an about face when it became clear that her readers were upset. The Chronicle is now in the worst of two worlds – appearing to have stifled a voice with no specific rationale, while simultaneously selling their blog as ‘a range of intellectual and political views.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education looks to have lacked clear guidelines regarding appropriate content, and this incident is yet another reminder that blogs need to maintain clear guidelines for their writers.”

In her note to readers, McMillen talks about a “freedom” that Riley and other bloggers have in that their posts go unedited before they are published. “Ms. Riley’s post was not reviewed until after it published,” she wrote in the publication’s defense.

But it is her concluding line that is most grotesque to herself and the publication: “You told us we can do better, and we agree.”