James Comey, Student Journalist

Reaction to a series about black students and faculty at the College of William & Mary was swift

Here’s how one professor at the College of William & Mary responded in 1980 to a three-part investigation by James Comey for student newspaper The Flat Hat about the challenges of recruiting and retaining black students and faculty members:

‘Jim Comey, staff writer, ought not to compete with the National Enquirer,’ said Victor Liguori, an associate professor of sociology. ‘Prior to setting fingers to typewriter, he should know well that Dr. Edmonds’s faulty, irresponsible analysis of that complex process called affirmative action may well reflect the dynamics of his own thinking, but not that of serious students of sociology.’

Adam Harris, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, decided to revisit this Comey history in the shadow of the deposed FBI director’s testimony on the Hill. The journalist was not aware at the time that The New Yorker had also referenced, more broadly, this work. To Harris’ credit, he added a Clarification note to the article and mention of Nicholas Schmidle’s piece.

Schmidle refers to Dr. Vernon H. Edmonds as a ‘tenured white supremacist in the sociology department.’ Harris notes that in 1991, a year before Edmonds died, the professor was investigated for allegedly making racist remarks towards black students and giving them tainted grades. In today’s journalism terms, The Flat Hat weighting of the Edmonds comments would likely be referred to as ‘clickbait.’

So how did Comey defend himself? In the wake of a subsequent editorial by paper and more campus reaction, he acknowledged that the ‘undue emphasis’ of Edmonds’ views in the layout of his series was ‘unfortunate.’ Comey concluded his published letter as follows:

‘The intention of the series was not to draw conclusions, but to present the facts. Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions.’

In 2014, Comey spoke to The Flat Hat about his time as a student and reporter for the paper. His first topic of coverage was parking at student football games. The paper derived its moniker from the nickname of a secret fraternity founded at William & Mary in 1750.

Editor’s Note:
The original version of this item incorrectly referred to Dr. Edmonds as Dr. Edwards. Fishbowl apologizes for the error.