Pub Backs Blogger in Emails Before Canning Her

In the latest backlash over the firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley from the Chronicle of Higher Education, internal emails show that management supported Riley before abruptly canning her.

To recap, Riley, a former WSJ editor and Harvard grad, wrote for the publication’s Brainstorm blog for a year before Editor Liz McMillen (pictured above right alongside Riley) suddenly fired her this week for a post she wrote on Black Studies, saying the program should be eliminated, basing her view on dissertation titles. McMillen had received a petition of online signatures calling for Riley’s firing. In an interview with FishbowlDC she claimed reader reaction did not sway her decision to let Riley go. Instead, she said, Naomi’s post and subsequent response to her critics did not meet their “editorial standards.”

Which is a funny thing to say considering a publication editor guided Naomi through that response every step of the way. (See the exchange of emails after the jump…)

Play by play

After Riley wrote the piece, negative reaction from readers poured her, calling her racist. (Raise your hand if you’re a blogger who gets called racist, sexist, or prejudice in any multitude of ways on a weekly basis?)

What happened next is, at best, suspect. Management asked Riley to write a response to her critics. She was guided in that posting by Deputy Editor of The Chronicle Review magazine Alex Kafka, who couldn’t have been more kind to her in those exchanges, even, at one point, joking about how he ate too much at his 91-year-old father’s birthday party. He even included party pictures. (We sure hope Kafka is no longer bloated from all the crap he ate at the party.)

“I had an email exchange with editor,” Riley told FishbowlDC by phone yesterday. “I said this is what I would say, he said, that would be great. He approved it. They encouraged me to write it, then they approved it.” Riley says the idea that they expected her to write up something specific and that she didn’t follow her orders or write a “strong enough” response as McMillen told Fishbowl, is “quite amazing.”

What’s most infuriating, says Riley, is that in the year she worked there bosses gave her no indication that they were displeased with her work. “They didn’t try to sensor any of my posts,” she said. “I didn’t have some warning. I feel like this whole thing just came out of the blue.”

In an online orientation packet Naomi received before she began blogging, Kafka wrote this astonishing advice: “We urge you to think of them not as forums for polished mini-editorials, but as places to react, thoughtfully but passionately, to breaking news on topics you’re engaged in. … Try to enlighten your readers, but also provoke their thinking by presenting new perspectives you draw in from other sources.”

Important: See the introductory letter Naomi received from Kafka before she began blogging for the magazine…

On May 2, 2012, at 11:44 PM, Alex Kafka wrote:

Hi, Naomi. Pls. see and google the Purdue petition etc. I guess I’d urge you, predictably enough, to write a calm, respectful, substantive response to some or all of this. I think we’ll also see if the dissertation authors want to respond in a guest post. Let’s touch base by phone tomorrow, if that’s OK. I’ll be working from home in the a.m., so if you have a few minutes, could you call my cell, BLANK? Thanks.


To: Alex Kafka
Subject: Re: Critiques of your post

Alex, I will give you a call in the morning. I am happy to hear you out on the subject but I am not sure that this disagreement is substantive at all. The comments seem to boil down to this: