Friday, October 21, 2011

A Misleading Hatchet Job on David Protess

Michael Miner's hatchet job on David Protess is depressing to read, not because it's right, but because it's so wrong. Miner distorts and omits key facts while he presents the prosecutor's case. But worst of all, he betrays the spirit of advocacy journalism that the Chicago Reader is supposed to be celebrating on its 40th anniversary.

Miner notes that Protess' Innocence Project worked with the Center on Wrongful Convictions and declares, “no, it's not the way journalists are supposed to act.”
Why the hell not? Nobody has a problem with law schools advocating for the innocent. Why should journalism schools be any different? What part of the words “Innocence Project” are unclear? It is, by definition, an advocacy project, and a damned good one.

While claiming that the university established that Protess had falsified an email, Miner omits the very important fact that Protess told Northwestern at the time that he had altered the email Miner finds so damning, and that he had urged Northwestern to get the information themselves. Miner reprints at length a series of utterly pointless emails from Protess, which only establish what Protess admits and everyone knows: Protess worked closely with defense attorneys. So what? Beyond unfairly smearing Bryan Smith of Chicago magazine because he had enough sense not to waste his readers' time with such nonsense, Miner implies they prove Protess did something wrong without ever explaining why.

Meanwhile, Miner omits numerous important facts, such as the fact that prosecutors sought grades and emails that everyone knows were never revealed to defense attorneys.

If, due to the failings of our legal system, Protess lost the “journalistic privilege” for his classes by providing information to defense attorneys, then so be it. But it's no reason for a professor to be banned from teaching a class or forced out of a university.

It's particularly disappointing that Miner concludes his article by praising what happened to Protess as “proper” and “necessary”: “The first generation has left the building.” No, the first generation was shoved out of the building. Banned from teaching a class, and then forced out of a job.

If the fuzzy “rules” of journalism are supposed to be sacrosanct, what about the very clear rules of due process and academic freedom in the Northwestern Faculty Handbook, which require any suspension of a faculty member to include a hearing before a faculty committee with actual evidence presented and proof of intentional deception provided? Why has Miner never written a single word about the fact that the Northwestern administration violated its own rules in punishing Protess?

It's particularly appalling that around the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Reader, where Miner has been publishing for 40 years as part of a leading example of (at its best) crusading, advocacy journalism, Miner buys into this nonsense of objective journalism. If the people who forced out Protess had their way, the advocacy journalism in newspapers like the Chicago Reader would never exist. Miner's memo for the prosecution is a betrayal of everything the Chicago Reader ever stood for.

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