The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Inept Crisis Response

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 8, 2012 – 5:03 PM

UPDATE: Click here to read my interview with Liz McMillen, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Earlier this afternoon, I received an email from Betsy Rothstein, the editor of the popular Fishbowl DC website. She asked me to comment on a recent incident involving The Chronicle of Higher Education and one of its bloggers.

Here’s the story: Last week, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for The Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog, wrote a critical piece about the validity of “black studies.” I thought the piece was unfair and cherry picked examples. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.”

 

Writer Naomi Schaefer Riley

Given my dim view of her work, it may surprise you that I’m on her side. But I am. And that’s due to The Chronicle’s lousy response.

By late last week, The Chronicle had received many angry comments from its readers – and more than a few demands for Ms. Riley’s firing. Last Thursday, the blog’s editor, Liz  McMillen, responded by encouraging readers to weigh in: 

“Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit….Please join the debate.”

 

But last night, Ms. McMillen reversed course and fired Ms. Riley. She wrote, in part:

“We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog….I realize we have made mistakes. We will thoroughly review our editorial practices on Brainstorm and other blogs and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers.”

 

McMillen’s statement appears to me to be a tacit admission that The Chronicle had little in the way of guidelines for its bloggers. But they still found it appropriate to fire Ms. Riley, despite not being able to point to any specific rule that she had violated. So much for selling the blog as having “a range of intellectual and political views.”

Editor Liz McMillen, Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education

Here’s where I got involved.

Before responding to Fishbowl DC’s request, I called The Chronicle of Higher Education and asked to speak with Liz McMillen. I was forwarded to Amy Alexander, The Chronicle’s Editorial Promotions Manager. She told me to email my request, which she said would be more efficient than asking her to “run to the other side of the building.”

After emailing her my request, which specifically stated that I wanted to speak to Liz McMillen by phone and not via email, she responded with an email that said:

“Just heard back from her: She asks that you send me your exact questions.  She is swamped, says she will get to them ‘as soon as she can.’”

 

I didn’t have time to email her back since Fishbowl DC was on deadline; as a result, they missed their chance to influence my quote. And as usually happens in those situations, my quote was more negative than it otherwise might have been. Here’s how I was quoted by Fishbowl DC:

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.”


So what should The Chronicle do now?

First, they should begin responding to press calls quickly. If they don’t speak on their own behalf more aggressively, their critics will happily fill the news vacuum and speak for them.

Second, they should pledge to release their new editorial guidelines. Ms. McMillen said that they will create more stringent guidelines for their bloggers. She should pledge to make them available publicly, and promise to release a preliminary guideline document by a date certain (within a few weeks).

Third, they should explain their decision more fully. At the moment, their decision looks like little more than political expediency. Unless that’s the conclusion they want the public to draw, Ms. McMillen should explain more about her specific reasons for firing Ms. Riley.

As of now, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s response is violating at least five of the seven rules of a crisis. They’ll need to act quickly if they have any chance of regaining control of this story line.

UPDATE: Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 10:15am: Ms. McMillen has still not responded to Fishbowl DC’s media request. And Fishbowl DC decided to needle her for her decision to be silent by writing the following:

“The Chronicle of Higher Education is so terrifically busy. So much so that in the past 14 hours Editor Liz McMillen, who fired contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley after she wrote a post that — gasp! — dared to make waves, hasn’t had time to reply to our questions.

Spokeswoman Amy Alexander wrote us twice to inquire if Liz had gotten around to responding to our request for comment. “She’s swamped,” Alexander said, promising that she’d keep checking in with her.

While we appreciate Alexander’s tireless efforts to get McMillen to comment, we’d prefer that McMillen find her spine as opposed to say, another excuse as to why she didn’t back her writer after not implementing blogger guidelines in the first place.”


I’ve often written that a failure to respond usually deepens the crisis. Ms. McMillen could have avoided Fishbowl DC’s updated post (and mine) by maintaining an open line of communication with the press. For her sake, I hope she begins doing so quickly.

UPDATE: May 9, 2012, 10:30am: Naomi Schaefer Riley, the writer in the middle of this storm, just responded to my email by saying: “No I was not provided with guidelines.” That confirms my belief that she was fired for political reasons, not cause.

UPDATE: May 11, 2012, 4:50pm: Two days ago, a man named Bob Lalasz left two comments on this story, which you can see in the comments section below. Both comments disagreed with the premise of the advice I had offered, and took Fishbowl DC to task for not adequately confirming their story. What Mr. Lalasz did not disclose until I received a tip from a reader earlier today is that he is Ms. McMillen’s husband. I find his lack of disclosure – especially given his career in science communications – both shocking and appalling.

UPDATE: May 12, 2012, 10:20am: After posting my update yesterday afternoon, Bob Lalasz and I traded several emails. In each, he accepted full responsibility for his lack of disclosure, explained what motivated his actions, and apologized without reservation. I found his emails to be self-aware, forthright, and entirely human. I accepted his apology, and ask that you read through the comments below before forming a final judgment.

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Comments (15)

  1. By Editor Who Fired the Blogger Responds - FishbowlDC:

    […] The Chronicle of Higher Education Editor Liz McMillen, who fired blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley this week for a post concerning Black Studies, has responded to our questions. It would be easy to provide snappy reactions to some of her responses — and believe me, I’m tempted — but to be fair, we’ll let her words speak for themselves. If you have reactions you’d like us to consider publishing, send them to me at Betsy@mediabistro.com or to FishbowlDC@mediabistro.com. If you are late to this story and want a refresher on what happened, read here. You may also want to read Brad Phillips‘ take on how McMillen handled the controversy on his Mr. Media Training Blog here. […]

  2. By Bob Lalasz:

    Why is the crisis deepening if the Chronicle isn’t responding to Fishbowl DC?

    The Chronicle made a mistake publishing the original Riley post, and another one publishing the follow-up. But how about this for a counter narrative: The Chronicle listened to its constituents, reconsidered, and did the right thing. Why is that political expediency? Isn’t that what every social media expert tells companies to do — listen to their customers and respond accordingly?

  3. By Brad Phillips:

    Bob –

    That’s a very reasonable question, and one I considered both when writing the post, and after I posted it.

    In this case, I don’t think that standard crisis communications advice applies.

    It appears to me that The Chronicle’s decision went against the professed brand of its blog, which sells itself as “a range of intellectual and political views.” If they are going to allow outside views while offering its writers no guidelines, they set themselves up to publish something that would upset their readership. Whose fault is that? The blogger who wrote what she believed, or the editors who provided her with no direction?

    Second, what precedent does this set? That instead of encouraging a rigorous debate about controversial topics, The Chronicle is going to buckle any time the readership complains about an article? That kind of decision will have a chilling effect, and will narrow the band of acceptable opinions featured on the blog.

    Third, it appears to me that The Chronicle reverse engineered the decision-making process to come up with the outcome they wanted. If the article really violated so many of their standards, why didn’t they pull it sooner? Why did they first encourage debate about it before changing course? If the article ran badly afoul of their standards, shouldn’t they have known that right away? That series of questions leads me to peg their decision on expediency, not principle.

    More directly to your point, I believe The Chronicle could have listened to its constituents and made a different decision. Here’s the statement I would have liked to have seen (this isn’t wordsmithed, but gives you an idea of the path I would have taken):

    “We’ve heard you, and we are going to do things differently from now on. As a news organization, we have done an insufficient job of articulating our editorial standards to our writers. That fault is ours entirely. We are learning from this episode, and will develop a list of guidelines that every blogger must follow from now on. We expect to have that completed and distributed by the end of the month.

    We are not going to discipline Ms. Riley, because we had not communicated our standards to her before her article ran. But that exact article will not be acceptable under our new guidelines, and she will be disciplined or dismissed for any repeat infractions.”

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bob.

    Best wishes,
    Brad

  4. By Bob Lalasz:

    Brad, you’re basing most of your argument on Ms. Riley’s word that she was offered no guidelines. Have you checked with other Brainstorm bloggers on that point?

    I’d also urge you to read through the comments on Riley’s posts. Yes, many are vituperative — but many are thoughtful. A quickly evolving case was made through those comments that Riley was not just sloppy and cheap, but NOT IN THE SPIRIT OF THE CHRONICLE. Newspapers are notoriously slow to recognize branding issues like that.

    To my understanding, Brainstorm has been around for five years, with many controversial posts — and no writers fired, despite a lot of heat for those posts. Let’s say the Chronicle failed on process in this case, and was slow to realize a mistake. It can’t rectify that error without being accused of bad faith? Your column (and Fishbowl) want it both ways — to slam the Chronicle for bad crisis comms management AND for a double-standard. Sure, it could be both. It could also be just the first. But it doesn’t make for easy condemnation to assume that.

    But first, Fishbowl should do some more reporting, call up the other Brainstorm bloggers, and figure out whether Ms. Riley is telling the truth about those guidelines…or whether she just misplaced them.

  5. By Brad Phillips:

    Bob –

    Stay tuned. I just spoke with editor Liz McMillen and will post a follow-up piece shortly. Ms. McMillen says that although Ms. Riley received standards last February, she has no plans to release those standards to the press. Without seeing those standards, it’s impossible for me to make a determination about whether Ms. Riley violated those rules.

    Thanks,
    Brad

    P.S. You’re right that I based my comments on Ms. Riley’s word. More than 24 hours passed before The Chronicle returned my call; I gave them ample opportunity to rebut Riley’s word.

  6. By Steven Alexander:

    Bob: Do you think it might have been worth pointing out your relationship with Liz McMillen?

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    Steven,

    I don’t know what that relationship is. Can you please elaborate?

    Thank you,
    Brad

  8. By Brad Phillips:

    I just did a Google search. According to http://www.mylife.com/c-1445321368, “Robert L Lalasz is also related to Elizabeth McMillen, who is 51 years old and lives in Arlington, VA.” If that’s true, it’s disappointing that Mr. Lalasz didn’t disclose that relationship when he questioned the validity of my piece.

  9. By Bob Lalasz:

    Brad, I’m happy to confirm that I am married to Liz. I don’t think that invalidates my comments, at least one of which you called “thoughtful.” I certainly didn’t question the “validity” of your post; I merely pointed out some assumptions and gaps. No one has questioned the Wall Street Journal’s right to run an editorial defending Ms. Riley’s position, despite the fact that her husband is on the editorial board. It doesn’t prima facie invalidate the Journal’s viewpoint. The same holds true here.

  10. By Brad Phillips:

    Bob,

    Given that you appear to be in science communications, I’m shocked to hear that you feel your spousal relationship with Ms. McMillen wasn’t worth disclosing in your comments. I will update the story to make your relationship clear to readers.

    Brad

  11. By Steven Alexander:

    All of the Wall Street Journal coverage of this controversy has noted that Riley’s husband is employed there. Disclosure alone isn’t a disinfectant, but it sure helps.

  12. By Brad Phillips:

    Especially if he is going to take me to task for giving bad crisis communications advice.

    Mr. Lalasz’s LinkedIn profile indicates that he is the Director of Science Communications for a large, DC-based nonprofit. I find it impossible to believe that he doesn’t know all about the rules regarding transparency and full disclosure.

  13. By Bob Lalasz:

    So, an apology to Brad:

    Emotions run high in these situations when one is personally involved, even if one has extensive professional training in how to handle them. I’m sure Brad has seen that a million times in his own clients. I’ve certainly seen it in many of the scientists with whom I work when the heat is on.

    Having said that, I had no intention of deceiving Brad or anyone else by not disclosing my relationship with Liz. I was in protective spouse mode, and quickly making points I thought needed making. Brad, I regret if you wasted time and energy chasing down answers or leads in response to my comments. I apologize.

  14. By Brad Phillips:

    Bob,

    Apology accepted – thank you for your gracious comment. I can understand the entirely human instinct to defend one’s partner, and can appreciate that you made your comments in that spirit.

    Onward!

    Sincerely,
    Brad

  15. By Nan Marinelli:

    I, for one, am heartened that Mrs. McMillen-Lalasz’s husband came to her defense. That’s being said, I would have thought her capable, as editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, of defending herself. As she goes by McMillen and not Lalasz, I’m surprised she didn’t prefer speaking on her own behalf as well as on behalf of The Chronicle. Cudos to Mr. Lalasz not only for standing up for his wife but for being gracious when he was ‘caught out.’ Ms. McMillen might consider cooking Mr. Lalasz a really special dinner in her very own hot kitchen.

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