Sunday, February 27, 2011

New University Comes Under Scrutiny

Front page of New University scoop.
In scooping other media with the months-old story of UC Student Regent Jesse Cheng's arrest -- and subsequent refusal of prosecutors to file charges -- for attempted sexual battery and attempted rape, did the UCI student-run newspaper, New University rush the article into print? I ask this even though I realize that the Student Regent declined to speak on the record with the paper initially.

In almost two weeks since the story, "Student Regent Under Investigation" written by managing editor Traci Garling Lee and editor in chief David Gao [The names are reversed in the print edition], originally ran, it seems abundantly clear that the New University was ill-equipped to handle such a news story, just as it mishandled, just several weeks earlier, a news account, which it similarly posted prominently on its front page, relating to a new development in UCI's decade-plus-old fertility scandal, of which more later in this blog entry.

Even before a few days had passed, critics of the New University coverage had chimed in online, suggesting on its web site that it had been "used" by Jesse Cheng's former partner, the anonymous Filipina American UCLA law student who went to the Irvine police with the initial allegations against Cheng, a popular UCI fifth-year Asian American studies major who still had months left in his tenure as an appointed UC Student Regent.

Suzanne Kordi engaged in a series of online exchanges with Current Student, with Suzanne, who wanted to submit a piece about Jesse Cheng's innocence and also on the Egyptian revolution, commenting 15 February 2011: "Apparently degrading someone’s reputation is more important than the Egyptian Revolution?" She also wrote: "Also, I don’t understand why the 'series of e-mails' was maliciously turned over the the New University. If this were not solely intended to assault someone’s integrity, I would have turned the details over to a legitimate news source."

After Suzanne Kordi questioned the campus paper's journalistic ethics and gave a link to the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, Current Student responded that same evening, 15 February 2011: "are you, a non-journalist, using your untrained google web skillz [sic] to inquire into the reporters reporting ethics? did you know that UCI LJ majors take a class, taught by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, on this exact specific topic before they are even allowed to practice their major? and did you also know that UCI LJ majors have, to some extent, this guy ( for reference, among many others? I mean, the reporter probably conferred with at least one of them, at least once, before publishing this story, right?" I wouldn't have made that assumption. The reference in Current Student's comment is to Pulitzer Prize-winning former Los Angles Times legal affairs journalist, Henry Weinstein, who teaches in the UCI Law School and has a joint appointment in Literary Journalism.

On 16 February 2011, "Observer B" commented in part: "I can understand why he wouldn’t speak to the New U. Just last month, it ran another front-page article calling someone a 'criminal' who had not yet been brought to trial on the charges. (The writing is awful, too, mentioning 'unethical crimes,' as opposed to the ethical ones, I guess.)"

Observer B ended: "I think this poor reporting is a function of long-term underfunding (deliberate on the part of administration to prevent good reporting from happening), the weekly nature of the New U, which disallows follow-up reporting and related stories, and the lack of a journalism program at UCI. Literary Journalism doesn’t necessarily count. Isn’t the 'literary' part about being able to make stuff up and assertively inject the writer’s subjective take? Good stuff for some media, but for a newspaper article that could erroneously destroy someone’s career? Not so much."

"LJ Defender" shot back 18 February 2011: "Literary Journalism is not about being able to “make stuff up and assertively inject the writer’s subjective take” … it is about conveying the facts from a creative angle. That doesn’t mean it gives license to fabricate, NO form of journalism would allow that. The truth is still the truth, no matter how you approach it, whether it is through the inverted pyramid form of straight reporting or the magnifying glass of literary journalism. Just clarifying. But I do agree with you on the New U’s history of poor reporting and even poorer writing. Publishing this article was premature and insensitive given the lack of evidence."

A "Former Journalist" also commented online, suggesting that a class in journalism does not a journalist make. He wrote 16 February 2011: "As a former journalist, I can tell you that taking a class about journalistic ethics is not quite the same as practicing journalistic ethics. The latter often comes from years of experience or the benefit of an editor with years of experience, neither of which is evident at the New U. And if your Pulitzer Prize-winning professor hasn’t mentioned it yet, reporters rarely have the luxury of all the facts. That’s simply part of the job and why practicing journalists are obligated to exercise better judgment than the New U has shown here."

He ended: "There may be a good chance that the New U has allowed itself to be used. And your snide response to Suzanne Kordi suggests you have a bit of growing up to do. Not a good quality for a student journalist whose article may destroy someone’s reputation without any legal charges being filed."

Reacting to feedback online, he added: "The New U has the right to report almost anything. That’s not the issue. The question is whether they should and when they should. As you suggest, I don’t know Ms. Lee or Mr. Gao’s intent. However, the lede refers to a victim, not an alleged victim, and the second graf says Cheng does not 'currently' face charges. This implies he may face charges. Precision counts. Among other things, this could be why some readers perceive bias. Covering one’s bases, doing due diligence and seeking counsel are the minimum for reporting a story like this. Reporters don’t get extra credit for that."

Indeed, the New University does not have a formal structure of of built-in journalism advisers, unlike typical student newspapers.

Most telling is the fact that two weeks after the campus paper broke the story, neither of the two mainstream newspapers covering Orange County, the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times has yet to file a single story on it, not even a blog entry. It is apparent that, despite the arrest, the fact that the Orange County District Attorney's office failed to press charges means the story -- months old -- is one that mainstream journalists would prefer not to bring to print, no doubt in fairness to the accused: It's a non-story. (It's another matter whether it should cover the growing split in the activist community over Cheng.)

Even the alternative OC Weekly, for which I freelanced under its founding editor, Will Swaim, a graduate of UCI's history department, in its first print story after running blog updates on the New University revelations, sought to cast the story in a way that can only be seen as sympathetic to Cheng, and countering the New University's one-sided initial account.

In a blog-turned-into print story, UCI's Ex Scandal, written by Matt Coker, who used to edit my stories, a sub-head declared "student regent Jesse Cheng fights off ex-girlfriend's attempted rape allegation". The ambiguous reference to an ex-scandal could be read two ways: As a scandal involving Cheng (the girlfriend's ex), or a scandal involving his ex, the former girlfriend.

Even the New University, in reporting Cheng's denial of his ex's story, must have learned from the online feedback, giving this heading to its story, "Student Regent Speaks on the Record, Responds to Allegations," by David Gao and Traci Garling Lee. In addition to correctly calling the ex girlfriend's accusations "allegations", it also called her an "alleged victim" -- something it most famously failed to do in the story it ran with initially.

Other UC campus papers have also chimed in, including UC San Diego's The Guardian, which pointed out in its 24 February 2011 story by Jonathan Kaslow headlined "Battery Charges Dropped Against Student Regent," that the "New University received criticism from students for using condemnatory language against Cheng while only citing the anonymous source, Laya. Students expressed doubts about the accuracy of New University’s Feb. 16 “Student Regent Under Investigation” article. 'Personally to me, NewU has often inaccurately reported certain events (to some extent), especially this event,' one comment read. Some also resented the article’s insinuation that Cheng was not charged due to his status."

Is there any doubt that New University lacks the experience and knowledge of journalistic standards when covering a crime story, that other campus newspapers, such as the Guardian, have exhibited?

If you want further proof, I offer this exchange of emails with me and New University editors that I initiated last month, before the revelations about Cheng came out.

I was appalled that in its 18 January 2011 edition, the paper ran a front-page story by UCI student Shruti Shantharam on one-time UCI faculty superstar hire Dr. Ricardo Asch, a key figure from the 1990s fertility scandal, who had been located in Mexico and was in the process of being extradited back to Santa Ana to face federal charges. Unlike other mainstream coverage, the New University, contrary to all journalistic standards, depicted Ash wrongly and unfairly as "a doctor who committed unethical crimes at UC Irvine’s Center for Reproductive Health Fertility Clinic in the 1990s."

For comparison, see how real journalists at the Los Angeles Times' L.A. Now blog, covered the development.

To compound the grievous lack of adherence to journalistic standards, the article was picked up by the news site, Huffington Post, and posted verbatim, without any corrections, on Ariana Huffington's million-dollar aggregator of other writer's news and blog entries. [I have in the past also contributed material to the HuffPost.)

I waited a week for the campus paper to print a retraction, but failing to see any, I wrote 24 January 2011 to news editor Maxine Wally:

Maxine, I am writing to express my concern about the front-page article the New U published last week on the Asch fertility scandal arrest.

The article as you know was replete with what I am sure the attorneys for the accused mentioned would consider libelous statements. I am wondering if you screened the article before publication and if anyone with any journalism background (and I don't mean literary journalism) reviewed it before it was published. On the face of it it fails any basic test of good journalism. I expect to be blogging about it and hope to get your response.

She wrote me right back, inviting me to submit a letter to the editor and adding: "Every article is edited and checked by the staff, all of whom are properly trained in all areas of journalism, including literary and standard.
I look forward to seeing your blog post."

Editor in chief David Gao emailed me the next day, 25 January 2011: "I received your e-mail of complaint to our news editor, Maxine Wally. Would you please detail the exact areas of libel that you claim are in this article? We would love to discuss the issue at hand. Thank you for your readership." Given that the chief editor seemed to be clueless about what the paper did wrong, I wrote him back the next day offering some assistance:

David, I am not a lawyer, but the article assumes guilt ("crimes committed" (in subtitle), "criminal", "committed unethical crimes" etc.
Where is the presumption of innocence under our justice system? If
"harvesting human tissue was not illegal" at the time, what is the
justification for calling Asch a criminal?

David Gao wrote back 27 January 2011: "Thank you for your concern. Our editing process was out of the norm that week, and it regrettably slipped through the cracks. There will be a correction in an upcoming issue.Thank you for your concern. Our editing process was out of the norm that week, and it regrettably slipped through the cracks. There will be a correction in an upcoming issue."

Finally, on 8 February 2011, the New University did print a retraction, typically hidden inside the paper, with none of the prominence its front-page smear on Asch provided. It stated: "In the Jan. 18, 2011 issue of the New University, Shruti Shantharam's article 'Fertility Scandal Goes South,' incorrectly stated Ricardo Asch as a 'criminal' and 'having crimes committed in 1995.' Ash has actually to date neither been convicted nor indicted of his tax evasion and fraud charges."

Unfortunately, in contrast to what many mainstream newspapers do, the correction was not appended to the original offending article online on the New University web site, so the Huffington Post (and others) would not find out about it online unless they read this blog post.

Incidentally, for real investigative journalism on this fertility scandal, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning articles from the OC Register, former UCI Ph.D student Mary Dodge and UCI Prof. Emeritus Gilbert Geis' 2003 book, Stealing Dreams: A Fertility Clinic Scandal, or listen to my interview with Dodge on an online edition of Subversity.

Thus it is not surprising that the campus paper would, several weeks later, rush to publication in providing its front page with a one-sided attack on the Student Regent.

Jesse Cheng, the target of the original scoop, is surprisingly generous in his defense of the paper that printed his ex's allegations against him initially, telling the OC Weekly that "I'm going to be real: It's a campus newspaper. I support the work they do. I might not like it, I might think this was a harsh article, but I support the work they do." Although he was quoted as adding a caveat about possibly suing if "they go ahead and add something else," Cheng told me later that all he meant was that he did not want to predict anything in the future. As a writer, I must say that libel suits are harder to win if one is a public figure, and definitely not recommended. Let's battle this out in the court of public opinion, but be fair about it.

I am all for advocacy journalism, having earned my spurs as a journalist in the alternative media, and I concede that the New University tries hard to be an advocate for students at UC Irvine. But this advocacy must be tempered with journalistic standards and actual training, not just taking some literary journalism classes. Ethical reporting guidelines, as suggested by the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, tellingly include this admonition under minimizing harm to sources and subjects: "Be judicious about naming criminal subjects before the formal filing of charges."

My recommendations: The New University when printing corrections or retractions should append the revision or correction to the original articles. The paper should also institute a formal advisership relationship with an experienced journalist. As a one-time activist in the writers union, I also recommend individual freelance writers there and elsewhere join the National Writers Union. - Daniel C. Tsang.

1 comment:

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