When I first read the faculty’s response to the controversy regarding Dean John Lavine’s unattributed sources, I reacted as I imagine many a disgruntled Medill student would: I whooped and cheered, fist pounding in the air, silly grin plastered on my face. A classmate and I discussed giving a standing ovation the next day in class to our professor, Charles Whitaker, who signed the letter.
Finally, it seemed, the faculty and students were standing as one against Lavine. It wasn’t just the unattributed sources; if Lavine had been more popular, the reaction wouldn’t be so strong. In fact, there probably wouldn’t be anything to react to – there’s no story in a well-loved dean sharing glowing comments from his students.
The letter pokes at something deeper, though. In a twist of delicious irony, the journalism faculty granted Lavine’s wish of uniting with the Integrated Marketing Communications faculty and staff. It criticizes Lavine for insulting the IMC faculty and staff by claiming that a public relations document isn’t held to the same standards of journalistic integrity as any other work, and for shortchanging his own audience by failing to provide strenuous journalism.
And yet, after the euphoria wears off, the letter feels like it’s missing something. I appreciate the public statement as much as anyone, but what are the faculty actually asking of the dean? To those who’ve asked, Lavine has reiterated the same explanations: sources’ names are lost, but the quotes are fact and we should take him at his word. No amount of cajoling is going to make names reappear, if they are indeed lost to time and bad note-keeping.
Lavine’s options are limited. He can stay silent and wait for the whole thing to blow over. He can admit that the quotes are fabricated, if they are. Or he can pull a Nixon and resign, essentially making the same admission. My guess is that he will remain silent, perhaps releasing a smug apology that says little more than, “Oops, my bad.”
But equally disappointing, Dean Lavine, head of the self-proclaimed best journalism school in the country, is a bad journalist. Less than a year after his letter was published, he can offer no record for his sources and doesn’t even remember where his quotes came from, exactly. And instead of apologizing at least for his unattributed sources, he is asking an entire journalism school to do what journalists should never do: just trust him.
But it’s not just Lavine who has failed us. I would hope that in response to this ludicrous display of journalism I would discover more rigorous coverage from the media. Instead, we find the Chicago Sun-Times misspelling Lavine’s name, the Chicago Tribune’s failure to quote a single student in its most recent coverage of the story, and a student letter that does nothing but stand behind the faculty, adding nothing to the debate. Even David Spett’s article, which started the whole debate, relied entirely on anonymous sourcing, a point Assistant Professor Michele Weldon made while defending her decision not to sign the faculty letter.
Admittedly, Weldon was right when she reinforced that a core tenet of journalism is to “assume nothing,” including that Lavine fabricated his quotes. (Unfortunately, she then argued that Medill’s faculty had not been too scared to speak out in the past. But Spett wrote about at least one Medill professor who “insisted upon remaining anonymous for fear of retaliation.”)
The greatest shame in all this is that in an act of (I’d argue) well-deserved uproar against the dean, Medill has dug its own grave. Rather than consciously going after Lavine’s policies and the perceived harms he was causing Medill before now, faculty and journalists have latched onto one case of poor reporting and used it as a stand-in for the bigger picture, still failing to attack Lavine for the real issues at stake: the quality of the school’s journalism education.
Now, the national media has caught on to a story that highlights the internal strife that has long been obvious to those associated with Medill. And though we may point our fingers at one man, we cannot lose sight of what Lavine stands for and how his actions reflect on the reputation of our entire school.
This, I believe, is the point the 16 faculty members were trying to get at by distancing themselves from Lavine and calling for higher standards. The problem is that it came too late, too loudly, and now we all must suffer the consequences.