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The UNC Saga: Anatomy of a media scandal

The following article is from guest author Thomas Eckerman, who received his B.A. degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his J.D. degree from Tulane University School of Law.

Ever since one of the best sources in journalistic history fell into Sara Ganim’s lap and spoon fed her a Pulitzer for local reporting in the Sandusky scandal, Ganim has employed her unseasoned investigative skills to go whale hunting. Post Sandusky, Ganim’s first target was the University of Notre Dame regarding the Lizzy Seeberg matter. Since I don’t have a dog in the Seeberg fight and to avoid the recent fate of George Will, I will only say that Ganim’s fly-by reporting on the Seeberg matter was flimsy.

The next target of Ganim’s fly-by whale hunting was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ganim, like a heroin addict in search of her next high, was the perfect mark for Mary Willingham. Ganim’s CNN report featuring Willingham was a disgrace to even CNN. Rather than sending Ganim down to Chapel Hill, CNN could have saved money and just sent down a camera and tripod. Frankly, the camera/tripod combo would have asked more questions about the obvious falsehoods Willingham was spewing.

Willingham’s literacy claims about UNC athletes have been independently proven to be unequivocally false by three respected experts. It is nearly impossible to believe that she did not intentionally lie on her IRB application, and about the one paragraph paper she misrepresented on ESPN to be a student athlete’s final paper. The sundry list of her vacillating prevarications is so epic that a lengthy article could be devoted to them. Willingham appears to be a person who makes things up to support her agenda; so serious people do not believe what she has to say. That is why the attorneys in the O’Bannon trial and the U.S. Senate dropped her like a hot potato. Ganim continues to stand behind Willingham primarily through mindless tweets.

When not questioned, falsehoods spread and linger. Most unfortunate for UNC is the unprincipled team of John Drescher - executive editor of the News & Observer, reporter Dan Kane, and the entire N&O editorial staff. Instead of challenging the obviously false claims of Willingham and her supporters, Drescher and his crew turned a formerly respected newspaper into the unquestioning mouthpiece of questionable people. It appears Drescher saw in Ganim the blueprint for a Pulitzer for himself and his staff; so he abandoned the plow of a principled editor to attempt a shortcut to the prize.

Unfortunately for John Drescher and his sidekick Dan Kane, they got Mary Willingham as their source while Sara Ganim got the source of a lifetime in the Sandusky scandal. Drescher and Kane have embarrassed themselves by using every journalist trick in the book to create a false equivalency between Willingham’s untruthful and evolving claims and UNC’s reasoned and truthful counterclaims.

With John Drescher’s cover, the national media took up Mary Willingham’s story. One of the first to take the bait was Paul Barrett of Bloomberg/BusinessWeek. As all fisherman know, when stink bait is used, you catch bottom feeders. In a series of articles, Barrett regurgitates Dan Kane’s unprincipled reporting and then resorts to the most vile of all things in journalism. He plays the race card.

In his reporting, Barrett informs his readers that “slaves helped build UNC, the nation’s first public university” and that UNC’s “original Memorial Hall”, a building Barrett fails to mention no longer exists, “honored students and faculty who died defending the Confederacy.” When the Carolina Black Caucus wrote an impassioned letter defending UNC from Barrett’s attacks, Barrett said the UNC scandal had “entered the Tom Wolfe phase, revealing a racial subtext of the uniquely ironic and bitter American variety.”

The author and UNC alumnus, Thomas Wolfe, was a legendary writer and racist. To bring up UNC’s slave history, the nonexistent “original Memorial Hall”, and the name of Thomas Wolfe in the context of the UNC scandal could only be interpreted to mean that UNC is practicing a form of modern day slavery upon many of its student athletes who happen to be black. Barrett, a white man, then has the audacity to say, “Whoa. The Carolina Black Caucus has this situation precisely upside-down.” Most readers would agree that Paul Barrett is the one upside down, and that the Carolina Black Caucus could not be happy to have been told how to think by a white man from afar who knows nothing about their experiences at UNC.

Barrett conveniently fails to mention that his alma mater benefitted from slavery more than any other university in the country. If you don’t believe that, go to www.harvardandslavery.com and read the report entitled, “Harvard And Slavery, Seeking A Forgotten History.” It is co-authored by Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of history at Harvard and Katherine Stevens, a Harvard graduate student. Along with other atrocious people and things, the report will introduce you to Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz who arguably did more to damage the fortunes of black people than any man in U.S. history.

Professor Agassiz was a proponent of race science and applied his work on the origins of animal species to argue that black people were inferior to white people. In his work entitled, “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races”, Agassiz “argued that the story of Adam applied to only white people” in order to break down Christian barriers to slavery. According to Beckert and Stevens, “the relationship between Agassiz and Harvard was symbiotic” and the huge sums of money their relationship brought to Harvard helped build Harvard’s science schools into the influential institutions they are today.

The appallingly racist ideas of Professor Agassiz and his followers “set the tone at Harvard for decades after the abolition of slavery”, say Beckert and Stevens. Professor Agassiz makes Thomas Wolfe look like a saint. Perhaps Paul Barrett, the race card player, should read up on his fellow Harvardite Agassiz. By playing the race card in the UNC matter, Paul Barrett is arguably the most reprehensible journalist in America.

During the height of the tumult caused by Willingham’s false literacy claims and after many months of the N&O acting like her dictation machine, John Drescher wrote an editorial to explain the N&O's coverage. Shamelessly, he never once mentioned Willingham’s name or any of her false claims. Drescher even subtly suggested that the N&O's reporting during the period when the paper was dictating her falsehoods led to the Wainstein investigation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Wainstein investigation was begun in response to findings and potential plea deals coming out of the prosecution of Professor Julius Nyang’oro, the former head of the UNC AFAM department. To avoid prosecution, both Nyang’oro and his assistant Deborah Crowder have been talking with Kenneth Wainstein; so the Wainstein Report should be the definitive word on the scandal.

Now, the NCAA has reopened its investigation of UNC. With Nyang’oro and Crowder finally talking, the NCAA must reexamine the situation “to ensure an exhaustive investigation.” The impudent Ganim has chimed in to imply that the NCAA reopened its investigation largely due to “pressure from whistleblowers, academic reform groups, the public, and members of Congress.” The NCAA never said anything of the sort which Ganim knows. In an attempt to salvage her reputation, Ganim also tried to re-float a sunken ship by dragging back up Willingham and her false literacy claims.

The reprehensible Barrett went so far as to insinuate his reporting was a factor in the NCAA’s decision to reopen its investigation, and then provided links to his and Dan Kane’s earlier unscrupulous reporting. The N&O took the opportunity to employ an unethical journalistic trick that it has used throughout its coverage of the UNC saga. Rather than publishing a brief piece about a brief NCAA statement, it rehashed copious amounts of old news about the scandal in lengthy articles.

On the very same day that the NCAA informed UNC of the reopening of its investigation, the un-inhibitable Willingham filed a grandstanding lawsuit against UNC to get the job she resigned from back. How about that timing. At this point, her lawsuit has no basis in fact or reality. But it does get Willingham and her supporters on the front pages again and allows unscrupulous editors and reporters an opportunity to continue their work.

The truth is that the NCAA reopened its investigation to hear what Nyang’oro and Crowder have to say and to see if Rashad McCant’s and Mike McAdoo “might be willing to speak with the enforcement staff.” The reopening of the NCAA investigation is proof of nothing other than that the NCAA must complete a thorough investigation. I will say that I don’t know what the Wainstein investigation and the NCAA investigation will find. But neither does the N&O which continues to rehash old news and to speculatively report worst case scenarios. What I do know is that whatever the reports say will not be nearly as bad as what the N&O's speculations suggest.

Not long ago, a once principled editor and alumnus gave a commencement speech at the UNC School of Journalism. In his speech, John Drescher talked about justice, courage, and truth. In his own words, he told the newly minted journalists, “No matter what form your storytelling takes, aim for the truth.” Regrettably, Drescher’s storytelling at the N&O assumed an unscrupulous form and failed to aim for the truth with respect to Willingham’s false claims. Drescher’s attempt to follow Ganim’s blueprint of a journalist who pursues a scandal at his/her alma mater all the way to a Pulitzer will fail because Ganim had the source of a lifetime while Drescher has Willingham. And, no matter how hard one tries to dress up a pathological pig, it will remain a pathological pig.

When Sara Ganim reported Willingham’s false literacy claims on CNN, she soiled her reputation and led Drescher down the primrose path. His unquestioning coverage of Willingham gave cover for Paul Barrett to jump into the pig pen and play the race card. Much of the national media then entered the mud.

On Drescher’s desk sit the six core beliefs of Harry Truman one of which says, “speak the truth.” It would be more instructive if it said, “print the truth.” By printing without questioning the untruths of Willingham, John Drescher has failed to speak the truth and has committed a grave injustice.


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