9/7 Evaluating the Chronicle

When errors creep into Fact Checker's writing, I am the first to admit and correct. Just last week I renamed Coach Pressler -- identifying him as Larry and not Mike. I have no explanation for this stumble, having lived through the lacrosse crisis, and having read blogs and books for three and a half years.

A friend suggests perhaps I was thinking of Larry Moneta, the vice president for student life. No, I assured, I do not think about L-Mo very much at all, and when I do, it can be rabid. This semester he's in Croatia, studying what services the universities in that country provide to their students. You know, things like janitors on the weekends to clean up puke in dorm bathrooms.

This is true. Not even Fact Checker can make this stuff up. Studying student life in Croatia.

My rage comes from the cost. Moneta's on a Fulbright Scholarship. Translation: paid by our federal tax dollars. And I have not been able to confirm if he's also on sabbatical, which would mean Duke is piling on $117,000 plus fringe benefits for the semester at a time of severe budget crunch.


But I digress. The points I want to make today start with accuracy and corrections, and grow into the vision the Chronicle has for itself -- the kind of discussion the paper tries to present about other entities from time to time, but never offers about itself.

Last week's big story about the new mandate for all university employees to report any sexual assault was very important, given the dimensions of the campus problem. It properly was reported in substantial detail. But I sat up when I read a quote attributed to Ada Gregory, director of the Women's Center, said to be talking about undergraduate men:

"The higher IQ, the more manipulative they are, the more cunning they are... imagine the sex offenders we have here at Duke-cream of the crop.."

Ms. Gregory wrote the Chronicle immediately, saying this quote "was neither accurate in the context of our conversation nor did it reflect my views, and could in fact harm our efforts to address the problem of sexual misconduct." Her letter got printed.

If this quote was wrong, it is a major journalistic failure. Far worse than calling Mike Pressler by another first name. It wrong, deserves a correction, not merely a letter.

Enter the Chronicle editorial board:

"It is unfortunate that when the policy was announced, the focus of the conversation was not on the policy itself, but rather on comments made by Women's Center Director Ada Gregory.....

"...Gregory's comments introduced the issue in a manner offensive to Duke men, ultimately creating a poor perception of the new policy and a biased environment for enforcement. Although Gregory has said her remarks were taken out of context, the response they generated still shows that demonizing or talking down to men is not going to improve the situation, and it only alienates a key stakeholder in reducing sexual assault."

As a reader, Fact Checker is left scratching: is the Chronicle repeating the quote? Is it standing by the quote?

Why is the only response to Ms. Gregory via the Editorial Board. Remember, please, how it is drilled into us that the board is totally independent from the news gathering operation that either made a mistake or did not.

Readers of the paper deserve more than a muddle.


They also deserve a far more intelligent editorial page.

I start with the columns. Conflict of interest disclosure: Fact Checker would like to write one!

With the singular exception of the summer-time interview with President Brodhead's musing on whether he'd like to return to teaching someday, there is little if any evidence that any columnist did all of the following: picked a local subject of importance, did substantial research and interviews, got quotes from people on campus, and produced a think-piece worthy of a newspaper at a Top Ten university.

Translation: I am tired of reading travelogues masquerading as columns: "Hi mom!! Guess where I am. People all different from us. Look different. Talk different. Helping them get clean water. Will be home on schedule whether the job is done here or not. Whew!!"

As for the editorials, many are on piddling issues. There is no broad sweep: not a single substantial comment (other than the loss of 7 janitors and the administration's stupidity for letting dorm bathrooms fester all day Saturday and Sunday) about the University's fiscal crisis, threatening current activities and shaking our vision for the future.

Little example: the University tinkered with thermostats, making them higher in summer, lower in winter. Did anyone interview students or employees to see how this may have affected them in the heat and humidity of the summer? Did anyone buy a thermometer and walk into President Brodhead's office, or Executive Vice President Trask's office, and announce they were going to check whether they were experiencing the same environment as the rest of us? Editorialize, praise them or scorch them.

That's what a newspaper does. That's it's job.

On a higher plane, our biggest donor, The Duke Endowment, is curtailing contributions, apparently by 25 percent, a development the Chronicle finds to be unworthy of either story or comment. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, smaller but a lifeline for the arts and catalyst for many projects that cannot obtain other funding, also cuts back. Silence from the Chronicle, no news, no comment.

The editors should read other campus papers. Where was the commentary when term limits forced the retirement of a most controversial chair of our Trustees, Bob "Wachovia" Steel? It's hard to believe the Harvard Crimson or Yale Daily News or Princetonian would not explore this with great depth. (Hang on Dukies, relief is on the way: Fact Checker is working on this one)

What about other issues raised by Fact Checker: Fuqua's new partnership with an Arab Sheikh who presides over the kidnapping of little boys from other nations to serve as slaves in his camel racing camps. 50,000 boys, one of the biggest slave-traders in human history. Well, i did not mean to imply this guy is human.

This too is true, for you cannot make this stuff up.

And now it's time for Fact Checker to address the news pages.

Unfortunately, the newspaper offers only a limited selection of campus news, and pages and pages ares filled with material from The Washington Post and similar sources. Now the Post's a solid newspaper, but you can read a more comprehensive version on line, and maybe even fish out a copy of the printed edition. Besides, there are many sources for news about Afghanistan and the fires in California and the Obama health plan, but precious few about Duke.

In the stories it does undertake, the newspaper is not accurate enough nor probative enough.

Back to Pressler and his lawsuit victory. The Chronicle headline in print and on-line said "Judge OK's Pressler's Slander Suit.:" Sorry, it was a three judge appeals panel whose unanimous opinion demolished the university position. Far different from a singular judge.

Also, the Chronicle identified the basis of Pressler's suit as alleged violation of the settlement agreement he reached with Duke after being fired. Sorry, but the coach's lawyers dropped this part of their lawsuit, a maneuver important enough to the potential outcome to be duly noted in the Herald-Sun, News and Observer, and Associated Press. Given the information that Fact Checker has about Chronicle deadlines, the reporter had plenty of time to digest the two newspaper and one wire service variants.

If we eliminate the erroneous, outdated, we find the Chronicle never stated the remaining basis for Pressler's lawsuit, leaving us wondering if the newspaper has even a rudimentary understanding of what is going on.

Unlike Fact Checker who corrected and apologized for missing Pressler's first name, the Chronicle is silent about its errors.

And by the way, Fact Checker has reported on the outrageous lacrosse defense legal bills that Duke is paying; Fact Checker provided that information to the Chronicle three months before using it, and the Chronicle suppressed it. There are substantial questions on whether the University properly is spending so much ($2 million in 12 months to one law firm alone) or if the money is only to try to bury the deeds of officials.

If you add up all the bills for the lacrosse hoax to date, Fact Checker believes we have surpassed $100 million. And counting. Where is the Chronicle tally?

Whew. We now come to the word probative, taking last Thursday's story celebrating the opening of Fuqua in London, first stop on the new Cross-Continent MBA program.

Yes celebrating. "With blue and white balloons bobbing against the backdrop of the River Thames, the coming out party went off without a hitch....." My friends, that's a lead worthy of a student trying to butter a dean for admission next year.

From top to bottom, this story is rich with stronger lead paragraphs.

-- Anticipating 180 students but drawing only 120, the reporter let the dean of Fuqua explain the world economy is to blame -- when in fact the timing indicates he set the goal knowing full well about the economic meltdown. No one asked how many applied, what the acceptance rate was, what the yield is (the percentage of those admitted who actually show up). There are also rumors that should have been dealt with, about whether Fuqua bent the Duke standard to capture as many students as it did.

-- Equally important, the students are far less diverse than anticipated, robbing the program of its intended flavor: exposure to various business cultures and contacts with students who will emerge as business leaders in their homelands in the decades ahead. Sounds like a lead to Fact Finder.

-- With 120 students, the 16 month program -- costing $115,000 this year and $120,000 for students who start next year -- will bring in approximately $5 million less than anticipated this year. That's a calculation the Chronicle did not make, nor did it interpret how more and more the venture smacks of our earlier forays into Frankfurt and Moscow, failures where Duke lost millions. This should be tied to the Provosts rather candid observation last May at the Academic Council, that Duke is expanding its graduate level degrees as a means of turning a profit.

-- Combine this with a 35 percent drop in Fuqua's sales of corporate education, revealed for the first time but buried in the Chronicle story and of course not analyzed in any way, we have a major financial crisis in Fuqua.

The first question Fact Finder would have asked Dean Sheppard: how many professors are you going to lay-off. Not janitors, not tinkering with thermostats set higher in summer and lower in winter, not fewer telephones -- but a real stab into the cost structure.

At least we learn one fact from the Chronicle that my own researcher could not dig out: the London start to this MBA experience is in a hotel. (We were quite amused at the way -- and the depth --of the dodging by Fuqua School's deans and other administrators. This is Fact Checker, on your side. We are not Osama bin Laden).

The hotel: four stars by the London Bridge, which, as anyone familiar with the British capital can tell you, is in a remote location inconveniently separated from the historical, cultural and business heart of the city.

The London hotel is bad enough as a campus, but we have no location at all set up in some of the other five international cities that MBA students who go to in rotation. How many, we are left to guess.

But that's OK, because Chronicle readers are never told a dirty secret previously revealed by Fact Checker: in 16 months, students will only be in the five international cities and Durham a total of 60 days. The rest of the time -- six to eight weeks between each city -- is something Fuqua calls "distance learning," something my father called "homework."

Do the math: 60 days in the Duke experience is costing $2,000 a day, plus travel expenses.

Story suggestion #1 - The Chronicle should develop a story on Duke Immerse, soon to rise as a cousin to Duke Engage for undergraduates.

Suggestion 2: the Chronicle should read The Yale Daily News profile of its freshmen. Compare, please, to the whitewash and pap we got from Dean Guttentag and the Duke news office.

Suggestion 3: this weekend the Yale Daily News had a comprehensive report about gift giving, including figures for the 2008-2009 academic year. If Yale's accountants can get their numbers together for the fiscal year ending June 30 by September 1 and make the tepid results available to students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni, The Chronicle should be asking some rather stiff questions of Dr Trask as to why he can't keep up.

Finally on the reporting side of the Chronicle, there is too much reliance on phone calls or e-mail to the Vice President for PR, Michael Schoenfeld. He is very available, responding even to Fact Checker immediately in most cases. But that's the lazy way to report.

Schoenfeld is not a primary source; there is more authority to be derived from people actually making decisions and executing policy than from someone charged with filtering the news. You never know what you will discover in a sit-down interview, or by regularly reading Fact Checker.

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