A New York Times story involving a Yale quarterback, his potential Rhodes scholarship and an allegation of sexual assault was initially hailed as a bombshell. Over the weekend, the responses have grown as divided as the story has been divisive.
The Times has already published a follow-up story that noted “diverging stories,” but only after comments and writers began questioning the Times’ editors and the paper’s editorial process.
The simplest summation of that criticism came from a commenter named ‘mystery shopper’ who posted that running the story was ”a horrible editorial decision. Ethics classes in schools of journalism around the country will use this story as an example of an ill-advised story.”
Another commenter, alias heoBaby, was incredulous that the Times would allow “such a hollow story, with all this innuendo and few, if any confirming authorities, to be published.”
It should be noted that many of the nay saying comments came from residents of Connecticut, where Yale is located, thus raising questions about their objectivity.
The offending story, written by the Times’ Richard Perez-Pena, centers on Yale signal caller Patrick Witt, whose withdrawal of his Rhodes application initially prompted great fanfare in the press. His interview for the prestigious scholarship was slated for the same day as his team’s game against Harvard, the biggest of the year in Ivy League football.
Witt chose to play, which the media interpreted as the ultimate sign of loyalty and commitment to a team.
However Perez-Pena uncovered and wrote that an allegation of sexual assault appeared to precipitate Witt’s decision, and lead the Rhodes committee to suspend Witt’s application. Considering that sexual assault remains a serious problem at Yale, and that Witt had been arrested before, Perez-Pena recast the story, noting that some of the adulation initially showered on Witt hid a darker truth.
“The revelations about Witt’s Rhodes candidacy being compromised are just the latest to muddy the inspiring picture of a scholar-athlete torn between brain and brawn,” he wrote.
Perez-Pena did not immediately link Witt’s withdrawal of his application to the allegation, but the pacing and structure of his story suggested as much. Perez-Pena concludes the piece by noting that neither Yale nor Witt corrected the misimpression that Witt withdrew his application to play in the game, but that after the game he denied missing the interview due to the outcome of the football game.
Conclusion: Witt withdrew the application because of the assault charge.
A mixture of commenters and journalists expressed that Perez-Pena relied on dubious sourcing. No one is on the record, neither the school nor Witt commented, and the accuser never went to the police or filed a formal complaint. Witt has since denied that his candidacy was suspended due to the allegation,
While the initial response from the likes of Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch and Perez-Pena’s colleague Pete Thamel was to heap praise on the story via Twitter, the likes of the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker then excoriated the Times for being complicit in the unjust condemnation of Witt.
All the while, comments criticized the piece, with only a few stepping in to defend the Grey Lady.
By Saturday, the Times published the new story, an admission of a lack of clarity, not just in Witt’s story, but in the justification for the Times’ initial post as well.