Solid journalism brought down Claudine Gay

Solid journalism brought down Claudine Gay

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In the end, Claudine Gay’s testimony before Congress nearly a month ago was not the impetus for her departure from her esteemed position as president of Harvard this week. It was embarrassing, but it was not disqualifying. For Liz Magill of Penn, that moment led to an immediate donor backlash — her resignation was swift, because the money talked.

With Gay, the path was different. It had nothing to do with her race or gender, as the usual suspects are alleging on social media this week. Gay was forced out of Harvard’s top job because of the more than a dozen instances of what can only be described as plagiarism — or at the bare minimum, attribution struggles — that someone at her level should never commit. That’s the common thread for Magill and Gay, and perhaps it’s why some on the left are hyperventilating over this moment — the ivory towers are being exposed as having shaky foundations.

We know about the plagiarism because of journalism — the power of investigative reporting, fearlessly put out into the world in an honest and objective way. The fact that so many in the corporate press refuse to acknowledge this, and find every possible way to denigrate this journalistic integrity, is instructive in assessing the state of the media in 2024.

The plagiarism allegations didn’t start out as journalism. Christopher Rufo was the first to publish the evidence, on December 10. Rufo is a conservative activist, but he publishes true reporting. If he didn’t have the goods, the story would have ended there.

Reporters then started pursuing the story. Washington Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium began publishing lengthy instances of evidence the next day, quoting professors who labeled it clearly plagiarism. The New York Post found that Harvard had quietly conducted their own previous investigation that found instances of plagiarism.

But Harvard’s powerful governing board stood by Gay, on December 12 announcing they “unanimously stand in support” of her. Most of the media, instead of investigating the case further, instead served as publicists for Harvard’s president.

CNN published a story the same day that detailed “How Claudine Gay made history,” a lengthy puff piece that included the line, “A lifelong academic with a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate from Harvard, Gay appeared destined to reach the pinnacle of higher education.”

The New York Times, while reporting how Gay had been “cleared” of misconduct allegations (not exactly), wrote, “Not all instances of potential plagiarism are equal, particularly when they do not reflect any intention to deceive, some scholars said.” That suspect definition of plagiarism was made even more absurd by the fact that the “some scholars” were not even quoted.

On Monday, Sibarium published a new investigation in the Free Beacon about a complaint sent to Harvard detailing six further charges of plagiarism. While we don’t know the motives of that source, described as an anonymous professor at another university, the Free Beacon corroborated the allegations with supplemental reporting. This is journalism.

But the reaction to this sorry episode further exemplifies the rot in not just our elite academic institutions, but in our journalistic ones too. In the Times piece on Gay’s resignation, the quadruple-bylined article identifies the Washington Free Beacon as “a conservative online journal that has led a campaign against Dr. Gay over the past few weeks.”

It must be “conservative,” to diminish its credibility, and not even described as a media outlet, but an “online journal.” And classifying the act of journalism as “led a campaign” is corrosive and ridiculous.

The Associated Press, once considered the gold standard for boringly objective journalism, went with this jaw-dropping headline: “Harvard president’s resignation highlights new conservative weapon against colleges: plagiarism.”

Then there’s Politico. “How the right toppled Harvard’s president,” is the headline of its Nightly newsletter, which quotes Sibarium defending his reporting as not “the right” trying to “topple” anyone, but as the literal definition of journalism. “I got a tip and I tracked it down,” he said.

The legacy media doesn’t like when reporting is aimed at a subject previously immune from journalistic scrutiny. It’s the Hunter Biden laptop New York Post story all over again — the media’s original sin of the Biden era. When the targets are the protected class, journalists suddenly begin to look askew at journalism.

There’s a quote about journalism that is relevant, and particularly ironic given the context of this column. It has dubious origins, with attribution ranging from George Orwell to William Randolph Hearst. But the point is an important one: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

For so much of today’s corporate media — prioritizing subservience to elite friends in power above all else — it can be difficult to recognize journalism when it’s aimed in an uncomfortable direction. It’s a failure driven by arrogance, but it doesn’t change the reality. Public relations from our Acela Media attempted to save Claudine Gay, but it was journalism that spelled her downfall.

Steve Krakauer, a NewsNation contributor, is the author of “Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People” and editor and host of the Fourth Watch newsletter and podcast.

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