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The National Media Is Going to Dwell on UNC Academics for Awhile

Pictured: A lot of victims of academic fraud, waving pom-pons.
Pictured: A lot of victims of academic fraud, waving pom-pons.
Streeter Lecka

If you're the type of person who doesn't particularly enjoy reading about the UNC academic scandal, 2014 has not been a particularly good year for you. The New York Times got the ball rolling on New Year's Day, with a front-page article on Julius Nyang'oro's indictment. As Nyang'oro had been indicted back on December 2nd, the story mostly summed up what anyone who'd been reading the News and Observer already knew. It's appearance in the Times served as a story that could be written in advance and then run on a holiday — UNC has enough academic cachet and a large enough alumni base in the city to make it of interest. Still, as there wasn't anything new, you'd expect the article to come and go without much comment. Everyone involved has left the university and a former governor spent close to a year running an independent investigation, right?

Never underestimate the power of the paper of record. One of the folks reading that holiday morning was a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, and he was spurred to... well, blog. The African and Afro-American Studies department became "a Potemkin department since the late 1990s." There's "implicit racism" in the fact that UNC allowed the AFAM department — and Mr. Barrett is more than convinced "further investigation will reveal that the fraud reached deep into the Tar Heel athletic hierarchy and that senior academic officials will also turn out to have been at least aware of improprieties," so UNC was definitely allowing this. Barrett's piece is breathtaking in its arrogance, thinking both that a story he read in the New York Times needed the further audience a blog post in Businessweek can bring, and that a quick perusal of other's reporting gave him a deeper understanding of the situation.

But fear not as Barrett was back a few days later with a second article, where he lays down the marker that he will do further reporting on this gravely under examined issue. While also writing a book on Chevron. His reporting to date consists of phone calls to history professor Jay Smith, and the Orange County district attorney. Shockingly, neither have anything new to offer, as nothing new has happened in the last month. A second indictment is still forthcoming, and Barrett becomes the 648,532nd person to realize it will probably be Deborah Crowder. From this he determines that the rot goes much higher, there will be plea deals, and the story will blow wide open.

Also, Jay Smith is writing a book. Which, good for him. I look forward to reading it.

The New York Times followed up their own reporting four days later with an editorial in which they highly disapprove of the university's actions. They're also not too keen on the NCAA, but it's mostly UNC's actions that get criticized, using data from investigations the university launched as evidence that the university isn't too interested in getting to the bottom of this.

Meanwhile, CNN is running their own investigation on the college literacy rate of college athletes, based on a recent survey of the reading level of football and basketball players. A survey that happened to be performed at UNC, by Mary Williingham, an academic advisor who left her position over her displeasure UNC handled the scandal. Her anecdotes open the article — there's a basketball player circa 2003 who can't read, and a couple of other unnamed athletes reading on an elementary school level. CNN then broadens the investigation by contacting 38 public universities about SAT and ACT scores for incoming athletes, and almost all decline to provide such data. So Chapel Hill is once again the face of academic impropriety. Or the midriff of academic impropriety, as the attached photo demonstrates.

A fair number of fans are grumbling about conspiracies, with several stories hitting the media at the same time, long after any misdeeds in Chapel Hill. That's almost certainly not the case. The Times ran their piece on the indictment, with some original reporting — Deborah Crowder apparently has a relationship with Warren Martin, former UNC center who was teaching middle school in Chapel Hill last I heard — and ran it on a slow news day because it was slow news. CNN's story came from an entirely different direction, and was tied to the BCS Championship; it's not a plot against UNC that the reporting was mostly "ask universities nicely for data in a manner that could be easily ignored." And the Businessweek guy is following the story in the Times and the N&O because its caught his interest.

This, I'm afraid is the new reality for UNC. Academic impropriety in Chapel Hill is a bigger deal nationally than it would be for most public university athletic departments — only Virginia and Michigan would generate similar amounts of hand-wringing amongst state schools. I'm not sure anything can come out that would satisfy the press at this point. Six investigations have just produced stories delineating the flaws in all six. The existence of coverups will be self-evident until the proper conclusion is reached. It obviously reached higher than a professor and his department administrator, despite the fact that it stopped as soon as the administrator retired. The university will be tarred as complicit, and the fans as irrational partisans with a hatred for anyone who would dare say so. Other reporters will continue to get "valuable tips from concerned local people" and the editorials decrying the mistreatment of athletes will continue.

They'll run right next to the stories on how magnificent the BCS championship was. How great March Madness is. And the occasional article of a talented high school student, seated in front of cameras and choosing from a selection of newly-purchased hats.

And the kid's SAT scores won't be mentioned once.