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Scandal News: Examining the Media Narratives

In the drive to feed the media monster, the characters have become as huge as the actual details of the story.

This photo never gets old
This photo never gets old

As the actual news regarding the ongoing academic scandal at UNC has essentially dried up in advance of the Wainstein investigation and the possible court appearance of former AFAM department chair Julius Nyang'oro, it is interesting to take a look at the media narratives that have driven the story since the first of the year. Essentially since January there is pretty much no new information that has come out about the academic mess at Carolina but that hasn't stopped UNC from becoming the poster child for the sometimes sullied intersection of academics and big-time college athletics. If you take away the now-discredited claims by Mary Willingham about the literacy levels of certain Tar Heel athletes, there simply hasn't been much in the way of significant movement in the story. And when that happens, when the story itself is not the story anymore, the story becomes about the actors.

There is no doubt that the story around UNC academics and athletics in 2014 has been Mary Willingham. The snooze button keeps getting pushed on her fifteen minutes of fame despite her disputed claims and mounting missteps. And of course the reporter who has worked this angle for over three years, Dan Kane of the Raleigh News and Observer, has been thrust back into the spotlight thanks to a glowing article in the New York Times. Here's a look at the prevailing narratives of the two main characters in this saga.

Mary Willingham: Whistleblower Extraordinaire?

In the field of investigative journalism, being termed a "whistleblower" is the most exalted status a source can receive. Being labeled a whistleblower implies the informant is courageous and ethical and willing to take great personal risks to reveal some great injustice. It also implies the source is beyond reproach and any attempts to discredit or repudiate the information revealed by the whistleblower are "retaliation" for revealing information, which is important to maintaining the credibility of the informant. Investigative journalists hitch their wagons to whistleblowers in order to write investigative stories, sometimes with mixed results.

Of course the tales of Mary Willingham and Dan Kane are inexorably linked. It was Kane who first introduced his readers to the former UNC learning specialist in a story from November, 2012. In that story, Kane presents Willingham as an "insider" who confirmed the angle he had been pushing, which was that athletes were being steered to the aberrant classes and that there was a culture of cheating at UNC. Willingham wasn't initially presented as a whistleblower since she was bolstering Kane's assertions, not actually revealing them herself.

The "whistleblower" narrative really took off the following spring, however, when Willingham received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award from the Drake Group, which is a group whose purpose is to reduce the influence of for-profit college athletics within the realm of academia. The press release announcing Willingham's award read like this:

Mary Willingham, who exposed that UNC athletes were enrolled in more than 50 no-show classes so they could maintain their athletic eligibility at UNC...

Eventually her allegations led to four investigations, including one led by former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin. An investigation by the NCAA led to broad sanctions imposed last year against UNC Chapel Hill's football program - including the loss of a bowl appearance and scholarships.

The only problem is that Willingham didn't expose the athletic enrollment in the aberrant classes; UNC had already done so. You also have to chuckle at the assertion that it was Willingham's allegations that led to four investigations and the NCAA sanctions. But from that point onward, the "whistleblower" narrative was firmly planted and is now so ubiquitous that it is almost part of her name, and is seemingly required in any print mention of her.

Yet in the year and a half since her name first appeared in the Kane article and now with over four months of nearly non-stop coverage what exactly did Willingham blow the whistle on that wasn't already known, even then? That there were aberrant AFAM classes? That student-athletes were enrolled in them? That college students cheat on assignments? Her main assertion in the Kane article was that all of this went on with the full knowledge of the athletic academic advising staff, a claim which has yet to be corroborated over 18 months later.

Meanwhile, most of the claims she has made independently, such as the bombshell that she purported showed UNC athletes with reading levels at middle school or below, as well as the claim that a fragment of a paper received a passing grade have been discredited, refuted or debunked. The purpose here is not to disparage or discredit Willingham (if that's what you're looking for, then check out the eviscerations of her by current UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel) but to demonstrate that she was accorded whistleblower status without really blowing the whistle on anything, and the things she has tried to put out on her own haven't actually panned out.

Dan Kane: Woodward AND Bernstein All Rolled Into One

The name Dan Kane has become a profanity among some Tar Heel partisans, while being hailed a hero by the ABC crowd. Kane himself moved back into the spotlight as Sarah Lyall of the New York Times published this fawning piece last weekend about him. He has consistently beaten the drum about the academic scandal at UNC for over three years now, and in doing so, often has inserted himself into the story rather than objectively covering it. Also, we here at THB have taken Kane to task for writing 1500-word stories with 200 words of new information and 1300 words of recycled summary and terms like "might", "could" and "may". These are what we refer to here as Kane Klassics, and Kane is the master of insinuation, presenting a nugget and then inviting the reader to make the connection he is unable to prove on his own (also known as the "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" story). Nevertheless, Kane is an investigative reporter and as such does investigative reporter things.

But some of what drives the light blue disdain of Kane is that, intentionally or not, the story comes back to being about him and not about the issues at UNC. Moreover, the impression is left that Kane is pushing an agenda or has aligned himself with one side of the academic scandal. Kane appeared in the 2013 documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports", which is based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author (and UNC alumnus) Taylor Branch, which posits that college sports became a billion-dollar business on the backs of college athletes. Also prominently featured in that film? Kane's prized whistleblower, Mary Willingham. It's hard to give the appearance of objectivity when a reporter appears in an issue-advocacy documentary backing up the position of his key source.

The other driving force of Kane hater-ade is the manner in which the national media has put their shoulders out of joint trying to pat Kane on the back. A phalanx of national sports media types dutifully re-tweets each Kane Klassic as some groundbreaking new development in a scandal that mostly moves at a glacial pace; meanwhile Paul Barrett of Business Week makes sure to credit Kane at every turn, and the Lyall puff piece essentially paints Kane as a quintessential, mild-mannered investigative reporter taking on the faceless, evil monolithic entity.

Of course, another way to look at Kane's work over the past three years is that, all things considered, he hasn't really uncovered all that much. Even Lyall points out his initial entry into the UNC academic scandal, the discovery of plagiarism by former football player Michael McAdoo, was actually the work of NC State message boards. Other than the questionable acquisition of a fragment of Marvin Austin's transcript, the body of Kane's work and his related assertions in the academic scandal are grounded in the accusations of Mary Willingham. Specifically, after shaking the tree for three years now, the only nuts he has been able to shake loose are board monkeys and Willingham, who has now found her own credibility brought into question. The smoking gun he seeks, a concrete connection between athletic advising and the AFAM department, hasn't materialized. Given the broad reach of the story, which is now featured prominently on the national stage, Kane has not been able to find a single tutor, academic adviser, or student-athlete to corroborate Willingham's claims. If the length and depth of the scandal is as Willingham and others have claimed, there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of people combined in those categories that could confirm that athletes were steered to no-show classes to protect their eligibility. Yet not a single person other than Willingham, who had no direct knowledge herself, has stepped forward.

In a recent blog post, UNC sociology professor Andrew Perrin provided perhaps the most succinct summary of the convoluted relationship between the News and Observer, Kane, and Willingham. The interesting part is, his summary is part of an email he sent to Lyall in response to her inquiry about the relationship between the N&O and UNC. (Disclaimer: Lyall also contacted me for an explanation of the photo above used with this story, but at no time did she mention she was writing a piece about Kane). Of course, she chose to quote only part of Perrin's email:

Early on in the scandal, the paper — mostly through the work of Dan Kane, who is the main journalist working on this set of stories — has developed a viewpoint that believes the University is monolithic, defensive, and evasive. This viewpoint isn’t particularly amenable to evidence; rather, it seems to structure the way Kane approaches each element of the story, assuming and expecting malfeasance. This is facilitated by the active work of Jay Smith and Mary Willingham, who are fostering that narrative and viewpoint.

I don’t believe that viewpoint is accurate; in fact, I think that the university administration has been remarkably methodical and transparent in its approach to the situation, has provided lots of information, and has been unusually open to involving faculty in the processes of investigation and reform. Despite there being ample information available on these processes, the N&O has not reported on any of that, preferring instead to focus on sensationalism. Examples include the focus on Ms. Willingham instead of investigating the substance of her claims; the recent article essentially reprinting an evidence-free claim of "bullying" by the Government Accountability Project; and a news story in yesterday’s paper about the fact that a group of retired faculty wrote an op-ed in the same paper. In each of these cases, there is no serious attempt to assess the situation. (emphasis mine)

And therein lies the issue in the coverage of this story and the subsequent development of media narratives. Was there a serious academic issue that compromised the integrity of UNC? Absolutely. Did it, and does it still, require investigation? Clearly so. Yet while there have been over 70 changes and reforms in how UNC does business in athletics, academics, and admissions, coverage of the response to the scandal has been severely limited. As Perrin points out, when the reporting starts from the conclusion and seeks evidence to support the conclusion rather than drawing conclusions from the evidence, it is easy to see why, as Lyall claims, Kane has hit a raw nerve. And it is also easy to see how the narratives seem to have overtaken reality.