Thursday, July 24, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 1): Mary Willingham's Original and Contradicting Claims

The NCAA’s decision to reopen the UNC case should not surprise anyone. Previous investigations into the academics scandal were only as thorough as they could be without the testimonies of Julius Nyang’oro and Debbie Crowder. (Nyang’oro was the professor who, for well over a decade, conducted hundreds of African Studies [AFRI] and Afro-American Studies [AFAM] lecture classes as independent studies, commonly known as “paper classes,” and graded them very leniently. Crowder was his office manager.) Nyang’oro’s and Crowder’s recent cooperation with the Wainstein investigation gives the NCAA justifiable cause to inquire whether Wainstein has uncovered any new information indicating whether UNC committed NCAA infractions hitherto unknown. Truth-seekers should welcome Wainstein’s findings and the NCAA’s inquiry alike.

The N&O’s swift coverage of the NCAA’s decision on June 30 should not have surprised anyone, either. Within hours of the announcement, Raleigh’s award-winning tabloid published both a news report and an editorial. Sports columnist Luke DeCock wrote the editorial, and, like all his previous pronouncements on the UNC scandal, it reveals how incapable he is of comprehending the nuances of issues outside sports. Specifically, he has consistently dismissed the Martin Report (the most extensive investigation to date) without actually demonstrating any familiarity with its findings. The N&O would serve readers better by restricting DeCock’s editorializing to topics he is more capable of understanding, like the Hurricanes’ draft picks and NC State recruiting.

Also not surprising on June 30 was Jay Smith's appearance in the N&O's news report about the NCAA's decision. Smith is the UNC professor who has been the most outspoken, cantankerous critic of UNC. He loves to read his name in the paper, and the N&O loves to print it. In fact, the N&O loves printing Smith’s name so much they quote Smith even when Smith’s expertise as a French historian bears no relevance to the story.

For example, on June 24, Dan Kane published an article about Nyang’oro’s criminal charge potentially being dropped following his cooperation in the Wainstein investigation. (The charge was eventually dropped, on July 3.) Many readers likely wondered whether a precedent exists for dropping a criminal charge under such circumstances. An attentive journalist, therefore, would have found a legal expert—or three, as did the DTH—to answer some questions about the case. Fortunately, among the Duke, NCCU, and UNC law schools, finding legal experts in the Triangle area is exceptionally easy. Unfortunately, instead of interviewing a legal expert, Kane interviewed Smith, an expert on imaginary, 18th-century French monsters. Alas, Smith’s frivolous appearance in the article illuminates more about the cozy relationship between him and Kane than about the facts of the story.

Yet Kane would like readers to believe he is just doing his job. In a recent interview with WCHL, he insisted, “I’m trying to go where the facts lead.” Earlier in the interview, when responding to a question about Roy Williams’s interview with Jay Bilas on ESPN, Kane audaciously insinuated Bilas was not qualified to conduct the interview sufficiently. Kane stated,

I would have liked for somebody who’s spent a lot of time in journalism, doing investigative reporting, handling that interview, just because, investigative reporters, they tend to focus on the details, have people walk through the process, and tend to get a richer explanation as to what happened.

The implication, of course, is that Kane, an investigative reporter himself, would have focused on more details and solicited a richer explanation than Bilas accomplished. Obviously, ESPN should have had Kane, not Bilas, conduct the interview.

Facts, details, and rich explanations should indeed be the accepted standards for quality investigative journalism, and we should thank Kane for articulating those standards so clearly. One could send him a thank you note, but I want to express my gratitude more thoroughly. I can think of no better way of thanking him than to evaluate his own reporting (on the UNC scandal) against the standards he himself has articulated for such reporting. Has Kane followed all the relevant facts? Has he solicited and provided sufficient details for readers to develop a comprehensive understanding of his sources’ claims? Has he solicited and provided rich explanations of the experiences and situations his sources have recalled?

As I will demonstrate in this three-part essay, the answer to each of those questions is no. Indeed, rather than report verified facts, relevant details, and rich explanations, Kane, with the help of his boss and colleagues, has relentlessly steered the narrative to sensationalism. In this four-part essay, I highlight four narrative aspects about which Kane and other N&O writers have not followed the facts, not solicited or provided sufficient details, and not solicited or provided rich explanations from sources. In short, beginning with Kane's reporting on Mary Willingham's original and contradicting claims, I will demonstrate that Kane and the N&O have not lived up to the standards Kane himself has articulated.

(Lest one think Kane is the only journalist to have steered an ostensible college athletics scandal to sensationalism, consider the recent Sports Illustrated journalists who inaccurately reported on the Oklahoma State scandal.)

Tolerating Cheating?

Recently, a journalist informed me he had acquired some interesting information related to the UNC scandal, but he has refrained from publishing the information because he has no way of verifying it. That journalist’s commitment to verification—a principle that should be the defining standard of journalism—merits our applause. Had Kane demonstrated such professionalism when handling Mary Willingham’s claims, the narrative of the UNC scandal would have likely been told with more accuracy and less sensationalism.

Willingham first seized the media’s attention on November 17, 2012, when the N&O headline read, “UNC tolerated cheating, says insider Mary Willingham.” Of course, Kane wrote the article. In it, he reports several vague claims Willingham made, and then, after the damage is done, he quickly acknowledges none of her claims could be verified. Kane writes, “Willingham provided no records to support her claims and would not identify specific athletes for fear that would violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA.” He then hastily moves on to a complaint about UNC’s regularly citing FERPA, and then he concludes the article with some melodramatic quotes from Willingham. Over a year and a half later, Willingham’s original, unverified claims are particularly interesting in light of developments since then and in light of Kane’s own standards for investigative reporters.

Kane begins the article from November 2012,

As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didn’t know what a paragraph was. She said she saw diagnostic tests that showed they were unable to do college-level work.

But many of those athletes stayed eligible to play sports, she said, because the academic support system provided improper help and tolerated plagiarism. When she raised questions or made an objection to what she saw as cheating, she said, she saw no one take her concerns seriously.

A few paragraphs later, Kane reports some details about an instance of suspected plagiarism allegedly tolerated by staff members, yet the explanation Willingham provided remains far from rich. Kane writes,

Willingham learned of [the ‘paper classes’] when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a ‘cut-and-paste’ job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.

That is it. Seriously, that is all Kane writes about the incident. Is that supposed to be a rich explanation?

Unfortunately, Willingham’s unverified and vague recollection of the circumstances surrounding that paper, as reported by Kane, leaves careful readers with too many unanswered questions to develop a comprehensive understanding of the situation. What exactly did Willingham mean when she referred to the paper as a “‘cut-and-paste’ job”? As a learning specialist, was she not responsible for helping such students develop their writing skills beyond “cut-and-paste”? Did she, therefore, help the student improve the paper before the student submitted the final draft? How many times did she meet with the student? Was the student receptive to Willingham’s teaching? Did the student correct what Willingham may have perceived to be plagiarism? How did the final draft compare to the original draft? Was Willingham concerned primarily because she believed the student’s final draft was willfully plagiarized, or was she concerned primarily because she was doubtful of her abilities to continue providing effective academic support to such students?

Furthermore, Kane writes only that Willingham “raised questions” about the paper. Well, what questions did she raise? What exactly did she report to staff members? Did she report resistance from the student? Did she report a concern that the student submitted a willfully plagiarized paper? Did she provide staff members with copies of the paper to demonstrate her concerns? How exactly did they respond? Did the staff members blatantly dismiss direct evidence of plagiarism, or could they have told her not to worry simply because she was new to the job and her concerns were the typical concerns of a new learning specialist?

Years after Willingham’s encounter with the “cut-and-paste” paper, she encountered another paper that similarly concerned her. Yet Willingham’s recollection of the circumstances surrounding the second paper, as reported by Kane, is as unverified and vague as the first set of circumstances. Such ambiguity from an investigative reporter is vexing on its own, but even more so when following a headline like, “UNC tolerated cheating, says insider Mary Willingham.” Given such a damning accusation, readers may expect verified, detailed accounts of widespread cheating among athletes, but instead we discover the headline is based on nothing more than two unverified, vague anecdotes separated by years.

Hundreds of Writing Samples?

Of course, developments since then raise more questions that Kane has never seemed to ask despite his ongoing reliance on Willingham for sensational claims. For example, those following the media’s narrative on the UNC scandal well remember the infamous Rosa Parks paper that Willingham claimed earned a student an A-. Jordan Weissman, writing for Slate, provided clarification on the circumstances of the paper, after the ESPN story went viral. Weismann writes,

Willingham told me that ESPN had asked her to show them some of the hundreds of writing samples she keeps on file from the athletes she worked with at UNC; she retrieved a pile of them. The Rosa Parks essay, which happened to be on top, was just one typical example of what students regularly showed her.

That story was April of this year, nearly 18 months after Kane’s original story featuring Willingham. Remember that the central anecdote of Kane’s story was about a “cut-and-paste” paper Willingham encountered early in her career working with athletes. Remember also that she provided no records to verify her claims. Yet nearly 18 months later, she claimed to have hundreds of writing samples demonstrating the very “cut-and-paste” writing she previously would not verify. Where were those hundreds of samples in November 2012? Why would she not have provided some of them to Kane? Did she previously deny having those samples? Can she demonstrate the samples are authentic and not fabricated texts she composed to attract more media attention?

Those questions would be highly relevant for a follow-up to the ESPN segment, and Kane did write an article about it, but he did not report answers to any of those questions. In fact, he made no original contributions to the story at all: his article is nothing more than a rehashing of the ESPN segment (and of an HBO Real Sports episode that aired the same day.) It was perhaps his most pathetic article to date, entirely devoid of new details. It was not what we would expect from an investigative reporter just doing his job.

What Did They Know?

In his original story on Willingham, Kane also states the following:

In a series of interviews with The News & Observer, she said there were numerous people in the academic support program who knew that what was going on was wrong, but they looked the other way, helping to protect one of the nation’s most storied athletic programs.

For that claim, forget a rich explanation from Willingham: Kane does not even bother soliciting any explanation. Thus, we are left with multiple questions. What did the numerous members of the academic support staff know was wrong? How did Willingham know those staff members knew what was going on was wrong? Did she hear numerous staff members admit to excusing wrongdoing for the sake of athletics? Did she ever confront any of those numerous staff members about looking the other way? If so, how did they respond? Could Willingham be projecting false memories onto the narrative in order to exonerate herself from wrongdoing, to make herself feel important, and/or to attract attention?

Furthermore, Willingham’s allegation regarding numerous staff members in the academic support program directly contradicts her statements to one of those staff members in an email sent about a year later. The excerpt below comes from an email Willingham sent to a former academic support staff member in September 2013:

I never doubted you or that you helped students enormously and selflessly loved them and Carolina. The story of how our UNC athletic system worked/had to work and the dedicated people behind the scenes is nothing short of amazing. You played a role in it and you should be proud - our students (and staff) loved you --because [. . .] you are real. The collegiate sport system (profit sport model) is messed up, not the people (well, maybe some of those guys in Indianapolis).

When making vague allegations devoid of details but sure to generate headlines, Willingham claims the academic support program accepted wrongdoing for the sake of athletics. However, when addressing members of the academic support program personally, she calls them dedicated educators whose work was “nothing short of amazing.” (By the way, the UNC Board of Governors later affirmed the academic support program’s blamelessness.) An investigative reporter committed to soliciting rich explanations would have likely discerned Willingham’s propensity for self-contradiction early in the interviewing process. For Kane, however, ambiguity allows for conjecture and insinuation, the methods by which the N&O steers its narrative.

To avoid "paper classes," or not to avoid? That is the question.

Another one of Willingham’s original claims that she later contradicts without Kane’s notice is in regard to the athletes with whom she worked. Kane writes,

Willingham said after her early experience with the female athlete’s [cut-and-paste] paper, she avoided the African studies papers by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports, and by helping students with introductory English classes. But the issue arose again in 2008, she said, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player.

Willingham began her job as a learning specialist for athletes in October 2003. If she encountered the “cut-and-paste” paper early in her experience and then spent little time working with football and basketball players until sometime in 2008, as Kane reports, we can reasonably infer she had little contact with football and basketball players between 2003 and 2008. Yet she has been arguing the opposite for the past six months.

Since Willingham’s so-called “research” on UNC athletes’ reading levels was discredited, first by the Provost and then by three external reviewers, Willingham has insisted her assessment was based in part on her personal experience with the athletes in the study. Her study’s sample consisted of first-year athletes from 2005 until 2012, most of whom were football and men’s basketball players. “I worked with the overwhelming majority of the students in the data set,” Willingham has asserted.

However, Willingham stopped working with athletes in January 2010, which means she would not have worked with any of the first-year athletes from 2010, 2011, and 2012. Furthermore, if, as she claimed to Kane for his original story on her, Willingham mostly avoided working with football and men’s basketball players prior to 2008, then she would have only had extensive contact with at most two (2008 and 2009) of the cohorts of first-year football and men’s basketball players before her departure from the academic support program. That means she would have only worked closely with two of the eight cohorts of football and men’s basketball players in her study. Therefore, the history of her experience as a learning specialist for athletes does not align with her claims the past six months, yet neither Kane nor any of the other journalists who have recently reported on her have solicited a rich explanation for that discrepancy.

Forgetting FERPA

In addition to the aforementioned claims by Willingham in Kane’s original, November 2012 story on her, she also claimed that men’s basketball players commonly enrolled in the substandard AFRI and AFAM classes until a new academic counselor stopped them from doing so in Fall 2009. Remember, however, that Willingham did not provide any records to verify her claims. Remember also that her reason for not providing any records was because she did not want to violate FERPA. Now, flash forward to last month, when Kane reported on data Willingham recently provided to him, allegedly demonstrating that five members of the 2005 national championship team enrolled in a combined 51 “paper classes” and independent studies. In other words, the data she recently provided Kane was exactly the kind of data that would have verified at least one of her claims in November 2012 but which she did not provide then because she did not want to violate FERPA.

Careful readers are left with lingering questions. Why was Willingham concerned about FERPA in November 2012 but not this year? Did she have that data in November 2012? If so, why did she not provide it to Kane then? If not, when did she access and collect that data? How did she access it? With whom? Does she believe her accessing that data violated FERPA? Has she obtained and/or maintained other protected academic records since she stopped working with athletes and since she left the university? Does she believe she has ever violated FERPA? Did the university Registrar ever summon her to account for potential FERPA violations since she published her “research” findings with CNN?

The answers to those questions would certainly provide readers with relevant details for understanding the situation. Of course, the answers may also be damning for Willingham, which would impede Kane’s efforts to exploit her for the narrative he and the N&O have been steering.

To avoid, or not to avoid? Still asking.

Still another discrepancy exists between Kane’s original story on Willingham and his recent story about the 2005 basketball team. In his recent story, Kane explains that Willingham identified several “paper classes” that had not previously been identified as such:

A review of Willingham’s data shows that she is including several classes that were not identified in previous investigations as no-show classes. She said she counted them because she did not recall athletes having to attend the class to obtain credit.

However, in November 2012, Kane writes,

Willingham said after her early experience with the female athlete’s [cut-and-paste] paper, she avoided the African studies papers by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports, and by helping students with introductory English classes. But the issue arose again in 2008, she said, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player.

If, as Willingham claimed in November 2012, she started avoiding the “African studies papers” soon after she began working as a learning specialist in October 2003, how does she now so clearly remember the African studies classes in which members of the 2005 team were enrolled? Did she, or did she not, work closely with football and men’s basketball players between 2003 and 2008? From her conflicting accounts, we cannot tell. Again, the history of Willingham’s experience as a learning specialist for athletes, as she originally claimed, does not align with her recent claims, yet neither Kane nor any of the other journalists who have recently reported on her have solicited a rich explanation for that discrepancy.

An Imagined Conversation

Before I conclude the first part of this essay, one more, critical point remains about Kane’s reporting in his original story on Willingham. Again, early in his November 2012 article, Kane reports Willingham’s claim that men’s basketball players enrolled in the substandard AFRI and AFAM classes until a new academic counselor stopped them from doing so in Fall 2009. Later in the article, he provides more details:

Last month, The N&O questioned men’s basketball coach Roy Williams as to why his players stopped enrolling in no-show classes by the fall of 2009. Williams offered no explanation other than a suggestion that players may have decided on their own not to take them.

Willingham said a new academic counselor assigned to the team in summer 2009 told her she would not enroll the players in the no-show classes. “She said, ‘I didn’t come here ... to do this. Everything has to be on the up and up,’ ” Willingham recalled.

In uncharacteristic fashion, Willingham actually portrays another academic support staff member as upright. However, there is one major problem with that anecdote: the conversation between Willingham and the new academic counselor never happened. The counselor tells me she never once discussed "paper classes" with Willingham.

That's right: Willingham imagined that conversation.

Of course, Willingham is to blame for fabricating the anecdote, but Kane is more to blame for including it in the article. He printed a secondhand quote that he never verified. I may not be an expert on the journalism profession, as Andrew Carter recently pointed out, but, as a reader, I expect better than unverified, secondhand quotes from investigative reporters. All readers should expect better.

For some time, I was perplexed over the inclusion of that anecdote in Kane’s story. Why would he highlight a single academic counselor’s seemingly virtuous conduct? How did it contribute to the story? Although the answer should have been evident to me sooner, it did not become apparent until I watched the documentary Schooled, which features an interview with Kane about the UNC scandal. In the film (which, outside its slanted depiction of the UNC scandal, is well-executed and advances an important argument), Kane repeats Willingham’s fabricated anecdote about the new basketball counselor. This time, though, his framing of the anecdote more clearly reveals his motive for highlighting it in the first place. Kane contends,

What’s really interesting is that the Carolina basketball team that won the national championship in 2005, that team alone, had 15 “paper class” enrollments that year. In the summer of 2009, the basketball team changed academic counselors, and that new counselor comes in and says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that. I want to do things right.” And from there on out, the basketball team is out of these classes.

By lauding one counselor who allegedly identified wrongdoing and deliberately chose “to do things right,” Kane strategically insinuates that all other counselors, including the counselor for the 2005 and 2009 national championship teams, deliberately chose to do wrong. With just a subtle insinuation—based on a secondhand, unverified quote imagined by Willingham—Kane has steered the narrative to becoming the sensationalized athletics scandal for which the N&O wants so desperately to win a Pulitzer.

Kane criticized Jay Bilas for not soliciting sufficient details and rich explanations from Roy Williams and the accompanying former UNC basketball players, yet Kane’s reporting on Willingham, from the very beginning, has been no less bereft of sufficient details and rich explanations—while also being propelled by secondhand, unverified quotes. The remaining three parts of this essay cover three additional narrative aspects about which Kane has failed to comply with his own standards of investigative reporting, Though the remaining issues are not as extensive as the first, they are nonetheless disconcerting and further demonstrate the methods by which Kane and the N&O (and other journalists) have steered the narrative to sensationalism.

Click here to read Part 2: Mary Willingham's and Michael McAdoo's Overlapping Claims.