What Were Naomi Schaefer Riley's Editors Thinking?

The Atlantic Wire
What Were Naomi Schaefer Riley's Editors Thinking?
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What Were Naomi Schaefer Riley's Editors Thinking?

By no means do we agree with Naomi Schaefer Riley's assertions about black studies. But today we do find ourselves in a weird position of actually being sort of on the same page as Schaefer Riley, at least when it comes to questions about her editors. Sure, there's the basic question of why The Chronicle of Higher Education allowed her work to go up on the site (which they haven't taken down). But considering her body of work, why was it these particular posts that caused her firing? 

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Schaefer Riley's column in today's Wall Street Journal, when it isn't rehashing and remixing the controversy, is most effective when it asks questions about editor Liz McMillen's and The Chronicle's standards, noting that her views on black and African American studies were known to The Chronicle before it hired her (thanks to a recently published book). Which makes us wonder: Why did The Chronicle hire Schaefer Riley in the first place since it seems like they knew what they were getting. And that would've solved this whole problem right? 

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"Riley's commentary is well within the bounds of provocative opinion writing. Firing her was an act of cowardice and an assault on intellectual freedom," according to The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, who echoed sentiments by The American Conservative's Rod Dreher:

Riley’s blog post was not a sterling example of the genre, and she left herself open to strong criticism. I have no problem with that. But firing her for an ill-considered blog post? Really? That’s not about upholding the Chronicle blog’s standards. It’s about heretic hunting. 

And as we noted, Schaefer Riley's own colleague Laurie Essig wrote:"Partly I have not signed the petition because I am not sure The Chronicle should fire someone because they are nearly universally reviled." Adding, "Which leads me to believe that editorial decisions about who stays and who goes should not really be in response to public pressure since no unpopular views would ever be published, at least not for long."

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"We made our own judgment about Naomi’s post and determined that it and her response did not meet our editorial standards for opinion writing," said Chronicle editor Liz McMillen in an interview with Fishbowl DC's Betsy Rothstein today. "Criticism of any discipline, including black studies, is legitimate as long as it’s not sloppy, overgeneralized, and badly argued," she added. "In fact, she couldn’t have read the dissertations because they are not finished, but she could have offered something else, something stronger, to support her opinion."

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Noble words right? Though, you have to wonder why, if McMillen wasn't a fan of "sloppy, overgeneralized and badly argued" posts, didn't she fire Schaefer Riley over that first inflammatory blog post where Schaefer Riley nonchalantly dismissed dissertations left and right?  And why did McMillen write an editor's note encouraging more people to visit Schaefer Riley's post?  And furthermore, why, are those blog posts still accessible (nary an editorial note at the top of the second post's--the one that she was fired shortly after-- page) on the site if they aren't up to editorial standards?

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So we looked at some of Schaefer Riley's previous opinion posts, based in silliness, mocking and anecdotes (and not exactly based in fact), which totally passed The Chronicle's editorial standards. And here they are (we condensed/reworked her headlines and included her quotes): 

  • The Elimination of Performance Art  " I say this not simply to mock–that’s too easy. But just to once again suggest that maybe college students have too much time on their hands."
  • Adults can be fratboys too "In my anecdotal experience it is not uncommon for this kind of alcohol use to continue into what we now call 'emerging adulthood.'"
  • Why Harvard Sex Week Sucks "They will be the people in Washington yelling that if only people realized how to use sex toys, that their insurance covered new kinds of birth control, and why it’s important we all become more comfortable talking publicly about our sex lives, we would all be healthier and happier individuals. Count me skeptical"
  • Free-Market Conservatives Good, Ivory Towers Bad "Say what you will about free-market conservatives (and if you read the rest of Robin’s piece, you’ll find he does) but we have a whole lot more respect for human dignity and autonomy than this ivory tower crackpot."
  • On Praying  "I haven’t read the book, but..." and "I can’t speak for the Muslim community but I can say..."

As The Atlantic Wire's own Richard Lawson's Tweeted: 

As it turns out, Naomi Schaefer Riley spent her entire CHE career scoffing derisively at frou-frou liberal things. What a peach.

— Richard Lawson (@rilaws) May 9, 2012

And again if that's the case, why wasn't she fired sooner if most of her more recent posts don't exactly seem like outliers in Schaefer Riley's body of work for The Chronicle? Oh, right. There's something about her recent posts getting comments in the triple digits (Schaefer Riley's posts usually top out around 30) and a 6,500-strong petition to give her the boot. Wait, didn't someone say something about making their "own judgment?"  Sure doesn't sound like it. 

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