After perpetuating ambiguity, News must find truth

So: Aliza Shvarts ’08 doesn’t get to hang her senior project; Art Department lecturer Pia Lindman has been suspended and another Yale official disciplined; Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09 wants Yale College Dean Salovey out; and Salovey himself has gone white as a sheet — he is appalled. Meantime, prefrosh tread nervously the campus greens these Bulldog Days, knowing that they, the fetuses of Yale, are at special risk.

I don’t know much about the News and its inner workings, but if college has taught me one thing, it’s the importance of novelty in interpretation, the necessity of having something new to say. My studies have come to seem an unending search for hidden incentives and ulterior motives. Now, I’d like to attempt a real-world (sort of) application of my learning and suggest that this is all the News’ fault — or, at least, mostly.

Of course Aliza and her advisors were irresponsible to conceive of and approve such a sensationalist senior project. They must have known that this — or something like it — was bound to happen. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t the point — a piece that exists “as a public discourse” is more dependent for its life on publicity than is some aesthetically autonomous object, like a bust. But in order to pull off such a coup de publicité — a spate of attention which I’m sure she by now regrets, at least in part — Aliza needed the help of a local media outlet to spread her story. Naturally she turned to the News, and the News has more than obliged her.

But consider how the News has handled her story from the start: Sometime on Wednesday, April 16, Aliza sent them a press release with the alleged details of her project. The next day, the News published a front-page article more or less repeating what she had told them. Some reporting seems to have gone into it; quotes were given, from art major Juan Castillo ’08 and others. But the News did not question in print the legitimacy of Aliza’s claims. Nobody called a doctor to ask about the likelihood of her having gotten herself pregnant, and no one talked to a professor at the Art Department. Instead, the News called for comment on members of RALY and CLAY, the Sharks and the Jets of abortion politics, and ran the story under a headline including the sure-to-be incendiary word “abortion.” The wholly predictable result was days of rage: rage at Aliza, rage at Yale, rage at godless liberalism and American academia. All for no real reason, since the story, once it moved online, quickly became the alleged biological impossibility of the project. The News was essentially scooped on this point by pro-life blogs, where amateur apothecaries breathlessly explained the ins and outs of artificial insemination and abortifacient herbs.

But — what do you know? — that same day, April 17, News editors are on the horn with reporters from major media outlets, the same people many of these student journalists want to work with someday. The News’ Web site traffic goes wild; it’s like nothing since “We Admitted a Taliban!” They incite what passes around here for a firestorm, then they reap the exciting (for them) benefits.

It’s the News’ approach to this story — print first, ask millions of questions later — that’s most directly responsible for whatever infamy Yale has incurred as a result of all this. Though they’re students, News reporters and editors are not performance artists; we don’t expect of them sensation, amplification or self-regard. We expect — or at least want — objectivity and vetting, a process, and not one of endless perpetuation. If it were my job to handle the official Yale response, most of my anger would be at the News, which, because of the Internet, is now perhaps the most prominent feature on the University’s public face. This is not to say that the student paper speaks for the school, but if News editors care about Yale and its reputation, they ought to be more careful, more measured, in breaking stories like this.

Lost amid the exhaustive coverage of the continuing “he said, she said” between Salovey and Shvarts is one urgent question: Did she, or didn’t she? Aliza speaks of ambiguity, but forget for a moment the potentially interesting question of menstruation versus miscarriage. At this point, the story ought to be about who’s lying. Because somebody is, and it matters. I don’t think Aliza did it — that is, artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” — but I can’t be sure.

Isn’t this your job, Yale Daily News? Will someone on this newspaper please go out and get to the bottom of this? Don’t just report what both sides are saying and then throw up your journalist hands. Investigate: End this charade. It was fun, and once again we all felt flattered by the extent of everyone else’s interest in what happens at Yale, but you’ve already printed three articles quoting Aliza’s strange, wistful tautology: “Ultimately, I want to get back to a point where they renew their support, because ultimately this was something they supported.”

Eamon Murphy is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • Alumnus

    How about taking a piece of the project over to the Yale labs and seeing if its real blood? Seems easy enough and would give us all an answer.

  • milowent

    excellent guest column. my initial reaction to this last week was that the YDN deserves most of the blame and/or credit for the whole thing.

  • anonymouse

    rock on, big daddy murph!

  • Alum

    THANK YOU. I don't think the News should be motivated by concern for "Yale and its reputation," but this was terrible journalism. And the columns -- Shvarts' own and the one by Chase O-M -- made it obvious that the News was just fanning the flames to milk the story in lieu of new information.

  • an outsider

    I’m glad someone is bringing this point up - if she is lying to deans, faculty, peers….will Yale really give her a diploma? I did a quick search of the Yale website, is there no honor or discipline code? I’d be interested to see if this student is in violation…of something.

  • Out Wrong

    Yeah, that's right, take no personal responsibility. Well done.

  • call them out

    my sentiments exactly, except i would go one step further.

    i don't think they were trying to milk it, i think they are just incompetent journalists. regular students pretentiously trying (but failing) to live in the shadow of luce and buckley and all the famous EICs of yesteryear, if you will.

    their breaking of this story was atrocious. as you rightly point out, the sourcing was limited to shvart's friend and the student groups on both sides of the abortion debate.

    was this because they wanted to spark debate?

    i don't even give them that much credit. i think the reporter got the sources she had easiest access to (ie. undergrads), and the editors rushed the story out without pausing to think about its implications.

    the average yalie would have realized how huge the story was, and would naturally have wanted to know what actually happened, as opposed to what shvarts said her project was about. apparently, the folks at 202 york aren't thinking like the average yalie at 4.30 in the morning when they are editing the paper. apparently, they didn't stop to think that it would be wise to hold off the story until they got better sourcing.

    go on and found the next time magazine? guys, the odds of you doing that are the same as mine. zero to none.

  • Frank Krasicki

    An even more important point about this story is not the factual "can she inseminate herself" question but whether or not she was delusional enough to try.

    For many people the issue is whether or not the student is cognizant of what she's doing. Self-mutilation is not out of the question regardless of the rhetoric and breeding factoids.

    If Yale has an imbalanced individual on their hands then someone should start paying attention.

  • Anonymous

    #6, I too blame Eamon Murphy for this fiasco.

  • Anonymous

    they did get to the bottom of it, albeit a week late.

    http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/24630