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.

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