In an open letter to the Harvard community that appeared in the September 17 issue, Todd F. Braunstein '97, The Crimson's president, and The Crimson's two diversity co-chairs, Victoria E. M. Cain '97 and Corinne E. Funk '97, wrote that "Like every newspaper, The Harvard Crimson strives to print unbiased, thoroughly reported stories."
After reading the September 17 issue, many readers wondered how committed The Crimson really is to this stated goal.
Several readers mentioned to me their displeasure with The Crimson's staff editorial on Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68. While these readers did not agree with every action taken by the dean over the last year, they felt that The Crimson's reporting had strayed from constructive discussion and had fallen into mean-spirited personal attacks. They noted that the dean regularly attends undergraduate sporting events, returns e-mail messages to anyone who writes to him and has actually made some very good decisions such as the appointment (with much student involvement) of Karen Avery as assistant dean of the College, thereby placing a black woman in an important administrative position. These readers were appalled that The Crimson staff accused this same man of convincing "the student body that he held them in contempt to a degree most of us usually reserve for people who have done us some grievous wrong."
I asked Braunstein if The Crimson really wanted to go on record accusing the dean of such enmity. Braunstein responded that this latest editorial was nothing new. He explained that The Crimson had run an editorial in February, 1995, after Dean Lewis's appointment, which called the dean "a liar." Braunstein further noted that Lewis appointment was not popular at The Crimson because most people liked "the nice old man, [former dean of the College L. Fred] Jewett ['57]."
Another story accused of bias was the front page "news analysis" by Richard M. Burnes '99 on the debate between Gov. William F. Weld '66 and Sen. John F. Kerry. The title stated "Kerry Dominates Weld in Debate," and the first line read, "Much like the 31-0 thrashing the New England Patriots gave the Phoenix Cardinal on Sunday, Sen. John F. Kerry walked all over Gov. William F. Weld '66 in last night's senatorial debate."
By way of comparison, I looked at the coverage in The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. The Globe ran a more innocuous title and first line: "Rhetoric heats up in Kerry, Weld debate-- In their fifth and most aggressive debate so far, Sen. John F. Kerry and Gov. William F. Weld made one thing perfectly clear: They disagree about almost everything."
The Herald took a similar stance: "Senate foes clash in bitter showdown--In the most explosive debate of their now-bitter battle, Sen. John F. Kerry and Gov. William F. Weld fought over everything from taxes and foreign policy to drug addicts and welfare reform last night."
Finally, several readers objected to the use of unnamed sources in Justin D. Lerer's story entitled Radcliffe Convocation Draws 300." The line that inspired the controversy stated that "Signs of tensions could also be perceived in [Radcliffe President Linda S.] Wilson's conduct during the undergraduates' address. While the president listened intently to all non-student speeches, she ignored [Megan L.] Peimer '97 and [Corinne E.] Funk '97 as they spoke, instead reading the contents of a folder she carried on-stage with her, observers said." Readers wondered if "unnamed observers" was really code for "Crimson reporter trying to stir up trouble."
Indeed, Tuesday, September 17, was not a good day for The Crimson. A newspaper can only have the respect of its readers if it maintains its credibility. Readers quickly become skeptical of news organizations that appear absorbed in their own ability to create controversy. The use of unnamed sources and personal attacks are not appropriate or constructive tools for promoting debate.
The Burnes article on the Weld-Kerry debate belonged on the editorial page. That simply is not how news is reported. Debates are not as clear-cut as football games unless Admiral Stockdale is involved. The Lerer article on Radcliffe's convocation eroded into a gossip sheet. How can you tell if someone is listening to a speech anyway? I guess we could ask the unnamed observers if only we knew who they were. Finally, The Crimson has a right to say how they feel on their editorial page about Dean Lewis, but our readers are right. Battles have to be chosen, and when you call the dean "immature" and full of enmity, that makes future debates all the more difficult.
Shawn Zeller is the ombudsperson, or reader representative, of The Crimson. He may be reached at 493-1270 or email@example.com. He is not a Crimson editor, and his opinions are his alone.