MILWAUKEE – In teaching my political science classes, it’s always been fun to talk about media bias. It’s what fighter pilots call a “target rich environment,” with lots of examples, and lots of ways to identify bias.
But it’s not nearly so much fun to be the victim of media bias, as I recently was. But let’s go back to the beginning.
I run a blog called the Marquette Warrior and since 2005 have blogged about all sorts of things, especially things at Marquette University, where I taught. And often I exposed things embarrassing to the university: foolish policies, biased classes, cases where Marquette trashed the “Catholic identity” it advertises. I made a fair number of enemies, especially among leftist, politically correct faculty.
Then in November 2014, a student came to me to complain about an encounter he had with his philosophy instructor, one Cheryl Abbate. She had briefly mentioned gay marriage in class, said “that seems right to me” and moved on without further discussion. The student approached her right after class and told her he wanted to discuss the issue, and made it clear he opposed gay marriage. She told him that opposition to gay marriage could not be expressed since it would be “homophobic” and would “offend” any gay students in class. He had a recording of the exchange, so there was no doubt as to what was said.
So I blogged about it. In an environment where campus political correctness seemed to be running rampant, it struck a nerve and went viral.
The following month, Marquette informed me I was suspended, and banned from campus. Late in January 2015 administration informed me they intended to strip me of tenure and fire me.
The story since has been a Kafkaesque jumble of hearings, court proceedings, legal motions and sporadic media attention. But a big “break” came last week, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to take my case directly, bypassing the Appeals Court. So a conclusion to the process is in sight.
Which brings us to media bias.
Even liberal outlets like The Atlantic and the Huffington Post have been sympathetic to my case (liberals, remember, used to favor academic freedom, and many still do). But one big exception has been the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and particularly reporter Karen Herzog. In a story this past Wednesday, she repeated Marquette talking points, with no attempt at balance, and no attempt to check the accuracy of what Marquette was telling her.
The first ridiculous statement was Herzog’s claim that “McAdams argued that he could say anything he wanted on his blog because of academic freedom protections.” An absurd claim (I’ve never claimed the right to libel anybody, for example). When the absurdity of this was brought to Herzog’s attention, she rewrote the sentence. But what does the fact that she wrote that in the first place say?
Then the question became: what exactly was my beef with Abbate. According to Herzog: “McAdams said he did it because he felt the graduate student was trying to impose her liberal views on students she taught.” That’s all. Nothing about gay marriage. Nothing about shutting up a student.
Apparently, Herzog believed that accurately describing what Abbate did would make readers way less sympathetic toward her.
Herzog continued to repeat Marquette’s talking points. Marquette’s position is that I should not have named Abbate. But Herzog doesn’t discuss what the Journal Sentinel does if, say, a high school teacher makes a racist statement in front of a class, or a county employee is accused of sexual harassment. The person is always named.
Herzog reports that “the graduate student instructor reportedly started receiving threats as a result of the blog post.” Marquette’s position is thus one no journalist would ever embrace for his or her own work: that the reporter is responsible when accurate reporting leads people whom the journalist doesn’t even know to act in inappropriate ways.
Herzog follows Marquette in calling Abbate a “graduate student.” But Abbate was 27 years old, had been in the U.S. military, was the “instructor of record” for the class (“the professor” to students) and had taught the class several times before. She was a grown woman, with a grown woman’s responsibilities and authority.
And in fact, she never received any actual threats among the unpleasant messages. She admitted that herself. Herzog could have found that out simply by reading my latest blog post. But she seemed content to simply repeat what Marquette said.
Herzog, without checking, repeated Marquette President Michael Lovell’s claim that I had “expos[ed] her [Abbate’s] personal contact information as recently as last month.” I was puzzled reading this, until somebody pointed out that a link to an Abbate page was included in a column by George Will in the Washington Post, which I republished on my blog. It seems Lovell’s real beef is with the Washington Post. Herzog could have checked this out.
The final example of bias comes at the very end, where the story, as originally posted, said, “While in the national spotlight over the case, Marquette posted a list of frequently asked questions and answers about the case on its website.” This is linked to the Marquette “FAQ.” No suggestion to go to the website of my lawyers at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty to see the other side.
This passage is gone from the version online as this is written. But it was in the original. If they are trying to revise out some of the most obviously biased parts of the article, they are on a fool’s errand. Excising everything that’s biased would leave a mostly blank page.
Professor John McAdams, until being excommunicated by Marquette University in 2015, taught American Politics, Public Opinion, and Voter Behavior at the Catholic university in Milwaukee. He has previously taught at Harvard University. He is the author of JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy (Potomac Books, 2011).