If you thought that last week's New York Times story about Vanderbilt's athletic department overhaul was so generous that an alumnus must have written itwell, you'd be right. Lee Jenkins, a 1999 graduate who now covers sports for the Times, penned the remarkably one-sided account that will likely be reprinted in dozens of university brochures.
"Once known as the center for the Southern literary movement in the 1920s, Vanderbilt is currently recognized for straddling the narrowest lines in college sports," Jenkins gushes, without ever disclosing that he, in fact, graduated from the line-straddler. "It patterns itself not after Duke and Stanford, or Alabama and Auburn, but attempts to adopt elements of each."
We could talk about why Vanderbilt should pattern itself after Duke and Stanford since both schools have better academics and athleticsbut really the larger point here is why the Times enlisted an alum to cover his own university if he couldn't do so objectively. New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly tells "Desperately" that he thought the paper could take advantage of Jenkins' ties to the university. His former reporter, in fact, used to edit the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper. "His knowledge of Vanderbilt was viewed as an asset because he already had contacts there, as well as an understanding of the school culture."
That understanding, however, may not have included a dose of critical thought. While the local press regarded Chancellor Gordon Gee's decision to place the school's athletic department under the umbrella of another school division as a highly controversial move, Jenkins himself included no voices of dissent in his story. Instead, he went about quoting only supporters of the school's decision, as if he were recording positive reviews for a book jacket. Here are just a few of them:
From Perry Wallace, Vanderbilt alum and the first African American basketball player in SEC history: "They have a constant desire to move things forward because they understand who they are, how the odds are stacked against them and they let those odds be inspiring."
From Richard McCarty, dean of the College of Arts and Science: "With all the bad news in college sports, this is a shining example of how you can have athletics and academics in a proper way."
From David Williams II, vice chancellor for student life and university affairs: "We wanted to make athletics truly part of the university and say to our student-athletes, 'We value you as more than just athletes.'"
Vanderbilt's decision to merge its athletic department with its student life division might ultimately prove to be a wise decision. But Jenkins never shows us how it will. He quotes Williams as saying that the school will encourage athletes to run for student government and write letters to the student newspaper. But Jenkins doesn't include any illuminating details about whether Gee's initiative is anything more than window dressing, or for that matter, a way to grab a glowing account in The New York Times.
Finally, the Times should have at least told its readers that the love letter they just read was penned by a Vanderbilt alumnus. Jolly, the sports editor, says that a disclosure "would only be necessary if we felt that the reporter could not report objectively."
Todd was right
Last week Desperately wrote about how a Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle story penned by reporter Todd DeFeo stacked the deck against murder suspect Max Roybal by erroneously reporting that both his fiancée and wife turned up missing. Actually, that error was edited into the story by The Tennessean when it republished the story that had originally run in the Leaf-Chronicle.