My Interview: The Chronicle Of Higher Education's Editor

Yesterday, I wrote about The Chronicle of Higher Education’s decision to dismiss a blogger for a controversial and dismissive article she had written about academic “black studies” programs. If you missed yesterday’s post, you can click here to catch up.

I reached out to Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor, yesterday afternoon. She didn’t reply yesterday, but she got in touch with me early this evening. We spoke for about 15 minutes, so I wanted to balance my original piece with this update.

First, Ms. McMillen said numerous times throughout our call that this incident “was a learning experience” and that “things were moving very quickly.”

She said that even though she originally supported the blog’s author (Naomi Schaefer Riley) with an editor’s note on May 3rd, she hadn’t yet seen Ms. Riley’s defiant defense of her original work, which McMillen says violated both academic and journalistic norms. That defiant defense, paired with reader response, ultimately resulted in asking Ms. Riley to leave The Chronicle.

Chronicle of Higher Education Editor Liz McMillen

In an email earlier this morning, Ms. Riley told me that she never received any blogging standards from The Chronicle. Ms. McMillen contradicted that claim tonight, telling me that Ms. Riley not only received the paper’s standards last February, but that she acknowledged receiving them via email.

However, Ms. McMillen refused to share the paper’s standards publicly, only mentioning that they included a rule about not committing libel. (I’m not sure anything in Ms. Riley’s article violated that standard). Without seeing that standards document, it’s impossible for me – or any other journalist or blogger – to assess whether Ms. Riley violated any of the paper’s requirements. 

Ms. McMillen says that they will change a few things. First, they will issue more specific guidelines to bloggers. Second, they will begin reviewing outside content prior to posting it to their blog.

Crisis Communications

Ms. McMillen’s answers suggested that she hadn’t developed a crisis communications plan prior to this incident.

Had The Chronicle created a plan, they would have been able to react more quickly to this incident, responded to press calls more efficiently, and reduced the number of negative (and incorrect) media stories. A crisis communications workshop might have also revealed the need for a more specific standards document.

Crises aren’t always about the facts. They often run on perceptions, which spread in nanoseconds in the age of Twitter. Had Ms. McMillen or one of her representatives gone on the record with me yesterday, they could have blunted my original post and eliminated Fishbowl DC’s snarky second post – and likely other media stories, as well.

My hope for The Chronicle is that they invest time after this incident in developing a crisis plan and providing media training for all of their spokespersons. I’m unlikely to be hired for the gig. But I’d be happy to refer a few qualified professionals that can help.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.