Quaker Campus Editorial Board
Journalism is meant to inform the public of facts and opinions that are well corroborated and represent the best obtainable version of objective truth. That means, journalists should follow an objective method of testing hypotheses through research, observation, and validation. Journalist Peter Savodnik does not seem to quite understand that, based on his recently-published article for Common Sense about Whittier College.
The article was a poorly executed attempt to portray the College as riven by racial issues and to expose Linda Oubré for being a “dictatorial” leader. He attempted to connect these arguments to the $12 million Mackenzie Scott donation the College received in 2020, essentially saying that Scott made a mistake by giving the College money. He failed, however, to make a cogent argument in the article, and appears to have edited over his own words a few times since the article was published on Sept. 9.
While a lack of transparency is sometimes the elephant in the room with Whittier College, Savodnik’s reporting raises more questions about journalistic integrity and ethics than it answers about the issues it broadly sideswipes, ultimately serving to discredit his piece. While reporting, Savodnik “listened in on” privileged WC faculty meetings uninvited, without announcing himself as a reporter. In a way, he went undercover. As a journalist, going undercover is typically a last resort, reserved for stories of grave concern — such as exposing dangerous working conditions or abuses within the private prison system, for example. Even then, it is rarely used. A story about a controversial hire at a small, liberal arts college is hardly grounds for such casual breaches of privacy. But then, the reporter is so eager to make this a story about everything, and so willing to rely on innuendo, that it is hard to track what this article is actually about.
Many of his sources are anonymous and the article is prone to broad claims without evidence to support them. For example, the article states, “Anyone who dared to challenge Oubré ran the risk of being fired or smeared” and “No one is sure what that the Director of Innovation and New Ventures does.” Has anyone been fired or smeared? And, of course there are people who know what that position entails.
Such lapses leave the piece open to questions of how much is hearsay and how much is solidly corroborated. Ironically, one of the few attributed quotes comes from a privileged, off-the-record meeting that the reporter was, again, not invited to, and at which he failed to identify himself.
Savodnik also reached out to multiple Whittier College students for this article, claiming he was a writer for Vanity Fair (he last wrote for Vanity Fair in 2020, and this piece was not published by Vanity Fair) looking for students who could “discuss the current state of campus culture/life.”
Shoddy reporting like this affects a community. Students are rightly concerned about the College’s lack of transparency, while also wondering how this random journalist got ahold of their poet emails in the first place.
There are legitimate questions to ask. Indeed, some are raised here, but, by leaning too heavily on innuendo, gossip, and hearsay, Savodnik has made it harder to legitimately report on them, harder to have the community discourse such stories should attempt to engender.
Published in Bari Weiss’s substack Common Sense, this story is meant to be a subtextual strengthening of the narrative that so-called cancel culture and social justice measures are weakening the fabrics of American institutions and brainwashing our next generation among those that believe these claims. It fails on that account, but it has succeeded in making a mountain out of . . . something.
Meanwhile, the QC has been reporting on the substantive issue of Nate Oubré’s hire. Check back.