Public editor skewers NYT’s account of Yale quarterback’s Rhodes scholarship withdrawal

Matt Hinton

In November, Yale quarterback Patrick Witt dropped his bid for the Rhodes scholarship at the final stage of the process, ostensibly to stay true to his team against archrival Harvard on Nov. 19, the same day as final interviews for the scholarship. Last month, the Times published a widely dissected article that connected the end of Witt's candidacy for the scholarship not to an "apparent choice of team fealty over individual honor," but to an informal sexual assault complaint that had been quietly resolved by the university (at the alleged victim's request) without further investigation or discipline. Last week, Witt fired back through his agent, who insisted that Witt voluntary withdrew his name and disputed the Grey Lady's implication that his bid for the scholarship had been "suspended."

Saturday, Times ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane effectively sided with the quarterback:

Much clearer to me is that reporting a claim of sexual assault based on anonymous sourcing, without Mr. Witt's and the woman's side of it, was unfair to Mr. Witt. The Times thought it was a necessary part in its exposé of the feel-good sports story. But the impact of the "sexual assault" label on Mr. Witt is substantial and out of proportion for a case that went uninvestigated and unadjudicated.

Maybe you just can't publish this story, not with the facts known now. If those involved in the case are more forthcoming later, or if the allegations are investigated more fully, then perhaps. But for now, the timeline and whether Yale had declined to re-endorse Mr. Witt are murky and unresolved — by me and certainly by what was presented in the Times article. Even more unknown are the details of the accusation of sexual assault.

This was a compelling story, and The Times was motivated to publish it. But when something as serious as a person's reputation is at stake, it's not enough to rely on anonymous sourcing, effectively saying "trust us."

No word on whether the student-run Yale Daily News will issue an editorial Monday under the headline "Told Ya So."

Aside from simple journalistic zeal, the Times' overenthusiasm comes from two honest places. One: It's among the many Ivy League-stocked outlets that have remained hot on the trail of a federal investigation launched last April into whether Yale has failed to effectively handle complaints of sexual harassment and assault. (The NYT's latest entry in that series came on Wednesday, when the university released a report detailing its response of 52 allegations of misconduct by students or employees over the second half of 2011.) And two: The Times had already overturned a stone that led to the dismissal of Yale's head coach, Tom Williams, who falsely claimed that he had been forced to decide between the final stages of the Rhodes scholarship process or attend San Francisco 49ers minicamp. In fact, he never even applied for the scholarship.

And to be fair, it's still not clear that the initial NYT story on the sexual assault complaint against Witt was wrong: Yale did hear and resolve the complaint, which very well could have been the reason the Rhodes trust asked the university for an additional letter of recommendation at about the same time Witt withdrew his name. The editorial department continues to stand by the original story (as "public editor," Brisbane speaks for himself, not the paper), and according to managing editor Dean Baquet, the initial story wasn't even all that concerned about the complaint itself:

"The story was not about the sexual misconduct charge," he said. "The story really was about this big feel-good sports story that upon closer examination wasn't quite that way."

He added: "We made a tremendous effort to try to get him to talk, to try to get the woman to talk. But we weren't investigating the truth or not-truth of the sexual misconduct allegation. We were investigating the feel-good story."

It's just that there's not enough compelling evidence that it was right. When your counterweight to a "feel good" story prominently involves a charge of sexual assault — even indirectly — uncertainty is a luxury you can't afford.

- - -
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.