by John C Abell
The Chicago press is buzzing with a story that could range from being much ado about little -- the use of anonymous quotes in a casual context -- to a breach of journalism ethics by the dean of Northwestern University's prestigious Medill school.
And, in the grandest tradition of journalism, the big boys are all playing catch-up ball to a dogged Medill senior who wore out a lot a figurative shoe leather to come up with the story first for his column in The Daily Northwestern student newspaper.
The facts are these: Medill Dean John Lavine wrote two letters last year for the alumni magazine. In them he used three anonymous quotes which tended to praise initiatives that supported his strategic vision for the school, a vision that is to say the least not universally appreciated on campus.
As reported by the Chicago Tribune:
"I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken," reads part of one quotation, which, Lavine wrote, "a Medill junior told me."
The unnamed student appears to be talking about a class in which students developed "a fully integrated marketing program," an emphasis that Lavine has promoted over the protest of some alumni and students.
In the same piece, Lavine quotes "one sophomore" who glowingly praises a new reporting program, concluding, "This is the most exciting my education has been."
The use of anonymous sources is a hot-button issue at the school -- as it should be in every J-school and newsroom -- so their use by the dean caught the attention of David Spett, a columnist on the Daily Northwestern. Spett thought it was odd that students wouldn't be quoted directly and he also had a nagging sense that the language used didn't ring true for his contemporaries.
"It struck me as something that people my age don't really say," Spett said. "He insists he didn't make it up and there is no way to be certain on this issue.
"What I do think is there is no reason for the quotes to be anonymous. It just doesn't make sense. I am more than willing to talk about my favorite class and have my name printed alongside that."
Spett says he figured out what class Lavine was talking about and personally interviewed all 29 students who took it. All denied making the statements "even when I promised not to print their names," Spett wrote in his column.
Spett got an interview with Lavine -- on the record, and tape-recorded. He gave the dean the class list and Lavine couldn't identify who had sent him the e-mails.
"Whether they remember it or not, or told you or not, I see so many of these (e-mails) that I often don't remember," Lavine said. "I wouldn't have quoted it if I didn't have it."
Lavine also told the Tribune the quotes are legitimate and came in e-mails that he no longer has because it "never dawned on me" he ought to keep them. And, he says, the quotes were used in a context that doesn't rise the level of reporting.
"Context is all-important. I wasn't doing a news story. I wasn't covering the news," Lavine said. "When I write news stories, I am as careful and thorough about sources as anyone you will find. ... This is not a news story. This is a personal letter."
Beyond the object lesson that quoting his sources by name might have provided the student body, whatever the context, Spett acknowledges that his investigation doesn't prove Lavine's account is false.
"We cannot be certain these quotes were fabricated. But at the very least, I find reason to be suspicious."