Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Daily Dartmouth Anti-Defamation League

A fellow VRWC type from Dartmouth e-mails me this link to a Dartmouth Review blog post and asks, "Having more experience than I on the "grown-up" side ofthe D's operations, what say you?" Since he's perhaps not the only one who's interested to read my response, I thought he'd forgive me for being rude and responding here. To recap the content of the link: the Dartmouth undergrads' daily paper, The Dartmouth (the "D), has recently "obtained" French court documents indicating petition trustee candidate Joe Asch's company was indicted in France for fiscal or tax fraud. Not surprisingly, their conservative rivals at the Review take them to task for this work of dirty "journalism."

Of course the D should have investigated the story. The Review insinuates that the D likely got the French court documents from an opposition researcher hired by the Repogle campaign and that this might have been just a bit underhanded of Repogle. Fine; so be it; I'm willing to accept that this might well be true. But I'm not convinced it makes sense for the D to tell the opposition researcher to just go away.

This is an important story. There's a lot at stake in trustee elections; these elections have generated a flood of national media coverage in the last few years, including from the New York Times. Of course alumni voters care about whether trustee candidates manage their firms ethically and legally. Of course it reflects poorly on the fitness of trustee candidates if they don't. What is the D writer supposed to say in this circumstance? "Please take your documents and go away. We don't think that this story is important enough for us to cover." Indeed, trying to claim that this story isn't interesting enough for the D is especially silly. Hanover's a sleepy little town, and D writers are often known to fall back on filling column inches with minutiae about long cafeteria lines and the pretty fall leaves.

Besides, what does Mr. Dameron think would have happened to the story if the D had refused to publish something? Does he not think that the oppo researchers would not have turned around and contacted the left-leaning Free Press? Does he think that the Freepers would have hesitated to lash out the crypto-right-wing crypto-conservatives at The Dartmouth for hushing up a potentially damning story about Joe Asch? Precisely whose interest does he think that would serve?

(Yes, of course, most D writers are...uh... very, very crypto about their right-wing conservatism. They're so much in the closet that they daren't admit their alleged right-wing conservatism to themselves. Yes, I know this, and I'm sure Mr. Dameron does too. But there are plenty of loons who are convinced that the D is insufficiently left-wing, who would not hesitate to write scathing things about an attempt to cover up a negative Asch story.)

A sensible person might point out that the D could have declined to print the story on the grounds that it refuses to deal with anonymous sources. It's true that when I was there, we generally declined to print quotes attributed to anonymous sources in extreme circumstances. Five years out, I don't know what their rules are now. Note, though, that this isn't a true anonymous sources case. The story only quotes an apparently verifiable government document which was leaked by an anonymous source.

In any case, the story itself is mostly reasonable. The student reporter called Asch and got his side of the story. Contra the Review blog post, this is not the usual practice of propagandists.

Dameron raises the reasonable point that the D ought to have reached out to outside legal experts to get a sense of just how bad Asch's wrongdoing was. I agree that a few such quotes would have made the story stronger. But this is much easier said than done. First, real experts in the law of cross-border tax transactions are insanely busy. They're partners at the kind of firms where they can charge over a thousand dollars per hour for their services. They barely have time to see their kids and wives, much less chat with undergrad reporters. Dameron throws out a reference to alumni connections. Of course many such people are Dartmouth grads, but to think that they bleed sufficiently green to leave aside paying clients to talk to twenty year olds suggests a rather... rosy... view of the importance of alumni ties.

Dameron may also underestimate how risk averse the average big firm lawyer is. If a D writer were so lucky as to get one of these guys on the phone, I can just imagine how the conversation would go. The law firm lawyer would have lots of caveats along the lines of "Based on the facts that you have provided..." and "On the other hand..." These guys don't like to get things wrong. They're afraid to do something that would get them in trouble with their paying clients, and so they tend not to speak in the kind of sound bites that would work in a story like this.

Similarly, I can only speculate about why the D waited so long to publish the story. It may have been so that it could occupy the front page for weeks during break. Or... it could have been that the staff recognized that this article had more moving parts than the typical summary of a speech story, and they may have waited until the last day of term to make sure that they'd ironed out as many wrinkles as possible.

Finally, I don't think that this episode raises any really serious questions about Asch's ethics or business judgment. By the account given in the D article, the tax dispute was settled amicably. These issues are complicated. Honest, ethical businessmen make mistakes in good faith.

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