The Eclectic Professor

Reflections on the psychology-marketing-economics nexus

Anatomy of a Media Smear Campaign Against an Honorable University

From psych tragedy to media travesty

On the Seeberg Tragedy, NCR, the Chicago Tribune, and Notre Dame: A Rebuttal

[Introductory note: On September 1, 2010, a student at Indiana’s St. Mary’s College, Elizabeth Seeberg, reported to security police at the neighboring University of Notre Dame that she had been a victim of “sexual assault” in a dormitory room on their campus the night before. Miss Seeberg, who at the time was being treated with drugs for psychological problems including depression, died of a drug overdose on September 10, 2010. The death was ruled a suicide. Following that, the local county prosecutor decided against charging the accused Notre Dame student.

Then, over several subsequent months, the Chicago Tribune ran a sensationalized series of articles about the tragedy, in which the Seeberg parents complain about Notre Dame’s investigation of the incident. This corpus of commentary has now been joined by a National Catholic Reporter item by Melinda Henneberger (Mar. 26, 2012). The reply to follow first dispatches the former outlet’s lapses and offenses, primarily to flesh out essential background for the audience, then deals with the Henneberger NCR article.]

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The University of Notre Dame is much too temperate and indulgent to say this, but I’m not—and it needs to be said: The Elizabeth Seeberg matter, i.e., the 2010 suicide at St. Mary’s College after an allegation of misbehavior against a Notre Dame student, and its aftermath, truly is a case of assault. Notre Dame is being assaulted by a smear campaign, largely embodied by Chicago Tribune reporters who cynically capitalize on an opportunity to enhance their rep at the school’s expense and by exploiting the Seeberg family’s grief. How far the “world’s greatest newspaper” has fallen. (It would be difficult to sort out cause and effect but maybe this unhealthy tendency has something to do with the Trib’s circulation problems.)

Although a Notre Dame alumnus and employee, I represent only myself here in the role of Notre Dame admirer. In view of the recent reportorial provocations, I am compelled to comment. Only with much reluctance do I bring all this up anywhere near the attention of the suffering Seebergs, but they made a decision to enter into public discourse by helping launch a very public attack on a revered institution of higher learning. Just because that school turns the other cheek does not mean its dedicated disciples forfeit their first amendment liberty. “Betrayal,” the Chicago Tribune postured grandiloquently on behalf of the Seebergs. Look who’s talking. Now even the NCR has piled on with an article that stokes what had been smoldering embers. I will first address the Chicago Tribune’s most serious transgressions, and then the NCR article.

To begin with, and as a sampling of the biased tactics used against Notre Dame, the Chicago Tribune initially reported, falsely, that Notre Dame campus security personnel had withheld the official incident report from local police. Although the Tribune’s claim was based on a South Bend law enforcement officer’s statement, that source proved erroneous. Shouldn’t the reporters have required an extra source for a matter so sensitive? In other words, even if not the Trib’s intention, its reporting sensationalized the story from the beginning by incorrectly creating the atmosphere of a cover-up. (Yellow journalists salivate over that concept, don’t they?) The Chicago Tribune should have printed a page-one retraction and public apology. For the Trib not to confess and address this lapse merely solidifies the appearance of an intentional calumny against Notre Dame. As will be seen, this tendentious pattern repeats itself in both the Tribune and NCR coverage.

Moreover, what do we now know for sure about the original incident? (A reader of the March 26 NCR item may wish to keep score of how the following jibes with existing perception as cultivated in the media.) Entirely lifted from publicly available, if unpleasant, information, and expressed as delicately as possible: (1) The Seeberg girl was consensually alone in a football player’s dorm room late at night, on a campus not her own. (1a) According to the Tribune of December 16, 2010, she remained there in the room, again volitionally, for some time after the alleged incident occurred! (2) Even if Elizabeth Seeberg had lived, there likely would be no criminal case because the issue would then have been only one person’s word against another’s, literally a he-said, she-said conundrum. (3) Bolstering the preceding point, significantly, is that the accuser in this instance had a history of psychiatric problems, actually among the most serious possible as confirmed by her subsequent demise. (4) Then we find that her testimony’s credibility was undermined further, according to information from the St. Joe County prosecutor, by some sworn statements inconsistent with phone records. It is very telling that the local prosecutor dropped this case in short order. (If you don’t like this recitation, then blame the Chicago Tribune, my primary source.) In contrast, the Trib (and now even NCR) reporting has consistently created an overall impression contrary to this factual litany, which strongly suggests non-journalistic motives. The Tribune especially seemed to try to spin these things a bit differently.

So if you really think the University of Notre Dame did something wrong in this matter, what is it? And what real basis is there for such a conclusion?

Fundamentally, other than the circumstantial aspects such as reviewed here, you do not have the slightest idea what really happened in that dorm room in the late Summer of 2010. None of us do. It is simply impossible to know if a crime occurred. Keep in mind that the target university has been constrained by privacy law from publicly defending itself against the ongoing smear, or even providing information, and that opportunistic news media and reporters, well aware of that, have taken liberty to report falsely on this tragic story. I submit that we have now succeeded in identifying one real institutional victim, and the various media are the assailants. Can you say “rush to judgment” or “witch hunt”?

Another way, a completely accurate way, of looking at it: St. Mary’s College enrolled a student who was extremely mentally disturbed—and Notre Dame gets slimed. All it takes is one accusation of totally unknown validity. Compounding the irony and hypocrisy, why no Tribune or NCR penetrating investigation of St. Mary’s admissions practices? Let me guess. Not the same high-profile cachet or publicity payoff?

One more example of the Tribune’s biased sleaziness is this from its December 16, 2010 article: “Saint Mary’s—unlike Notre Dame—did not hesitate to provide documents and answer questions.” Now, really, do you suppose the difference might derive from the fact that the deceased was a St. Mary’s student, not a Notre Dame student? St. Mary’s is required by law to share information with parents; Notre Dame is prohibited from doing so with those who are not affiliated with the University, such as the Seebergs. Was this distinction lost on the Tribune reporters? Of course not. They knew exactly what they were doing and, whatever it was, it was not professional. See what I mean?

Finally, with the false cover-up gambit no longer operative, the Tribune began to incite the public impression of inordinate delay between the deceased girl’s September 1 police report and ND Security’s follow-up—insinuating that the sluggishness contributed to the suicide. However, the timeline the Trib is downplaying is that Miss Seeberg’s final, formal, and revised written report was not filed until September 6, while campus police began the effort to interview the accused on September 9. Not exactly crack police work to our amateur eyes maybe, or maybe it is, but not quite the same as the impression the Trib manufactured either, is it?

On the Contribution of Henneberger and NCR

As for the Melinda Henneberger article itself in NCR, the offenses appear to be compounded, in rough parallel to the Chicago Tribune’s approach. In fairness, let us recognize that if all the content of Ms. Henneberger’s putative exposé were true, the piece should be celebrated as an important instance of reporting in furtherance of justice. Unfortunately, there are many tell-tale symptoms contained in her March 26 item that suggest otherwise, leaving little reason to believe in it. Seriatim:

1. Henneberger repeats the disingenuous emphasis on the alleged ten-day delay between the original incident and the campus Security Police interview with the accused, conveniently downplaying the matter of the revised statement submission of September 6, 2010. But, again, a three or four day interval (actually about 2 ½ days before attempted interview, based on the reported record), does not make for as good a hatchet-job story as ten days, to a certain type of journalist. More substantively, another possible reason for more delay by ND Security than may seem natural to the layman: reconciling those discrepancies between the accuser’s two submitted statements.

2. Henneberger alleges sordid tactics by Notre Dame officials, e.g., “portray . . . an aggressive young woman who lied,” “try to turn her into a liar,” “condone what [they] can’t contain,” “disrespect shown Lizzy Seeberg.” The NCR author, throughout her lengthy article, never offers any verification, corroboration, or shred of evidence for any of it, however, instead only one instance of hearsay. It is all bald, unsupported assertion contrived, deceptively, to create an unwarranted impression, which is most incompatible with NCR standards. Henneberger does not seem to apprehend the irony of her quote, “Who are these men?” Correct. Who are they indeed? Henneberger never answers.

3. By bringing up the deceased girl’s reliance on the antidepressant drug Efflexor, I am afraid Ms. Henneberger opens up a can of worms or Pandora’s Box for the Seebergs that all parties may regret. Henneberger quotes one physician’s testimony that the drug is safe even without close supervision. (Coincidentally, the endorsement is from the prescribing family doctor.) Even casual empiricism would yield contrary opinions. I know, because even without prompting or solicitation, multiple medical doctors have informed me of the exact opposite of what Henneberger’s medical source asserts.

To continue to be as charitable to the Seeberg family as possible, and benignly close the Pandora’s Box opened by Henneberger, I offer this now inescapable hypothesis: The Seeberg parents instinctively, deep down, if not consciously, sense that they have major culpability for their daughter’s death because of their allowance of her drug use. Therefore, they are desperately trying to shift blame by slinging it toward the most convenient target, Notre Dame. So they are not really to blame for the smear they are fostering; the behavior is natural, emotionally inevitable, in fact, commanded by the Id. This part of it, at least, is not the Seebergs’ fault. But Henneberger and the Chicago Tribune are entitled to no such exoneration.

4. One of Henneberger’s most egregious misdirections for the reader is this, in reference to ND security procedures: “the university effectively makes it more difficult to investigate student athletes by barring police from going through the athletic department.” Looks like a blatant stonewall, doesn’t it? But think about it. Ms. Henneberger knows that all this really means is that Notre Dame varsity athletes are treated the same as other students, whether it is a legal investigation or anything else. Of course there would be no special access through the athletics department. Such a case would be administered through normal university channels and procedure. Ms. Henneberger’s background as an alumna allows her to know that, so this locution is a transparent hoax on her part.

5. We next arrive at another nominee for Henneberger’s most serious offense against the principle of fairly communicating with the reader: Throughout her March 6 NCR, one gets the impression that rape is commonplace on the ND campus. By my count, Henneberger makes nine such references or allusions. But something very noteworthy attends to every one of the writer’s rape insinuations. Explicitly, they are only that, nothing more. Every one is an unsupported assertion, a mere allegation. Not a single confirmed case is cited. Note also the recurring loose, indefinite language: “had reported,” “said,” “reported,” “had accused,” “have reported,” “reporting,” “accused,” “allegations,” “. . . feeling is,” “she says told her.” Exposure of this Henneberger device helps reveal the game she is playing throughout her contrived anti-Notre Dame charade.

Could Melinda Henneberger have been ingenuously influenced by the Chicago Tribune’s shameless muckraking and mud-slinging? Not likely. She had to know the pattern of misrepresentation by the Trib, and therefore abetted the anti-ND disinformation campaign intentionally, because I provided her with the same chapter-and-verse enumeration as reported here in an e-mail last year. Or maybe she just missed it. Either way, unfortunately, the NCR and its readers, as well as the University of Notre Dame and the truth, are now counted among the victims.

6. Perhaps Melinda Henneberger’s most colorful, if incongruous, anecdote is her interjection of a 1974 incident in which a local South Bend girl accused six Notre Dame football players of gang rape. Henneberger objects to how a Notre Dame “top administrator” derogated the accuser at the time. Of course, Henneberger again resorts to deviously inflated language such as “reporting [the offense]” to create a charged atmospheric context in excess of the known facts, but at least also acknowledges that, not only were none of the players ever convicted, but no charges were filed. Are we beginning to see through the Melinda Henneberger M.O.? (Again, this is a 1974 occurrence at issue! Does the term “bottom dredging” resonate?)

Reflections

Based on the density and orchestration of misleading compositional tactics found throughout the Henneberger text, which the NCR reader can now discern, the article is reduced to something less than a serious treatment of a potentially serious issue. But we do not know the true seriousness because of the deficient reportorial efforts of the Chicago Tribune and Ms. Henneberger—as well as the inevitably opaque nature of the underlying issue. Regrettably, Henneberger has joined the Chicago Tribune in rushing to judgment and persecuting a noble institution. Recall Duke lacrosse.

None of us can know what really happened with the poor Seeberg girl. Many of us would rather not know the details. I, myself, regret the extreme journalistic misconduct related to the case that came to my attention and impelled this response in which I try to say what Notre Dame is constrained from saying, and maybe would not say anyway. Now, does Melinda Henneberger really think this unnecessary exchange helps relieve the Seebergs’ sorrow? Henneberger should not have added superfluous fuel to the fire.

The Seebergs, even in their present condition, along with Melinda Henneberger and NCR, should be reminded that abetting a campaign of vilification against a widely beloved institution can rightfully provoke objection. Folks, when you publicly revile our school without confirmed substantive basis, you also defame everyone associated with it. The school’s patrons, such as I, are entitled to resent and respond. At some point, hopefully from a safer emotional distance, the Seebergs will need to consider that. Likewise, the Tribune and NCR are served notice that some are not willing to acquiesce as their public punching bag indefinitely. Investigative journalism is one thing, but this kangaroo court-type inquisition of a media campaign goes too far. Enough is enough.

No matter how much sympathy and good will Notre Dame partisans have for the Seebergs at their time of supreme grief, everyone has a limit, and the two focal publications may be pushing a large mass of people up against it. Perhaps the Seeberg family should find time to reflect on what their reporter friends’ true motives may be, and who their own truer friends are. Many of those will be found in the Notre Dame community.

We surely, in fact eagerly, can give the Seebergs a pass for now, but it is past time for certain writers and news outlets to acknowledge their questionable reporting strategy regarding this case, ultimately built upon the original counterfeit report (i.e., a local cop’s mis-statement). Regardless, it is also timely for the Notre Dame world, collectively if not institutionally, to react against this pseudo-journalistic assault in some appropriate way. Public siege upon a fine and honorable university, even if artificially cloaked in humane concern for a bereaved family, is a serious offense—a virtual depredation. Without any unwarranted animosity toward the Seebergs, perhaps our side should demonstrate how seriously we take it. This note is but a necessary start.

John Gaski, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Notre Dame whose research interests are power in distribution channels and the societal impact of marketing activity. more...

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